Col. 2 | Ritual or Reality?

by | Oct 10, 2018

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,
rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you
were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Colossians 2:6-7

“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.
These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

Colossians 2:16-17

This letter opposed the false teaching that threatened to undermine the vital faith of believers there. While we don’t know the exact nature of the false teaching, we can see its damaging effects. Some of the believers were apparently ‘going through the motions’, letting religious activity substitute for a vital relationship with Christ. Not good.

Paul’s warning is still needed. While we often have good motives, it is easy for us to let spiritual activity become an acceptable replacement for an intimate connection with the risen Christ. Yet, the reality of our Christian walk is proven by how closely our lives are entwined with his. What often gets promoted is a poor substitute for the real thing – legalism. Hollow, dull, wearisome, painful and without life, this kind of Christianity is why millions who claim to be followers of Jesus are only nominal Christians at best. And why millions more look at Christianity and want no part of it. It’s too much like the lifeless religion they already have. May God rescue the church from this brand of Christianity. Genuine faith in Christ, on the other hand, animates and energizes every part of you – your mind, your emotions, and your will.

How do we keep from letting ritual substitute for reality? Paul addresses the problem with two important reminders in these verses, each beginning with the word, “therefore” (cf. vv.6, 16).

Therefore, Remain Rooted in Christ 

This past week I was outside working in front of my house to renovate some old landscaping and replace it with new. One of the tasks I had was to remove an old shrub that had been in place for nearly forty years. I was not expecting such a difficult job, and my work ‘day’ turned into several. What I eventually discovered was that there was far more below the surface than above it – a large base with roots that went incredibly deep. Being the man that I am, I chose not to ask for directions at first. But after digging and sweating in the 90-degree heat for way too long, I finally watched YouTube for a solution to my problem. Oh, those blessed YouTubers – thank you for posting! I finally obtained a farm jack rated at a whopping 7000 pounds, to pry the shrub out of the ground. It worked! I pulled out the stump with relative ease and examined what had held it so tightly to the ground – the root – thick and tough, had not only given life to the plant but had gripped it with astounding force. In a similar way, Paul uses this same analogy of what strongly rooted in Christ does for us in our walk with him. There is no substitute for a solid root system.

Verses 6-15 remind the believer what life is truly all about – it must remain centered on the person of Jesus Christ if we are to “reach all the riches” (v.2) found in him alone. Paul makes a valiant effort to show us this great truth. The phrase or related phrase, “in Christ” occurs no less than 12 times in this chapter.

Only “in Christ” do we find the fullness of life. There is something curiously powerful about our maintaining an uncomplicated, simple faith. We must not be deluded into thinking that we need something more to make life work and to be accepted by God. This is the enemy’s deception. The gospel tells us that Jesus plus nothing equals everything.

Therefore, Walk in the Substance, Not in the Shadows 

Verses 16-19 correct our tendency to allow the distorted voices we sometimes listen to, to hold sway over our new reality in Christ so that we lose sight of what he has accomplished on our behalf. “Shadow” (v.17) here, refers to an imperfect and faint representation of the real thing (human philosophy, human tradition, humanistic religion); in some sense – the hollow belief in things that are not real. Paul desires “wisdom and knowledge” (v.3)  for these believers so that they can understand reality from God’s perspective.

Wisdom and knowledge protect the believer from making foolish and dangerous choices with their spiritual life. It seems that the practically negative outcome of living (walking) in the shadows is to keep the believer from knowing the genuine liberty we have in Christ. In short, the shadows pull us into legalism – excessive conformity to the law, to a religious system, or a moral code. Along with the legalism comes a false sense of guilt and insecurity. Choosing to walk in the shadows will cause us to listen to the voices of fear, anxiety, shame, and their message of being unloved. Certainly, this is not true.

We can make a choice to either be in relationship with Jesus or to step back and away because we don’t want to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves and what God shows us. “Substance” refers to “the ultimate reality that underlies all outward manifestations and change” (Webster). Paul indicates that this ultimate reality that supersedes and replaces all other realities is found in Christ.

What in the World Are You Thinking?

Verses 20-23 ask essentially, “Why would you let anyone influence you to choose ritual over reality, shadow over substance? The phrase, “according to human precepts and teachings” (v.22), refers to the tendency to gravitate to various systems of humanistic thought, whether they be political, social, intellectual, or otherwise. They are all, in effect, empty and deceptive, Paul says. They lead us away from reality instead of toward it. Ultimately, they have “no value” (v.23) in promoting genuine life change for the Christian.

These “voices” shout at us to take matters into our hands and to fix our biggest problem – our sin and the separation it causes between God and us. In short, the voices lie and tell us it’s preferable to be religious. But we soon discover that choose is dark and hollow. It may sound good at first, but in the end it offers no satisfaction and no life. It is meaningless.

Those who are alive in Christ, now have nothing whatsoever ‘held over them’ by God. Religion always causes us to do whatever it takes to measure up. Relationship with Christ, on the other hand, reminds us we are totally forgiven, completely accepted, and unconditionally loved just as we are. That truth does not mean that He will leave us as we are, but rather, that within our grasp is the key to genuine satisfaction and life transformation.