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Chapter 6 Christ the True Wisdom: The Revelation of the Mystery of God
For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh; that their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words. For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ. As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving, (vv. 1-7)
Men who know little of the deep convictions that stirred the heart of the apostle Paul will have difficulty in realizing the intensity of his feelings when the truth of God was called in question, and the people of the Lord were in danger of being corrupted by false doctrine and turned aside from the simplicity that is in Christ. He says, “For I would have you know what intense agony I have for you.” He was not one who could play fast and loose with revealed truth. His very soul was tortured when Christ was dishonored by those who professed His name. He was not a self-complacent liberal in theology carelessly tolerant of any teaching, no matter how pernicious, so long as outward unity is maintained. To know that both at Colosse and Laodicea designing men were seeking to seduce the saints from their first love, who was Christ Himself, caused him intense concern. That the enemy was largely successful at Laodicea we know, for John, as the amanuensis of the glorified Son of Man, writing to them later from Patmos, charges them with being neither cold nor hot. Proud of their culture and wealth they were indifferent to Christ. It is from this Paul sought to save them, and it is to be hoped he succeeded at Colosse.
The truth unites. Error divides. He desires “that their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God,… [even] Christ” (v. 2). There is some manuscript diversity in regard to the last part of this sentence. The King James Version reads, “The mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ,” which is admittedly peculiar. One could understand, “The mystery of God, even of the Father, and of Christ,” and it might be so translated. But the reading of some manuscripts, “The mystery of God, even Christ,” seems clearer and is probably correct.
It is the great divine mystery of the new man, as we read in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” The definite article before “Christ” does not appear in the King James Version, but probably should be there. It is the mystical Christ that is in view, and I take it that we have a similar idea in Colossians 2:2. The mystery of God is that which He has now revealed regarding Christ as Head of the body, and consequently of the entire new creation. As believers enter into the truth of this they are delivered not only from vain speculations but from fleshly strivings, for all perfection is found in Christ. So the apostle would have them understand the wealth of this great mystery as they enjoy the full assurance of understanding in order to its acknowledgment. In Hebrews 6:11 we read of the full assurance of hope, and in 10:22 of the same epistle we get the full assurance of faith. These together establish the soul and set it free from doubt and fear.
In Christ, or if you prefer, in this mystery of God now revealed, are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. It is not necessary to go elsewhere, investigating human systems and philosophies, for an explanation of the mystery of the universe and the relations of the Creator to His creatures. All these are fully told out in Christ. As we learn to know Him better and apprehend the truth concerning Him, every question is answered, every perplexity made clear, and every doubt dissolved. Why turn aside to idle speculations, no matter how pretentious, when God has spoken in His Son and given His Holy Word to lead us by the Spirit into all truth? Paul says all this in order to protect the saints from being led astray by persuasive talk or with enticing words. Advocates of error delight to clothe their evil systems in most attractive phraseology, to entrap the souls of the unwary. Only the truth of God can preserve from such. It is important to remember that no amount of intellectual culture or human learning can take the place of divine revelation. If God has not spoken we may speculate and reason as we please. But if He has given the truth in His Word there is an end to all our theorizings.
In this chapter he shows us how Christ is the antidote for human philosophy, Jewish legality, Oriental mysticism, and carnal asceticism. These have no place in Christianity. Christ supersedes them all. And Paul knew through the testimony of Epaphras what Christ had meant to these Colossian saints from the time of their conversion, and he was very jealous lest they should now be turned aside. Though not with them in the flesh, he was one with them in spirit, and rejoiced in all he had heard of their godly order and their steadfast confidence in Christ. This was how they began; moreover, they had continued in the same paths and he would have them continue so. Having received Christ Jesus the Lord, that is, having trusted Him as Savior and owned Him as Master, he would now have them walk in Him, not turning aside to any new system or perversion of the truth. He desired to see them rooted and built up in Him-rooted like a tree, sending its roots deep down into the soil. He would have all their hidden sources of supply so centered in Christ. Built up like a building founded on a rock and firmly established, he would so have them recognize Christ as their only foundation.
He uses the same double figure in Ephesians 3:17, “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love.” God is love, and God has been revealed in Christ. So to be rooted and established in love is to be rooted in and founded upon God, and it is God revealed in Christ. Why then should any go after speculative theories that cannot give the soul peace and which make light of Christ the Head? As thus walking in Him the man would be established in the faith, in accordance with the instruction already received, “abounding therein with thanksgiving.” Nothing so causes the soul to overflow with worship and gratitude to God as a deep knowledge of Christ. It is noteworthy that true joy is only found in acquaintance with Him.
It is hardly necessary to make the application to present-day systems. Each one who really knows Christ will readily do that for himself or herself. An illustration may help to make clear what I believe the apostle is here indicating. A follower of Mrs. Eddy, the now-deceased head of the so-called Christian Science cult, labored long to unfold the professed benefits and beauties of that system to a simple Christian woman who, after listening for several hours, found herself utterly unable to follow the specious sophistries and vapid theorizings of her visitor. Finally she exclaimed, “I do not understand what you are getting at. Can you not put it all in simpler terms so that I may know what it is you want me to believe?” “Well,” replied the other, “in the first place you must get hold of this: God is principle not a person. You see, my dear, we worship a principle-” “Enough!” exclaimed the other with a relieved expression on her countenance. “That would never do for me! I worship a personal God revealed in Christ, my blessed, adorable Savior.” And at once her soul was delivered from the net spread before her by the soft-voiced emissary of Satan who had been endeavoring to ensnare her. And this is ever the test. Every system that makes light of Christ or His atoning blood is from the pit and to be shunned as a viper by all who know Him.
John Newton has well written:
“What think ye of Christ?” is the test,
To try both your state and your scheme;
You cannot be right in the rest,
Unless you think rightly of Him:
As Jesus appears in your view-
As He is beloved or not,
So God is disposed to you,
And mercy or wrath is your lot.
Some take Him a creature to be-
A man, or an angel at most;
But they have not feelings like me,
Nor know themselves wretched and lost.
So guilty, so helpless am I,
I durst not confide in His blood,
Nor on His protection rely,
Unless I were sure He is God.
Some call Him a Saviour, in word,
But mix their own works with His plan;
And hope He His help will afford,
When they have done all that they can:
If doings prove rather too light
(A little they own they may fail),
They purpose to make up full weight,
By casting His name in the scale.
Some style Him “the Pearl of great price,”
And say, He’s the fountain of joys;
Yet feed upon folly and vice,
And cleave to the world and its toys.
Like Judas, the Saviour they kiss,
And while they salute Him, betray:
Oh! what will profession like this
Avail in His terrible day?
If asked what of Jesus I think,
Though still my best thoughts are but poor,
I say, He’s my meat and my drink,
My life, and my strength, and my store;
My Shepherd, my trust, and my Friend,
My Saviour from sin and from thrall;
My Hope from beginning to end,
My Portion, my Lord and my All.
The natural man cannot understand why Christians should insist upon a clear-cut confession of the truth as to Christ. What matters it, he will ask, whether Jesus be a mere man, spiritual beyond most, or be in very deed the Divine Eternal Son become flesh? If a man only, He is still the great Exemplar and the Master-Teacher. If more than man He is but the manifestation of the Father, and by His life of love and purity has shown us God’s attitude toward all mankind and so leads us into a better understanding of God and our relationship to Him.
But this is not the truth of Holy Scripture concerning Him. His holy life- whether He be only human or divinely human-can never put away our sins or fit us to stand uncondemned before the eternal throne. He had to be both God and Man in order that He might make atonement for sin, meeting as Man-yet Man in all perfection-every claim that the throne of outraged Deity had against man. Touch the Person of Christ and you touch His work. If that work was not divinely perfect there remains no other sacrifice for sins and so we are left without a Savior.
But, blessed be God, He who came forth from the Father has glorified Him on the earth, and having finished the work given Him to do has gone back to that glory that He had with the Father before the world was. There He sits, the exalted Man who made purification for sins, on the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens, ever living to make intercession for those His grace has saved. Happy in this knowledge we may well sing, with chastened joy,
Head of the church! Thou sittest there,
Thy members all the blessings share-
Thy blessing, Lord, is ours:
Our life Thou art-Thy grace sustains,
Thy strength in us each vict’ry gains
O’er sin and Satan’s pow’rs.
May we prove our loyalty to Him, not only by confessing a true Christ with our lips, but by giving Him the supreme place in our lives!
Chapter 7 Christ the Antidote to Human Philosophy
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power, (vv. 8-10)
Scripture nowhere condemns the acquisition of knowledge. It is the wisdom of this world, not its knowledge, that is foolishness with God. Philosophy is but worldly wisdom. It is the effort of the human mind to solve the mystery of the universe. It is not an exact science, for the philosophers have never been able to come to any satisfactory conclusion as to either the “why” or the “wherefore” of things. “The Greeks seek after wisdom,” we are told, and it was they who led the way for all future generations in philosophical theorizing. Before a divine revelation came it was quite natural and proper that man should seek by wisdom to solve the riddles that nature was constantly propounding. But now that God has spoken this is no longer necessary, and it may become grave infidelity. From Plato to Kant, and from Kant to the last of the moderns, one system has overturned another, so that the history of philosophy is a story of contradictory, discarded hypotheses. This is not to say that the philosophers were or are dishonest men, but it is to say that many of them have failed to avail themselves of that which would unravel every knot and solve every problem, namely, the revelation of God in Christ as given in the Holy Scriptures.
Plato yearned for a divine Word-logos-which would come with authority and make everything plain. That Word is Christ of whom John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And again, “The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (author’s translation). The Word is no longer hidden. We do not need to search for it. “The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart:… that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Socrates pondering the, to him, unsolvable problems relating to possible future rewards and punishments, said, “It may be, Plato, that the Deity can forgive sins, but I do not see how.” No such perplexities need trouble any honest mind now, for what philosophy could not explain, the gospel has made clear, that gospel in which is revealed the righteousness of God for sinful men. Apart from this divine revelation the wisest philosopher of the twentieth century knows no more in regard to the origin and destiny of man than the Attic philosophers of so long ago.
Two great systems were still contending for the mastery over the minds of men in the Western world when Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians-Stoicism and Epicureanism. The one said: Live nobly and death cannot matter. Hold appetite in check. Become indifferent to changing conditions. Be not uplifted by good fortune nor cast down by adversity. The man is more than circumstances, the soul is greater than the universe. Epicureanism said: All is uncertain. We know not whence we came. We know not whither we go. We only know that after a brief life we disappear from this scene, and it is vain to deny ourselves any present joy in view of possible future ill. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” To many of the former class the Christian message appealed, and one has only to read 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 or Philippians 4:11-13 to see how readily Paul’s message would lay hold of an honest Stoic. With Epicureanism, Christianity had nothing in common. But while the Stoic might find in Christianity the fulfillment of his heart’s yearning, there was not in his philosophy anything the Christian needed, for everything that was best in that system he already had in Christ.
Besides these two great outstanding philosophical schools there were many lesser systems among both the Greeks and Romans, all of them seeking to draw away disciples to themselves. The Gnostics embodied parts of all the different schools of thought in their new system. From the weird guesses embodied in the Pythagorean fables down to the evolutionary theories of the present time, the church of God is still in conflict with these vagrant philosophies.
Against all such the Christian is warned. “Beware lest any man spoil you [i.e., lest any make a prey of you] through philosophy and vain deceit.” These may make a great show of learning, and their adherents may look down with contempt from their heights of fancied superiority upon people simple enough to believe the gospel and to accept the Holy Scriptures as the inspired Word of the living God. But with all their pretentiousness they are simply the traditions of man, the rudiments or elements of the world. The apostle thus expresses his contempt for mere reasoning in comparison with divine revelation. These systems that claim so much were after all but elementary. It was the ABC of the world offered to those who were in the school of Christ and had left the kindergarten of human tradition far behind. “Can a man by searching find out God?” Impossible. But God is already known in His Son.
It is most important that Christians should see this, particularly the young men who are called of God to be ministers of His Word. It is a sad commentary on conditions in Christendom that in the average theological seminary far more time is given to the study of philosophy than to searching the Scriptures. A minister of an orthodox church said recently, “I could have graduated with honors from my seminary without ever opening the English Bible.” Thank God^ this is not true of all such training schools, but it is true of perhaps the majority. The result is we have today thousands of professed ministers of Christ, many of them unconverted, and others who, though children of God, have been so stunted and hindered by their philosophical education that they are utterly unable to open up the Scriptures to others, for they are so ignorant of the Word themselves. Christianity owes no debt to Greek, Roman, Medieval, or Modern philosophy. It is like the Bible itself in this-
A glory gilds the sacred page;
Majestic, like the sun,
It sheds a light on every age,
It gives, but borrows none.
A man can be a well-furnished minister of Jesus Christ who has never heard the names of the great philosophers, whether pagan or Christian, and who is utterly ignorant of their systems and hypotheses, providing he will “study to show [himself] approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The truest culture, intellectual or spiritual, is that which is drawn from the constant study of the Bible. How often as one comes in contact with men of most gracious personality, gentlemanly appearance, high spirituality, and well-trained intellect he finds upon inquiry that they are like John Wesley, “men of one book,” and in some instances, hardly conversant with the literature of earth. And in saying this I do not mean to put a premium on ignorance, for as mentioned in the beginning of this address, the knowledge of this world is not under the ban.
The Christian may well avail himself of any legitimate means of becoming better acquainted with the great facts of history, the findings of science, and the beauties of general literature. But let him never put human philosophy in the place of divine revelation. If he studies it at all, and there is no reason why he should not do so, let him begin with this-God has spoken in His Son and in the Holy Scripture He has given us the last words upon every question that philosophy raises. Browning was right when he wrote:
I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ,
Accepted by the reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it,
And has so far advanced thee to be wise.
When the Savior revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman she found her every question answered as she gazed upon His face.
“In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” We have already seen in a previous lecture that this word pleroma, “fullness,” was a favorite term of the Gnostics. It represented to them the sum of the qualities of Deity, and with them Christ was but one of many stepping-stones or intermediaries leading up to the pleroma. But here we learn that not only are all the attributes of God seen in Christ, as Arius afterward thought and as Theistic philosophers everywhere admit, but the very essence of the nature of God in all its entirety dwells in Him.
All that God is, is fully told out in Christ. He could say, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” So that we may say without hesitation, if any ask as to the character of God, that God is exactly like Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, and in Christ all the fullness of Deity dwells in a body, so that when at last we come into the presence of the Father we shall find in Him one known and loved before, not a stranger still unknown and possibly unknowable. J. N. Darby was thinking of this when he wrote:
There no stranger-God shall meet thee!
Stranger thou in courts above:
He who to His rest shall greet thee,
Greets thee with a well known love.
“Confessedly great is the mystery of piety, He who hath been manifested in flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, proclaimed unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory” (1 Timothy 3:16). God is revealed, He is no longer hidden. All His glory shines in the face of Christ Jesus. This solves at once for me as a believer the mystery of the universe.
And that which seemed to me before
One wild, confused Babel,
Is now a fire-tongued Pentecost
Proclaiming Christ is able;
And all creation its evangel
Utters forth abroad
Into mine ears since once I know
My Saviour Christ is God.
In verse 10 we are told, “And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power.” The word complete is literally “filled full.” In Christ dwells all the pleroma of Deity, and we have our pleroma in Him. We do not need to go elsewhere for illumination or information. “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:16-18). This revelation floods our being with rapture, fills our cup of joy, and satisfies every demand of the intellect. We are filled full in Him. I would suggest that it is not the believers’ standing exactly that is in view here. We have that in Ephesians 1:6. There we are told we are “accepted in the beloved.” In that sense we may be said, of course, to be complete in Him, but Colossians 2:10 is rather our state. It is the state of those who have found every need met in Christ, who is the Head of all principality and power.
It has already been pointed out that “principalities” and “powers” are terms relating to different ranks of spiritual beings. In a pretended knowledge of the nature and office of these glorious intelligences, the Gnostics reveled and placed them high above Christ Himself who was, according to them, but one who introduced the initiate into the fellowship of this great serried host leading on up to the invisible God. But the truth is the very opposite, for all the principalities and powers (and these may be good or evil, fallen or unfallen) were created by Him and for Him in whom all the fullness dwells, and He is the Head of all angelic companies as well as human beings.
No place too high for Him is found,
No place too high in heaven.
God would have His people ever realize that He who stooped to the depths of shame and suffering of the cross for their salvation is as to the mystery of His wondrous Person, God over all, blessed forever.
It will be observed that verse 10 does not complete the sentence, which is carried right on in verses 11-12. But as what follows is intimately linked with the next subject for our consideration, I leave them now to take them up in the next address, only observing that it is immediately after the declaration of Christ’s Headship over all angels that we are told of the depths of His humiliation. For God would never separate the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. But He would have us remember that it was because of His transcendent character and His true Deity that He could undertake the work of purging our sins when He gave Himself a sacrifice on our behalf. He had to be who He was in order to do what He did.
The settlement of the sin question could never be effected by a created being. The issues were too great. Of all men it is written, “None of them can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him, for the redemption of the soul costs too much. Therefore, let it alone for ever.” This is a somewhat free translation, but authorized by the best Hebrew scholars. It emphasizes what is here brought before us. Low thoughts of Christ result from low thoughts of sin. When I realize the enormity of my iniquity I know that only the Daysman for whom Job yearned can save me from such a load of guilt. He, because He is God and Man, can “lay his hand upon us both,” and thus by making atonement for sin bring God and man together in holy, happy harmony.
…Can a mere man do this?
Yet Christ saith, this He lived and died to do.
Call Christ, then, the illimitable God,
And so we may conclude with this tremendous truth: God has no other answer to all the questionings of the mind of man as to spiritual verities than Christ, and no other is needed, for Christ is the answer to them all. He who refuses Christ refuses God’s last word to mankind. He has said everything He has to say in sending Him into the world as the Giver of life and the propitiation for our sins. To turn from Him is to refuse the living incarnation of the Truth and to shut oneself up to error and delusion.
Chapter 8 Christ the Antidote to Jewish Legality
In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ, (vv. 11-17)
This somewhat lengthy section, beginning (as previously mentioned) in the middle of a sentence, might be more easily expounded if divided into two parts, but it is so intimately linked together that I am taking it up as a whole. Philosophy, as we have observed, is the working of the human mind independently of divine revelation. Legality is the endeavor to use a divinely given code, to which may be added precepts of men, as a means either of salvation in the first instance or of growth in grace afterward. Neither of these conceptions is in accordance with Scripture. “By the works of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight.” This forever bars out legal works as a procuring cause of salvation. “Ye are not under law but under grace.” This, as effectually, forbids the thought that holiness of life for the Christian is found in subjecting himself to legal principles. “The strength of sin is the law,” we are told in 1 Corinthians 15:56. It is not, as multitudes have supposed, the strength of holiness or the power for righteousness. It is the indwelling Holy Spirit, who occupies us with Christ crucified, raised, and glorified, that is the dynamic of spirituality.
Gnosticism was as much indebted to Judaism, which it perverted to its own ends, and to a weird Jewish Kabalism, as it was to the vapid reasonings of Gentile philosophers and, as we shall see later, to Mithraic and Zoroastrian mysticism. Here the apostle specifically deals with Jewish legality, and shows how Christians have been forever delivered from the law and the legal principle in its entirety, but are now linked with the risen Christ. For the believer to go back to the law for his perfecting in holiness is, as he shows in the epistle to the Galatians, to fall from grace. That is, it is the virtual setting aside of the gospel of grace, forgetting that having begun in the Spirit we are not to be made perfect by the flesh.
There were those ever dogging the footsteps of the great apostle to the Gentiles who sought to pervert his converts by teaching them, “Except ye be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” While the council at Jerusalem gave forth no uncertain sound in opposition to this, it is evident that its decisions were by no means everywhere accepted. It was hard for converts from Judaism to realize their complete deliverance both from the law of Moses as a rule of life, and from the ceremonies and ritual of that law as a means of growth in grace. Here the question at issue is handled in a remarkable manner through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Having declared that we have our completeness in Christ, our exalted Head, he continues: “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body… of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” I omit the words “of the sins” as being without sufficient manuscript authority. It is not merely a question of sins here, but the flesh itself that is in view. Circumcision was the cutting off of the flesh physically, and it was given by God to picture the judgment of the carnal nature and its complete setting aside. This is what God has done in the cross of Christ. In His cutting off by death when He stood vicariously in our place, we see the end of the flesh as viewed from the divine standpoint. It is cut off, put to one side, as absolutely worthless. “The flesh,” we read, “profiteth nothing.” “It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Therefore God is making no attempt to improve it. Consequently, there is no place for merit so far as man is concerned. He has none, and, blessed be God, he needs none. All merit is in Another!
The same truth is set forth in Christian baptism. Personally, I have no sympathy with those who in our day would seek to do away altogether with water baptism on the plea that there is now, since the full truth of the church is revealed, only one baptism, and that the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 4:4-6 was just as true from Pentecost to Acts 28:0 as it has ever been since. Paul did not receive the revelation of the mystery after he went to prison. The rapture, which is part of that great mystery, is taught in his earliest epistle-1 Thessalonians. In his postscript to the Roman letter he tells how he has been making known the mystery throughout his ministry, “Made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.” To the Ephesian elders he said (as recorded in Acts 20:0) that he had “not shunned to declare unto [them] the whole counsel of God.” That counsel in its entirety had already been made known to him and was proclaimed among the Gentiles. The baptism of the Holy Spirit whereby believers were brought into the body of Christ took place on the day of Pentecost. It was thus that the body, the church, was formed.
There is no hint of any such supernatural work in a widespread manner after Paul’s imprisonment. The body had been formed for years, and each believer was added to it when he received the Spirit. The one baptism of Ephesians 4:5, in my judgment, cannot refer to this event because this is already mentioned in the previous verse. In verse 4 we read, “There is one body, and one Spirit,… [and] one hope of your calling.” This is the full revelation of the mystery, the body formed by the Spirit’s baptism, waiting for the coming of the Lord. In verse 5 we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” This is responsibility here on earth-Christ owned as Lord, the church called upon to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and water baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in recognition of our subjection to the one Lord. It is not a question of form, formula, or subjects. It is simply the broad fact declared, that Christianity knows only one baptism, and that, of course, is baptism unto the death of Jesus Christ. To speak of the Holy Spirit’s baptism as a burial with Christ unto death is nonsense. It is after my identification by faith in death, burial, and resurrection that the Holy Spirit baptizes me into the body.
Nor is this to say that persons who for various reasons, valid or otherwise, may not have been scripturally baptized are not in Christ. In drawing an illustration from what is scripturally correct one does not un-Christianize those who fall short either because of ignorance or willfulness. The argument of verse 12, as I see it, is this: the Christian confesses his identification with a rejected Christ in his baptism. He has owned that the man after the flesh deserved to die. He has died in Christ’s death. This, therefore, is the end of the responsible man before God. Necessarily then, it is the end of all self-effort, of every attempt to improve the flesh by subjecting it to ordinances, that is, regulations, whether divinely given as in the Old Testament or humanly devised as in so many unscriptural systems. God is not attempting to improve the old man, He has judged him as too evil for any improvement and has, therefore, set him to one side in death. Baptism is the recognition of this. It is burial unto death.
Some translators read, “Wherein also ye are risen with him,” but the preponderance of evidence is, I believe, in favor of the reading, “In whom also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God who hath raised him from the dead.” It is through faith in the risen Christ that we become the recipients of the new life and are, henceforth, accounted by God as those who, having gone down into death with Him, are now one with Him in resurrection. What place does legality have here? None whatsoever. To put the new man, the man in Christ, under rules and regulations is contrary to the entire principle of new creation.
This is further emphasized in verse 13. We who once were dead in our trespasses and as Gentiles in the uncircumcision of our flesh have now been made to live together with Him, God having forgiven us all trespasses. The word is the same in each case, and if translated “sins” in the first part of the verse should be “sins” in the last, otherwise “trespasses” in each instance. Moreover, the bond that was against us (“the handwriting,” a term which could only be properly used of the Ten Commandments, which we are distinctly told were the handwriting of God, embraced in ten ordinances, or divinely given rules) because of the sinfulness of our natures, making our disobedience to the law, when once it came to our knowledge, a foregone conclusion, and which therefore made it to us a ministration of death and condemnation, has now been taken out of the way and no longer hangs over us as an unfulfilled obligation. Christ nailed it to His cross.
What are we to understand by this expression, “Nailing it to his cross”? It may help us if we remember that it was customary under Roman law when criminals were executed by crucifixion, hanging, or impalement to write out a copy of the law they had broken, or to indicate the nature of their offense on a placard and nail it above the victim’s head that all might know how Rome executed vengeance upon those who violated her criminal code. Pilate wrote out the inscription to be placed over the head of Christ Jesus, and that in three languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, that all might know why the patient Sufferer from Galilee was being publicly executed. “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” As the people read this they understood that he was being crucified because He made Himself a king and was thus disloyal to Caesar.
But as God looked upon that cross His holy eye saw, as it were, another inscription altogether. Nailed upon the rood above the head of His blessed Son was the handwriting of ten ordinances given at Sinai. It was because this law had been broken in every point that Jesus poured out His blood, thus giving His life to redeem us from the curse of the law. And so all of our sins have been settled for. There the law, which we had so dishonored, has been magnified to the full in the satisfaction which He made to the divine justice. Thus Christ has become the “end of the law… to every one that believeth.” It is, of course, the Jewish believers Paul has in mind when he says “us,” for Gentiles were not under the law. But it is true now in principle for us all, to whom the knowledge of the law has come. Christ has, by His death, met every claim against us and canceled the bond we could not pay.
And now as a victorious leader He has come forth from the tomb, having made a prey of the evil principalities and powers who gloated over His apparent defeat when He was crucified through weakness, but who are now themselves defeated in His resurrection. He has ascended to heaven in a glorious triumph, having made a spectacle of them, openly triumphing over them in His cross.
His be the Victor’s name
Who fought the fight alone,
Triumphant saints no honor claim
His conquest was their own.
By weakness and defeat
He won the meed and crown,
Trod all our foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down.
Bless, bless the Conqueror slain,
Slain in His victory;
Who lived, who died, who lives again,
For thee, His church, for thee.
He took our place upon the cross and now we share in all the results of that work. We are one with Him in the new creation. The law and all its ritual was given to man in the flesh. Christians are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, and the law, as such, has nothing to say to the man in this new sphere beyond the reach of death. And so he concludes this marvelous section with a solemn admonition not to permit ourselves to be disturbed by any who would put us back under the law in any shape or form. “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days.” All these once had their place and he who would be an obedient child of the old covenant was called upon to observe the regulations regarding them scrupulously. All these, however, were but a shadow of things to come-things which have now come-“For the body is of Christ.”
In the Old Testament dispensation the light of God was shining upon Christ, and all the forms and ceremonies, including even the weekly Sabbaths, were but shadows cast by Him. Since He Himself has come and fulfilled all the redemptive types the believer has “everything in Jesus, and Jesus everything.” The very fact that He links the Sabbath with the other ceremonies shows clearly that the rule of life for the believer is not the ten words given at Sinai. While confessing this law to be holy, just, and good, the new creation man is not under it. He is, as Paul expresses it elsewhere, “under law to Christ,” or more properly “en-lawed to Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21). That is, his responsibility now is to walk in fellowship with the risen Christ, the Head of the body of which he is but a feeble member in whom dwells the Holy Spirit to be the power of the new life-manifested in subjection to the exalted Lord.
None need fear that this will make for a lower standard of piety than if one were under the law as a rule of life. It is a far higher standard. He whose one thought and desire is to manifest the risen life of Christ in all his ways will lead a holier life than he who is seeking to subject the flesh to rules and regulations, even though given from heaven in a dispensation now past. This comes out very strongly in the contrast between the Sabbath of the law and the Lord’s Day of the new creation. There is no commandment in the New Testament inculcating the sacredness of the first day of the week and demanding that Christians observe it scrupulously for holy purposes, yet the consensus of judgment of spiritually minded believers all through the centuries has led to the honoring of this day as a time of worship, meditation, and Christian testimony, which has given it a preeminence from a spiritual standpoint that the Jewish Sabbath never had.
Nor are we called upon to substitute a Christian ritual service for the Jewish ritual that we have discarded. We worship now by the Spirit of God whose delight it is to occupy the hearts of the redeemed with Him to whom they owe all their blessing. Thus all that is fleshly or carnal must give way, as but prefatory and evanescent, and that which is spiritual and abiding takes its place.
Chapter 9 Christ the Antidote to Oriental Mysticism
Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God. (vv. 18-19)
The natural man is distinctly religious. He does not need to be regenerated in order to feel after God. While it is true of all the unsaved that “there is none that seeketh after God” in the sense of seeking Him for His own sake, yet it has been well said that man is incurably religious. He must have something to worship. And so Satan has supplied him with cults of all descriptions to suit every type of mind.
One of the oldest systems that has come down even to our own day is that of Parseeism, based upon the Zend Avesta, supposed to have originated with the Persian hero and prophet, Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, as he is called in the Persian scriptures. This system teaches a mystical dualism. Ahura Mazda, or Ormuzd, is the infinite God, the Eternal Light. A lesser deity, Ahriman, the Prince of Darkness, sometimes looked upon as the creator of matter, is in constant conflict with the supreme deity. For twelve thousand years he is destined to wage war against the light and then his kingdom of darkness will be destroyed.
This system permeated various schools of thought, and in apostolic days had been widely accepted throughout the Greek and Roman world under the name Mithraism. Its votaries went everywhere proclaiming it as the great unifying world religion. It was a vast secret society, its initiates going from one mystical degree to another until they became adepts.
This satanic system trembled before the advancing hosts of Christianity, and finally sought to combine certain of its views with a part of the Christian revelation. As we have already seen, by an eclectic combination of Judaism, Greek philosophy, and Oriental mysticism, a new religion was formed, divided, however, into many different sects all alike unsound as to Christ, and all rejecting the inspiration of the Holy Scripture and substituting the vain speculations of the human mind. Yet imitations of almost every Christian doctrine were found in some one or other of these systems, but with certain accretions and contradictions that made them most dangerous.
Justin Martyr wrote some years after the apostle John passed from this scene, “Many spirits are abroad in the world and the credentials they display are splendid gifts of mind, eloquence and logic. Christian, look carefully, and ask for the print of the nails.” All these systems denied the true Christ of God who gave Himself for our sins upon the cross of shame. Some, like the Docetists, taught that the humanity of Jesus was simply an appearance, unreal and immaterial. The first epistle of John meets this in a very wonderful way.
Another sect, afterward headed up in Cerinthus, the great arch-heretic of the second century, called by Polycarp, “the firstborn of Satan,” taught that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, who died on the cross finally to separate himself from his own sin, but to whom the Christ (identified with the eternal Spirit) came at his baptism and illumination, but left him at the cross. This system seems to be particularly before the mind of the apostle Paul and he combats it in a masterly manner.
In all of these systems knowledge was given the preeminence over faith. The latter, which is confidence in revealed testimony, was repudiated by these theorists who assumed acquaintance with divine mysteries far beyond that of ordinary people and quite in advance of the biblical revelation. In their pride and folly they put a great number of spirit-beings, known as eons, between the soul and the unknowable God. These were all classified and named, as for instance, Reason, Wisdom, Power, and similar divine attributes. All this appeals to the natural man. It sounds like humility to say, “In myself I am so utterly ignorant and unworthy, it is not for me to go directly to God the Father or to Christ the Son. I will therefore avail myself of mediating angels and spirits who can present my cause in a more suitable manner than I can myself.” But it is really pride of intellect, and is the grossest unbelief, when God has declared that “there is… one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all to be testified in due time.” The lowly man will receive what He has made known in His Word.
Through the infinite mercy of God the early church triumphed largely over these satanic efforts to ally these dying cults and systems with Christianity. The Holy Spirit so clearly exposed that the church repudiated in one council after another these vile theories which would have made man his own Savior. But all down the centuries since there have been those who from time to time have taken up certain elements of these discarded schools of thought and sought to foist them upon Christians as though they were new and wonderful truths.
Romanism, with its doctrine of justification by works, purgatorial purification after death, and mediating saints and angels, has simply adopted much that the apostles refused, and palms it off on its credulous dupes as traditional Christianity. Imagine anyone praying to saints and angels, or adoring their images, with the solemn words before him of this eighteenth verse, “Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind.” How striking the contrast between the expressions “voluntary humility” and “vainly puffed up.”
I recall a friend of my youth, a very gracious and kindly man, who had been brought up from childhood in the Roman communion, with whom I often sought to reason out of the Scripture in order to show him the simplicity of the gospel of Christ. I remember when I asked why he prayed to the blessed Virgin Mary instead of directly to our Lord Jesus how with an air of the greatest humility he answered, “Oh, I am too sinful, too utterly unworthy, to go directly to our blessed Lord. He is infinitely above me, so pure and holy. His majesty is so great that I would not dare to prostrate myself before Him. But I know that no one has such influence with a son as his mother. I know, too, that a pure woman’s tender heart feels for sinners in their sorrows and failures, therefore I go to the blessed Virgin Mary and pour out my heart to her as to my own mother. I plead with her to speak for me to her holy, spotless Son, and I feel sure that she will influence Him as no other could.” This sounds like lowliness of mind and humility of spirit. It is really the most subtle kind of pride, for it involves proposing to be wiser than the revealed Word of God.
There, as we have seen, we read of only the “one mediator.” We learn that “the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world,” that “he bore our sins in his own body on the tree,” that His tender heart was filled with compassion for sinners here on earth. None were too vile or degraded but that they were invited to come to Him. The worst His enemies could say of Him was, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” And up there in yonder glory He is the same Jesus that He was when here on earth. We may rest assured that “we have not an High Priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but One who was tempted in all points like as we are, apart from sin” (author’s translation), and who is “able to succour those who are tempted.”
In His name we are bidden to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace for [seasonable] help.” Why turn aside to angels or saints, however devoted, or even to His blessed mother herself, when we can go directly to Him, assured of His deep interest in all that concerns us? He made intercession for transgressors on the cross; up there at God’s right hand He ever lives to make intercession for those who trust in Him. And so it is not an evidence of humility to say, I am too unworthy to go to Christ. It is only unbelief that would lead one thus to speak. He stands with arms outstretched, pleading with all who are in trouble or distress, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” What base ingratitude to turn from Him to any other! What amazing folly to think it necessary to have anyone speak for me to Him, when He stands there showing His wounded hands and saying, “Peace be unto you.” It is only pride and unbelief that would put Him off at a distance and bring angels in between.
This voluntary humility and worshiping of angels is in itself a complete denial of the new creation. It fails to recognize the wondrous truth that all believers are one body with their exalted Head. And so the apostle goes on to say, “And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.” “Holding the Head” is recognizing our link with Him, both in life and by the Spirit. He, the exalted One at God’s right hand, is the source of blessing for all His people in this scene. As of old the holy oil poured upon Aaron’s head “went down to the skirts of his garment” (Psalms 133:2), so now from the Head in heaven blessing in the Spirit’s power comes down to every member of His body on the earth.
It will be observed that the figure of a body is not merely that of a society or, as we would say, an organization. It is far more wonderful than that. It is a divine organism. Just as truly as all the members of a human body form the complete man, so do all believers in Christ, through the Spirit’s baptism, form the one new man. See in this connection 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 and Ephesians 2:15. If out of touch with the Head through failure to apprehend the intimacy of our relation to Him we put anything or any creature between ourselves and Him, we are not holding the Head. Satan knows, as one has well put it, that if he could get but the thickness of a sheet of paper between the Head and the body, all life would be destroyed. This, of course, can never be, but it is sadly possible so utterly to misunderstand our relation to the Head, and so fail to avail ourselves of the supplies of grace that might be ours did we but walk in fellowship with Him, that we would be out of communion with Him and therefore not consciously guided by Him.
We are told that from the Head all the body is nourished, and this through the ministry of joints and bands placed in the body for this very purpose by the Holy Spirit, so that all being knit together grows, or increases, with the increase of God. This is most blessedly expanded and elaborated in Ephesians 4:11-16. There we see how the risen Lord has given various gifts to His church for the perfecting of the saints with a view to the work of the ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ. Note specially verses 15-16 where we are told that He would have us “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” What a marvelous picture is this, and how strikingly does the one passage complement the other, and what responsibility does it put upon each one of us as members of Christ and members one of another!
There are no useless members in this body. Just as in the human body every joint, every ligament, every hidden part, has some service to perform for the good of the whole, even though as yet physicians and surgeons may not fully understand the need of every gland and organ. Though they may speak, as some do, of certain useless parts or discarded vestiges of earlier forms, yet we may be very sure that God in His infinite wisdom has a use for every member of the body. So in the mystical body of Christ let no believer think of himself as useless, as without any special gift, and therefore as having no part in the building up of the whole.
There is one term used in 1 Corinthians 12:28 that is most suggestive. It is the little word helps. Notice how it is sandwiched in between gifts of healings and governments. We may not all have spectacular gifts, but we can all be helps. The apostle writing to one church says, “Ye all being helpers together by prayer.” Here is a service the feeblest saint may perform for the benefit of the whole body.
If in spiritual health each member will function aright for the edification of all; but just as in the natural order diseased members become a menace to the entire body, so Christians out of fellowship with God, in a low or carnal state, are hindrances where they should be helpers. May each one of us be concerned about our responsibility here. May we be so occupied with our blessed, glorified Head, so careful to see that there is nothing interfering with our communion with Him, that He may be able to use us as joints or bands to minister nourishment and blessing to His people that all may be the more knit together because of our faithfulness in seeking to be helpers of one another’s faith, that thus the body may indeed increase with the increase of God.
And now, in closing, let me say a word to my younger brethren in Christ who seek to preach the gospel or to minister for the edification of believers. Bear in mind that if you would be true ministers of Jesus Christ you are to preach the Word and seek to occupy your hearers with the truth of God. Do not, I beg of you, give way to a very common vanity of preachers-speculation in regard to things not revealed. You are not sent forth to acquaint men with unsubstantiated theories nor to occupy their minds with speculative systems. God has entrusted you with His own holy Word, and He holds you responsible to give that out in all its clearness and simplicity. One “Thus saith the Lord” is worth a ton of human thoughts and ideas. Unreliable theological disquisitions and philosophical discussions never saved one poor sinner or comforted a discouraged saint. It is the truth of God, ministered in the power of the Holy Spirit, that alone can accomplish this. All else is but wasting precious time and is dishonoring to the Lord who sent you out to proclaim His truth.
This divinely given message ministered in the power of the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven will awaken the careless, quicken the dead in trespasses and sins, give peace to the anxious, comfort the distressed, and sanctify believers. To substitute the empty dreams of carnal or unregenerate men for this, is the utmost folly. Of old, God said, through Jeremiah, “The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:28).
To add to His Word is but to pervert it. Neither tradition, nor the voice of the church, nor yet fancied superior intellectual illumination can complete that which is already perfect-the revelation of the mind of God in His holy Word. “The Bible and the Bible alone” is the foundation of our faith.
Chapter 10 Christ the Antidote to Carnal Asceticism
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh, (vv. 20-23)
It is a great mistake and a fatal blunder into which the best of people readily fall to fail to distinguish the two very different senses in which the term “the flesh” is used in the Bible. Sometimes it refers solely to our bodies, “this mortal flesh,” but in the doctrinal parts of the New Testament it generally means the nature that fallen man has inherited from his first father. God created man, we are told, in His own image, “in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them;… and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2). Physically perfect, they were morally innocent and spiritually like unto God, who is a Spirit and the Father of spirits.
But in the very next verse we read, “Adam … begat a son in his own likeness, and after his image” (Genesis 5:3). This was after sin had defiled his nature and poisoned the springs of life, and all his children now bear this fallen image and likeness. Hence the need of regeneration, and so our Lord said to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” He is not merely saying that that which is born of the physical body is a physical body, but that personality which comes into the world through natural generation and birth is one with the fallen nature that Adam acquired when he fell. This is called distinctively, “the flesh,” “the body of the flesh,” “sin in the flesh,” “sin that dwelleth in us,” “the carnal mind which is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be”; and is the nature of the old man-the unregenerate natural man.
We are told that we all were by nature children of wrath, even as others. When converted, or regenerated, this carnal nature is not altered in the slightest degree. It is never improved nor sanctified, either in whole or in part. In the cross of Christ God has condemned it utterly as too vile for improvement. The believer has received a new nature which is spiritual, the nature of the new man. He is now responsible to walk in obedience to the Word of God, which appeals only to this new nature. The old and the new natures are in the believer and will be until the redemption of the body.
It is true that the flesh, or the old nature, acts through the members of the body, but the body itself is not evil. Every natural instinct or physical appetite, no matter how perfectly right and proper it may be, and used as God intended, may be perverted to selfish and dishonorable purposes. But we are called upon to mortify, or put to death, the deeds of the body and no longer to yield our members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, but to present the body with all its ransomed powers unto God to be used for His service under the controlling power of His Holy Spirit. Hence the Christian is called to a life of self-abnegation and so the apostle Paul could say, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.”
But by that he does not mean that he visits needless punishment upon his physical flesh in order to purify his spirit, but rather that he does not permit unlawful or inordinate physical appetites to dominate him, and so lead him into excesses which would bring dishonor upon the ministry committed to him and upon the name of the Lord whose servant he is. This subjection of the body will ever be necessary as long as we are in this scene of testing. So the apostle Peter tells us, “He that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.” It is not that we obtain deliverance from the power of sin by ascetic practices such as flagellation, fasting, or ignoring physical comfort, but rather by refusing obedience to carnal impulses, the gratification of which may give physical pleasure while they war against the soul.
And in this we may see the contrast between our Lord’s temptation and our own. Of Him we read that “he suffered being tempted.” Of us, that we cease from sin if we suffer in the flesh. In other words, to Him, the Holy One, temptation caused the keenest suffering. His holy nature shrank from the slightest contact with evil even in satanic suggestion. But with us, fallen as we are, the suggestion of evil may be seductively pleasing, and we must resolutely refuse the thought of sensual pleasure in order that we may walk in purity before God. “He was tempted in all things like as we are, apart from sin.” That is, He was never tempted by inward desire for sin. He could say, “The prince of this world cometh and hath nothing in me.” With us it is far otherwise. When temptation is presented from without we are sadly conscious of the fact that we have a traitor within who would open the door of the fortress to the enemy if he were not carefully watched. And right here is where purpose of heart is needed in order that we may cleave to the Lord and give no ground to the suggestions of the flesh or the promptings of the Adversary.
An Indian, in explaining the conflict of the two natures, said, “It seems to me as though two dogs are fighting within me: one is a black dog, and he is very savage and very bad. The other is a white dog, and he is very gentle and very good. But the black dog fights with him all the time.” “And which dog wins?” someone asked. Laconically the Indian replied, “Which ever one I say ‘sic him’ to.” And it was well put, for if the will is on the side of the evil, the flesh will triumph; but if the will is subdued by grace and subject to the Holy Spirit, the new nature will control.
It is for lack of understanding this important truth that many have supposed they could perfect themselves in holiness by imposing penances and suffering of various kinds upon the body. At a very early day such views came into the church. The Jewish Essenes and the Stoic philosophers had accustomed both Jews and Gentiles to the thought that the body in itself is evil and must be subdued if one would advance in holiness. These views were taken up by certain sects of Gnostics, while others went to the opposite extreme and taught that the spiritual alone was important, and that the body might be used in any way without polluting the soul.
But in these last four verses of our present chapter the apostle warns against the folly of seeking holiness through asceticism. He describes these practices as being part of that philosophy of which he has already spoken in verse 8, which he designated the rudiments or elements of the world. Challenging the believer, as a new man in Christ, who died with Him to his old place and condition in the world, he asks: “Wherefore if ye [died] with Christ from the [elements] of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,…after the commandments and doctrines of men?” I have purposely left out certain parenthetical expressions which we will look at in a moment.
The great thing now to see is that all these rules and regulations for the subduing of the body are according to the principles of the world. They all take for granted that God is still trying in some way to improve the flesh, and this we know is not His purpose. Through John the Baptist He said, “The axe is laid to the root of the tree.” Not only in modern times, but in those early days of Christianity that we are considering, men have laid the axe, or the pruning-knife, if you will, to the fruit of the tree as though the tree might be improved if the bad fruit were cut off. Get men to reform, to sign pledges, to put themselves under rules and regulations, to starve the body, to inflict physical suffering upon it, and surely its vile propensities will be at least annulled if not eliminated, and little by little men will become spiritual and godlike. The formula which thousands have taken up within the last few years:
Every day, in every way,
I am getting better and better,
expresses the mind of many. But no amount of self-control, no physical suffering whatsoever can change the carnal mind, called emphatically, “the flesh.”
Saint Jerome tells how, having lived a lecherous life in his youth, after he became a Christian he fled from all contact with the gross and vulgar world in which he had once sought to gratify every fleshly desire. He left Rome and wandered to Palestine, and there lived in a cave near Bethlehem where he sought to subdue his carnal nature by fasting almost to starvation. And then he tells us how disappointed he was when, exhausted and weary, he fell asleep and dreamed he was still rioting among the dissolute companions of his godless days. The flesh cannot be starved into subjection. It cannot be improved by subjecting it to ordinances whether human or divine. But as we walk in the Spirit, and are occupied thus with the risen Christ, we are delivered from the power of fleshly lusts that war against the soul.
In the parenthetical portion of verses 21-22 the apostle gives us a sample, if we may so say, of the carnal ordinances or doctrines of men to which he refers, “Touch not; taste not; handle not.” He is not saying, Do not touch, taste, or handle these ascetic regulations-that would be nonsense-but these are the human rules, through obedience to which the ascetic hoped to attain to a higher degree of spirituality. How often we have heard verse 21 quoted as though for the guidance of Christians today, exactly the opposite of that which the apostle intended. All such regulations are to perish with the using.
These things have, indeed, an appearance of wisdom in will worship and humility and neglecting of the body, or punishing the body by making it suffer. It is natural to suppose that such things would have a tendency to free one from carnal desires, but untold thousands of monks, hermits, and ascetics of all descriptions, have proved that they are useless against the indulgence of the flesh. One may shut himself up in a monastery in order to escape the world, only to find he has taken the world in with him. One may dwell in a cave in the desert in order to subdue the flesh, only to find that the more the body is weakened and neglected, the more powerful the flesh becomes.
Dr. A. T. Robertson translates the last part of verse 20: “Why, as though living in the world, do you dogmatize; such as, Touch not; taste not; handle not?” These rules may be elevated to the importance of dogmas, but they will never enable one to achieve the object he has in view.
You have heard of the man who, anxious to fit himself for the presence of God and awakened to a sense of the emptiness of a life of worldly pleasure, fled from the city to the desert and made his home in a cave in the rocks, there practicing the greatest austerities, and hoping through prayer and penance to reach the place where he would be acceptable to God. Hearing of another hermit who was reputed to be a very holy and devout man, he made a long, wearisome journey across the desert, supported only by his staff, in order to interview him and learn from him how he might find peace with God. In answer to his agonized questions the aged anchorite said to him, “Take that staff, that dry rod which is in your hand, plant it in the desert soil, water it daily, offering fervent prayers as you do so, and when it bursts into leaf and bloom you may know that you have made your peace with God.”
Rejoicing that at last he had what seemed like authoritative instruction in regard to this greatest of all ventures, he hastened back to his cell and planted his rod as he had been told to do. For long, weary days, weeks, and months, he faithfully watered the dry stick and prayed for the hour when the token of his acceptance would be manifest. At last one day, in utter despair and brokenness of spirit, weakened by fasting and sick with longing for the apparently unattainable, he exclaimed bitterly, “It is all no use. I am no better today than I was when I first came to the desert. The fact is, I am just like this dry stick myself. It needs life before there can be leaves and fruit, and I need life, for I am dead in my sins and cannot produce fruit for God.” And then it seemed as though a voice within said, “At last you have learned the lesson that the old hermit meant to teach you. It is because you are dead and have no strength or power in yourself that you must turn to Christ alone and find life and peace in Him.” And leaving his desert cave he went back to the city to find the Word of God and in its sacred pages learn the way of peace.
And let us remember it is as impossible to obtain holiness by ascetic practices as it is to buy salvation by physical suffering. We are saved in the first place, not through anything we undergo, but through that which our blessed Lord Jesus Christ underwent for us on Calvary’s cross, and, blessed be God, He who died for us upon that cross now lives for us at God’s right hand, and He is the power for holiness as well as for justification. By the Holy Spirit He dwells within us, and as we yield ourselves unto God as those who are alive from the dead, He is enabled to live out His wondrous life in us. Does your heart sometimes cry:
Tell me what to do to be pure
In the sight of all-seeing eyes;
Tell me is there no thorough cure,
No escape from the sins I despise?
Will my Saviour only pass by,
Only show how faulty I’ve been?
Will He not attend to my cry?
May I not this moment be clean?
Oh, believe me, dear, anxious, seeking Christian, you will find holiness in the same Christ in whom you found salvation. As you cease from self-occupation and look up in faith to Him you will be transformed into His own glorious image. You will become like Him as you gaze on His wonderful face. There is no other way by which the flesh may be subdued and your life become one of triumph over the power of sin. Asceticism is but a vain will-o’-the-wisp that, while it promises you victory, will plunge you into the morass of disappointment and defeat. But occupation with Christ risen at God’s right hand is the sure way to overcome the lusts of the flesh and to become like Him who has said, “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified through the truth.”
Of Him they said He was a glutton and a wine-bibber, because He came not as an ascetic but as a Man among men, entering with them into every sinless experience of human life. He has “left us an example that we should follow His steps.” He has come to sanctify every natural relationship, not to do violence to those affections and feelings which He Himself implanted in the hearts of mankind.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Colossians 2". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29