22. Wrong Methods

Meditations in Colossians 2: 22:  Wrong Methods

Col 2:23    Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence

As we come to the end of the second chapter Paul drives his final nails into the coffin of human spirituality or human salvation, that brought about by our own endeavours. Again to catch the full flow of the logic of what is being said we need to go back to the previous verses. Earlier he denounced following rules: 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!”?” (v.20,21) and he had gone on to say that such rules were doomed to disappear: “These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” (v.22). It was these ‘rules’ that were “based on human commands” that he now refers to when he says, “such regulations”.

There is a temptation, I suspect, in many to feel these are words of warning against Gnostic malpractices and which therefore have little relevance to life today. I don’t think such a view could be more wrong. We live in a world where excessive provision of material blessing – especially in the West where choice of food is amazing – has actually caused much concern for health and wellbeing which in turn has resulted in an abundance of approaches towards dieting and other fitness regimes. A considerable number of people are concerned about their weight or their shape and perhaps greater numbers are concerned at following self-help manuals or the guidance of mentors or trainers to keep their lives in shape generally.

At the time of writing this meditation (mid 2015)  the trend towards pleasure through materialism is showing signs of collapse, as increasingly in the media there is a recognition that pleasure or satisfaction gained through collecting or owning ‘things’ is short lived. The signs are that people are moving away to seek meaning or pleasure or excitement through ‘experiences’ whether it be sky diving, going on cruises, taking drugs  or a multitude of other experience-creating activities.  So here we have these two streams – self-help and looking for ‘experiences’ – which although very much being twenty-first century manifestations of misguided mankind’s search for meaning and purpose, very much echo the lives and experiences of those following the Gnostic trail in the first century.

So let’s look again at our verse above. All of these approaches of following rules – or someone else’s self-discipline regime – “indeed have an appearance of wisdom.” How eagerly people scan these things today in the weekend papers. The eastern outlook on ‘mindfulness’ has become one of the more recent fads to sweep the Western world taking in both believers and non-believers, for both individual and corporate business  development. Each new thing creates an interest because past things have failed and just maybe this latest thing will provide the wisdom we need.

Note again the things Paul identifies in the Gnostic way that is also common today. First he speaks of “their self-imposed worship.”  Worship is simply highly esteeming something over everything else and when he says it is ‘self imposed’ he means it is brought about by the false teachers and does not flow naturally out of a genuine encounter with God.  If we ascribe to any regime, method or discipline honour that exalts it as ‘the answer’, we are in deception, for nothing and no one is worthy of our worship except God Himself.

Second he speaks of “their false humility,” which simply speaks of their appearance – they look good. You watch these people and initially their regime gives them a buzz and for a while they look good; it seems to work. Look again in two years and you will probably find them trying something else. The present is a false appearance.

Then third, he speaks of “their harsh treatment of the body,” and how people today are subject to fitness regimes which are really hard work. Yes, the motivation of the Gnostics was to do with thinking that the material or physical was bad, whereas today the workout is to improve personal health and appearance, but ultimately both have false foundations.

Paul concludes with a damning condemnation: “but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  For the Gnostics they beat themselves up because material things were evil, but actually their assessment was false and they often soon gave way to falling back to sensual pleasures. How often today does the person who struggles for months on a really harsh diet eventually give way and fall back into bad eating habits. The thing is that without the proper motivation, all these things are doomed to failure.

We so often hear of people “comfort eating”, meaning they eat to make themselves good because they have such poor self-esteem. When you really come to know you are loved by God and have a place in His plans for the world, you no longer need to use food (or even a fitness regime) to feel good. You feel good because you are loved and you know it! All of these things we have been considering can be summarized as self-help, and people do them because they do not go to the true source of all real help – Christ.

All of the things Paul has been speaking about in the later half of this chapter are substitutes for a genuine relationship with the living God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Observing special days, following rituals, trying to follow self-disciplinary rules, all of these things are substitutes that DO NOT WORK. That is the lesson of this chapter. Make Christ THE focus of your life, enter into a real relationship with him via his Holy Spirit, and you will know a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. May it be so!

21. A Different World

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!

20. Body Life

Meditations in Colossians 2: 20:  Body Life

Col 2:19    He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

The ‘He’ here in our present verse of course refers to the person in the previous verse, who delights in false humility and the worship of angels (and) ….goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.” (v.18) Whether what follows in verse 19 is a consequence or cause of what we saw in verse 18 is debatable. Seeing verse 19 as a consequence says that because this person (or people – the Gnostics) allowed Satan to deceive them with false teaching, it resulted in them turning away from the Gospel and from Christ. Seeing verse 19 as a cause says, the heart of this person (or people) was weak towards Christ to start with and turning from him they turned to false teaching and all that followed from it. I suggest the ‘consequence argument’ is more likely, although it does show that the heart of the person being deceived was in fact not strong towards Christ otherwise they would never have countenanced any such false teaching.

Whatever the order, the reality is that such people have lost their connection with Christ. We assume you see Christ as the head of the body which is the Church: “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body.” (Eph 1:22,23) and “Christ is the head of the church, his body.” (Eph 5:23) The Gnostics of course considered Jesus as less than God which is why Paul had said, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” (Col 2:9). They turned away from a living relationship with God through Christ to a mystical experience-centred belief system where mystical knowledge was more important.

It is both interesting and highly significant that Paul doesn’t merely speak about Christ, he points him out as the head of his body, the Church. Now why does he do that? Well, we have just said that the Gnostics focused on mystical experience and mystical knowledge whereas the Gospel brings about a situation where we believers are permanently linked to Christ by his Holy Spirit and all life, all spiritual experiences, all growth and development, comes through that linkage, comes through being part of his body and receiving directly from him.

If we have been brought up (since we came to Christ) in a church that is weak on understanding the concept and outworking of the idea of the church being the body of Christ, we will be weak in our understanding that we are directly linked as individuals to Christ, we will be weak in understanding that we are individual members of this body with unique roles and gifting, and we will be weak in understanding that so much of ‘life’ from Christ flows to me through the other members of the body.

If we are weak in these ways we will have an outlook that fails to expect personal growth which comes through Christ and his body, that brings change, development and growing maturity in me, and we  will probably be law-focused people who rely on keeping the rules and making effort to be nice or good people. We cannot emphasise enough how significant the concept of the body of Christ is and the life that flows through it. It is this body life and not mystical experiences or knowledge that make us what we are ‘in Christ’. This is why Paul says, “from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” Growth comes to the body from the head, but flowing through the whole body. Again, and we cannot emphasise this enough times in this present context of rejecting the Gnostics and their false teaching, ‘life’ comes not through mystical experiences and mystical knowledge but through encountering Christ directly as part of his body, and by receiving his life through other ‘members’ of his body, the church.

Note the closeness of ideas that Paul has when writing this letter and the one to the Ephesians. Here he says, “from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” To the Ephesians he said,  “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Eph 4:15,16) The ligaments and sinews are, I suggest, gifts or ministries that God imparts to the Church that provide strength and direction and power. The body is also built by the love that flows through it.

What a difference we have here. A group of people in confusion about the nature of God and of Christ, who resort to having mystical experiences and claiming special knowledge as a result. On the other side we have the Church, the body of Christ, brought into being by Christ’s death on the Cross, and now energised, empowered and directed by Christ’s own Holy Spirit who indwells every believer regardless of how mature or immature they are. One relies on weird occult experiences, the other encountering the true One God. One relies on dubious knowledge, the other on life pouring through the loving body, the gifted body, the directed body, through whom God reveals His love more and more. Hallelujah!

19. Superficial Religion (2)

Meditations in Colossians 2: 19:  Superficial Religion (2)

Col 2:18    Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.

When we arrive at this sentence we clearly come to Paul poking at the Gnostics who we have referred to before and, among other wrong teaching, believed in ‘special’ knowledge, mystical knowledge coming from mystical experiences. They were another of the ‘add-on’ cults for whom the basic Gospel and the apostolic teaching was insufficient. They need something more, special experiences and special knowledge that came through such experiences. Paul warns against such people and says, Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.”  Although they make out that they are spiritual Paul says they are unspiritual. ‘Spiritual’ comes from accepting the Gospel as it is revealed in the New Testament. If you fail to accept that, you are unspiritual despite whatever spiritual noises you might make!

You see these people can appear so spiritual and with an appearance of humility but in reality it is false and a show put on to deceive you. These people even went on about angels and how we ought to worship them, and yet angels are simply revealed in scripture as servants of God.

Paul’s worry about these people is that they will come to the Colossians and “disqualify you for the prize.” Paul expanded this when he wrote to the Philippians: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14)  A prize is given at the end of the race. The prize Paul has in mind in these instances is the right to live in heaven with God in eternity and that right is only given to the children of God who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

Although Paul is always so positive in his teaching, this is one of those rare times when he hints at the negative, the possibility of losing that right to a place in heaven, hence the word, ‘disqualify’. Some people object to the idea that someone can lose their salvation and suggest that a person who wholly backslides was never properly converted in the first place, but this instance shows us a way whereby that can happen in a very real way. Consider what Paul is warning against.

First he is warning against wrong thinking because that is what is at the heart of this warning. These Gnostics, who he is warning the Colossians against, were not born again believers. They did not believe in the God of the Bible that the apostle John describes as love (1 Jn 4:8,16). They did not believe that Jesus was the unique Son of God, begotten of the Father, who died for the sins of the world. They did not believe that salvation came through faith but by special knowledge. As a result their lives had not been transformed at conversion and they did not have a living relationship with God through Jesus and did not know the power and direction of the Holy Spirit.

Now what we must realise is that wrong thinking leads on to wrong behaviour and that has been included in a measure in the paragraph above. But if these Gnostics rejected all the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament it was because of their wrong thinking. This thinking said that man’s body, which is matter, is therefore evil and is contrasted with God, who is wholly spirit and therefore good. Since the body was considered evil, it was to be treated harshly. This ascetic form of Gnosticism is the what Paul will be speaking against in the following verses.  Paradoxically, this dualism also led to licentiousness. The reasoning was that, since matter – and not the breaking of God’s law – was considered evil, breaking his law was of no moral consequence. So bizarrely in these people we find a mixture of harsh asceticism on one hand but amoral licentiousness on the other, both of which are seen in their behaviour. Both are person-centred and both reject the New Testament apostolic teaching. If the Colossians rejected the Gospel and the apostolic teaching as it came to them and went on to accept the teaching of the Gnostics, then clearly any talk of relationship with God would be quite unreal and as they have abandoned the Gospel they have utterly abandoned their salvation, present and future. This is a very real and genuine loss, hence Paul’s concern and his efforts to warn them.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves, do we realise how our behaviour is linked to our thinking? Then  can we be honest about what we genuinely believe for, to go the full circle, what we believe will be revealed by the way we live. A serious thought.

18. The Reality is Christ

Meditations in Colossians 2: 18:  The Reality is Christ

Col 2:17    These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Here we are again, simple words but profound truths that need thinking about. And again. Here we find that to see the full meaning of a verse we have to see what the link words refer to. Although it is not such an obvious link word such as “therefore” or “thus”, the first word of this verse does in fact take us backwards to the previous verse. The word ‘These’ refers to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (v.16) Collectively they may be called observing rituals of the Law, particular events that drew the Jew to a place of freshly considering God and of worshipping him. Before we look at what he says about these we would do well to consider them more fully.

“A Religious Festival” would be something like Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Weeks, to name just three of the seven feasts. Now the Passover reminded them of how the destroying angel passed over Egypt and every Jew who relied upon a lamb being slain was ‘passed over’ and not destroyed. In the Feast of Weeks they celebrated the Harvest, God’s wonderful provision for them in every way. In the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, the Jews erected tents or booths made of palm leaves as a reminder of their fellowshipping with the Lord in their travels to the Promised Land.

The monthly “New Moon celebration” was a statutory reminder of fellowship with the Holy God (see Num 28:14) where they offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings (Num 10:10) – And God will be reminded of his covenant with you” (v.10b Living Bible).

The “Sabbath” was a prescribed day of rest and remembrance, the latter being even more important than the former.

Now Paul says these are “a shadow of the things that were to come.” The JBP version puts it, “All these things have at most only a symbolical value,” but as true as that is, it misses the point: a shadow is cast by something else and the something else in this case is Christ. The writer to the Hebrews also uses this sort of picture: there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven,” (Heb 8:4,5) and “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves.” (Heb 10:1) What each of these say is that the heavenly or spiritual reality casts a shadow seen on the earth in the form of some observance. Very simply , the observance points towards the reality but when, as Paul says, the reality is Christ, he wasn’t made known until he came to the earth and fulfilled his ministry of revealing the Father and dying as an atonement for sin.

Paul says it very simply: “the reality, however, is found in Christ.”  So how is that so? Consider each of the things we noted above, the things that ‘These’ refers to.

We said the Passover reminded them of how the destroying angel passed over Egypt and every Jew who relied upon a lamb being slain was ‘passed over’ and not destroyed. John the Baptist described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29) In the book of Revelation in the heavenly vision, it is “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain” (Rev 5:6) and when the host sing about him they declare, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev 5:9)

We said a New Moon Festival was a statutory reminder of fellowship with the Holy God where they offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings as expressions of their love and fellowship. Similarly we said, the Sabbath was a prescribed day of rest and remembrance, the latter being even more important than the former. Now Christ has come he has brought us into fellowship with the Father and by the presence of his Holy Spirit within us, we have continual communion with Him (even though we may not be aware of it.)

As one commentator has put it, ‘How can the observance of the Passover be considered a means unto spiritual perfection when “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” (1 Cor 5:7). What justification could there be  for imposing upon converts from the Gentile world the observation of the Jewish Sabbath, when the Bringer of eternal rest is urging every one to come to him.” Yes, Jesus is the fulfillment or reality forming the shadow of all these things and now he has come, why still bother with the shadow. Imagine you had a beautiful statue in your garden which threw a shadow on the garden wall when the sun was out. And supposing you had visitors who came and pointed out the amazing shaped shadow and said nothing of the statue. You would think that rather strange. Why do we think it any the less strange when some parts of the Church focus more on symbolic worship and ritual but nothing on the Christ life, the Spirit empowered and Spirit led life, all brought about and made possible by the wonderful work of Christ on the Cross? He is the reality and all the rest is mere shadow!

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!

16. Complete Triumph

Meditations in Colossians 2: 16:  Complete Triumph

Col 2:15    And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Since Creation there has been a battle going on. God created two perfect beings; their vulnerability was their free will and Satan (the snake) played on this and the Fall took place. From then on, there was a division between Man and God.

We are given another clue to the war in Revelation: Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth.” (Rev 12:3,4) and then later, “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” (Rev 12:7-9) This all takes place in heaven, outside of time but we are shown a dragon who is identified as Satan, who appears to have led a rebellion that swept away a third of the angels with him and Satan and his angels fought against the remaining hosts of heaven – and lost. The end result was that Satan was cast out of heaven and carries on his disruptive rule over sinful hearts here on earth.

These fallen angels appear to be organised into a hierarchy that holds sway over different geographical areas – see Dan 10:12,13 / Eph 6:12 – which Paul in our verse above calls powers and authorities.    The higher demonic authorities would appear to hold sway over unbelieving and godless countries, areas, towns etc. until either God moves in sovereign reviving power, or the church in that area/town comes in repentance and prayer to release it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. At the lower levels of the demonic hierarchy are the individual evil spirits or demons who the individual comes against. It would appear that God does not let the powerful princes come against the individual; they appear restricted to warfare with other angelic beings. Our contact appears, therefore, to be limited to dealing with individual spirits who seems to be identified simply by their activity, e.g. 1 Kings 22:22 / Lk 13:11.

Now how do all these ‘enemy agents’ – whether it be Satan himself, his powers and principalities of fallen angels, or simply his demons – operate?  How do they hold sway over human beings? Their primary means appear as follow:

  1. Deception: seeking to lead people’s thinking astray to believe a lie – there is no God, it doesn’t matter what you do, you will be all right. Within this strategy they seek to impose doubt and fear, both of which rely upon lies.
  1. Temptation: seeking to lead people into doing that which is contrary to God’s design for human beings. Very often temptation is linked to deception –“You will not die” (Gen 3:4)

In one sense Satan has a starting advantage in that every single human being is born with Sin in them, this propensity to be self-centred and godless. The Lord does speak, I believe, to every single human being on earth in their lifetime to counter Satan’s lies and seek to draw every person to Himself.

Now when Jesus died on the Cross, it was a declaration to the whole world that God loves this world and has made it possible for every single human being to be forgiven.  Suddenly all of Satan’s lies about God and about us are rendered powerless in the face of the truth: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (Jn 3:16,17)

Now the truth is out there for any seeker to see: God loves you! He really loves you! God has done all that is necessary for your sins to be forgiven and for you to enter into a new life of purpose and direction, filed with the love of God. As the Good News has been proclaimed, drug addicts have been delivered from their addictions, prostitutes have been delivered from their slavery, murders have been forgiven and given a new life of hope. Those who were spiritually blind have been enabled to see; those who were spiritually deaf, have been enabled to hear, and it is all because of what Jesus did on the Cross.

Anything which caused separation between God and man was dealt with. Anything that brought condemnation to man, was dealt with. The truth was made clear, hope was given of a new life, a new way, a new power, and a new relationship. Whereas the powers and principalities sought to impose fear, it was cast out by perfect love (1 Jn 4:8).  Where they sought to impose guilt, it was removed by the work of the Cross dealing with the reason for it. Suddenly Satan and his minions have no weapons to brandish against whoever would come to God, they are disarmed.

Yes, they will continue to speak lies to whoever is foolish enough to listen, to anyone foolish enough to fail in seeking the truth. The evidence for all of this is clearly there and seen in many ways by anyone who goes looking with an open heart. A proud heart, as demonstrated by the Pharaoh who opposed Moses, is the one thing that Satan knows will keep people from God.  Pride that seeks to bolster up self, that generates an arrogance that screams and shouts against God, or even the possibility of a God, joins Satan in denying the truths of the Bible. Yes, the Lord does allow people the freedom to scream and shout – and even write books against God – for He knows that one day they will stand before Him, powerless but accountable. Free will – and certainly pride – is a scary thing!

15. Forgiven

Meditations in Colossians 2: 15:  Forgiven

Col 2:13,14    He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.

Paul is listing off what has happened to us, starting with being made spiritually alive and now by us being forgiven. Perhaps the matter of our forgiveness is almost so simple that many of us take is for granted, or we don’t appreciate the wonder of it. It is foundational to the teaching of the New Testament  and it could be argued that it is the most important issue of our salvation.

When Joseph was told in a dream that his Mary was going to have a baby, he was told, She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21). Dealing with sins was clearly at the heart of the work of Jesus. Forgiveness of sins was emphasised through the ministry of John the Baptist as his father prophesied over him as a baby, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,” (Lk 1:76,77) Thus we find when he was grown up, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Lk 3:2,3)

Now strangely it does not feature strongly in Jesus’ ministry; he is more concerned to emphasise the coming of the kingdom. When it came to the Cross he simply majored on what was to happen, not on why: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:18,19) it is only as he approached his death did he start to spell it out: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” (Mt 26:28) and then after he was raised, on the road to Emmaus, we find, “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations,” (Lk 24:45-47)

That was fulfilled as on the Day of Pentecost Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 3:38) and then later, “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel,” (Acts 5:31) and then to the first Gentile believers, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)

Forgiveness of our sins is THE great thing that opens the way for us to have a relationship with God. From our point of view, we feel guilty and fear the wrath and judgment of God and so being told that we are forgiven gives us the hope of something more wonderful. From God’s point of view, it is possible because Jesus has taken the punishment that justice demands and so the way is open for Him to receive us.

But Paul says, “He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us.”  Prior to Jesus death, the Law of Moses stood as God’s requirement of righteousness but the trouble was we could never perfectly keep all God’s laws. Paul spells that out in Romans 7: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Rom 7:15)  He explains further, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:18,19)

Earlier he had explained this in respect of the Law: “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.” (Rom 7:7,8) As soon as a prohibition was put before us, we found something rise up within us that wanted to do it. That was Sin.  When you focus on your guilt, it just makes it more hard to stop it – and then Jesus comes along and forgives us and the guilt is dealt with. He takes our eyes off the rules and puts them on him.

Paul concludes in respect of Jesus’ work, “he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”  It’s like Jesus took all the demands and nailed them to the Cross as if to say, ”Dealt with!  Paid!  End of story!”  Every time Satan whispers to you, “You are a guilty sinner,” point him towards the Cross and say, “Yes, that’s right but Jesus has dealt with it!”

When we came to Christ we sought his forgiveness – and received it, once and for all. Yes, it is right to confess and say sorry for individual incidents where you stumble and get it wrong, but Jesus HAS dealt with the  big issue of your guilt. Hallelujah!

14. Raised?

Meditations in Colossians 2: 14:  Raised?

Col 2:12    having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

We sometimes try to get over complicated with the simple picture language that Paul often uses. In the previous meditation we commented that it was sometimes unfamiliar Jewish language that needed thinking out, but our verse above has simple and straight forward language so let’s see what it says.

When he starts out “having been” it infers that what we now have before us actually happens before the things we considered in the previous verse.  The “putting off of the sinful nature,” (v.11) takes place after you have died and been raised again. It is something that took place at conversion but needs working out through the rest of our lives. So let’s take this verse bit by bit.

“having been buried with him in baptism.” Let’s paraphrase that: when we were baptized it was a picture of our old self dying and being buried, just like Christ died and was buried, so just as his body needed the power from the Father to be raised to a new life, so did we. He was dead, and we were dead.

“and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”  Similarly, just as the Father’s power raised Jesus’ body from the dead, as we responded to Him in faith, so He imparts and gives us that same power, the power of His Holy Spirit, to enable us to live new lives. Paul taught the same thing to the Romans: if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Rom 8:11)

To summarise, we died to our old life and God has now imparted His Spirit to us to raise up new lives in the likeness of Jesus with the same power that raised Jesus. Because this has happened the life we now live involves that “putting off of the sinful nature,” that we saw in v.11. There is a combination here of the work of God and our own activities. He provides the power but we have to exercise the will to purposefully put off self-centeredness and godlessness. When we purpose to fill and operate our lives with love and grace and truth, as we rely upon Him, so He enables us to do that. On a day when we may be feeling weak and incapable, as we turn to Him and ask for His supply, suddenly we find that we are coping, no, we are more than coping, we are being a blessing to others. This being raised to new life is enabled by Him but must be acted upon by acts of will as we work out our day by day lives. We have to determine not to lie, not to cheat, not to cut corners off integrity, not to look wrongly at a member of the opposite sex, not to speak wrong words that demean or put down, words that deceive or distort the truth. These are all ways of the ‘old life’, the ‘old nature’, ‘the sinful nature’ and they have no place in our lives today but it needs constant acts of will, and constant relying upon Him for this to be achieved.

We would do well to link in the next verse with all of this: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.” (v.13) Ah, there we have that Jewish flavour again.  The difficult phrase is “the uncircumcision of your sinful nature”.  For Paul there were Jews and Gentiles, the circumcised covenant people of God and the uncircumcised godless people of the rest of the world.

He is referring back there to how we were before we came to Christ and says that we were “dead in your sins,” meaning lifeless as far as God and true spiritual issues are concerned. We were living self-centred and godless lives that lead to unrighteous or sinful behaviour. That sinful lifestyle cut us off from God. When you are self-centred you cannot be God-centred at the same time. No, God seems a million miles away. If your life is a life being lived contrary to God’s design for us, then it is a sin life.

But when he says we were living in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature,” he simply means we used to be like Gentiles with no covenant relationship with God, still living in our old sinful ways – that is how it used to be!  But now? “God made you alive with Christ.”  We are what we are today – because God has put His Spirit in us and made us spiritually alive. The power is there, all we have to do is use it! And that is a matter of your will.

13. Circumcised?

Meditations in Colossians 2: 13:  Circumcised?

Col 2:11   In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ,

There are times when Paul is very Jewish and uses Jewish pictures, ideas and concepts. Now is one such time. Those of us who have been Christians a long time may well have got so used to this that we no longer even notice it, but I have wondered if, when Paul wrote, he realised his writings were going to be read across the world and down through the centuries whether he would have used such language.

Let’s be blunt and not appear coy about this: circumcision was the cutting off of the male foreskin when the baby was only a few days old. It was a practice called on by God of Abraham (Gen 17:11,12) as “the sign of the covenant between me and you.” (v.11). There could be no more intimate ‘sign’ and the Jewish male would be reminded of this covenant every day. In one sense perhaps, it could be said the Jewish male lost a piece of himself to God and its absence was the reminder of the covenant on a daily basis.

But note how Paul starts this verse: “In him”.  A little earlier he had written, “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him,” (Col 2:6,7) This phrase, or the phrase, “in Christ”, is a familiar one in the New Testament writings. When we become a Christian and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we become part of ‘the  body of Christ’, the church, and so he is in us and we are ‘in him’. This concept should act as a reminder to us of who we are and what is expected of us: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.” (1 Pet 2:9,10)

So he now speaks to us as God’s people, indwelt by the Spirit and part of the body of Christ, but uses this Jewish experience language to emphasise what has happened to us when we came to Christ and explains it: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature.”   Again this concept of “the old nature” or  “the flesh” as some older versions put it is a familiar one in the New Testament.

Paul used it when writing to the Romans: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (Rom 6:6,7) and to the Ephesians, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:22-24) and to the Colossians, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Col 3:9,10)

Sometimes Paul simply referred to it as the “sinful nature” as to the Ephesians: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph 2:1-3) and the Romans, “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.” (Rom 7:5   also Rom 8:3,4,5,8,9. etc.). In each case, as we noted above, the translators put in a page note that alternatively this could be, as in older versions, ‘the flesh’, simply meaning life lived that is utterly self-focused. I have often defined Sin as ‘self-centred godlessness resulting in unrighteousness’ and that’s how our ‘old’ lives, our lives before we met Christ, were characterized, self-centred and godless.

The question has to be asked of many modern so-called Christians, is your life still characterized by self-centredness (pleasing self, esteeming self and honouring self) and godlessness (lacking awareness of God or interaction with Him)? The alternative question is, is your life now characterised by the fruit of the Spirit who indwells you and are you God-focussed in all; you do?

To make sure we understand what he is getting at, Paul concludes the verse, “not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ,” i.e. I am not talking about a physical circumcision but by the work of cutting you free from your old life that Christ HAS DONE in you by forgiving and cleansing you (to separate you off from the guilt of the past), putting his Holy Spirit within you to empower you to live a new life, and adopting you into his family, to give you a new identity. Christ has done this; all it requires is for us to live it.  We’ll see more of this in the next verse in the next meditation.