Rules, Rules, Rules! – Colossians 2:20-23 08/16/20

Rules, Rules, Rules! – Colossians 2:20-23 08/16/20

Many of us struggle with this, but the simple truth is there are things in life that our efforts cannot change. Among many possible examples, here are two: we cannot change how another person feels, and we cannot do anything that forces God to accept us. With that in mind, the text for this week is Colossians 2:20-23 which, as usual, I leave to you to look up.

In this passage the Apostle Paul is addressing the very real tendency of Christians to reduce the message of the Gospel to a legalistic set of rules. We don’t do it intentionally, it just kind of “happens.” This tendency is not new, so the intent of this passage is primarily practical[1] as Paul argues that legalism simply does not work. In contrast to human effort, Christ’s supremacy over creation, over the Church, and over our individual lives, is now shown to have practical repercussions.[2]

The translation states “…, if you have died with Christ…”. The problem is English cannot capture the nuanced use of “if” here. This is a first class conditional clause identified through the use of “if” (εἰ) [3] followed by a verb in the indicative mood, which here is “you died” (ἀποθνῄσκω).[4] This forms a conditional clause with a more probable future,[5] or in another words, it assumes the truth of the assumption.[6] Therefore, a better translation might be, “Since you have died with Christ…”[7]

This brings up an interesting consideration. To translate the passage this way, which is what the intent of the passage in the Greek is, it also inserts another level of interpretation from the translator. Generally, the translator’s goal is to keep the translation as close as possible to the original text, which literally says “if” rather than “since.” For the biblical translator this brings out a challenge. What is the goal of biblical translation? Do you convey the intended sense of the passage at the expense of literalness, or do you stay with a literal translation at the expense of its intended meaning? Those are tough questions to answer, and how those questions are answered is one of the reasons we have so many different translations. That’s really just an aside.

Getting back to the passage, here’s the truth of our situation as Christians; when we come to faith in Jesus Christ (or maybe a more accurate way of saying it would be, when we come to Jesus Christ in faith) our ties to all legal requirements are permanently broken.[8] Through our death with Christ we’re no longer subject to this world order and the forces that govern it.[9] Submitting to such things now would only place us back in bondage.[10] True Christian faith is not based on externals, but it is based on the life of Christ as we live “in Him.”[11]

Our death with Christ is an expression of our conversions in Christ as we’re joined to Him by faith.[12] But what is it that we died to? “The basic principles of the world.” The word “basic principles” (στοιχεῖον) has an astounding range of meanings; a first meaning is with reference to the “length of a shadow” in calculating time.[13] Then, any first thing resulting in a series of following things,[14] the elements from which all things have come,[15] even the fundamental principles of any art, science, or discipline.[16]

Interestingly, from these foundational definitions, the word came to refer to the supernatural powers or forces controlling the events of this world.[17] But as Christians, we are no longer under the usurper-ship of these powers.[18] To order our lives under their rule and rules is to revert to the inferior state that defined our lives before we knew Jesus.[19]

All these rules may seem like a good idea, but ultimately, they fail to accomplish the desired results. Rules, and in particular ascetic rules, appear to be wise, even reasonable.[20] During the first century these practices included seeking trance-like experiences of ecstasy that played to our innate wish to be part of an exclusive group.[21] These will ultimately be revealed to be illusions.[22] The truth is, these practices actually pander to our own pride.[23] The religion of “do nots” will ultimately fail to meet our need.[24]

Ultimately, we have to come back to this expression; “in Him.” Christianity is not about what we do, it is about our relationship with the living God.[25] The “rules,” the controls of the Christian life, as opposed to a legalistic life, these almost unconsciously begin to grow out of an inward conviction generated through our intentional and conscious union with the living Christ.[26] In contrast to our own efforts to be holy, God has done something very different. We are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, and by walking in Him the desires of our old lives are naturally set aside.

If you’re thinking about this, you may be wondering about the practice of the Spiritual Disciplines. These are the flip side of the same coin. Paul is not devaluing Christian discipline, but he is speaking against any practice that becomes a source of self-reliance and self-righteousness.[27] Even as externals cannot be added to the message of the Gospel, and in doing so distracting us from the centrality and supremacy of Jesus,[28] we do need to discipline ourselves so that nothing is allowed to distract us from the central focus of life, “that is a life in Christ.”

When we studied that Spiritual Disciplines a year or two ago, you may remember that I reminded you on a weekly basis of the danger of making the Disciplines about the Disciplines, and not about Jesus. Those practices that we explored are not intended to lead to asceticism. They are intended to center our focus on Christ in a very conscious and purposeful way. The objective is not to earn God’s favor, we already have that. The objective is seek Him more fully, to come to recognize His voice and allow us to be consistently more obedient to His leading.

This passage calls us to a careful stewardship of life,[29] keeping the main things the main things. In contrast to the sour faces and dour attitudes of some, if you’re walking in Christ, you should be having the time of your life.[30] That, however, will not be based on our efforts, or our current situation, it will be based on a radical reorientation of our lives that brings about change within,[31] and that happens because we are “in Christ.”

In contrast to legalistic perfection, we’re called to be holy.[32] This holiness comes only through a life yielded to the Lord Jesus.[33] Because of this, only those things that point us to the cross and the resurrection have any place in the life of the Christian.[34] These things define our lives. Anything that would tend to diminish the importance of these things must be set aside.[35]

So we conclude with some meddling… are there things in your life that are distracting you from the only thing that matters?

[1] Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed., James Mays, NT e3d., Paul Achtemeier, (John Knox Pres, Louisville, KY.: 1991), 118. [2] Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed., James Mays, NT e3d., Paul Achtemeier, (John Knox Pres, Louisville, KY.: 1991), 118. [3]Kurt Aland et al., The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition (Interlinear with Morphology) (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Col 2:20. [4] William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, (ZondervanPublishingHouse, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1993), 330. [5] William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, (ZondervanPublishingHouse, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1993), 288. [6] David Black, It’s Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek Grammar, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids MI.: 2002), 144. [7] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee: Volume V, 1 Corinthians – Revelation, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.: 1983), 353. [8] Curtis Vaughn, Colossians, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 11, Ephesians – Philemon, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglas, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript ed., Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1978), 206. [9] Peter O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 44, gen. eds., David Hubbard and Glenn Barker, NT ed., Ralph martin, (Word Books, Waco, TX.: 1982), 149. [10] Eduard Lohse, A Commentary on the Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon, Hermeneia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, trans., William Poehlmann and Robert Karris, ed., Helmut Koester, (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, PA.: 1971), 123. [11] Earle Wilson, Alex Deasley, and Barry Callen, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians: A Commentary for Bible Students, Wesleyan Commentary Series, gen. publisher, Donald Cady, exec. Ed., David Holdren, managing ed., Lawrence Wilson, theological ed., Stephen Lennox, snr. ed., Darlene Teague, (Wesleyan Publishing House, Indianapolis, IN.: 2007), 326. [12] Curtis Vaughn, Colossians, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 11, Ephesians – Philemon, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglas, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript ed., Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1978), 206-207. [13] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), 1088. [14] James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1995). [15] James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1995). [16] James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1995). [17] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 146. [18] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, gen. eds., Ned Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce, and Gordon Fee, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1984), 126. [19] Curtis Vaughn, Colossians, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 11, Ephesians – Philemon, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglas, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript ed., Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1978), 207. [20] Curtis Vaughn, Colossians, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 11, Ephesians – Philemon, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglas, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript ed., Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1978), 207. [21] Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed., James Mays, NT e3d., Paul Achtemeier, (John Knox Pres, Louisville, KY.: 1991), 120. [22] Curtis Vaughn, Colossians, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 11, Ephesians – Philemon, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglas, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript ed., Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1978), 207. [23] Curtis Vaughn, Colossians, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 11, Ephesians – Philemon, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglas, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript ed., Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1978), 208. [24] Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed., James Mays, NT e3d., Paul Achtemeier, (John Knox Pres, Louisville, KY.: 1991), 120. [25] Curtis Vaughn, Colossians, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 11, Ephesians – Philemon, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglas, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript ed., Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1978), 208. [26] Curtis Vaughn, Colossians, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 11, Ephesians – Philemon, gen. ed., Frank Gaebelein, assoc. ed., J.D. Douglas, NT eds., James Boice and Merrill Tenney, manuscript ed., Gerard Terpstra, (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1978), 208. [27] Earle Wilson, Alex Deasley, and Barry Callen, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians: A Commentary for Bible Students, Wesleyan Commentary Series, gen. publisher, Donald Cady, exec. Ed., David Holdren, managing ed., Lawrence Wilson, theological ed., Stephen Lennox, snr. ed., Darlene Teague, (Wesleyan Publishing House, Indianapolis, IN.: 2007), 326-237. [28] Earle Wilson, Alex Deasley, and Barry Callen, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians: A Commentary for Bible Students, Wesleyan Commentary Series, gen. publisher, Donald Cady, exec. Ed., David Holdren, managing ed., Lawrence Wilson, theological ed., Stephen Lennox, snr. ed., Darlene Teague, (Wesleyan Publishing House, Indianapolis, IN.: 2007), 327. [29] Earle Wilson, Alex Deasley, and Barry Callen, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians: A Commentary for Bible Students, Wesleyan Commentary Series, gen. publisher, Donald Cady, exec. Ed., David Holdren, managing ed., Lawrence Wilson, theological ed., Stephen Lennox, snr. ed., Darlene Teague, (Wesleyan Publishing House, Indianapolis, IN.: 2007), 327. [30] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee: Volume V, 1 Corinthians – Revelation, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.: 1983), 353. [31] Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed., James Mays, NT e3d., Paul Achtemeier, (John Knox Pres, Louisville, KY.: 1991), 121. [32] Earle Wilson, Alex Deasley, and Barry Callen, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians: A Commentary for Bible Students, Wesleyan Commentary Series, gen. publisher, Donald Cady, exec. Ed., David Holdren, managing ed., Lawrence Wilson, theological ed., Stephen Lennox, snr. ed., Darlene Teague, (Wesleyan Publishing House, Indianapolis, IN.: 2007), 328. [33] Earle Wilson, Alex Deasley, and Barry Callen, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians: A Commentary for Bible Students, Wesleyan Commentary Series, gen. publisher, Donald Cady, exec. Ed., David Holdren, managing ed., Lawrence Wilson, theological ed., Stephen Lennox, snr. ed., Darlene Teague, (Wesleyan Publishing House, Indianapolis, IN.: 2007), 328. [34] James Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, eds., I. Howard Marshall, W. Ward Gasque, and Donald Hagner, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1996), 193. [35] James Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, eds., I. Howard Marshall, W. Ward Gasque, and Donald Hagner, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.: 1996), 193.

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