17. Superficial Religion

CHAPTER 2: Part 8: Freedom from the old religious ways

Meditations in Colossians 2: 17:  Superficial Religion

Col 2:16    Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.

If you’ve followed these meditations for any length of time you’ll know we always pick up on ‘link words’ because they tie the verses together. So here we have a ‘Therefore’ which means the logic or instruction of this verse comes in response to what has just gone before. Paul, in the previous verses has focused on the spiritual realities of salvation, that we were dead, and have been made alive by God, and have been forgiven by Him, after all law or rule-keeping and the failure and guilt that go with it have been dealt with by the Cross. The final focus was on now having to major on keeping the rules and that is why Paul now homes in on these particular expressions of rule-keeping.

When I became a Christian in the last third of the twentieth century I found myself part of the good-evangelical wing of the Church but sadly the refocusing on the life in the Spirit had not come to the fore and therefore so much of instruction to new believers was all about what you can or cannot do. Our verse above is all about behaviour and although the words “You must,” or “You ought,” or “You mustn’t” or “You shouldn’t,” aren’t here, there is an implication that they lurk beneath the surface.

As I hinted above, when the power of the Spirit is absent, all you are left with is keeping rules. This is not to say that we should rely only on the Spirit, for we need both word and Spirit, but if we focus on rule-keeping, again as we said above, we are doomed to failure and then to be subject to guilt. So how does it, or should it, work?

If our awareness of the Lord’s presence is weak and if we know little of the life of the Spirit, then we may come across a simple little instruction from Paul’s teaching such as, Be joyful always,” (1 Thess 5:16) and our human thinking says, “Good Christians are happy Christians. I must be happy, I must be joyful,” and so we put on a superficial ‘face’ whereby we make ourselves look happy; we always smile and we always sound full of the Lord’s goodness – even if inside we are deeply upset over something. The trouble about this is that we convey an  unreal or false Christianity and most people see right through us, and the thing we are upset about does not get dealt with properly and, even more, other people (often non-Christians) think we are on a superficial plane well above them and cannot empathize with where they are at. Untruth and self-deception reign.  The truth is that we are sufficiently insecure in our uncertainty of God’s love for us, our lives are one of pretence.

Now watch this person get filled with the Spirit and start to enter into the wonder of being loved by God. They don’t try to be joyful, they just are as the Spirit who has been given the freedom to work within them, brings out the joy of the Lord – that is real – as they wonder in the glory of God’s love for them. Joy is the outworking of the Spirit (see Gal 5:22) not a hard and difficult thing to be put on by self effort.

But then we come across another of Paul’s little guiding lights: “Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (1 Thess 5:21,22) Back in my early days in the late twentieth century immediately it became, “Oh don’t go to the cinema and watch bad films, don’t drink alcohol and so don’t go to pubs where you will be mixing with ungodly unbelievers.” We didn’t worry about social injustice, caring for the poor, working to deliver people from slavery, saving women out of prostitution and so on; we simply focused on a few superficial prohibitions and as I look back now, I believe it was because our faith was so weak that we were ultra-defensive, unlike Jesus who mixed with sinners and tax-collectors and prostitutes.

Thus Paul says, “do not let anyone judge you by…” and goes into a list of things where ‘do’s and don’ts’ will apply: “what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”  The reference to eating was probably in respect of kosher food or food given to idols that he deals with elsewhere in his writings. Drink was almost certainly to do with alcohol. Religious festivals was about having to keep the various Jewish feasts. No longer for the believer were these significant matters. To the Corinthians Paul was to say, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Cor 4:20). It is not about words (directing behaviour) but about life in the power of the Spirit. To the Romans he said,the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17)

As we said earlier, the expressions of our Christian life are to be the outworking of the Holy Spirit in us, not a hard and difficult thing to be put on by self effort. Yes, we will not get angry, or whatever other prohibition is given in the scriptures, not so much because we have to make an act of will and make a great effort, but because the Spirit of love fills us and flows through us and prevents that thing having space. May it be so!

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