A couple weeks ago, Callie sent me this photo, it was something she saw online and wanted to share with me. A simple handwritten note contrasting the popular sayings today with the things that Jesus said long ago. For example:
While the world says, “Follow your heart.” Jesus said, “Follow me.”
While many say, “Be true to yourself.” Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself.”
Or while we read today, “Believe in yourself.” Jesus said, “Believe in me.”
Or although told to “Live your truth.” Jesus said, “I am the truth.”
Or finally, though we at times justify our actions by saying, “As long as you are happy.” Jesus said, “What will it profit someone if they gain the world and yet lose their soul?”
The sayings of this world versus the sayings of Jesus. The philosophy of our modern world in contrast with the philosophy of Jesus. To see these sayings contrasted against each other was on one hand rather simple, yet also deeply profound and worthy of reflection, as I think we sometimes miss just how countercultural the words of Jesus and the truths of scripture truly are.
And like whomever wrote that note and posted it online, in our passage today, Paul too wants to warn the Colossian church against what he calls “a hollow and deceptive philosophy.”
We’re in the midst of a sermon series on the book of Colossians and as we’ve said before this letter that Paul writes to this church is both a word of encouragement to a young and growing church and also a word of warning and correction away from this hollow and deceptive philosophy being spread by some false teachers in their midst. And today we finally get to the heart of the letter as Paul addresses this false teaching head on.
And I should let you know up front here, if you were struggling to process all that’s happening in today’s scripture, you are not alone. First of all, it’s a lot of scripture. Secondly, scholars across the board aren’t quite sure what to make of some of it, so I certainly feel the same. In fact, I’d estimate this is in the top 5 of most difficult passages to understand that I’ve preached from. Though I hope you hold all of my messages with an open hand, that’s especially true with this one. Nevertheless, we’ll give it our best go, and as we do, you may especially want to have your bibles open for this one, tracking the flow of thought and the argument here is essential, so if you want to, open your bibles up to page 1677.
While verses 6-7 serve as the central verses of the entire book, it’s really verse 8 that serves as the thesis statement and outline for our passage of scripture today.
Where Paul says this, 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
The rest of chapter 2 is really the outworking and explanation of this central admonition from Paul.
Where in verses 9-15, Paul, to use a phrase of his from earlier, “strengthens them in the faith as they were taught” – in other words, he points them to Jesus, who Jesus is, what he has done for us, as well as who we are in Christ.
And he does so to make the argument, that because of who we are in Christ, notice the “therefore” in verse 16. Friends, whenever you see a “therefore,” you must ask what it’s there for … (how’s that for a bad dad joke?) But it’s true! That’s why we are looking at so much scripture today. Paul’s making an argument here that’s hard to split in two.
Paul is saying here’s what Christ has done, here’s who you are in Christ, verses 9-15, therefore, therefore, therefore, must not be taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces, which Paul goes on to explain in great although, admittedly confusing detail in verses 16-23.
And here’s the big idea for our message today. There’s so much happening here, we need something to hang our hat on. Here it is … kids, it’s the big idea, big idea, big idea, write this down … it comes in the form of a math problem today. And that is …
Jesus + Nothing = Everything
When you stand back, this seems to be the key issue that Paul takes with the teachings of the false teachers. Where rather than resting and trusting in the sufficiency and work of Christ for their salvation, they are looking to additional means, whether it be Jewish rituals or spiritual practices as salvation supplements if you will. And for Paul, to add anything to Christ, is not in fact addition, but rather subtraction, for it takes away and diminishes what Christ has done for us and who we are in Christ.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything
In verses 9-15, Paul lays the groundwork by fixing our eyes on Jesus and who we are in him. And he does so, in part, by pointing us towards some familiar imagery in ways that might be a little unfamiliar to us Presbyterians. And by that, I mean baptism. Notice how Paul talks about baptism in verses 11 and 12, saying,
Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Notice that language there, buried with him in baptism, raised with him in baptism. For us Presbyterians and others who baptize infants, and I think wonderfully so, we sometimes miss this buried with and raised with imagery in baptism that is seen most vividly when someone is fully submerged under the water, such as when we baptized Asher Voss at Clark Canyon Reservoir a couple years ago.
When a person goes under the water it symbolizes their death and burial and then when they are raised back up, it symbolizes their new life in Christ.
In other words, in baptism, we join our story with Jesus’s story, that just as Jesus died and rose again, so do we in a similar, yet different way, as we die to our sin and find new life in Christ.
Now, the act of baptism itself is not what saves us, rather, as our confirmation students learned this past week, baptism is an “outward expression of an inward reality.” It’s a picture of what God has and is doing in you through faith. Notice that faith component in verse 12, “raised with him through your faith in the working of God.”
And so symbolized in baptism, by grace alone, through faith alone, this is verse 13 now, you who were spiritually dead, are now alive in Christ. And the results are clear,
He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
The language here is triumphant, victorious. Paul here is describing a work of Christ that is once and for all, total, final, complete.
Or to summarize, looking back at what Paul said in verse 10, “in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” In other words, the Colossians and you and I have everything they need in Christ for their life and their salvation. No addition necessary.
For the Colossians and for us, Jesus + Nothing = Everything. To add anything as a supplement is to in fact, subtract. To look towards anything else to complete our spiritual well being is to diminish and take away from what Christ has done for us.
Therefore, therefore, therefore. Because Jesus + Nothing = Everything.
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.
In this section, Paul describes in detail a whole bunch of different things, from Jewish dietary laws, to the worship of angels, to ethnic and religious rituals, to spiritual experiences. In all of it, Paul is saying that none of it contributes to our salvation.
Now, keep in mind that Paul here is responding in writing to concerns that Epaphras, who started the church, shared with him in person. And so what we have in this letter is one part of a two sided conversation, which means reading a letter like this is kind of like listening in to a conversation that someone is having on the phone in the room next door. Sure, you might have a sense of the full conversation just from your half of it, but it can be hard to piece together the whole thing. That’s a bit of what’s at play here.
Nevertheless, we can connect a couple dots. After naming some of the Old Testament laws and commands, Paul says, in verse 17, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. The idea here is that just like a shadow points to something greater, the Old Testament ceremonial laws, once designed to help God’s people remain pure and holy, are now no longer in effect, for through Christ, in Christ, his blood makes us clean, he makes us holy.
And yet, that’s not to say that every Old Testament law is now obsolete. We did a sermon series on the 10 Commandments this past summer and what’s so fascinating is how Paul picks up on many of those commandments in the next passage when describing the implications of our dying to sin and our new life in Christ. More on that next week. But for now we can say this, that we don’t obey the law in order to earn our salvation, but rather to live in light of it.
In addition, notice something Paul says at the very end of verse 23, he’s talking about these rules and regulations, human commands and teachings and he says this, “they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” In other words, laws and rules lack any value in bringing about real transformation or lasting change.
For example, when I lay down the law, and tell my son Caleb, “Buddy, don’t pick the green tomatoes.” Well, guess what he wants to do all the more than anything now? Pick all the green tomatoes. In this sense, laws and rules function as an X-ray. In other words, as an X-ray does with a broken bone, the law has the power to diagnose what is wrong, but it cannot fix what is wrong. Only a doctor can do that. Similarly, the law reveals, but it cannot heal. And so rules and laws have limited power. They reveal that we need saving, but they cannot do the saving itself. Only Jesus can do that. “They lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
To put our hope and trust in laws and rules, spiritual experiences or rituals, in anything other than Jesus, is not only to subtract, to diminish what he has done for us, who we are in Christ, it’s also hopelessly ineffective too.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything
Alright, we’ve done a lot of interpretive work so far, which has been tough enough, and yet to apply this passage, to figure out what difference this makes for us today, is in some ways even more difficult.
After all, while there are a lot of things that can keep us up at night, my guess is debating whether or not to attend your friend’s New Moon celebration isn’t one of them?
You see what I mean? Bridging the gap from this cultural moment to ours today is tricky business.
That however is partly why I landed on this main idea. Jesus + Nothing = Everything
And that is, because it gives us a clearer path to application. And that is to simply ask,
“Where do I, where do we believe in a gospel of Jesus AND, of Jesus PLUS?
In other words, if the true default mode of our hearts is for the equation to be Jesus + Something = Everything, what’s our something?
Here I might be grasping at straws and I may even ruffle some feathers here, but here it goes.
Consider the role and prominence that politics has in our culture today. More than ever before, our political affiliation serves as an identity marker, a way of distinguishing and elevating ourselves. This was the mistake the false teachers made when they were advocating for maintaining food laws and other Old Testament practices such as circumcision. They were in effect saying you’ve got to be on team Jesus but you also need to be Jewish. You’ve got to hold onto these laws, these identity markers, to be included in the family of God.
I fear we sometimes do a similar thing with politics, to say that real Christians vote Republican, real Christians vote Democrat. Do we impose cultural identity markers onto our and others’ Christian practice?
Or how about this example. Consider the implications built into the beliefs of other Christian movements such as Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses. If I understand them correctly, both traditions teach that we are saved through faith while also through our works. Where salvation in Mormonism, that is, to reach the highest, celestial kingdom belief in Christ is necessary but so is participation in Mormon temple rituals and obedience to its “laws of the gospel.” Similarly, salvation in Jehovah’s Witnesses requires faith in Christ, association with their religion, and obedience to its rules.
Now, I don’t mean to disparage these traditions or question the character of its followers. Nor do I mean to make little of their religious beliefs. Not at all. Instead I mean to make much of Christ. For to teach that we are saved through our works is to say that the work of Christ is insufficient and incomplete. Even more, we as Christians, we who are saved by grace alone through faith alone, should be the most humble of all people, for we readily confess that we contribute nothing to our own salvation.
“Friends, where do you believe in a gospel of Jesus AND? Where do you subscribe to a message of Jesus PLUS?
Where are you seeking fulfillment? Where are you looking for self-justification? Where are you trying to save yourself through your own hard work?
Maybe you feel as though you have to do more. Maybe you feel as though you’re not enough.
Maybe you feel as though you have to make up for a past you cannot change.
Maybe you feel as though you’ve got to follow Jesus and live up to your parents expectations of you.
Maybe you feel as though you’re only a faithful Christian if your kids are following him too.
Maybe you’ve put yourself on trial, convicting yourself of double jeopardy, trying to repay for sins that have already been forgiven, for they were forgiven at the cross.
For he took our record of debt, every sin you’ve committed, your place of greatest guilt and shame and once and for all he nailed it to the cross.
Friends, rest in the finished work of Christ. Live in light of your baptism. Live in light of your union with Christ. Live in light of what Christ has done for you.
And if you’re unsure if you’re really a Christian, if you’re unsure whether or not you’ve really put your faith in Christ, if you’re lacking assurance, if you’re feeling restless, let’s talk, I’d be happy to process that with you.
Alright, let’s finish with a quiz. Are you ready? I’ll give the equation, you give the answer.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything