If you have died with Christ to the spiritual forces of the world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its regulations: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”? These will all perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such restrictions indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-prescribed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment of the body; but they are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. (Col 2:20-23 BSB)
The basic Christian life is a spiritual reality, not a legalistic one. Life on earth — whether it is lived in a worldly context or a more Christian context — tends to be dominated by rules. When we wake up in the morning we typically list our tasks to be done that day, or we may think of things we ought not to do or to say. We will either look forward to what we have “to do” or we will dread it, but our thoughts almost always tend to run in the direction of actions and rules, not thoughts, values, and spiritual powers.
The Christian is to live on a different level — and it is quite the miracle of God for this to happen. In these few verses above, Paul explains the profound difference of the Christian life. For the Christian life is not to be a list of “to do’s” or a list of “rules.” It is to be a change of perspective, values, and especially a new spiritual reality that empowers this inner transformation. Through the change of heart we may still obey the rules and do the tasks that we have to do, but it is not out of fear but out of love that we do so.
We Died with Christ
The teaching on this classic New Testament teaching is expounded on more clearly in Romans 6:3-9. It means that we identify with Christ in His death for us, just as He identified with us. There is a spiritual and mystical union that the believer has with Christ. He died in our place, for our sins, but we also are freed from the power and dominion of sin as a principle by realizing that we also died there with Him.
For if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. For anyone who has died has been freed from sin. (Romans 6:5-7 BSB)
And the process for our spiritual advancement always begins with our death with Christ on the cross. Until the inner and spiritual crucifixion is accomplished, then we will seek to live in our own power, rather than in His. Watchman Nee wrote:
Our sins were dealt with by the blood, we ourselves are dealt with by the cross. The blood procures our pardon, the cross procures deliverance from what we are in Adam. The blood can wash away my sins, but it cannot wash away my old man: I need the cross to crucify me — the sinner. (From The Normal Christian Life.)
James R. McConkey, in his book The Way of Victory, wrote:
“Because He died ‘death hath no more dominion over Him,’ and because of our union with Him ‘sin shall not have dominion over you,’ even though it is present in you. Our ‘reckoning’ ourselves dead to sin in Jesus Christ does not make it a fact — it is already a fact through our union with Him. Our reckoning it to be true only makes us begin to realize the fact in experience” (The Way of Victory ,p.16).
But if we reckon ourselves dead with Christ on the cross, and the new us, the new me, the new you, the “new self created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24), can live.
Rules Are Perishing
Paul is speaking of Jewish rules here in the words, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (Col. 2:21). There were many different Jewish sects or schools, that followed different rabbis, who taught slightly different rules. One said this, another said something slightly different. The Essenes, who formed disciplined communities, were the strictest. One scholar (Schoetgen) described their discipline:
They allowed themselves no food that was pleasant to the taste, but ate dry, coarse bread, and drank only water. Many of them ate nothing until sunset, and, if anyone touched them who did not belong to their sect, they washed themselves as if they had been most deeply defiled.
Paul says something else, however, that is more disturbing: “These will all perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings” (Col. 2:22). What does he mean here? Weren’t these originally based on the Mosaic Law that was given by God and was “put into effect through angels” (Acts 7:53)?
The rules that Paul is referring to is not the moral code that was given in the Old Testament, for he affirmed those commands elsewhere in his writings. Rather he was referring to the many legalistic interpretations that were added to the Mosaic Law by men. He is being gracious here — though at first glance it may not seem so — for he himself was a Jew. He understood the teachings handed down from rabbi to rabbi, from school to school, and had in fact been a Pharisee himself. But these legalistic “add-ons” were the inventions of men, not the commands of God. And they would, as all manmade rules do, “perish,” just like our bodies do (1 Cor. 5:42).
New technology and changes of styles take care of a lot of rules through the generations. Rules of proper conduct of one generation vanish into thin air for the next, and it has always been this way. The Biblical command is: “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6), and this is what we must always focus on. God said, “Honor your father and mother,” but religious society will now tell you how to do that. You must do this or that. When I was a boy, on Mother’s Day, you wore a red rose on your lapel if your mother was living, and a white one if she had passed. But today this is not done so commonly.
Paul really had no problem with a Jew obeying the rules of the Old Testament, provided it was with a proper understanding, and properly motivated. In fact, he refuted the accusation that he had taught Jews to disobey the Law of Moses in Acts 21:17-26. He himself fulfilled the seven-day Nazirite vow that he had taken, and participated fully in this Jewish practice. He taught that everyone should follow his own conscience and operate by faith: “If anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean” (Rom. 14:14) and “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
And whether we consider them religious rules or “social conventions” or “traditions,” they all amount to certain outward performances that could have special meanings to us and others, or they could not. They could be only outward performances done just so we can look good. But being a follower of Christ is about an inward change.
Rules Are Value-less to Change the Inner Man
God is at work in our hearts, changing us in to the spiritual image of Christ. This is always His goal and nothing less and He will “carry it through to completion” (Phil. 1:6). “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), and this holiness must be inner and real, not merely outward and and fake.
Strict outward discipline is impressive and can have “an appearance of wisdom.” Those who emphasize this may look like they really know what they are doing. Often we think that our society would be improved if we simply had better rules and they were forcefully applied. The rules of society exist for the benefit of the majority — and this applies to both legal rules and social conventions that culture teaches. We should realize that we live in a world where not everyone will come to trust in Christ. Rules in a fallen world are for everyone’s benefit.
But for the Christian there is a different reality. We are getting ready for heaven — that is what God is doing in our lives. He is changing us into the spiritual images of Christ Jesus Himself. The tremendous weakness of living merely by rules is described by Paul as this:
Such restrictions indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-prescribed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment of the body; but they are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:23)
The King James translates this last phrase literally: “Not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.” Modern English translations typically say as above, “But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (New Living Translation). Why the difference? The entire passage was written in a certain style of short, crisp, phrases, to artistically mimic the way the legalists gave their rules. Short, brief, to the point. Paul’s brevity can be more readily understood in the original Greek, but in translating the passage, it is more difficult to convey the ideas in the same brevity.
An effort to do so would look something like this: “Those rules seem smart, showing how to worship, how to fake humility, how to get fit, but they don’t change sinful hearts.” It has often been observed that the enemy of God’s best is not evil but mere bland goodness.
- How much of your religious activity is more about making you look good in front of others, rather than celebrating the life of Christ in you?
- What does it mean “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20)?
- What are some of the religious rules that you have been taught to obey? Are they good rules or bad rules?
- Is there just “one right way” to do your devotional life?
- How much time do you spend letting Christ change you inwardly?
- What are some of the inner lessons on holiness that has Christ been teaching to you lately?