In 2003 American illusionist David Blaine spent 44 days suspended over the river Thames in a 7ft by 7ft by 3ft Perspex box. During that 44 days he ate no food, only water. Why did he do it? Well he sold broadcast rights to sky and channel four for over a million dollars, so money might just have been a motivating factor. He was also on TV continuously for that time so perhaps we might guess that he's also interested in being famous and popular.
Well it turns out it isn't too hard to make a decent guess at Blaine's motives… but we might find it quite a bit harder to explain why thousands of others have put themselves through very similar things without seeking either money or fame. From the 3rd Century onwards Christian monks performed similar feats of endurance – but without stopping and going back to their former lives. Some lived on poles, or out in the desert in caves. They deprived themselves of food, of water, of speech, of sleep. They kept exhausting routines of prayer and meditation. They lived in restricted spaces and wore painful clothing.
And yes, some of them did become famous and attract a following. But most were unknown and unpraised; they didn't become rich and famous, but they probably did go to an early grave.
What motivated those mystics and holy men? What were they doing? What did they think they would achieve? Well it seems they thought that by prayer and fasting they could get closer to God. They wanted to get away from the distractions of earthly living so that they could concentrate on worshipping God. They practiced severe discipline on their bodies because they wanted to discipline their minds to focus on God.
It's easy for us to look back and scratch our heads – what were they thinking? But we can see how good motives mixed with bad theology might just take them to those extremes. And the danger for us is that we're prone to the same sort of thinking. How do I know that? The Bible is constantly warning us about the dangers of man-made religion, of thinking the things we do will help us to get closer to God. And tonight we come to one of the most direct of these passages as Paul challenges exactly that type of thinking. And his challenge summarises and applies what he's been saying for the whole of this chapter of Colossians. We're going to look at it under three headings:
1) You died with Christ;
2) Therefore you died to the basic principles of this world
3) Man made rules look good but they're absolutely useless
So let's get stuck in to that first point:
Point 1: You died with Christ
Look at verse 20:
Colossians 2:20 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:
Since you died with Christ… All that Paul is going to say rests on this fundamental idea. Those who are Christians have already died with Christ. Back in verse 13 Paul said that once we were dead in our sins; back in chapter 1 verse 21 he put it another way saying we were alienated from God and were enemies in our minds because of our evil behaviour.
It's strong language, a vivid description of life before we became Christians. Those who aren't Christians are enemies of God and under the sentence of death. From God's perspective they're already dead. The sentence that hangs over them can not be removed, it must be executed.
Now if you're not a Christian you might not really be listening very closely. But if you are, I'd expect you to be getting a bit wound up by now. Did I just say you're dead before God? Actually I did, and more importantly so did the Bible. The Bible makes it very clear that there's no exception to this rule. In ourselves, left to our own devices, we all fit into this category of dead in our sins. We're all enemies of God. Whether you know it or not that sentence of death hangs over each one of us.
The point of saying that isn't to put us down or to frighten us, but simply to make the reality of our situation clear so we can do something about it. So if you know that you haven't died with Christ because you've never put your trust in him then hear the warning of Colossians: outside of Christ there is no life, only the sentence of death.
And hearing that, please do something about it – at the very least check out whether what I'm saying is true or not – read 'why Jesus?' and check out one of the gospels – there are a few free copies of Mark's gospel available in the foyer, get hold of one and read it and see if you could put your trust in this man Jesus.
But if you are a Christian then Paul says that in Christ we have endured that sentence of death already. When we put our trust in Jesus we're included in him and so all that he has and has done is attributed to us. In verse 11 Paul puts it vividly calling it a circumcision not done by hands – explaining: 'that is the putting off of the sinful nature'.
And so we see the precise nature of the death that Paul is talking about – he's talking about death to our old sinful nature. When he says 'we died with Christ' it's the old sinful nature that was put to death. And so we come through death and into life. Only by putting that sinful nature to death are we able to be made alive.
It's a bit like a more dramatic version of the channel four renovation programme 'the home show'. Do you know the one I mean? The one with George the 'Arch-e-tech' from Middlesbrough. He goes into people's homes and transforms them from the inside out. Each week he empties everything from the house and paints the inside white so they can 'see' the space they've been living in – apparently this helps George and the people who own it to see the house's potential. Having ripped all the insides out, George gets the builders in to rebuild the house as it should be to meet the family's needs. Only after the old house is ripped out can the new one take shape. It's pretty drastic for the people living in the house. And so is putting to death our old natures. But it's the fundamental step, the first step in our Christian lives.
Now you might be sitting there thinking 'Yeah, I know'. There's nothing ground breaking going on here is there, this is meat and potatoes stuff, the basics of Christian teaching. But the Christian life doesn't consist of always going on to new and more exciting things. Remember how this section of the letter started 'just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him'. The Christian life consists of a steadfast refusal to go anywhere else. It consists of remaining in Christ. So we need to keep being reminded of the basics and we'll never move on from them.
But the Colossian church, and possibly us as well, were in danger of doing exactly that. They were in danger of abandoning Christ in pursuit of the 'deeper or fuller' Christian life they'd been promised by false teachers. So Paul spells out the implications of this basic teaching, and that's point two:
Point 2: Therefore you died to the basic principles of this world
Look at verse 20 again:
NIB Colossians 2:20 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: 21 "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.
If we've died with Christ then we've died to the basic principles of the world. Whatever the precise meaning of 'basic principles of the world' it's clear that they were the beliefs and practices that bound the Colossians before they became Christians. And they include ascetic practices like those practiced by monks and holy men – the severe discipline of the body that says 'do not handle, do not taste; don't even touch'.
We may not be able to define these elemental principles, but we see them at work all around us. All kinds of things take people captive and bind them to restrictive practices and rituals. Things like religious beliefs, superstitions, belief in the occult and the supernatural. I'm told there are many active witch's and pagans in Gateshead. And there are also many non-religious, secular beliefs and practices that bind people and keep them away from God.
Whatever it is that keeps someone from relationship with God could be described as a basic principle. And the most basic of basic principles is the idea that our happiness and security is dependant on the things that we do. That can take a religious or ritual aspect – saying what we do brings us closer to God - or it can take the form of a secular path to happiness now, like amassing wealth or getting married or giving to charity, whatever you think will make you happy. Our default position is to imagine that we can make ourselves happy. When it comes to God our default belief is that we can get ourselves right with him. Calvin called it 'natural religion', because it is what comes naturally.
But Christianity cuts across all that and says there's nothing you can do to get to God, and no other way to satisfy our deepest longings. The only path is to trust in what has been done for us. So it undermines all other paths to happiness. If we died with Christ, then we're dead to all that stuff. We don't rely on the things that we do for our standing with God, and it's our standing with God that gives us satisfaction and security.
While we're here I just want to touch on one specific aspect of what Paul says. In verse 22 Paul says that these rules are all destined to perish because they are based on human commands and teachings. It seems that Paul has in mind Isaiah 29 where Israel is condemned for false religion and God calls their religion 'nothing but rules taught by men'. There seems to be a teaching about in Gateshead that unless we hear an audible word from God telling us to do something then we shouldn't listen to anyone telling us to do it because that's simply rules taught by men'. But we heard last week that we shouldn't expect direct revelation from God.
The issue with these rules taught by men isn't where we heard them, but where they come from. Human teachings, or rules taught by men, are teachings that don't have their origin in God; and the alternative is those things that God has revealed to us through his prophets and apostles – that is the written word of God. We heard last week we're not to go off seeking special mystical experiences of God or special revelations from him. We're to be content to listen to the word he has given to us. So we can take instruction from men, provided that instruction comes from the word of God. So those who preach have authority in so far as they correctly handle God's word. So you need to carefully weigh what is said against what is written. And if the word of God is correctly handled then the word doesn't come from men but from God, and we need to listen to it very carefully. Of course if the word of God isn't handled correctly then the preacher needs to be gently corrected.
Now all of this is leading us up the final point. There remains for us a temptation to give in to these rules taught by men, because they fit our natural religious setting. We naturally think that we can do things to make us right with God. So when people try to sell us rules and regulations that are supposed to bring us to God we're inclined to believe them. So we need to be on our guard against all kinds of teachings that will lead us away from faith in Christ and into trusting what we do. Paul's already warned us about that. If you were hear two weeks ago you'll remember Ian's phrase about works based religion – 'it can't give me anymore than I've got, it can only rob me of what I've already got'. The problem is that severe discipline looks so self-evidently helpful. So Paul adds a new reason not to give in to man-made religion, and that's our last point.
Point three: Man made rules look good but they're absolutely useless
Look at verse 21 again:
NIB Colossians 2:21 "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 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.
The thing about rules and regulations is that they suck us in. We fall for them. They look like they'll work. When we read about the holy men of the past, or if we know someone who imposes severe discipline on their body, it's hard not to be impressed. Surely that level of discipline must have brought them closer to God.
So we are in danger of allowing the super spiritual to hoodwink us into following their extra disciplines. But the problem with these rules, this strict discipline, is that is never gets to the heart of the problem. When we talk about issues of food and drink we're talking about externals, ephemera, things that are neither here nor there – we're not even talking issues of godliness.
And this strict discipline can never solve the problem of our hearts that want to sin. It only moves our focus onto the thing that we're trying to master. So I'm told that super strict diets are one of the biggest causes of binge eating. The regime is so strict dieters end up obsessed with food and when they break the diet they end up worse off than they were before they started.
And even if we do manage to maintain a strict discipline over these things, that only gives us a false sense of spiritual superiority. The truth about all these super humble, super disciplined self imposed routines is that they only mask our absolute failure to meet God's requirements. If we do manage to meet our self imposed requirements, we're still no closer to meeting God's – and now we have the burden of pride in our (worthless) achievements.
Let me put it into relational terms for you. Imagine you had a child who completely ignored you, who packed up their stuff and left home and moved as far away as they could and had nothing to do with you. Imagine you tracked them down and told them you loved them and you managed to patch things up. They moved back home and everything was going well. And then they went off and completely ignored you again. Do you think you'd be any happier if you found that they'd kept a picture of you and offered sacrifices to you in a little shrine they'd made for you in their lounge room? Or that in your honour they no longer ate cheese? Or they got up at 5 every day to chant your name for hours? Can you think of anything they could be doing that would make up for the loss of that relationship?
If we go in for things that are self imposed and extra to show how dedicated we are to God then we're just like that child who continues to ignore the parent, but dresses it up as a kind of devotion. Not only are we further away from our Father than we've ever been, but we're deluded into thinking we're getting closer.
So how do we apply this teaching to our lives today? Well it's tempting to go for our religious behaviour and say don't think that reading the Bible and praying and going to church and bible study makes you closer to God. But there's only a partial parallel there – after all the Bible tells us to do those very things in order to sustain our relationship with God.
We are told to meet together and encourage each other. We are told to listen to God's word and put it into practice. And we're to pray without ceasing. These things aren't in the same category as the self – imposed disciplines of don't eat, don't taste, don't touch'.
Of course we can turn them into religious rituals if we begin to think that God is pleased with us for doing those things as empty practices… the point of reading the bible and meeting with God's people is to encourage each other to grow in godliness and to hold fast to the gospel. If we divorce bible reading and prayer and meeting together from relationship with God then they can mislead us into thinking we're maintaining a relationship with God.
But if we want to grow in our relationship with God then we do need to maintain godly disciplines of meeting together and of listening to him and speaking to him in prayer.
So are there other applications? Well there is a considerable area of our Christian lives that comes under the heading of 'wisdom'. There's things on the one side that are right out for us – things like pornography or stealing for instance; and there's things that we are told to do – like meeting together as we've heard. And in the middle there's the things where the bible encourages us to apply the wisdom God has given us to make wise choices. And its here that we see the closest parallels. A whole swath of issues fit into this category. From how we raise our children to how we eat and dress, whether we watch Television or not, how we organise our homes, how we educate our children, how much exercise we do, what we eat, all that kind of stuff. Some things will be ruled out, some things prescribed, but the mass of things we enjoy freedom to exercise our God-given wisdom.
And in those area's don't fall into the trap of thinking that to be a Christian you have to do one thing or the other – reading Harry Potter, watching Star Wars? Neither here nor there. For some wisdom says you can invest your time better. For others wisdom says rest is good, you can enjoy as simple entertainment. In the area of these trivialities we shouldn't get hung up on what we can or can't do, still less begin to judge others by what they do. Remember Paul called eating meat sacrificed to idols neither here nor there, how much less some of the things we judge others for.
Human rules and regulations, regimes or strict discipline well they look good, they seem like they must be useful. And they appeal to our ego's making us thing we're somehow superior if we can manage them. But they don't help us to get closer to God, in fact they don't even help to reduce sin, they simply increase our pride. So remember that you died with Christ, you've died to the principles of this world. And don't continue to live by human rules and teachings, but put your trust in Jesus and not in the things you do. Let's pray.