Coming to some Scripture passages can be like joining a conversation that is already in progress.
Imagine walking up onto the porch of a house belonging to your best friends. Through the screen door you hear your friend speaking to her ten-year-old in stern tones. She is saying, “Don’t you realize what could have happened? Don’t let that new boy talk you into doing anything like that again. You can play soccer in the backyard. You can play anything you want in the backyard. But I don’t even want you in the front yard for the rest of the day. Do you understand me?”
That is when you knock and walk in, and the ten-year-old scuttles out the back door. You say, “What happened?” It is obvious that something – a conflict, a battle of wills – preceded this scolding. So, you are not surprised to learn that the neighbor boy had talked your friend’s son into playing soccer in the street, just this side of the big curve, and that he had nearly been hit by a car.
Coming to Colossians 2 is like stepping onto that porch. We know that there has been a conflict, and we are just in time to hear the person in authority issuing orders. Five times in verses 11-23, the Apostle Paul uses the words (in our English translation) “Do not.” Once he questions, “Why do you. . .?” To make sense of Paul’s tone we need to understand what has happened. Were his children playing in the street? Were they about to get run over? In a manner of speaking, they were. The new neighbor was trying to talk them into actions that could cause them serious harm.
Paul’s remarks should be read against the backdrop of conflict. In the case of the Colossians, the new kids in the neighborhood were religious teachers who had come to town with stories of spiritual exploits and mystical experiences. They claimed to be “in the know” about unseen realities. And they wanted the Colossians to join them on their path to fulfillment. In other words, they were inviting them to play in the street.
These teachers were rooted in a variety of classical dualism. The idea was that matter and spirit cannot mix. Spirit is good, matter is evil. Spirit is pure, matter is dirty. Spirit is eternal reality; matter is a temporary unreality.
The teachers in Colosse held that, because the body is evil, we must rein it in, control it, never let it have its way. So, they instructed people to fast, to practice asceticism, and to follow a long list of rules and regulations, all for the purpose of keeping the spirit from being overcome and eclipsed by the body. When the spirit rules the body, they taught, it will be capable of connecting to the great spirits that rule the earth.
The Colossians had been converted – they had received Christ Jesus, (Colossians 2:6) as Lord – but they had not really got a grip on what had happened to them. In this they were like many of us. When they came to faith in Christ, everything changed for them. Things happened to them and in them. When people don’t understand this, they are vulnerable to error, and liable to get entangled in the heresy du jour.
Whether or not we realize it, we who trust in Jesus Christ have experienced a radical transformation which has changed everything for us.
When I was a boy, my parents played pinochle with my uncle and aunt most every weekend. They often played late into the night. Usually it was at our house, but once in a while we went to theirs. When that happened, we were allowed to stay up late and play with our cousins, but the time always came when we were hustled off to bed. I might fall asleep in my blue jeans and sweatshirt on my cousin’s bed, but then a great transition mysteriously took place, mostly without my knowledge. The next morning, I would find myself in my own house, in my own pajamas, in my own bed.
Now, had I awakened in the night without realizing that this great transition had taken place, I would have been in a difficult position. I might have tried to go downstairs, but our house was all on one floor. I might have gone looking for the kitchen but, instead of being in another part of the house, it was just outside my bedroom door. The bathroom was just west of my bedroom, not down long hallways. It would be silly and frustrating if I didn’t understand the change that had taken place.
Too many people receive Jesus Christ, then go about life as if nothing has changed. The teachers that had come to Colossae failed to take into account the drastic changes that happen when a person trusts Christ. So did the Colossians Christians. Let’s not make the same error.