Teaching series from Colossians

Religious Practices That Are Hazardous to Your Spiritual Health

Colossians 2:16-23

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Brief recap of setting (MAP), including pseudo-Christian teachers who advocated certain religious practices as necessary for spiritual maturity. Paul warns them against being taken captive by these false teachers (read 2:8). He rejects these practices as hazardous to their spiritual health because they will side-track them from spiritual maturity.

It should not surprise us that these religious practices are central other world religions. But what is stunning and tragic is that they have been common in most of Christendom for the past 2000 years! It’s like most of the church has never read this passage (and many others like it)! If you want to mature spiritually, you must be able to identify these religious practices, resist those who advocate them, and root them out of your own life. So the tone of this teaching (like this passage) will be negative – but out of loyalty to Jesus and love, not out of mean-spiritedness or superiority.


Read 2:16. Paul is referring to the rituals prescribed by God in the Old Testament. The dietary laws and the various holy days of the Jewish calendar were part of a whole way of relating to God (centered around offering sacrifices through priests) which was ritualistic. By ritualism, I mean relating to God primarily through prescribed rituals. The Colossian Christians hadn’t been practicing these rituals – but the false teachers were judging them as unspiritual for their non-practice, and they were wavering.

Ritualism is a key component of virtually all major world religions except for biblical Christianity (EXAMPLES). Of course, many “Christian” denominations are extremely ritualistic (EXAMPLES: liturgical service; religious calendar; sacred spaces; etc.).

Why does Paul warn us against ritualism? The answer is found in the next verse (read 2:17). Ritualism is profoundly out of synch with what God is doing because it focuses on the “shadows” instead of the “substance” or “reality.” These rituals were “shadows” of Christ. The whole Old Testament ritual system was a divinely inspired multi-media presentation which communicated pictures of God’s desire to dwell in His people (TABERNACLE), their sinfulness which prevented this (BARRIERS & VEIL), and His future provision of forgiveness through Christ's death which would make it possible for Him to dwell in us (PRIEST & SACRIFICE). God wanted His people to be constantly reminded of these central issues.

But now the “shadows” have been fulfilled by the “reality” – a personal relationship with God through Christ (1:27 – “Christ in you”). Paul makes this same point in Gal. 4:4-6 (read). Through His death, Jesus has provided complete forgiveness and adoption into God’s family so we can be indwelt by His Spirit and relate to Him personally as our “Abba.” The moment you receive Christ, God permanently gives you these gifts. You can relate to God wherever you are, secure in His love, sharing your problems and joys, asking Him for the help you need, thanking Him for His involvement in your life, etc. It’s not just that there is now no need for ritualism; it’s that ritualism would interfere with the development and enjoyment of your personal relationship with God.

This is why there is such a dramatic change in the role of ritual from before Jesus came to since He has come. There were hundreds of prescribed rituals for God’s people in the Old Testament, but there are only two since His death and resurrection (and one of these two – baptism – is done only once). There were detailed instructions on how to practice the Old Testament rituals (because of their symbolic significance), but there is very little instruction on how to practice baptism and communion. So little, in fact, that the church has tragically been fighting for centuries over how to practice them!

This is why Paul goes on to say that for Christians to revert to ritualism is not spiritual progress, but rather spiritual regression (read Gal.4:9-11). Imagine a girl separated from her father from birth. She has only pictures of him, which she treasures and looks at constantly. Then he returns. Shouldn’t she relate to the pictures differently now? She wouldn’t hate them or throw them away, but she wouldn’t relate to her father through them anymore. What if, after she began to enjoy relating to him, she went back to relating to him through her scrapbook??

So avoid ritualism! It profoundly misrepresents Christianity to the watching world, and it will impede your spiritual maturity.


Read 2:18. Here is a second religious practice by which Christians are commonly drawn off the path to spiritual maturity. Paul describes certain people who were pronouncing them “second class citizens” because they hadn’t had certain dramatic spiritual experiences. Evidently, these people had deprived themselves of food or sleep, or had even beaten themselves (“self-abasement”) in order to induce an altered state of consciousness. They had a so-called “vision” in which they either worshipped angelic beings or witnessed angels worshipping God. Because they had this experience, they claimed to have the “inside track” on God. Evidently, they were telling the Colossians that unless they had similar experiences they would remain spiritual pygmies.

The most common name for this is mysticism. Mysticism is a distortion/counterfeit of the personal relationship with God described above. It is seeking dramatic spiritual experiences as a key to spiritual maturity. Mysticism is the dominant form of spirituality in the West today. Atheistic naturalism created a tremendous spiritual vacuum in people's hearts (and discredited the Bible as an authoritative guide for knowing God). Now all kinds of mysticisms are rushing in to fill that vacuum.

EXAMPLES: Native American vision quests; Transcendental Meditation; out-of-body experiences; New Age channeling and spirit-guides; etc. Mysticism often uses ritualistic and/or legalistic (see below) practices to induce dramatic spiritual experiences.

“Christian” mysticism also abounds (e.g., Toronto Blessing; healer-dealers slaying people; insistence on speaking in tongues to be Spirit-filled; etc.).

What's wrong with mysticism? Why was Paul so upset with it? It wasn’t because God is against/never grants dramatic spiritual experiences to His people. Paul had seen the risen Christ at His conversion and several times since. He had been caught up in a vision to the presence of God and heard things impossible and impermissible to describe (2Cor.12:2-4). I’d say these qualify as dramatic spiritual experiences!

One danger of mysticism is that thirsting for them can lead you into spiritual deception. Demons can deliver powerful spiritual experiences. So if your goal is to have them, you can be led astray by whoever and whatever delivers them (EXAMPLE).

Another danger is that having genuine dramatic spiritual experiences can lead you to think you are mature because you have them. But there is no biblical connection. The Corinthian Christians had all kinds of dramatic spiritual experiences, yet Paul calls them immature because they lack the proof of spiritual maturity – serving love (1Cor.13:1ff.). On the other hand, many Christians become mature, loving servants of Jesus without ever having dramatic spiritual experiences.

What's the antidote to mysticism? Read 2:19. Paul’s critique of the mystics includes his antidote.

“Hold fast to the Head” means to build your relationship with Christ through the Bible. Paul restates this in Col.3:16 (read), and he uses this same verb in 2Thess.2:13 (read). Mysticism leads us beyond/away from Christ’s Word – but Christ meets us personally through His Word. (His Word also provides us with the basis for discerning spiritual experiences.)

“...being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments...” means to regularly allow other Christians to communicate His Word and love to you (read Eph.4:14-16). Mysticism leads to thinking that you are so close to God that you don’t need His people. Biblical Christianity leads to listening to God through His people as they bring God’s Word to us.

The result of holding fast to Christ in this way is genuine growth from God – gradual growth in your personal relationship with Him and in your ability to love others!


Read 2:20,22. These Christians were being told that it was wrong to eat certain foods – and following these prohibitions was key to spirituality. This is legalism. Legalism refers to an emphasis on man-made rules and prohibitions as a requirement of spirituality.

Christendom has a rich legacy of legalism, and American fundamentalism is no exception. Its prohibition of alcohol, watching secular movies, playing cards, wearing make-up, listening to secular music, dancing, etc. has done incalculable harm to Christians and damage to Jesus’ reputation.

The logic of legalism is protection against sin: “If X is sinful, it is spiritual to have a rule against activities that might tempt you/others to do X.” Legalism says: “If drunkenness is sinful, then it is spiritual to prohibit going places where people get drunk.” Legalism says: “If sexual immorality is sinful, then it is spiritual to prohibit women from dressing in ways that might tempt men to lust sexually.”

What’s wrong with legalism? God never prescribed these rules, so who are we to make rules He hasn’t made, or to say He made them when He didn’t? Legalism distorts Christianity and prevents spiritual maturity in several ways:

It needlessly alienates non-Christians. It misrepresents God as a Cosmic Killjoy instead of the Giver of Abundant Life. It implies that we have to clean ourselves up morally before we can come to Christ, instead of coming to Him as we are and allowing Him to change us from the inside out. It creates ghettoes of finger-pointers instead of people like Jesus, who never compromised morally, but loved lost people and became known as “the friend of sinners.”

It defines spiritual maturity negatively (“What I don’t/can’t do”) instead of positively (“How I love and serve others”). It focuses people on impersonal rule-keeping instead of on how to help people meet Christ and grow in Him. With a love-focus, I have the freedom to thankfully enjoy God’s good gifts within His ethical absolutes, but I am willing to not use these freedoms out of love to help people (1Cor.8-10). I am also able to not use these freedoms when the Holy Spirit shows me that I am not presently able to handle them (e.g., former alcoholics abstaining from alcohol) without making them rules that everybody has to obey.


Paul summarizes his critique of these three religious practices in 2:23 (read). What an insightful critique! They look outwardly impressive, but they are impotent to fix the real problem – our self-centeredness. You can be deeply into any/all of these without loving anyone! In fact, they tend to promote self-righteous pride, which is the antithesis of true spirituality!

Biblical Christianity not only defines spiritual maturity differently (growing in love vs. diligence in these religious practices); it also prescribes a totally different way to move toward spiritual maturity. This is what Paul explains in chapters 3,4 (NEXT SEVERAL WEEKS).