Empty Religion

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In Colossians 2:8, the apostle Paul warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col 2:8).  I used to think this verse was a warning against the irreligious philosophy of the world; the thoughts, explanations, and ideas of the lost.  But when we step back to capture the context of this letter, we find this “empty deception” is actually quite religious.  It is a man-made version of Christianity that is all too common in the church.  The deception is robbing saints of understanding who they are in Christ and replacing the gospel of Christ with a religion of man-made rules.  Let me explain as we go deeper into Colossians chapter 2.

Continuing on, “For in Christ all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete…and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the work of God, who raised Him from the dead.  And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us…and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:9-14).

Before he expounds on the “empty deception” later in chapter 2, Paul first wants us to fully understand our identity with Christ.  According to this passage, you have been made complete in Christ, the One in whom the fullness of Deity dwells.  You have been “circumcised”, not in the physical sense, but in the supernatural sense – “without hands” – of Jesus cutting away our body of flesh.  This body of flesh is not a physical body, but the seat of our sin nature.  And this heart of our sin nature, this body of flesh, is being “cut away”.  This happened when we died with Christ on the cross and were raised to new life (see Romans chapter 6).  This happened when He forgave all our transgressions and cancelled out our debt, having nailed it to the cross.  This happened when we embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ and were made complete in Christ.

Paul then goes on to describe the empty deception.  “Therefore (because of who you are in Christ), let no one 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 that are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.  Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement…inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, Jesus Christ” (Col 2:16-19).

The bottom line?  When we set up a self-abasing, overbearing, tedious, rule-keeping system in the church, we are not lifting up Jesus, not holding fast to the Head, Jesus Christ.  We may think this rule-keeping is a sign of godliness, but according to verse 18, it is really the expression of an “inflated fleshly mind”, not a godly one.

How do rules, often times meant to promote godliness, actually end up as a self-made religion?  We will discuss this as we continue in Colossians chapter 2 next time.

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