The story of the woman and the pharisee from the gospel of Luke illustrates the essential point of Colossians 2:16-23.
Luk 7:36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.
Luk 7:37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment,
Luk 7:38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.
Luk 7:39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
Luk 7:40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
Luk 7:41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
Luk 7:42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Luk 7:43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Luk 7:44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
Luk 7:45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.
Luk 7:46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
Luk 7:47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven–for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Luk 7:48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Luk 7:49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”
Luk 7:50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” – Luke 7:36-50
Contrast the Pharisee with the woman. She was most likely a prostitute, a woman with no social standing and most likely no education. He was one of the scholarly community leaders, steeped in the knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. She was a public law-breaker while the Pharisee kept the Old Testament law with exacting precision.
Yet, she counted on the mercy and work of Jesus for her salvation and wept at his feet knowing her own unworthiness. The Pharisee counted on his ability to keep the rules. He sat at the other end of the table impressing Jesus with his disciplinary practices.
The woman left forgiven. The Pharisee did not.
In Colossians 2:16-23, Paul makes the same contrast: setting faith in Christ in opposition to a set of religious disciplines.
In chapter 1 which is Paul’s introduction to the letter, he expressed his gratitude for the evidence of faith in the Colossian church and he prayed that they would grow in spiritual wisdom. Specifically, that they would fully understand that the way to know God is through Jesus Christ and only through Jesus Christ.
Then in 2:4 he begin his main point:
Col 2:4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.
Col 2:6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,
He urged them to continue believing the gospel that saved them. They came to faith by believing that they are saved by grace through faith in the blood of Christ and he urged them not to turn away from that.
The Colossians have started to listen to what Paul has called the “teachings and commandments of men”. We don’t know exactly what those issues are but we get our first solid clues in this section:
- Col 2:16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.
- Col 2:18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,
- Col 2:21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”
The theology which Paul sees as in opposition to the gospel emphasizes participation in a some set of religious practices. He argues that faith in Christ is fundamentally incompatible with their rituals for two reasons:
- Religions rituals hold out the promise of being the way to please God because they curb my outward behavior. But in fact they offer an empty promise because they do nothing to solve the problem of my guilt and sin. (Remember the woaman and the pharisee from Luke 7.)
- The cross of Christ is the only real solution to the problem of my guilt and sin.
Col 2:16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.
Col 2:17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
vs 17: “the substance belongs to Christ” – Christ is the body which casts a shadow on the ground. The shadow we see on the ground is not the real person. The person is the reality; the shadow is a reflection of the reality.
Col 2:18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,
Col 2:19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
This self-deceived, self-deluded person described in 2:18-19 is convinced he knows what the religious life should look like but in fact this person is abandoned the gospel Jesus taught (not holding fast to the head).
Col 2:20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations–
Col 2:21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”
Col 2:22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings?
Col 2:23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
The false teachers are worldly in the sense that their teachings and practices are focused on the here and now, the things of this world. Yet saving faith is not to be found in the practices of this world. (Think again to the woman and the pharisee in Luke 7.)
Limiting what you eat or practicing specific rituals as an effort to prove yourself a spiritual person or show yourself worthy to God is foolishness. It misses what Christ came to do for you.
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Part of the series: Colossians: Getting the Gospel Right
Study Resources: Colossians Resources
Scripture quotes are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.