OCTOBER 17, 1999

Spiritual growth, just like physical growth, is affected by one's surroundings. In the physical realm, if you live in a drought-stricken area with little food reserves, poor air quality, rampant disease, you can expect poor physical growth. It is not that the person has no potential for growth. Everything about him contributes to his failure to develop physically.

Every believer has potential for spiritual growth. While potential for growth is enormous due to the new nature in Christ and the indwelling Spirit, there are still factors outside the Christian that can have a negative affect on his growth. Maturity in Christ is directly related to one's grasp and application of the Word of God. When deception takes place that moves the believer away from the centrality of Scripture, his growth will be affected. The Christian must be aware of the dangers that threaten his spiritual growth and know how to avoid them.

This seems to be the focus of Paul at this point in the Colossian epistle. He emphasizes that the believer is "made complete" in Christ, so that there is no need for anything to be added for his justification (2:10). Directly related to one's justification is sanctification, the process of growth in grace and maturity in the Christian life. The antagonists  of Colossae intimidated the believers into thinking that something was lacking in their spirituality. They just did not have what it took to be really spiritual. But the antagonists had the answers! Through the means of legalism, mysticism, and asceticism they could enter into a deeper spirituality. But to all of this, Paul warns the believers not to be duped. For their completion in Christ includes their ongoing growth. They need not look outside of Jesus Christ and his sufficiency for their growth and maturity.

I believe we can see Paul's shift in emphasis upon spiritual growth by the phrases used in the next few verses. In verse 19 he explains how the believer "grows with a growth which is from God." The next verse speaks of the premise that they had "died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world," a phrase that points to the believer's identification with Christ in his death (2:20). In 3:1, he speaks of the believer's identification with Christ in his resurrection, with the resulting effect that he can consider himself as dead to evil passions and now able to "put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him" (3:10). Finally, he adds that they were those "who have been chosen of God," so that they therefore can take action to add spiritual graces to their lives (3:12ff).

Do we too need to be aware of the subtle dangers that the Colossians faced? What types of danger affect us spiritually? Let us consider how our spiritual growth can be threatened and more importantly, how it can be nurtured.

I.  Growth threatened

It does not take a keen observer to discover that most professing Christians are doing a poor job at spiritual growth. We see this in the lack of biblical understanding and application to personal life. Programs and activities that do  nothing to further one's sanctification have replaced growth.

Dozens of surveys over the past decade have demonstrated that most professing believers do not understand even the most elementary issues related to the Christian faith. One obvious problem is the lack of biblical exposition in the pulpit and ongoing instruction in small group settings. The emphasis in our day on fellowship and entertainment rather than the exposition of God's Word has left us in a dangerous condition. The hunger to grow spiritually is still there for the believer. So if he has not come to anchor himself in the truth of Scripture, he may find himself drifting into the subtle substitutes that Paul describes in our text.
1. By legalism

Legalism is the most natural substitute around for the gospel and for spiritual growth. Its essence can be seen in the things it forbids and the things it requires. By this, I mean that legalism has a list of do's and don'ts which promises the weary adherent certain spiritual attainment. Consider the Pharisees of Jesus' day. They believed that because of what they did and did not do, they were elevated to a new plateau spiritually. They scrupulously followed all of the laws relating to Sabbath observance because earlier legalists spelled these out as having promise. Even though the Pharisees neglected mercy and justice, as did their Old Testament counterparts, they believed that their rigid observance of Sabbath laws qualified them for super-spirituality.

After addressing the accomplishments of Christ for the believer, Paul writes, "Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day-things which are a mere shadow of what is come; but the substance belongs to Christ." Here is what was happening. Rather than giving focused attention to the work of Christ accomplished for every believer, the Colossians were being duped into thinking that they were second-rate in their spirituality. Their antagonists were looking down their noses at them, eyebrows tightened with scowling looks, and telling them how unspiritual they were because they did not observe certain regulations or avoid other issues. The term "judge" implies that this action was already going on and needed to stop. The believers were being intimidated by the strong assertions being made to them. 
Have you ever encountered a strong legalist? They may thunder law from the pulpit or use the printed media or radio to declare their rules and regulations. Their emphasis is on externals. They talk about places you cannot go, people you cannot be around, and activities you cannot be part of. They discuss the way you wear your clothes or the style of your hair or the kind of jewelry you wear. Please understand: there are some places Christians do not belong and things Christians have no business doing. But it is not the avoidance of these things that make you holy. The legalist insists that the way to holiness is following after their list of do's and don'ts. 

a. The nature of legalism

In the setting of Colossae, Paul was dealing with a syncretistic type religious atmosphere. Syncretism implies that you bring a number of different elements into the picture to make the religion. In this case, there was a mixture of Judaism, local pagan religion, superstition, and homespun ideas. The "food or drink" Paul mentions could be a reference to Jewish dietary laws or it could be some of the local customs which believed that demons loved food and drink so much that they would invade peoples lives through the vehicle of food and drink. So, in order to avoid demons, the person was to fast or at minimum, restrain from eating certain foods. Others had the idea that a person could draw near to God and receive revelations from him if they abstained from food and drink. Some in this region held to the notion that fasting was a pre-condition for engaging in magical arts. Still others believed in the transmigration of the soul through certain foods-especially meat, so that in true spirituality you would avoid eating meat in order not to disturb someone else's soul. There was even the idea that you would become pure only if you rigidly restrained yourself from food and drink. 
What is the appeal of such legalistic ideas? If someone with a convincing argument and persuasive personality tells another that he has gained spirituality through certain legalistic practices, then the other person might innocently enter into their trap. They will get caught up in a vicious cycle of trying to do better, failing, then trying again to maintain the level of spirituality demanded of them. Condemnation is the inevitable result. 
The Jews were known for their strict observance of certain days on their calendars. This same "Old Testament" idea was passed along to the Colossians. Paul refers to
"a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day," events that were never meant to an end in themselves. The festival days were probably references to the annual festivals of Passover or Pentecost. Some writers also suggest that they refer to local pagan festivals as well. The new moon was a monthly  festival that probably arose from local cults, carrying connotations of mysticism and magic in their celebration. Sabbath day observance could point to the sign of the old covenant. But being under the new covenant, the Christian is not bound by the legalisms of Sabbath observance. The early church shifted to Sunday as the day of gathering to worship and giving offerings for the Christian church.

b.  The danger of legalism

Here is the danger of all these things. They are substitutes for your completion in Jesus Christ. They all insist that there is another level of spirituality beyond what Christ has done for you. Because of a dependence upon one's own performance, these legalisms leave the believer in bondage. They keep the Christian always looking somewhere else, to the next experience, to the next rigid observance of a law, to the next set of do's and don'ts to find joy. But it is never there. There may be a momentary sense of satisfaction because of their observance, perhaps even a little cheering on by their fellow legalists. But there is no deep, lasting satisfaction. And there cannot be, for it is an attempt to find satisfaction outside of Jesus Christ and the fullness of his work. 
Paul reminds the Colossians that all of these things are
"mere shadows of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ." The writer of Hebrews adds, "For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near" (Heb. 10:1). The festivals, holy days, Sabbaths, and other events established by the law were never meant to be the grand finale. They only pointed to their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. "The substance belongs to Christ." So when you have received the substance, you no longer need the shadows. Are you clinging to a shadow for spirituality, rather than resting in the great sufficiency of Jesus Christ?


2. By mysticism

Legalism seems to have always been around. But so has mysticism. We may see more prominence given to mysticism in our day among evangelicals than even the attention of legalism. Paul writes, "Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind."
a. An explanation

The Apostle's description is that of mysticism's invasion of the Colossian church. What is mysticism? John MacArthur's explanation may be helpful:

Mysticism may be defined as the pursuit of a deeper or higher subjective religious experience. It is the belief that spiritual reality is perceived apart from the human intellect and natural senses. It looks for truth internally, weighing feelings, intuition, and other internal sensations more heavily than objective, observable, external data. Mysticism ultimately derives its authority from a self-actualized, self-authenticated light arising from within. This irrational and anti-intellectual approach is the antithesis of Christian theology [MacArthur NT Commentary: Colossians, 120].

What was happening at Colossae? The young believers were being looked down upon and even judged deficient because they had not had certain subjective experiences. So Paul tells them, "Don't let them act like an umpire for the way you conduct your spiritual lives; belittling you, condemning you, and trying to rob you of your own joy in Christ!" This was taking place, so Paul exhorts them to take action to stop the melee by the mystics. 
Mysticism comes off as super spiritual. There is a show of spirituality through
"self-abasement," which is often practiced in connection with fasting and other ascetic observances. They want you to know that they have been fasting or denying themselves some luxury in life. This can be seen in the television preacher, who announces, 'I've been fasting for two weeks about this and God told me to tell you_________'. I've found it interesting that Jesus taught that when you fast you are not to let anyone know. Yet on a number of occasions, I've received materials from noted religious leaders announcing that they had fasted for a certain length of time and consequently they have a greater authority to tell the church what it needs to do or what it needs to know. Some even make grand predictions concerning the return of Christ after such fasts. Paul's assessment is that we have no cause to be intimidated by such displays of false humility. 
Others engage in
"the worship of angels." This seems to be a repetitive issue the apostle seeks to address in this letter. When someone claims to have had an experience with angels and elevates this kind of experience above that  of knowing Jesus Christ savingly, then it is not of God. Angels never draw attention to themselves. They are always giving glory to the Lord. I believe we need to regard with deep suspicion the whole lot in our day that are always wanting to talk about angels and who imply their spirituality is higher because of such experiences. 
The next level of mysticism is a common one:
"taking their stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind." The movement in our day away from the authority of Scripture alone to that of embracing visions, prophecies, and words of knowledge is rampant. Is there a deficiency in the Scripture that causes us to need visions or words of prophecy? Has God failed to speak with finality in his Word? Are we to trust the word of man above the infallible Word of God? Those who embrace such visions have nothing for biblical doctrine. They are living on a different plane and find doctrine to be too confining, stuffy, and academic. They are following the Spirit, or so they say. With great confidence, those who announce visions or words of knowledge or prophecies seek to tower over the ordinary believer. The unsuspecting Christian is intimidated because he does not understand enough of the Bible to realize the hoax being perpetrated upon him. So he cowers before the convincing antics of these visionaries, hoping that one day he will achieve the same kind of spirituality. 
b. A cause for vanity

But what is Paul's assessment of the mystics? They are full of hot air! Or to use the biblical language, he is "inflated without cause by his fleshly mind." The reason this person can continue with such confidence in his tactics is due to the condition of his mind. It is not steeped in the Word of God; it is not focused upon the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. It is a mind that has its bearings fixed on personal gain, popularity, power, and the satisfaction of lording over others. His mind is "fleshly" rather than spiritual. Consequently, he is puffed up by his claims to great spirituality. 
You can be certain that when a person has a firm grasp of biblical truth it will humble him. If he is puffed up it is only because he does not grasp the very things he claims to understand. Truth brings us low, so that our confidence is not in ourselves but in Jesus Christ alone. 

c. Its error

What is mysticism doing today? There are multitudes and I do mean, multitudes of believers who have been swept away from the only true source of spiritual contentment by modern-day mystics. They are in our churches, both charismatic and evangelical. They are on the television and radio. They make great claims for having heard the voice of God. They claim to have had unusual experiences with God, perhaps even having a personal appearance by Christ  or an angel to instruct them. They typically denigrate the need for doctrine. 'Just give me Jesus' they claim. They push for the experiential without the corresponding doctrinal basis. And where does it lead? It is a pathway to bondage. 
If it substitutes anything for the sufficiency of Jesus Christ, then turn away from it. Do not let it trap you beneath the rubble of visions, experiences, and inflated ideas. Christ alone can satisfy the Christian. Christ alone can meet the deepest longings of the believer's heart. Christ alone can give you lasting joy and contentment. So look to Christ! 

II. Growth nurtured

The Bible not only exposes fakes who attempt to distort truth and deceive believers, but it also explains the way to press on in spiritual maturity. We find this in the message of verse 19.

1. Anchoring point

The mystics who claimed to have grand visions and encounters with angels in worship failed in the most basic issue of the Christian life: "holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body grows with a growth which is from God." The anchoring point for the believer is Jesus Christ. He is proclaimed to be "the head of the body," a metaphor that demonstrates the authority of Christ over the church as well as the dependence the church is to place in Christ (1:18). The believer is to never grow beyond his daily, ongoing relationship to Jesus Christ. 
Here is one of the quickest ways to spot spiritual fakery. When the emphasis moves away from the simplicity of continuing to grow in your knowledge of Jesus Christ and to grow in your dependence upon him, then it bears the marks of a fake. Paul said that his whole aim in life was to "know Him" (Phil. 3:10) and the thrust of his ministry was to "present every man complete in Christ" (Col. 1:29). The writer of Hebrews goes to great lengths to show the superiority of Jesus Christ to all of the shadows of the Old Testament. We are not to content ourselves with shadows when we can fill ourselves with the Substance.
"The substance belongs to Christ." All spiritual growth has its ultimate focus upon Jesus Christ the Lord. 
2. Provisions

The believer's union with Jesus Christ and his body, the church, provides what he needs to maintain spiritual growth. This is the implication of "being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God." The words supplied and held together are both present passive verbs, which means that there is a continual provision and sustaining going on outside of the Christian that is being applied to strengthen his growth. It is not just what the Christian is doing that causes his growth; the body of believers around him challenging, exhorting, encouraging, and motivating his growth also affects him. The Christian life is never to be lived in isolation from the rest of the body. Growth is nurtured within the fellowship of the church. I will go so far to say that it is impossible to grow spiritually outside a healthy, ongoing relationship to a body of believers. Our text sustains such a strong statement. The church is "iron sharpening iron" as one believer presses the issues of truth in fellowship with another believer. Christ has so designed and equipped his body that each member has an affect upon the other for the purpose of spiritual growth. 
3. Support

So you are not alone in spiritual growth! Each of the "joints and ligaments," that's your fellow members of the church, have a role in helping to support your spiritual growth. In the same way, you have a role in helping to support the growth of your fellow church members. Weymouth's translation captures this beautifully. "Such a one does not keep his hold upon Christ, the Head, from whom the body, in all its parts nourished and strengthened by its points of contact and its connexions, grows with a divine growth."
You are making points of contact today as you study the Word, as you fellowship, as you engage in prayer for one another, as you bear one another's burdens, as you offer encouragement, as you exhort someone to follow after Christ. All of these "connections" are gifts from the Lord so that your growth will ultimately be
"from God." He provides for his children exactly what is needed for growth. May we avoid the fakes who would move us away from Christ and avail ourselves of the means God has given for growth. 

South Woods Baptist Church

3175 Germantown Road South
Memphis, TN 38119
Phone: (901) 758-1213

Dr. Phil Newton- Pastor
Todd Wilson- Associate Pastor
Jim Carnes- Minister of Music

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