Do you like rules? I didn't think so. Most of us have mixed feelings about rules. We like them only part of the time. Douglas Bader said, "Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men." Douglas MacArthur said, ""Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind." I don't know about that, but I know that I have a love-hate relationship with rules. I can't stand them but then I sometimes seem to crave them.
Sometimes rules get out of control. Here are some rules posted in a drive-in restaurant:
Do not back in
Restrooms are for customer use only
(on trash can) Not for diaper disposal or auto trash
Local checks for amount of purchase only
Vanilla frosties dipped one size only
Please order by number
Observe all signs
That's a little out of control.
It seems that the worst offenders with rules aren't restaurants, though. The worst offenders are churches. Here's a list of laws that are still on the books that relate to churches:
Young girls are never allowed to walk a tightrope in Wheeler, Mississippi, unless it's in a church.
In Blackwater, Kentucky, tickling a woman under her chin with a feather duster while she's in church service carries a penalty of $10.00 and one day in jail.
No one can eat unshelled, roasted peanuts while attending church in Idanha, Oregon.
In Honey Creek, Iowa, no one is permitted to carry a slingshot to church except a policeman.
No citizen in Leecreek, Arkansas, is allowed to attend church in any red-colored garment.
Swinging a yo-yo in church or anywhere in public on the Sabbath is prohibited in Studley, Virginia.
Turtle races are not permitted within 100 yards of a local church at any time in Slaughter, Louisiana.
There's got to be a story behind some of those rules.
The whole thing about rules is that some of them sound pretty good. You can see how you might get to thinking that somebody should make a rule about this or that. Pretty soon those around you agree, and presto! You've got a rule that made sense at the time. It's only later that another group of people come along, and the rule doesn't make any sense to them. They weren't there to understand the thinking behind the rule, and conditions might have changed. Rules that were once good might not be good in a different time or circumstance.
Rules are good at behavior, but they don't really change the heart. I've met lots of rules, and some of those rules have even succeeded in changing my behavior. I've never yet met a rule that's changed my heart.
The thing with rules is that they look pretty impressive. Not all of them, of course, but some of them. I've met a lot of religious people who follow a lot of rules, and it looks pretty good. They seem a lot stricter and more disciplined than I do. It's easy to think that the more rules you follow, the more spiritual you are.
Actually, that is dead wrong. It's not true that more rules equals more spiritual. We've been looking at Paul's letter to the church in Colosse, and he deals with the subject of rules in today's passage. Paul's been talking about how we have everything that we need in Jesus Christ, and we shouldn't think we need to take extra steps or something else to complete us. We already have everything that we need.
Today, Paul tackles the teaching of a group that was trying to influence the Colossians to follow more rules. Paul says, "Don't!" One of the greatest dangers you will ever face in your spiritual life is the danger of adding to what you already have in Jesus.
This is counter-intuitive to the way some of us think, so I want to look at some of the warning signs that Paul lists. This is important, because you need to guard your freedom. Don't ever let anyone take away the freedom that Christ has given you. Don't let it happen, no matter who's doing it.
Paul lists three warning signs that somebody is trying to add to what you already have in Jesus:
1. If they require more than Jesus requires
The first warning sign is if somebody requires more than Jesus requires. This is an important point. Jesus does require certain things from us. You can go too far and think that anything goes if you follow Christ. I've met people like that. They thought that grace and forgiveness meant that you could do anything. Jesus does require obedience, but some people go further and ask for things that Jesus never asks. This is a warning that someone is trying to take away your freedom. If this happens, don't let them do it.
You may have heard the word legalism. The word legalism never appears in the Bible. A lot of people talk about legalism, but it's not always clear what it means. There are two ways that you can be legalistic. One way is to add requirements of conduct beyond Scripture and make them essential. It's making rules that the Bible doesn't give and insisting that you follow them. The other way you can be legalistic is to take the standards of conduct taught in the Bible and make them regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God's favor. Both are wrong.
Paul says in this passage, "So don't let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new-moon ceremonies or Sabbaths" (Colossians 2:16). There were people who insisted that everyone followed Sabbath and other rules to follow Christ. They were making judgments about how holy others were based on these standards. Paul says, "Don't let anyone condemn you." Never let anyone condemn you for something that God has not asked you.
Verses 20-22 say:
You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the evil powers of this world. So why do you keep on following rules of the world, such as, "Don't handle, don't eat, don't touch." Such rules are mere human teaching about things that are gone as soon as we use them.
This group was trying to insist on rules about what believers handle, eat, and touch. They were ascetics. They believed that if you were strict and didn't do certain things, then it would be better for you spiritually. Paul warns them not to follow these human rules. Don't let anyone lay down the law for you when Christ has set you free from the law. Don't let anyone steal your freedom.
I can't tell you how much this takes place all the time. As I mentioned earlier, there is something in us that loves making up rules. It starts with the best of intentions. There are often good reasons for the rules, and some of them make a little bit of sense. But if we buy into them, we compromise our freedom. We give up the very thing that Jesus died to give to us.
In the film, The Shawshank Redemption, Brooks Hatlen was released after 40 years of incarceration. He finally has the chance to enjoy the freedom he hasn't experienced since he was a teenager.
However, he didn't adjust well to life on the outside. He found himself asking for permission to use the men's room. He lived in constant fear. In prison, he didn't have to make his own decisions. Brooks confesses that he contemplates ways to break his parole and return to the security of the prison cell. He sums up his dilemma in one line: "It is a terrible thing to live in fear."
Someone talked about Brooks this way: "You believe whatever you want…but I'm telling you, these walls are funny. First, you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes…you get so you depend on them."
There are some of us who are so unfamiliar with freedom that it makes us nervous. We almost prefer to go back to the rules, even though living under rules imprisons us. Paul says that we should be on our guard against anyone who requires more of us than Jesus requires.
John Piper said, "Whenever authentic, joyful confidence in Christ diminishes, regulations are brought in to preserve what the power of Christ once created." Oswald Chambers wrote, "God who made the birds never made birdcages; it is mean who make the birdcages."
Does freedom mean that we can live as we please? When we experience freedom, we don't want to live in a way that displeases Christ. Abraham Lincoln supposedly went down to the slave block and freed a girl. She saw the white man buying her, and figured it was going to be one more man buying her to abuse her. He won the bid, and as he left with her, he said, "Young lady, you are free." She said, "What does that mean?" "It means that you are free?" "I can say whatever I want to say? I can be whatever I want to be? I can go wherever I want to go?" With tears streaming down her face, she said "Then I will go with you."
When you experience freedom, you don't need rules to make you want to go with Christ.
Paul gives a second warning sign that someone is trying to add to what you already have:
2. If they suggest more than Jesus suggests
Verse 18 says, "Don't let anyone condemn you by insisting on self-denial. And don't let anyone say you must worship angels, even though they say they have had visions about this. These people claim to be so humble, but their sinful minds have made them proud."
We've already talked about the danger of following rules that aren't given by Jesus. It wasn't just rules that were the problem. There was also the danger of added teachings. Some people suggest that you need to follow additional teachings if you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In this case, it was teachings about angels. I don't think these people worshipped angels; probably not, anyway. It's just that they had a bit of fixation on angels that bordered on worship. Paul warns us against adding additional teaching to what we already have received about Jesus.
There is a huge market out there for additional spiritual teaching. Take a book like The Da Vinci Code. It's topped the New York Times and Globe and Mail bestseller lists for more than a year. It's soon coming to a theatre near you, with Tom Hanks in the lead role. It imagines that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had kids, whose descendants live in France. It's a work of fiction, but a lot of people are taking it pretty seriously.
There are a lot of teachings out there. Some of them, like The Da Vinci Code, make huge changes to what the Bible teaches us. Others are not so bad, but they still can lead us into trouble if we think they are essential. There are about 4,930 books about angels on Amazon.com. Granted, some of them are books on Charlie's Angels and Hell's Angels. Still, a lot of them are about angels. We run into a lot of trouble if we get sidetracked with secondary teachings rather than focusing on what God has already given us. Don't add to the teachings God has already given us about Jesus.
One more warning sign:
3. If they receive the glory instead of Jesus
Verse 23 says, "These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, humility, and severe bodily discipline. But they have no effect when it comes to conquering a person's evil thoughts and desires."
Paul acknowledges that some of these rules look pretty good. They look wise. They require good qualities like devotion, humility, and discipline. Who can argue with those? But these rules end up making us look good rather than Jesus. Verse 18 says, "These people claim to be so humble, but their sinful minds have made them proud." Self-mortification becomes a twisted form of self-exaltation. It becomes about us instead of Jesus.
Ashleigh Brilliant, that odd vestige of the seventies who scribbled his offbeat humor on hippie postcards, once penned: "All I ask of life is a constant and exaggerated sense of my own importance." There's a little of that in all of us. The problem with rules is they feed into this. We look good because we keep all these rules. It just makes us proud, which is exactly counter-productive.
Paul gives the biggest reason why we need to guard against adding rules and teachings to what we have in Jesus. In verse 19 he says, "But they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For we are joined together in his body by his strong sinews, and we grow only as we get our nourishment and strength from God." These people, who add rules and teachings, aren't just adding to Jesus. They are becoming completely disconnected from him. Additions are dangerous because they aren't additions. They become the means by which we are disconnected from Jesus. They take away our freedom. They make us proud. They take our focus off Jesus. In the end, they completely remove us from Jesus.
You hear commercials saying, "Don't settle for anything less." You could say that about Jesus. Don't settle for anything less than Jesus. There is, however, an equal danger to accepting less than Jesus. It's the danger of settling for more than Jesus. Paul says, in essence, that more than Jesus is less than Jesus. Whenever we add to what Jesus has given us, we are subtracting from Jesus. Don't settle for anything more or less than what you already have in Jesus.
You are free. Knowing that you are free changes everything. It changes the way you see even stupid little rules. In World War II, American and British prisoners built a homemade radio. One day, they heard the news that the German High Command had surrendered and the war was over. They roared in celebration; men walked around signing and shouting, waving at the guards, even laughing at the dogs. They knew something the Germans didn't.
Three nights later, the Germans finally heard the news. They fled into the dark, leaving the gates unlocked. The next morning, the Brits and the Americans walked out free. Yet they had truly been set free three days earlier by the news that the war was over.
You've received the news that you are free in Christ. You don't need to follow any more rules or look for any more knowledge. Don't ever settle for anything more than what you already have.