10 – Colossians 2:18-23 – Freedom from Mysticism and Asceticism

“Let no one judge you unworthy of your reward who delights in self-mortification, angel worship, and preoccupation with visions and speculation. Such persons fail to maintain connection with the Head from whom the entire body draws life. Because it is united by joints and ligaments it grows according to God’s design. If you have died with Christ you also died to the rudimentary things of the world. Then why do you, as if you were still living in the world, submit to rules others dictate (such as, ‘Do not touch this, do not taste that, do not handle this,’ which things pass away as they are used), and follow human doctrines? These practices indeed appear reasonable with their self-imposed observances, alleged humility, and severe ascetic disciplines, but are of no true value regarding the restraint of sensuality.”   (2:18-13, paraphrased)

v. 18
Paul warns the Colossians not to allow the heretics to judge them for disavowing their false teachings. He urges them to let no one consider them unspiritual because they do not entertain ascetic prohibitions or angelic fantasies. “Beguile” or “disqualify” (katabrabeueto) is an athletic term meaning “to rule against.” It pictures an umpire giving an adverse decision against a contender. It means to deprive or cheat someone out of a prize they won (Phil. 3:14). The heretics are seen as tricksters who delight in tripping up those contending for victor’s wreaths. The Colossians must not let themselves be diverted from their goal. They will disqualify themselves if they adhere to false doctrines. Their relationship with Jesus is the ultimate prize that is lost by defecting to Gnosticism (Phil. 3:13-14). 

The heretical teachers are further described as those who delight in false humility, self-abasement, visions, and angelic worship. “Voluntary” (ethelothreskeia) means “to take delight in.” “Humility” (tapeinophrosune) in this context means false or self-imposed humility. Gnostics parade their “meekness” by appealing to lower beings as intercessors, rather than accepting Christ as their sole Intercessor. They attempt to access God through numerous mediators, considering themselves “too unworthy” to approach God through Christ. Paul labels this as imaginary humility, for communication with God has already been achieved through the atonement.

Personal visions were a favorite pursuit of those involved in mystery religions. The Gnostics “inquire into” (embateuo) their own visions. Embateuo was a favorite technical term for those who investigate and scrutinize the paranormal. They pretend to have special insight into sacred mysteries and look down upon those who have not yet attained their alleged superior level. Those in this inner circle take pride in human speculation. The conclusions they reach regarding “unseen things” fill them with conceit and self-confidence. But God-given spiritual experiences have the opposite effect, tending to humble a person before God instead (Ex. 3:5). 

This blend of asceticism and ritualism cause adherents to become “puffed up” (phusioo). Phusioo means to inflate, to be lofty, proud, or bursting with conceit.” “Vain” (eike) bespeaks futility or lack of success. The Gnostics are likened to empty windbags.

It is absurd to allow anyone to impose anything upon those now free in Christ Jesus. Paul’s warning is as current today as it was in the first century. For two thousand years the deity and superiority of Christ has been questioned by various cults and sects. Proponents of the New Age Movement claim their cosmic experiences prove their spiritual superiority over others. While they admit Jesus may be a superman or a superstar, they deny His absolute supremacy. 

v. 19
Paul’s indictment against the heretics now reaches its climax. The end result of their endeavors is disconnectedness with Christ as the Head of the Church. One cannot cling to mystic mediators and maintain a firm grasp on the sovereignty of Christ.

To make his case, Paul analogizes the anatomical relationship between the head and the body (Eph. 5:30). There are two primary functions of the joints and ligaments: through them nutriments are supplied and bodily organs work harmoniously. Paul pictures veins, arteries, tissue, and muscle all functioning together when attached to the head. As the various parts of one’s body depend on the brain for physical life, so unity with Christ is essential for spiritual life. Because He alone provides strength to every part, through Him the body is nourished and “knit together”. All members of Christ’s body receive spiritual sustenance through their relationship with Him.

Believers fall into doctrinal error when clear signals from the Head are not properly received and obeyed. By attempting to converse with God through myriads of mysterious entities, heretics dishonor the one true Mediator. Delighting in their alleged humility, they have lost contact with the Head of the Church. Those who sever themselves from His body no longer receive the spiritual nutrients essential for eternal life.

v. 20
Having exposed the Colossian doctrinal fantasies, Paul gets specific. The Believer is now “dead” or separated from carnal influences and has no need to entertain them (Rom. 6:10). When one “dies” to their former life, the bonds that bound us are destroyed. This includes servitude to principalities and powers (Col. 2:15). As physical death severs all former obligations and relationships, so death with Christ means we are dead to those things of the world which formerly held us captive (Rom. 6:2-11; II Tim. 2:11; I Cor. 5:17). The “rudiments” or “basic principles” (stoicheion) of the world refer to elemental teachings and mundane restrictions. Paul reasons with the Colossians by asking a rhetorical question (vv. 20-22). “Since you have been liberated from the world, why live as though worldly wisdom and regulations control your actions? Why now submit to rites and rituals by relapsing into legalism? Why allow yourselves to be influenced by meaningless prohibitions?”

Submission to “ordinances” (dogmatizesthe) means subservience to a life regulated by a rulebook. To accept such teachings is to revert to an inferior spiritual condition. A Believer is no longer accountable to man-made regulations which are powerless to curb fleshly desires.

v. 21
Because a primary aspect of asceticism is harsh treatment of one’s body, the emphasis here is on what not to do. Paul seems to chide the heretics by comparing them to mothers scolding misbehaving children. He ridicules his opponents by listing three examples of restrictions devised by man. It appears the Gnostics adopted certain aspects of the Mosaic Law and based their piety on external observances. His brief illustrations describe prohibitions regarding tasting or even touching certain foods. These phrases have their origin in kosher laws regarding contact with things considered unclean. But prohibitions concerning what cannot be touched or eaten are no longer binding (Acts 10:14-15). The person who believes holiness can be achieved by asceticism only succeeds in adapting restrictive phobias.

v. 22
The futility of dietary prohibitions is evidenced by the transitory nature of the digestive process. Food ceases to exist when eaten and decomposes when not eaten. In addition, enforcement of these ordinances depends on human authority rather than divine authority (Mk. 7:19). For example, the Pharisees added thousands of additional stipulations to the laws of Moses (Mt. 23:4). They even regulated the exact number of steps one may take on the Sabbath day. Such stringent directives originate in carnal minds (Titus 1:14).

v. 23
“Which things” refers to the observance of angelic worship, ceremonies and legalities. Although the beliefs and actions of Gnostics may give the appearance of deep spiritual insight, it is an illusion. Self-abasement is mistakenly regarded by many as expressions of dedication to God. Abstinences may impress others, but they are useless regarding control of the carnal nature.

“Will-worship” (ethelothreskeia) literally means “man-made religion.” Paul implies their mock humility (tapeinophrosune) caters to human pride (v. 18). To “neglect the body” (apheidiai somatos) is to treat it harshly. A Gnostic prides himself on detachment from physical things. He has little regard for his own body, for he feels it restricts him from union with the spiritual realm. Every Believer is to keep the body in subjection for it is a living sacrifice to Christ (Rom. 12:1 & I Cor. 9:27). Paul teaches the Ephesians they must care for, nourish, and cherish their bodies as the Lord does His Church (Eph. 5:29). Anyone who neglects and flagrantly abuses his body fails to recognize it as the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 3:16-17). Asceticism not only dishonors the body by focusing on carnal restrictions, it is powerless to restrain sensual indulgences. The self-mortification and self-abasement the Gnostics herald do nothing to produce true holiness. Ironically, Gnostics actually promote the carnality they seek to avoid.

Christianity is based on a living, vibrant relationship with Jesus. Walking in the Spirit will keeps us safe from contemporary doctrines that threaten to enslave us (Gal. 6:16).   


Points to Ponder

1. What did Jesus say regarding Himself (Matthew 11:29)? What does this teach us about true humility? 

2. Explain Romans 6:2-11 in light of being “dead to sin.”


3. Paraphrase and explain Paul’s analogy regarding the human body from First Corinthians 12:12-26.


4. Summarize what Jesus taught concerning false humility from the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk. 18:9-14).


5. Paraphrase and explain Jesus’ remarks in Luke 11:38-39.


6. Paraphrase and explain Paul’s attitude toward Jewish ordinances and regulations (Romans 14:1-6).


7. What can you conclude from Ephesians 4:15-16 and Colossians 2:19, regarding the allegorical correlation between the head and the rest of the body?

8. What does Paul tell the Corinthians regarding food (I Cor. 6:12)?


9. Paraphrase Matthew 23:1-7. Explain what the Pharisees do and why.


Maxim of the Moment

Success is getting up one more time than the number of times you fall down. - Julie Bowden