- Locate the Passage
2:16-23 is a warning against false teaching, expanding the general warning given in 2:8-15 and making it specific. This passage gives more specific information about the nature of the Colossian heresy that was endangering the Colossian church. The use of oun (“therefore”) marks a conclusion based on the information given in 2:8-15.
- Identify the Genre
The macro level is epistolary. The micro level is hortatory.
- Determine the Structure of the Passage
The use of oun (“therefore”) marks a conclusion based on the information given in 2:8-15. Because of the nature of what Paul has said about Christ in 2:8-15, the Colossians are to heed the instructions given in 2:16-23. There are two main imperative verbs in 2:16-19. The first exhortation is in vs. 16 (“do not let anyone judge you in regard to food or drink or in a festival, new moon, or Sabbath day”) and is followed by a statement of grounds in vs. 17 (“these are a shadow of what is to come; the substance is Christ”). The second exhortation is in vs. 18a (“do not let anyone condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm”) and is followed similarly by two statements of grounds in vs. 18b-19 (Grounds1: “such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind.” Grounds2: “He doesn’t hold on to the head from whom the whole body…grows with growth from God”).
2:20-23 clearly marks a transition to a second paragraph with the use of an “if” clause. Paul uses an if-then question to make an argument that the Colossians should not submit to legalistic regulations. The “if” clause serves as a statement grounds for a question that functions, in essence, like an exhortation: “If you died with Christ to the principles of the world (grounds), [then] why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to regulations (exhortation: don’t submit to regulations)?” The regulations Paul is referencing are as follows: “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” Paul gives three statements of grounds for why the Colossians should not obey these regulations. Grounds1: “these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up” (vs. 22a). Grounds2: “they are human commands and doctrines” (vs. 22b). Grounds3: “although these have a reputation for wisdom…they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence” (vs. 23).
- Exegete the Passage
2:16-23 gives some specific information about the nature of the Colossian heresy. Apparently it was a syncretistic mixture of Jewish, Pagan, and Christian elements. The Colossians were in danger of falling prey to those who were legalistic, mystical, and ascetic. The passage consists of three major exhortations: don’t let anyone judge you (vs. 16); don’t let anyone condemn you (vs. 18); don’t submit to regulations (vs. 20).
Vs. 16 gives the first of these exhortations. Paul instructs the Colossians not to let anyone serve as their umpire in matters relating to certain food regulations, or the observance of particular festivals, seasons, or holy days. Legalistic observation of these things gives them too much importance. Paul states in vs. 17 that they are a “shadow” of what was to come; that the substance of these shadows is Christ. In other words, the various elements of the law pointed forward as glimpses of what Christ would one day be and do. Now that the Colossians have received Christ, now that they have the substance, it is needless to go back to the shadows.
Vs. 18 gives a second exhortation: the Colossians should not allow anyone who delights in “ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm” to condemn them. Apparently, the advocates of the Colossian heresy were not only stressing legalistic observance of the law but also ascetic and mystical practices. Paul condemns this on several grounds. First, those who condemn others because they do not similarly practice these ascetic and mystical practices are “inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual minds” (vs. 18). That is, while the adherents of these practices may think they are full of some higher or deeper spiritual reality, they are, in reality, spiritually empty. Second, the person who practices these “empty notions” are not holding onto “the head (kephalen), from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God” (vs. 19). This is a restatement of an earlier point. If the Colossians are indeed going to be “rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith” (2:7) it will be because they “have the knowledge of God’s mystery – Christ,” in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge dwells (2:2-3). If the Colossians stray from Christ, who Paul refers to earlier as the “head” (kephale) of the church (1:18), they will be isolated from the growth which God wants to produce in them (2:19). They should not allow themselves to be condemned by those who have so strayed from Christ, the head of the body.
Vs. 20 contains the third exhortation, delivered in the form of a question: “why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to regulations, such as ‘don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch’?” Stated propositionally, Paul is saying, “Do not submit to regulations as if you still belonged to the world.” He then gives four reasons not to submit to the demands of the heretics. First, “you have died to the principles (stoicheion) of this world” (vs. 20). Stoicheion, translated as rudiments, elements, or principles, is a difficult term to understand. There are many views, but here are two strong possibilities: 1) it refers to elements of the spirit world, rulers and authorities, demons, angelic powers; 2) it refers to the teachings of the world, in this context the teachings about ascetism, mysticism, and legalism. Likely, the second option is what is in view here. The Colossians have died to these sorts of teachings, therefore they ought not to submit themselves to them once again. Second, the regulations “refer to what is destined to perish by being used up” (vs. 22a). That is, the regulations under which the Colossians are not to submit refer to things temporal rather than eternal, they refer to what does not last. Therefore, the Colossians must not submit to them. Third, these regulations are mere “human commands and doctrines” (vs. 22b). That is, these regulations represent the dogma of men, not God, and thus should not be adopted. Fourth, these regulations, while having “a reputation for wisdom by promoting self-made religion, false humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence” (vs. 23). These regulations, while appearing externally to have some value in outward conformity, are powerless to produce actual transformation. To submit to what appears to be “religion” and “humility” is to submit to what is in fact “self-made” and “false.” While perhaps having a reputation for behavior modification, these regulations cannot produce heart change; only Christ can do that.
- Let the Structure of the Text Drive the Structure of the Sermon
- Don’t let anyone judge you on the basis of the law (2:16-17)
- The law is a shadow; Christ is the substance
- Don’t let anyone condemn you on the basis of asceticism (2:18-19)
- Such people are puffed up but empty
- Such people do not hold to Christ
- Don’t submit to legalistic regulations (2:20-23)
- You died with Christ to the principles of this world
- These regulations all refer to that which doesn’t last
- These regulations are mere human commands
- These regulations have no value in curbing sin