The Superiority of Christ to Asceticism & Mysticism – Colossians 2:18-19

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

October 17, 2010

The Superiority of
Christ to Asceticism & Mysticism

Colossians 2:18-19



Perhaps after all these years in ministry I should be used to it, but it still bothers me, and I suppose it should always bother me when those who profess to be followers of the Lord Jesus Christ for many years still act as if they were either babes in Christ or not followers of Him at all. There are many reasons that people remain immature in their walk with the Lord or revert to immaturity. Among these are ignorance (lack of Biblical instruction), stumbling (enticed into sin), stubbornness (pride that hinders confession), selfishness (desiring your own way more than God’s way), and erroneous teaching (led into false beliefs). Jesus gave many warnings concerning these dangers and Paul’s letters often are correcting those who are immature because of them. This morning we continue our examination of Colossians 2 and Paul’s warning and correction of them concerning the false teaching that placed them in danger of having their spiritual maturity stolen.

In Colossians 1, Paul had declared the superiority of Christ in all things since He is the architect, creator, provider and sustainer of all life; (See: The Preeminence of Jesus Over Creation) as well as the head of the church who brought redemption and the forgiveness of sins to His followers allowing them to be reconciled with God. (See: The Preeminence of Jesus Over the Church).  In Colossians 2 Paul gives general warning to them about those who would seek to lead them astray with false logic and impressive speech  (See: The Superiority of Walking in Christ) as well as those that would seek to take them captive through philosophy that in the end would turn out to be empty illusions because they were based in the tradition of men instead of God and remained at only an elementary level.  (See: Avoiding Capture by Philosophy).  The Lord Jesus Christ is superior to all philosophical systems since the fullness of the divine essence dwells in Him so that He is able to bring His followers to completion. No human philosophy can do that.

The Abrahamic covenant is important, but Jesus is superior to both that and the Mosaic covenant because he establishes a new covenant that changes the heart of the individual. Baptism is important as an outward sign of spiritual cleansing, but Jesus is superior because He baptizes with the fire and the Spirit resulting in His followers being made alive together with Him. Jesus is superior to every kind of ritual which tries to address man’s sin problem, because Jesus’ atonement has brought forgiveness for our every transgression of God’s commands because He paid the price for all of them on the cross. (See: The Superiority of Being in Christ).

Two weeks ago I began our study of Colossians 2:16-23 in which Paul gives specific warnings about the doctrine and practices of the false teachers that were a danger to them. (See: The Superiority of Christ over Legalism) Follow along as I read through that section to set the context for this morning’s study.

“Therefore 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– 17 things which are a [mere] shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on [visions] he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.

20 “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all [refer to] things destined to perish with the using)– in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, [but are] of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

Legalism – ReviewColossians 2:16-17

Paul’s warning is specifically against legalism, asceticism, mysticism and earthly religions. Two weeks ago I concentrated on verses 16 & 17 and the legalism that easily develop with religious traditions. Legalism is following the rules of man as the standard of righteousness instead of the commands, principles and precepts of God’s word. What can begin as healthy self-imposed restrictions in order to avoid stumbling into sin can easily become requirements demanded of everyone as the standard of holiness. For those with a Jewish background there was the additional problem of coming out of the Mosaic covenant in which there were many external requirements to separate them from all other peoples. It was not only hard for them to accept for themselves the new freedom that comes with salvation from sin through faith in Jesus, but they also had a hard time accepting Gentiles who did not subject themselves to the Mosaic standards of eating, drinking and observance of days. This caused much conflict in the early church.

Paul is direct both here and in many places in his other letters that we are not to subject ourselves to being judged by others on the basis of what we eat, drink or what days we observe as holy days. Paul summarized the issue well in Romans 14:17 that “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” In 1 Timothy 4:1-5 he explicitly states that doctrine that forbids marriage or advocates abstaining from foods has its origin in demons. Legalism steals from people the ability to walk with Christ in holy humility by trading the substance of it for the shadows of imposed standards.

After that sermon I had quite a few questions posed to me both about legalism and its equally deadly opposite of licentiousness in which under the guise of freedom the principles and precepts of God’s word are ignored in the pursuit of personal desires. It is easy for Christians to be assimilated by society and forget that God has called us to live by His moral standards and obey His commandments though that puts us at odds with society. Even the final part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 is to be teaching obedience to whatsoever He has commanded. In Colossians 3 Paul lists out many of those particular standards of conduct by which all believers are to live, so those questions should be answered when we study that chapter.

This morning I want to look specifically at asceticism, mysticism and religious pride and the dangers they pose to us in being able to reach our prize of becoming complete – mature – in Christ.

The Prize

Paul begins by giving the command to “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize” (NASB). The KJV translates this as “Let no man beguile you of your reward,” the NKJV as “Let no one cheat you of your reward,” and the RSV as “Let no one disqualify you.” The Greek word used here (katabrabeuvw / katabrabeuô) is hard to precisely define because it is only used here and hence the variations in translation. Its related words mean “umpire” and “prize” and so it carries the idea of someone deciding or ruling against you. If an umpire did that unjustly it would be defrauding or cheating you of the prize that should have been yours. This is a parallel to Paul’s command in verse 16 not to let others judge you based on their dietary restrictions and ritual regard for particular days. Here, Paul does not want them to allow others to rule against them based on ascetic practices, worship of angels or mystical visions which would then hinder them from walking with Christ in true godliness and becoming complete or mature in Him (1:28; 2:10).

Now I want to stress here that while you cannot prevent anyone from judging you by their legalistic standards or ruling against you according to their ascetic or mystical practices, you can determine your reaction to them. Paul’s command here is that you are not to allow what others say and do against you to control or even affect your own walk with Christ. In other words, do not yield to the disapproval of others by following their standards in order to avoid the criticism. Your behavior in what you do or do not do is to be determined by following Jesus and obeying His commands, not those of mere men. Men can disapprove, criticize and judge, but only the Lord Himself determines who is His and who receives His reward.

Self-abasement – AsceticismColossians 2:18

The first category Paul mentions in this section are those “delighting in self-abasement” (NASB). This is another phrase that has a range of translation. The KJV translates it as “voluntarily humility,” and both the NKJV and NIV as “delight in [false] humility.” It is the context that makes it clear that the humility being described here is not the same as the humility that is praised throughout the rest of the Scriptures. True humility comes from a correct understanding of both God and your position before Him. The people described here neither properly understood God or their position before Him as seen by this phrase being tied directly to the next phrase in which they worship angels.

While it does take humility to see yourself as unworthy to have direct contact with God, the worship of anything else as a substitute is still wrong for it is directly against God’s commandments to worship only Him. Some of these false teachers held the idea that man being material cannot directly approach God who is spirit. They taught that to reach God you had to go through a series of intermediate entities that were lower than God but higher than man. That is how they viewed angels. It is also why they taught against Jesus being both fully God and fully man. To their minds’ Jesus had to be either one or the other or some intermediate being, but He could not be both God and man. In self professed humility they sought to worship God by worshiping angels as intermediates and so entered into false worship.

Worship of angels or anything other than God Himself is a heretical idea that is in direct contradiction to God’s commands to worship Him only (Exodus 20:3-6 ; Deuteronomy 6:13-14; Matthew 4:10). While the action of worshiping something other than yourself takes a certain form of humility, the act of disobeying God in order to do what you think is better is pride, not true humility. To worship something other than God not only shows complete disregard for His commands, but it also places the person doing so under God’s condemnation and wrath. It is only the Lord’s great patience and longsuffering that keeps them from experiencing that wrath fully in the present.

God judged the nation of Israel for their idolatry, yet showed great patience toward them. He warned them in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-28 what would happen if they turned away from Him. He then sent prophets to warn them and pestilence and oppression by surrounding nations to prod them to repentance before finally destroying them and deporting the survivors by the Assyrians and Babylonians. God still generally follows the same patient course with people today. He sends His people to proclaim the truth to the unbelieving and correct the errant believers. He allows the natural consequences of sin to prod them to repentance, and specifically chastens those who belong to Him to discipline them back into a proper walk with Him (Hebrews 13:4-13). But He may also withhold His mercy and a person and the judgment of His wrath may come suddenly (Proverbs 6:14-15), so we should never presume upon the patience of God.

Any idea in which someone thinks they know better than God results in heresy and ungodly practices. The greater tragedy is that those same people will argue that what they are doing is very godly. Those who practice asceticism are no different. They will argue that they are humble and pious, but in truth they are proud and self-centered because they value what they think over what God commands. Let me give you an example.

There are religions in which being single is viewed as a superior spiritual state to being married and so is required of their spiritual leaders. They often will cite 1 Corinthians 7 as proof, but such an argument only shows their failure in interpreting and applying what Paul writes because they ignore of the rest of the Scriptures. While Paul points out certain advantages that being single gives in serving the Lord since there would not be responsibilities toward a spouse and children, Paul is also very clear in the same passage that those who marry do well and he is only trying to spare them trouble in view of a current distress (1 Corinthians 7:25-38). To advocate that being single is a superior spiritual condition would be strange since only two chapters later Paul states the other apostles had believing wives and he had a right to have one too (1 Corinthians 9:5-6). Even more to the point is that in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 Paul explicitly states that those who forbid marriage are paying attention to the deceitful spirits. In other words, it is fine if someone desires to stay single in order to serve the Lord without distraction, but viewing singleness as a superior spiritual state and so requiring it of spiritual leaders is a doctrine from demons. The appeal of the ascetic practice of singleness as a more pious state results in pride and heresy.

Such is the danger of asceticism and I will expand on this topic in greater detail when we get to verse 22. Here in verse 18 the emphasis is that false teaching lead to false humility which resulted in the false worship of angels. We cannot allow the pressure placed upon us by others who feign superior piety to get us to join in their practices. We must be firm in being truly humble by submitting ourselves to the Lord God and obeying His commands and the principles and precepts of His word instead of the religious musings and practices of men.

In the case of the Colossians, they would have been trading in the worship of God for the worship of demons. Why do I say that? Because we can be sure that these angels receiving such worship were demons because the righteous angels always reject such worship whenever men sought to do so. An example of this is Revelation 22:8 when John fell down at the feet of the angel that had revealed to him what was to occur in the future. The angel told him, “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book; worship God.”

The tragedy is that such practices continue to this very day. There are several religions which instruct their followers that they cannot go to God directly, or that even if they could, it is better to go through some intermediary. That mediator may not be described as an angel, but remember that worship – which includes religious veneration – of anything other than God is false worship. For that reason those who pray to Mary or any of the saints have succumbed to this same lie and end up in false worship for they believe their way – their religious system – is better than obeying what God has said about how to approach Him. I praise God that because of the Lord Jesus Christ I can come with confidence directly before His throne of grace to find help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). Jesus Himself taught us to pray addressing our Creator as “Our Father, which art in Heaven.” Why then would I seek to pray to any other being?

Visions – Mysticism Colossians 2:18

The next danger Paul mentions is the person who is “taking his stand on visions he has seen.” When we remember that Paul was writing to a church that was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, it is easier to understand the danger since it was common practice to attribute a higher level of spirituality within paganism to those who enter into an ecstatic state which could include receiving visions from the gods. It would be easy to for them to still view people who claimed to have had such visions as spiritually superior and therefore people to be followed. Because it was the Apostolic age and the apostles did still receive visions from God (Acts 9:10; 10:3; 16:9), it would be easy for false teachers to claim the same thing happened to them to gain prestige. And remember, demons are active and can often mimic what God does, so those claiming the vision may actually have had a vision, though its source was demonic.

Mysticism has always posed a danger to the people of God because those practicing it claim it is from God and they strive to mimic what God actually does do. The Corinthians were certainly plagued by similar problems though the more common manifestation there was speaking in tongues. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul even points out that though they thought themselves to be spiritual, they were actually still babes in Christ that could not even handle solid food. In 1 Corinthians 12:1-3 Paul points out that some of those thinking themselves to be spiritual because they could mimic the gift of tongues, were actually blaspheming. This is the common dynamic of the mystic and one in which the early Gentile churches were vulnerable because they had been trained by their previous paganism to revere the person who has some mystical ability.

The danger of mysticism continues to the present time. While it may be more prevalent in certain Christian sects that promote mystical rituals and practices and within Charismatic circles due to their emphasis on experience over Scripture, the danger is also present in conservative and fundamental churches. Let me expand briefly on each of these.

Many denominations promote rituals which are designed to promote a mystical mood and then follow mystical practices of prayer and worship. There is a reason for the pomp and ceremony, for the candles and musical chants. The emergent church is going back to the practices developed in the second through seventh centuries which laid the foundation of Roman Catholic liturgy and mystical practices. This includes things such as lectio divina, the Divine Office in which particular prayers are recited, use of the rosary, prayer ropes, Stations of the Cross, icons, crucifixes, incense, Benedictine chants and more. Practices that play upon the emotions to give a mystical feeling of closeness to God usurp His word as the means to know Him.

In Charismatic circles it is common to find people claiming to have some particular spiritual gift – usually the word of knowledge or word of wisdom – by which they have determined not only God’s will for themselves, but often for others too. Some of their leaders actively claim to receive direct revelations from God. Such claims are quite intimidating to the average person in the pew who do not know how to evaluate them much less refute them. This is the specific problem Paul states was occurring in Colossae. A person would claim to have had a vision from God and then take his stand on it as the source of authority for himself and for telling others what to do or not do.

Fundamental churches can also have this problem, though it will certainly be phrased differently. While you will not hear such things as “the Lord gave me a vision” or “a word of knowledge” or a “word of wisdom,” you will hear things such as “the Lord spoke to my heart.” You will also find stands on mystical claims such as “we prayed about it and the vote was unanimous” as if praying about something and having unity automatically means it is what God wants. I recall facing that here the first time flaws in the constitution were pointed out and corrections suggested. The mere suggestion was treated by a few as rank heresy from the devil. That there were not Scriptures to support what was written and there were plenty of verses to support the suggested changes was irrelevant since they had prayed about it and it was approved unanimously. That is mysticism. There is a huge difference between what God approves and what He sovereignly allows.

We stand on the word of God alone as the revelation of God for our lives. We saw in our study of 2 Peter 1 last year that God has already given us all we need to live godly lives because He has given us His precious and magnificent promises in His word. Others can stand on their visions and they will fall with them too – we are to stand on the solid rock of God’s revelation of Himself and His will in His written word, the Bible.

A Fleshy Mind Religious PrideColossians 2:18

The third danger Paul mentions is from someone who is “inflated without cause by his fleshly mind.” Though the person may try hard to be perceived as someone who is very spiritual, the reality is that they are fleshy and not spiritual. As mentioned earlier, this was a large problem in Corinth. Paul could not even speak to them as spiritual men because they remained as spiritual babes who lived according to the flesh instead of the Spirit as demonstrated by their poor behavior toward one another (1 Corinthians 3). They had separated into factions. They were tolerant of immorality in their midst. They sued one another in the civil courts because they could not work out their own conflicts. Some were still visiting the temple prostitutes. They did not understand marriage. Some were legalists while others flaunted their liberty to the detriment of others. There was confusion about the place and roles of men and women. Their practice of communion was so bad that the Lord chastened some with sickness and others He removed. They even questioned the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. They thought they were spiritual, but they were actually carnal. Such thinking begins with those who have such an inflated idea of themselves and then lead others into the same error. That is why Paul is warning them so strongly.

There will always be those around who feign humility and spiritual piety but in reality are proud and carnal. The sad thing is that they usually do manage to get some others to believe their foolish facade and so inflict damage on them and the rest of the church.

Eventually such people will cause a conflict and rift in the fellowship within the body just as had occurred in Corinth. Such division is almost never over actual honest disagreement about a significant doctrine. If it is over a doctrine, it is over some very minor issue, but more often than not, the issue is one of power to be able to enforce personal preferences. Paul gave a strong warning in Romans 16:17 to keep watchful of those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to what He had taught and to turn away from them. We must do the same. Beware of those who think more highly of themselves than they ought.

How can such people be readily identified and what is the protection against them. Paul explains in verse 19 that they do not hold fast to the head, which is Christ.

The Superiority of ChristColossians 2:19

We once again find that understanding the position and superiority of Jesus Christ to everything else is our protection. The true and the false are distinguished by whether they hold fast to Him as their head or not. As Paul points out it is the head “from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.” This is a simple analogy. The body is controlled and directed by the head. Each part functions only in relationship to its connection to the head. If that connection is lost, that part will no longer function. The body moves because the head directs its connecting parts to move. The body grows, because the head directs it to grow – and interesting enough, it is the pituitary gland located in the head that causes the physical growth of the human body. True spiritual growth can only come from God Himself.

Jesus used a different analogy in John 15, but the point was the same. He is the vine, and we are the branches. We gain our life from Him and can only bear fruit if we are connected to Him. We must abide in Him. Anyone that does not abide in Him is separated and will not be able to accomplish anything for His kingdom. They will eventually be thrown away and cast into the fire and burned (John 15).

We will know the true teachers from the false ones by their fruit – or lack of it. Those who hold fast to the head – they abide in Him – will practice righteousness for Jesus makes them righteous. Those who do not practice righteousness are not of God (1 John 3:7-10). Only God decides what is and is not righteous and He reveals that through His word, not the experience of those who have a false humility in worshiping something other than God Himself, nor in those who claim new revelation from God, nor in those puffed up self-righteous individuals who claim to be spiritual but whose lives demonstrate they are still fleshy. Jesus Christ is sufficient, so do not allow anyone to intimidate you by their claims of spirituality based in anything other than in knowing Him through His word. Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ and follow Him for He is the source of direction for your life and growth.

Sermon Notes – 10/17/2010

The Superiority of Christ to Asceticism & Mysticism – Colossians 2:18-19


Colossians 1 – The Superiority of Christ over _____________ and the Church

Colossians 2:1-15 – General warnings and Christ’s superiority to all worldly & religious _____________

Colossians 2:16-23 – Specific ____________ about the doctrine & practices of false teachers

Legalism – Review – Colossians 2:16-17

Legalism – man made standards of righteousness – can develop from _________ precautions & traditions

We are not to judge or be judged by our _______or observance of days – Romans 14:17; 1 Timothy 4:1-5

Licentiousness – ignoring God’s standards of righteousness – is just as ______________ as legalism

The Prize Colossians 2:18

katabrabeuvw / katabrabeuô – carries the idea of an _____________ deciding or ruling against you

Do not let the judgments & criticisms of others turn you from following _____& obeying His commands

Self-abasement – AsceticismColossians 2:18

The context shows this is a false humility for they do not understand ______or their position before Him

Humility is required to worship something other than yourself, but only _______alone is to be worshiped

Disobeying God to do what you think is better is _________ and never true humility

God judged Israel for their idolatry – yet was very ___________ and longsuffering before He did so

God is still patient and longsuffering – but He may also bring judgment _____________ (Prov. 6:14-15)

Whenever someone thinks they know better than God the eventual result will be _______and ungodliness

Singleness has advantages to marriage in serving the Lord, but neither is _______________ superior

Forbidding marriage is the doctrine of ____________ – 1 Timothy 4:1-3

False teaching resulted in _________humility resulting in ________worship of something other than God

It is false worship to _________ to someone / something other than God – including Mary or the Saints

Because of Jesus, we can go ___________ to God (Heb. 4:16) & Jesus instructed us to do so (Matt. 6:9)

Visions – Mysticism Colossians 2:18

Visions were part of pagan practices and they ________________ God’s revelation to the apostles

The Corinthians had similar problems of mystical religious practices _____________for true spirituality

Some denominations and the emergent church movement promote ________________ practices

The emphasis of experience over ___________in Charismatic circles allows for abuse of “spiritual gifts”

Fundamental believers can also resort to _____________ based authority – “I prayed about it.”

We stand on the _________________ alone as the revelation of God for our lives – 2 Peter 1

A Fleshy Mind Religious PrideColossians 2:18

This was the core problem at Corinth – they thought they were spiritual, but were actually ___________

There will always be those who feign humility & spiritual piety but in reality are __________ and carnal.

Such people eventually cause _________in the body over minor issues – Beware of them – Romans 16:17

The Superiority of ChristColossians 2:19

The body is controlled and directed by the _______________

John 15 – Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. We must ___________ in Him

We know the true teachers from the false ones by their __________ – of lack of it (1 John 3:7-10)

Jesus Christ is ______________- do not allow anyone to intimidate you away from following Him alone.


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – 1) Write down all the verses mentioned. 2) Count how many times the word “spiritual” is used 3) Talk with your parents about the nature of true spirituality


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. How is Jesus superior over creation? Why is He superior over the church? How is Jesus superior to all philosophical systems? What is legalism and why is it dangerous? Why were the Jewish Christians of the early church so susceptible to legalism? How have you seen legalism manifested in things you have experienced? What is licentiousness and why is it dangerous? What is the protection against both legalism and licentiousness? What does Paul command in Colossians 2:18? How can that command be carried out? Why is the humility described in Colossians 2:18 a false humility? Why were the Colossians prone to worship angels? Why would that be wrong? What is the eventual result when someone thinks they know better than God? What are the advantages of singleness in serving the Lord? Is singleness spiritually superior to marriage? Why or why not? What is the origin of the doctrine that forbids spiritual leaders to marry? What religious groups are you aware of that forbid marriage? Will a righteous angel receive worship? Explain. What was the role of visions in paganism? How would you know if a person’s claimed vision came from God or the devil? What was Paul’s evaluation of the spirituality of the Corinthians? (1 Cor. 3). What are some of the mystical practices of Roman Catholicism and the emergent church movement? What vulnerability to Charismatic groups have to abuse of spiritual gifts due to mysticism? In what ways are fundamental Christians vulnerable to falling prey to authority arising out of mysticism? What must be our final authority for faith and practice? Why? Why would someone “inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” be a danger to the church? (There are many examples in 1 Corinthians). Who is Jesus Christ superior to these things and our protection against them? How can you distinguish the true teachers from the false ones? How can you keep from being intimidated by those who profess to be spiritually superior into practices contrary to godliness?

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