Meditations in Colossians 2: 21: A Different World
Col 2:20,21 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?
Paul presses in his argument even more, but building on what he has already said, so let’s recap what he’s said and, remember, he is ultimately speaking about how we live out our Christian lives. We need to go right back to verse 11 where this line of thinking starts: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature.” There he introduces the thought of leaving behind the ‘old nature’ or the ‘sinful nature’.
Then he had used the picture of death (implied), burial and resurrection to a new life: “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith.” (v.12) He had then pointed out that previously they had been spiritually dead but had now been made alive by God: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.” The same idea but different words.
Having laid out the reality in general terms, he then went on to speak about the way that that should work out in practical living, first of all not having to live a life of following rules about rituals: “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.” (v.16) This new Spirit-empowered life, he was saying, is not about rituals or practices because, he went on to say, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Thus he rules out following rituals as no longer applicable. That was his first warning about the new life.
But then he gave a second warning: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.” (v. 18) His second warning is to beware a false appearance of spirituality in these Gnostics who were appearing.
Thus we come to our present verses where Paul reiterates these things with a third warning that links present reality with present behaviour. He starts, “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it.” (v.20) That was the reality, they had died to old ways of man-centred living; that had been their old world. So if they had died to that old way of life, why continue to “submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? (v.20,21). They now live in a new world. There is an echo here in the reference to rules, to the Old Testament which did forbid certain ‘unclean’ foods and required specific hygiene standards, particularly for the priests, but the Gnostics who fell on the side of asceticism (remember we said there were two opposite extremes their thinking led to – licentiousness and asceticism) has taken even those prohibitions to extremes.
In Jesus’ time we see the Pharisees worrying out such things. Mark gives us a clear picture of this: “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)” (Mt 7:1-4) Jesus went on to correct their legalistic thinking: “Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him `unclean’ by going into him.” (Mk 7:14,15)
The point Paul now makes is that when we came to Christ, we had relied on ourselves, our own ability to keep rules that made us think we were achieving some form of righteousness (though in reality it was self-righteousness) but we realised that none of that had helped us into a relationship with God. In fact our failing to keep even our own self-made rules made us feel failures and the guilt of that drove us even further away from God. So when we came to Christ we surrendered all that as being meaningless for achieving righteousness and we surrendered to him as being the only one who could save us. We ‘died’ to that old way of life, of trusting in rituals (like going to church once a week), of putting on a good face and pretending and appearing a good person (when deep down we knew it was a charade and false), and of keeping rules (which we kept failing) and we allowed him to bring us a new life empowered by his Holy Spirit.
The present reality is, therefore, that we are children of God, accepted by God through Christ, and empowered and led by His Spirit. We are now God-centred. So it is that Paul finishes off that verse, “These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” (v.22) All of those things that we used to rely upon to make us appear spiritual have perished because they have been replaced by the new life given to us by God as a result of the work of Christ on the Cross, a life which is all about relationship and not rules, power and not pretence. Hallelujah!