We have been looking at Colossians 2:16ff and noting the various wrong approaches to spiritual growth Paul says we must reject.
So far, we have spent all our time on the first, which is legalism.
Now for the second. Paul warns us about the dangers of mysticism.
Mysticism is a broad word, of course. People have used this term to describe a number of different ideas. For our purposes, by mysticism we mean (as someone has put it) “basing one’s knowledge of God on a subjective experience rather than on objective revealed truth.” The mystic we are describing, paraphrasing B.B. Warfield, is the man who “substitutes his religious experience for the objective revelation of God recorded in the written Word…He derives his knowledge of God from his own spiritual experiences rather than what God has revealed in His Word.”
Here is God’s Word and here is his experience. He chooses his experience and neglects God’s Word.
This is exactly what the false teachers in Colossae were doing. They were basing their teaching on their own experiences and not on the Word of God.
Paul writes in verse 18 and 19,
“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, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body nourished and king together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”
The Colossians had heard the gospel from Epaphras. He had proclaimed the Word of God to them. But now false teachers had entered the church and were attempting to persuade the Colossians that they needed something more. Specifically, we see here in verse 18 that they were “insisting on asceticism and the worship of angels.” These false teachers were basically saying to the Colossians that they weren’t experiencing the fullness of the Christian life. That in order to experience the Christian life to the fullest they must follow their example and practice asceticism which we’ll talk about in another post, and become involved in the worship of angels.
It’s difficult to know for certain what these false teachers were teaching. We honestly don’t know all the ins and outs of the philosophy they were presenting. But one of the things we do know for sure is that they placed a great emphasis on angelic beings. The fact that throughout the book of Colossians Paul goes to great lengths to demonstrate Jesus Christ’s superiority to angels seems to indicate that these false teachers were elevating angels to a position of importance alongside Jesus Christ. And interestingly, as we look at church history, this appears to have been a problem that plagued the Colossian church for centuries, so much so that three hundred years later, a group of godly church leaders had to come together in Laodicea which was the town right next to Colossae and make a formal declaration which said, “It is not right for Christians to abandon the church of God and go away and invoke (which is a synonym for to pray to, or to appeal to) angels.”
Although we don’t know everything about this particular heresy we can say that these false teachers seemed to have developed a fascination with angels which led them to insist on worshiping them. It could be that they were pretending to be humble and saying that they were not good enough to go directly to God Himself and worship Him through Jesus Christ so instead they had to first begin with the angels instead.
Which is something the Bible expressly forbids.
Exodus 20:2-4 puts it very simply, “I, am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”
That means that we should worship God and serve Him alone, which is what the angels do. The angels don’t want us to worship them. They want us to worship God. When the apostle John encountered an angel in Revelation 19, he fell down to worship him. And the angel responded by rebuking him for doing that. John writes, “I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said to me, ‘Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God.”
Honestly, this issue is not all that complicated.
In fact, in light of how clear the Bible is about all this, we might be tempted to wonder how the Colossian believers would ever be persuaded to fall for the philosophy these false teachers were presenting. They knew better. That’s a point I want you to keep in your heads. The command to worship God alone is not too hard to understand. That’s something the Colossians understood. Epaphras came and preached the gospel, then these false teachers came and were telling the Colossians to do something that was clearly contradictory to that gospel.
What could possibly make them think that God wanted them to worship angels when God’s Word makes it so clear that they should not?
Well, we discover the false teacher’s strategy in the middle of verse 18.
Paul says that the false teacher was insisting “on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions…” or things he has seen.
When the Colossians would ask these false teachers why they believed what they believed they would answer because of the experience that I had and because what I’ve seen. They were taking their stand on visions that they claimed to have had. That was the basis of their confidence. Even though the objective written revelation of God says this, you ought to do this, which is in direct opposition to that written revelation, because of a subjective experience that I’ve had.
Which is what?
They were rejecting the external authority of God’s Word and instead basing their religious convictions on internal subjective experiences that they claimed to have had.
“The Bible says this…But I reject that…Because God revealed something new to me…”
Now, this is where the rubber meets the road. Although you may never have met anyone who has pleaded with you to worship angels and done so on the basis of visions he’s had, I can guarantee that you’ve met those who base their religious convictions on their own experiences rather than the Word of God.
This type of mystical approach to God pretty much defines the spirituality of our time. There are many in our culture who claim to be interested in God and in spiritual things while at the same time completely rejecting what the Word of God has to say. They have little respect for what the Scripture says and instead base their ideas of God on what they feel or think. They say they want to pursue God but they don’t want to submit to the authority of His Word. They want to have a relationship with God, they just don’t want to have to obey Him or do what He says.
This type of mystical approach to God is generally accepted in the liberal church. I remember hearing a religious leader say that when he was thirty nine years old or so he finally accepted God’s call to come out and live his life as a gay man for God. In his words, “Just simply to say that homosexuality goes against the tradition of Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong.” When he says something like that, he is simply following in the footsteps of these false teachers in Colossae. The Bible says this, but do this, because I say so. I had an experience which supercedes God’s divinely revealed truth.
This type of mystical approach to God is at the root of most of the cults in our day. Throughout history, men have repeatedly risen up and claimed to have received special revelation from God that is contradictory to what the Bible reveals and time and time again foolish undiscerning individuals have believed them. If you don’t believe me about the power of this kind of error, just take a vacation to the state of Utah.
This type of mystical approach to God has even had a devastating effect on many within the contemporary church. Many professing Christians are basically basing their views and ideas of God on their own personal experience rather than on His Word. In fact, many professing Christians have something of a bias against the disciplined study of God’s Word. In their minds, their experience trumps God’s Word.
One pastor writes, “…mysticism has caught many Christians unaware. It has thus swept much of the church into a dangerous netherworld of confusion and false teaching. Mysticism has created a theological climate that is largely intolerant of precise doctrine and sound biblical exegesis. Note for example how wildly popular it has become to speak scornfully of doctrine, systematic Bible teaching, careful exegesis, or the bold proclamation of the gospel. Absolute truth and rational certainty are currently out of vogue. Authoritative biblical preaching is decried as too dogmatic. It is rare nowadays to hear a preacher challenge popular opinion with clear teaching from God’s Word and underscore the truth with a firm and settled ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”
If perhaps you are not following, let me get a bit more specific.
Many within the church have fallen for a type of mysticism. Please hear this. Don’t get me wrong. They may give lip-service to the Bible. They may even say that the Bible is inspired. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty they give more authority and weight to the things they have experienced than they do God’s Word.
One of the most common ways people do this is by giving their feelings the same authority or more authority than the Word of God in their lives. How many times have you heard someone say, “I know that the Bible says this, but I’m going to do this, because I just know in my heart of hearts it is right.”
“I know the Bible says we are not supposed to get divorced except for certain reasons, but even though I don’t have those reasons, I just know God would want me to get a divorce.”
When a person says something like that, they are simply following in the footsteps of the Colossian heretics. They are rejecting what the Bible clearly teaches in favor of something they claim to have experienced. They are willing to agree and submit to the Bible when it suits them but they will reject it when it doesn’t.
This is what makes this kind of mysticism so dangerous.
As one writer explains, “Whenever an organization says, ‘We believe the Bible is inspired plus we believe our leadership is inspired,’ or ‘We believe the Bible is inspired plus we believe this other book of ours…is inspired’ the Bible always ends up taking the back seat instead of being on equal footing with these other sources of special revelation.” While many Christians would agree that is wrong when it comes to their own lives they basically do the same thing. “Their claim is essentially, ‘I believe the Bible is a bona fide source of information and the Spirit also gives private information which is separate from God’s Word directly to me.’ When that happens, the second step frequently follows the first: The personal, subjective sense of what a person thinks God is telling him trumps the objective Scripture.”
That’s incredibly common, and in light of how common this mystical approach to spirituality is, we better pay very careful attention to the warning Paul gives us here in verse 18.
He says, “Let no one disqualify you by insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions…”
The term, “disqualify” means to “rob someone of their prize.” These false teachers were telling them that to experience the fullness of the Christian life they had to follow what they said when in all reality Paul explains that if they followed what the false teachers were teaching they’d end up completely empty. By asking them to set aside “the external authority of God’s Word” and to throw themselves instead on the visions these false teachers claim to have had is to ask them to discard Christianity.
I want you to hear this. You reject the external authority of God’s Word you reject God. Christianity is a religion based on external authority. That means real practically we believe that God has revealed the normal Christian life in this book and that as a result we can and must interpret any experience that someone claims to have had in light of what the Scriptures say. If someone says this is what is true, we must go back to the Word of God and ask, is what they are saying really true.
This book is authoritative over our life – because it is God’s Word.
If we want to know God’s will we don’t need to run here and there and chant some sort of mantra in the corner of the room. We need to go to God’s Word. The Spirit of God speaks to us today through the Word of God. God didn’t give us the Spirit to reveal to us all sorts of strange ideas that would lead us away from what the Scripture actually teaches. He gave us the Spirit to help us understand the Word and to seal upon our minds the truth the Word teaches and promotes.Therefore, if a person comes to us, no matter how intelligent they are, no matter how spiritual they are, no matter what they claim to have seen or experienced, if what they are saying isn’t in accordance with God’s Word, we must not be intimidated by them and the experiences they claim to have had.
We should instead, follow the example of the reformer Martin Luther.
As one author explains, “When such intimidation came from the sixteenth century mystical charismatics of Martin Luther’s day, the great reformer was very firm with them, clinging to biblical revelation and the centrality and sufficiency of Christ. In particular, the followers of Thomas Munzer and the radical Anabaptists gave great prominence to the work and gifts of the Spirit and to mystical knowledge. Their cry, expressing their suprabiblical experience, was ‘The Spirit, the Spirit!” Luther replied, “I will not follow where their spirit leads.” When they were granted the privilege of an interview with Luther, they gave their cry, “The Spirit, the Spirit!” The great Reformer was not impressed and thundered, “I slap your Spirit on the snout.”
He spoke like that, so dogmatically, because when a person substitutes his own personal experience for what the Word of God really says what is he being in all reality? Is he being spiritual? Is he being religious? No, he’s being proud.
He is ultimately saying “My Word is more valuable and more important than God’s Word.”
That’s what Paul says is at the root of the heresy their in Colossae. These false teachers are going on in detail about visions they had, because verse 18, they were “puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind…”
Think about that. That’s a fascinating statement. Here is a man who is claiming to be humble. And here is a man who is claiming to have had a spiritual vision. And yet what does Paul says is at the base of the spiritual vision they had? A fleshly or sensuous mind.
When we think about a sensuous mind we normally think of someone who is given over to the kinds of things Paul describes in Colossians 3:5, “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness…” It’s important to note that biblical speaking a person can be very spiritual and very interested in spiritual things and yet at the same time have a sensuous or fleshly mind that is motivating all that. A person can be very religious and very spiritual and always talking about God and very disciplined in his pursuit of God and at the same time be puffed up by a sensuous, fleshly mind.
Isn’t that what Paul is saying here?
These false teachers are not as pure as they seem. They have a fleshly mind. Proof of that is their pride. They are puffed up without reason. And they prove they are proud by the fact that they reject the truth of God’s Word and advocate strange doctrines.
The result being they commit spiritual suicide.
This is what makes the whole thing so tragic. These false teachers, Paul explains in verse 19, “…are not holding fast to the Head…” In other words, these false teachers are not connected to Christ.
They claim to be interested in spiritual growth. But the only way a person can grow spiritually is by being vitally connected to Christ. Paul says that it is from Christ that “the whole body, nourished and king together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”
So in rejecting God’s word and taking their stand on subjective experiences they claim to have had, they demonstrate that they are not connected to Christ and although they go through the motions of spirituality they make it absolutely impossible for themselves to grow spiritually.
All their discipline, all their religious activities, are for nothing. They have no spiritual value.
If we are going to mature in Christ we can’t just accept any idea that comes along or any teacher that comes along on the basis of things they claim to have seen or experienced. Instead we must learn to evaluate everything that is said and taught in light of what God has revealed in His unchanging Word. We must not be intimidated by ideas that people have and people present to us that we know are in contradiction to the Word of God. We must stand up against them. We must reject mysticism.