[20] If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—[21] “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” [22] (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? [23] These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Colossians 2:20-23

Paul in verse 23 tells the church to stop promoting asceticism. (Practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline). Not all asceticism is bad. Many in the church could maybe do with a little self-discipline and self-restraint as we do live in an over indulgent society.

Paul referred to Godly asceticism when he spoke of buffeting his body and making it his slave, preparatory to running a race so that he might win (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). Sinful asceticism, on the other hand, is the sort that he describes here in the passage.

Here he has in mind those who impose man-made rules concerning the body and one’s behaviour as a means for enhancing one’s relationship with God. For the ascetic, the body is a thing to be punished, denied, even abused. The body is regarded as evil and the only way to defeat it is to starve it of anything that might spark even a little desire or enjoyment. Steps are taken to diminish the intake of food and drink to a minimum. So asceticism is the belief that if you add up enough physical negatives you will get a spiritual positive. Avoidance becoming the pathway to holiness.

Paul’s point here is that you died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, meaning that this stuff died on the cross with Christ. When we recognise that we are secure in Christ, we will not be bumped off course by the judgments of others who want to disqualify us in some way by promoting such practices.

Paul’s response to the legalistic approach to the Christian life is very firm. He has four biblical objections.

1, Such things “perish as they are used” (vs 22). So “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (vs 21) is a list of perishable objects of the material world, which disintegrate as they are being used. They have no higher value.

2, Such rules are man-made, not God given. They are, Paul says, “according to human precepts and teachings” (vs 22)

This is how legalism works, the demand that others conform to your conscience when God has remained silent. Such rules come not by divine revelation but by human imposition.

3, This approach to spiritual living only seems to be, wise, clever and spiritual. Paul says “these have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body” (vs 23). When you look at someone so dedicated and disciplined denying themselves the ordinary things of life, it is easy to be deceived by the appearance of spirituality. Such people look committed and pious and holy. But appearances can indeed be deceiving.

4, Paul’s most important statement I feel is, “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (vs 23).

Rules and prohibitions and self-denial that spring from man’s own religious creativity are utterly ineffective in curbing the desires of the flesh. Asceticism, in and of itself, won’t help you keep in check sinful urgings or help you in the war with temptation. They only highlight your weaknesses and cause you to think more about them.

So will Paul say anything more than, “this is wrong don’t do it?”  Surely he will offer a more biblical alternative. Yes he does but the division made between chapters two and three in his letter to the Colossians tends to obscure his point. Paul was not responsible for this division. Like all chapter and verse divisions in the New Testament they were applied by the  translator’s generations later.

Paul does indeed have a remedy for fleshly indulgence, a remarkably simple one. It is found in the immediately following verses of chapter three.

[1] If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [2] Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. [3] For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:1-2

These verses are simply another way of saying what I’ve already articulated on other occasions: holiness, in this case the ability to say no to “fleshly indulgence” (vs 23) comes not from rigorous asceticism or self-restraint but from a mind captivated and controlled by the beauty and majesty of the risen Christ and all that we are in him in the heavenlies!

We will continue this next time.