The Gospel: The Answer to Legalism, Part 2

I want to talk this morning as we begin about something that we all experienced as children. It’s also something we’ve all learned to do with our kids or grandkids (if you have them). What is that something? That something is “the look”.
You know “the look.” As children we see "the look” and we learn to recognize it; it strikes fear in our hearts. As parents we learn how to strike fear in our own children’s hearts by using it ourselves. In fact, let’s do a little fun exercise. I’m going to count to three, and on three I want you guys to turn to the person beside you and give them “the look”. Ready? One, two, three, go!
Now when you’re growing up and you get the look from your parents, the effect is generally positive. It can be positive because “the look” communicates authority and displeasure. “The look” says “I disapprove, and I can punish you if you don’t stop.” Parents and grandparents, never underestimate the power of “the look”.
Now there are a couple of interesting things that happen here as you grow up and enter adulthood. One of the interesting things you find is that, as an adult, there are still some people in our lives who like to give us “the look”. These people aren’t usually our parents at this point. The look, as an adult, comes from others. In that case, the message now is not “I disapprove, and I have the right to disapprove and to punish you if you don’t stop.” The message is “I may not have the authority to punish you, but I still want you to know I disapprove.”
And another interesting about the look as an adult? You get “the look” for all kinds of trivial things that really don’t matter in the long run, things that don’t make an eternal difference. And probably the most painful thing about “the look” as an adult is that “the look” is often is accompanied by whisperings. “Did you see how her kids were dressed?” Or “You know, I was over at their house the other day and I could not believe how messy their floor was.” Most of us who’ve experienced this might actually prefer getting beaten with a switch to this.
Well, if you can relate to any of this, the sermon this morning is for you. Because what is happening when someone gives you the look for something that is not a moral issue, something that’s trivial, something that doesn’t really matter - what’s happening there is that you are being unfairly judged. This person giving you the look is taking a standard of their own making and then imposing that standard on you, and punishing you by giving you shaming looks or whispering about your imperfections behind your back. They’re saying, “I don’t approve of you. But if you want my approval, if you really want to be a good mature Christian, focus on improving about yourselves the things that I’ve brought to your attention, and then you’ll be a good Christian.
Our Father, through what Christ has done on the cross, has provided a way for us to be liberated from the unfair judgments of others. How has He done this? And how can we take hold of that freedom? And, more importantly, if catering to other people is not the way to be a mature Christian, if there’s another, more lasting, more satisfying source of spiritual life than mere conformity to other people’s opinions, what is it? The answer to these questions is the focus of our text this morning, and the focus of this sermon.
The gospel is the answer to legalism because it frees us from the demands of the law and judgments and expectations of others, and provides us with true spiritual life and strength in Christ.

#1: We are free from the judgments of others

Therefore no one is to aact as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day

We are free from the judgments of others.

Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.

This word “judge” - it’s a judicial term. It originally meant to dissect something, to divide something in half and then to select the better half [TDNTA6 p469]. Here it means to look carefully at a person’s behavior and scrutinize it, and then to form a judgment about it and then act accordingly. He’s saying, “Look, Colossians, these false teachers are watching you. They’re paying attention to things you do or don’t do, and things don’t really matter, they’re trivial, they’re of no spiritual or eternal significance, and yet that isn’t stopping them from judging you unworthy of grace and then they shun you, ignore you, whisper about you. What are we going to do about that? Well, they may or may not listen to me or to you when you try to correct them. You can’t control that. What you can control is you - how will you respond? Don’t let them discourage you with their judgments.”

18 Let no one keep adefrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, cinflated without cause by his fleshly mind,

Now down in verse 18, Paul repeats his instruction from verse 16, but using a different word. He frames it differently. In verse 16 he wrote “No one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” Here in verse 18, Paul writes, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize.” The picture here is of an umpire in a game saying, “You’re out!” Disqualified. Not eligible. [Summey, Colossians: A Commentary, New Testament Library, p153] Except here, the false teachers aren’t disqualifying them from playing a game of volleyball. They’re saying you’re disqualified from heaven; you’re disqualified from maturity in Christ; you’re not eligible to enter this secret club we have made up of super spiritual people. You’re out.
Okay, so what were the things the false teachers were so focused on that were so trivial? What were these trivial things they were trying to impose upon the Colossians believers and then punished them when they failed?

Type A: Law-focused legalists

On the one hand, you have law-focused legalists. Paul gives a couple of examples of what this law-focused legalism looks like here in verse 16: “Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” This is an extremely debated passage, by the way. Is Paul referring to the regulations of the OT law? Maybe. Or is he referring to pagan practices of avoiding all food and drink? Some of the pagan mystery religions would starve themselves in order to appease the gods so they would bless them. I think he’s talking about the OT law. The combination “festival, new moon, Sabbath” occurs together in many OT passages. These false teachers, these law-focused legalists were taking the law and imposing it on the Colossian believers. They may even have been going beyond the demands of the law and imposing those on the Colossians.
I learned something this past week about UPS. They’re insanely productive. We knew that. What I learned this week, though, is how they achieve such high productivity. They achieve it through micromanaging their employees every move. Literally, their every move. Package drivers have to carry the package under their left arm. That’s after the step out of the delivery truck with their right foot hitting the ground first. UPS even tells them how fast to walk (three feet per second). They tell them how many packages they’re supposed to pick up and deliver each day (an average of 400). They even have rules about how they’re supposed to hold their keys: the keys are to be carried with the teeth facing up, on the third finger. And if you aren’t productive, if you’re slow, a supervisor will come out with you for a few days; they’ve got their clipboards, making notes about what you’re doing wrong; They’ve got stopwatches to keep you on track.
And to make sure all of this works, there’s a team of 3,000 engineers who are constantly watching the numbers, evaluating the metrics, always looking for the these minute new practices they can implement that will save them a few milliseconds. When you have so many engineers and so many package drives, those tiny changes and the few milliseconds they save, you add it all together and it equates to a huge jump in productivity. [Craig Brian Larson, p378]
Now that’s a great business practice, and obviously it works. Many legalistic Christians are like this too. They take it upon themselves to monitor other Christians’ behavior and works and actions and facial expressions and clothing and children. They pride themselves on being perfect, and they just really want to help you along too. Problem is, this kind of pressure can crush a person.
There’s a true story told by Chuck Swindoll about a missionary family. Once they finished their missionary training, they went overseas to where they were going to be stationed. Now, missionaries face a lot of challenges and make a lot of sacrifices, going without things we take for granted - like peanut butter. Where this missionary couple was stationed, you could not get peanut butter. The local missionaries already there just did without. But this missionary couple did something different - their friends back in the States began to send them jars of peanut butter in packages that were shipped to them. So they’ve got their peanut butter - they can do PB&J, peanut butter toast, peanut butter crackers, peanut butter cookies - all that good staff. Happily ever after?
Not exactly. Remember that the other missionaries already there just went without peanut butter. It was something they sacrificed. And they prided themselves on their willingness to sacrifice peanut butter. It had become for them a mark of maturity, an indicator of your commitment, to forego peanut butter. Which is of course ridiculous, right? Is there anything morally wrong about consuming peanut butter? No. Is it unbiblical? No. Is it hurting their witness? Doubtful. But what it was doing was offending some families who had elevated abstaining from peanut butter to a key Christian practice, and then judged others for not complying with their own rule.
Classic example of law-focused legalists imposing their unbiblical standards on others.

Type B: Super-spiritual elitists

The other type of judgers in this passage Paul tells us about are the super-spiritual elitists. Have you ever met someone like this? This person is always telling you what God said to them. This person very often is talking about being led by the Holy Spirit. They’re always telling you about the things they’ve given up for Christ. None of these things are bad. God does speak to us. The Spirit does lead us. We are called to give sacrificially and lay our lives down for each other and for the gospel. The problem is not those things; the problem is when we have a need to tell everyone else all about these things in our lives, all the time. So what did the super spiritual elitists look like in Colossians? Verse 18 tells us:

Let no one keep adefrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, cinflated without cause by his fleshly mind,

This is another verse that’s highly debated. What does it mean to delight in self-abasement? What in the world is the worship of the angels? There are many different opinions on what all this means and I won’t get into that here. But I will give you what I think is the correct interpretation. Keep in mind this is just my interpretation, okay? Turn to the person beside you and say “it’s just his interpretation”. It’s going to sound weird to us and almost cult-like. It was weird and kind of cult-like.
So here we go, track with me for a minute. The false teachers believed, it seems, that we ought not worship God or Christ; we ought to worship the angels; that’s right, the angels. Now here’s why they said that. They said “Look, we’re sinful, we’re finite, we’re weak, we’re merely creatures. We can’t approach God on our own. That would be prideful for us to try to enter God’s presence, considering our sin and our weakness and our creatureliness. So, we’ve got it all figured out. What we do is we worship the angels, and the angels take our concerns to God on our behalf. Brilliant, right?
And then all the other things Paul mentioned in verse 18 fall into place. Let’s read it again, this time from the NIV.

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.

So the first thing is “false humility”. Where’s the false humility? The false humility is found when they say, “Oh, we’re too sinful and too lowly to come before God’s presence. We’d better just go to the angels and hopefully they’ll take our concerns to God.” That sounds like humility, doesn’t it? I’ve met some Catholics who say similar things. “I feel unworthy to approach God so I like to pray to the saints.” Here’s another different example of false humility: “I know God has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself.” I’ll let you ponder that and if you think you know how that’s false humility, come tell me after the service. Or how about this for false humility: “I’m not good enough to be saved.” Or “I’m not a good enough Christian to come to church.” Or “I need to get my life together before I can start serving and using my gifts in my church.”
Church, listen to me: it is not humility to refuse to do what God has invited and commanded you to do on the basis of your own evaluation of yourself. It’s the same with forgiving yourself. “God will forgive me, but I won’t forgive myself.” It’s like, “No, back up and say that again slowly and hear what you’re really saying. Are you more righteous than God? Are your standards higher than His?”
So the interesting thing is that what we think is humility might actually be arrogance. What they assume is humility is in reality pride of the worst sort! Which is why Paul calls them out for it in the second half of verse 18, on your screen:

18 Let no one keep adefrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, cinflated without cause by his fleshly mind,

False teachers demanded obedience to:
1. Trivial things rather than moral issues
2. Shadows rather than the substance
So I know this is kind of complex, so here’s the two things we’ve learned. Two things are clear: 1) these things they insisted on were trivial; food and drink and days and weeks and years aren’t going to get you into heaven. The Bible says, “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17 NASB). And 2) they were rituals and ceremonies that no longer have value because their purpose was foreshadow a greater reality. What was that greater reality? Look with me again at verses 16-17, but particularly verse 17:

16 Therefore no one is to aact as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ

He says these things are a shadow of the things to come. Shadows can be useful, right? They let you know when someone is coming. When our kids were really little and they would get out of bed, they were so good and creeping down the hall to the living room where we were sitting that the only way to know they were coming was to see their shadow. Thinking beyond just the shadow of a human person: shadows are the patches of objects with less light because they are temporarily coming between you and the sun. Shadows can provide shade, thinking beyond just the shadow of a human person. Think of the shadow of a tree or a porch or a house.
But how strange would it be if you preferred the shadow to the real thing? How strange would it be if you went out to California to see the big redwood trees that have the trunks that are several feet wide and more than 1,000 feet tall. You get there with your spouse or your friend. And your friend is standing up, looking at this massive tree. And they’re saying, “Wow, I mean, can you believe it? Who knew a tree could be this majestic and beautiful?” And then, when you don’t answer, they look over at you to see you down on the ground inspecting the shadow. Your friend says, “What are you doing? Don’t you want to look at these trees? They’re amazing. It’s why we came!”
Or even better, think of a road sign. When Shannon and I went out to Phoenix in February, some of you know that we took our rental car and drove up toward the Grand Canyon. Just south of Flagstaff, we came upon I-40 in Arizona. It was kind of cool to see a sign for the same interstate that runs through our state also running through Arizona so many miles away from home. Even cooler, the sign for I-40 said Los Angeles right and Albuquerque left. We’re used to seeing signs for I-40 in our area but the signs say Hickory or Asheville or Statesville. I’ve always wanted to go to Los Angeles. But if I were to stop the car and get out and walk up to that sign and hug it and inspect it and want to spend all day there because I want see Los Angeles, Shannon might commit me to an institution. Because the sign isn’t the thing; the shadow isn’t the thing; they just point to the thing. And we know there’s a problem when someone focuses on the symbol of something they want when the thing they want is right in front of them.
That’s what Paul is saying here. He’s saying these things the false teachers are focusing on — these things they’re trying to impose on you and then judging you for it when you refuse — these things like following rigorous regulations and rules about food and drink and meticulously observing the annual Jewish festivals and feasts and new moon celebrations — all of those things, they’re not the real thing. Christ is the real thing. All of those things were pointing to Him, and now that He’s come, they’ve lost their value. They’re focusing on the picture, they’re obsessing over the shadow, when the reality or the substance of what the picture shows is standing right in front of you. The things they’re judging you for are trivial. They aren’t moral issues. They are non-issues.
So that’s a very long first point; the second two will be very short. We do not have to submit to the judgments of others. But why?

#2: We are free from the judgment of others, because Christ satisfied the requirements of God’s law

Why do we not have to submit to the judgments of others? Because Christ has satisfied the requirements of God’s law. Look with me at verses 13-15:

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Church, who is the only person who really has the right to scrutinize our behavior? God. And our behavior, let’s not be afraid to admit it, has been bad. Our thoughts have been wicked. Our desires have been twisted. Our motives are out of line with God’s character. Our words have hurt God and others. And yet, what has God done for us because of the death of His Son?
What has God done for us in Christ?
Cancelled all charges against us
Forgiven our sin
Disarmed the powers and authorities
Verse 13 tells us He forgave all our sins, wiped them away, choosing never again to hold them against us, and giving us a clean slate. What does verse 14 say that God has done for us because of Christ? He has cancelled all charges against us because of our sin, and He has forgiven every moral debt incurred because of our sin. He has taken it away, Paul says, and nailed it to the cross. And then verse 15: what else has God done to deal with our sin? He has disarmed the powers and authorities - Satan, his demons - and has made a public mockery over them.
What does all this mean? It means the Judge of all the earth, who alone has the power and authority to judge you, rather than judge you, has actually chosen to cancel the record of every wrong you have committed or will commit. And not only that, he has disarmed Satan and his demons, the accuser of the brethren; he has shut his mouth so he can no longer accuse you of wrong. In other words, God destroyed the record of our sin, and shut the mouths of anyone who might try to bring up the record of your sin.
So when others give you “the look”, you can smile and go on with your day. Be kind to them. Recognize that the reason they’re judging you — the reason they can’t extend grace to you — is that they don’t know what grace is, they’ve never experienced it. But you do know what grace is. You’ve experienced the forgiveness of God. And that means you can extend it to them, too.
Here’s a lesson for us, too. Let’s turn the focus away from those who judge us and think now about how we judge others. Because not only do we find that people judge us; we also find that we judge people. You know it’s true. I do it, you do it. Not saying it’s ok, I’m just saying we should be honest with ourselves. Before you disapprove of someone, consider these questions:
Am I judgmental?
Is what this person is doing unbiblical?
Is what this person is doing wrong?
Will what this person is doing harm their witness?
Is it harmful to themselves or others?
Because here’s the thing - we can’t accept the world’s definition of what judgment is. Many today think that anytime any of us calls anyone out for their behavior that’s wrong, we’re judging. But that’s ridiculous. We have to have some way of calling what is wrong, wrong. We have to be able to say that murder is always wrong. Racism is always wrong. Bullying is always wrong. Taking advantage of people is always wrong. Any violation of God’s moral law is always wrong - everywhere, for everyone.
But if what the person is doing is not a moral or biblical issue, or if it’s not harming them or their witness, then here are some questions to ask:
If not, then why do I disapprove of this person?
Is it because I just don’t like what they’re doing?
Is it because I don’t like them?
Is it different from how I would do it?
If the answer to those questions is yes, then I have to accept the fact that I’m the problem. What they’re doing, though it may bother me, though I may not like it, though I would do it differently, in the end it is just a personal preference of mine that is making me feel this way, and I have no right to stand over them in judgment over trivial things. And trivial things don’t make a person more mature or help them grow in Christ. What does help us grow in Christ? Christ Himself does.

Because Christ is our Head, we can find true spiritual life in Him alone

and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.

Do you know why we get caught up in judging others? We’re all caught up in that. Do you know why? Paul tells us here that it because we’ve been cut off from the source of true life and joy. The church is the body of Christ; Jesus describes Himself as the Head.
So Christ is our head. What does that mean? Head sometimes means authority. But “head” in the NT also means source - the source of life, of nutrients. You can’t live the Christian life if you’re cut off from the source of that life, if you’re not clinging to Him and holding fast to Him. And if you’re
Well, we know it’s the same as with our bodies. We have some pretty cool body parts like toes, fingers, arms, legs, knees, elbows, legs, torso, all of them having muscles and tendons and joints and bones that work together and enable us to do all that we need to do. They work better in some of us than in others of us, and as we get older we tend to lose some of that. But if you lose your head, literally, none of those things are of any use. They’ll be lifeless. Nowadays we have medical technology that can breathe and pump blood for people indefinitely when there’s no brain activity, but there’s no machine that can animate the body and make it walk and talk and work. The head supplies all of that.
Well, Jesus is our Head. He supplies us with life. Jesus wants to share His life with us. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NASB). To give us life — it’s why He came, it’s why He died, and rose again. If we want to share in His life, we have to remain plugged in to the source. And here’s the thing - if you’re not holding fast to Christ, our head, our source, you’re going to wither up and die. Bitterness, judgmentalism, anger, resentment, sometimes burnout. That’s what happens. It’s more dangerous than we think. These things indicate a cleavage between us and Christ.
Church, do you want to root legalism out of your own life? Do you want to stop submitting to the arbitrary judgments of others? Do you want to stop judging others yourself? I’m sure you do. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Trying to manage your life and the lives of everyone around you. Jesus can handle this, because He is our head. He extends nourishment and life and joy and wholeness to everyone who will come to Him and hold fast to Him, never let Him go. How do you hold fast to the head? You do that by walking with Jesus. How do you walk with Jesus? You make Jesus a part of every aspect of your day and your life. You talk to Him because He’s always with you. You try to see things and events and other people through His eyes. You lean on Him to provide for you; you trust Him with the future that you can’t yet see.
And all the while, as you’re doing this, you’re increasingly seeing that Jesus’ love for you is so deep, His real affection for you is unflinching; His friendship with you is utterly satisfying. And then, having that, having Him in your life, you know what will happen? You will begin to release others from your expectations. You will set them free to be who they are in Christ. You’ll be less inclined to scrutinize others. You’ll feel more like loving them. And why is that? Because you are learning to receiving the grace and love that Jesus is extending to you. And the thing about grace and love is that once you receive it and truly experience it, you’ll find that you can’t help but give it out.

Conclusion and call for response

I don’t know about you, but I want that for myself. I want to be so plugged into the source, so tethered to Jesus, that anyone who comes into contact with me senses Jesus’ love for them through me. I want to be so full of joy over the fact that God has forgiven me and shown me grace, that the last thing I think to do is judge someone. I want to have reflexes of grace, not judgment.
But I have to tell you, church, that you cannot dig down deep into Jesus on your own. That’s not the way God designed it. Listen, we talk a lot about me and Jesus. Me and God. Listen, that’s essential. You must have personal intimacy with the Lord in a personal relationship. You definitely won’t grow with that. But you were never meant to walk with Jesus by yourself. At some point, and on a regular basis, “me and Jesus” must become “us and Jesus.” It has to be that way. You were meant to walk with Jesus in community, surrounded by other believers who hold you up, who encourage you, who maybe even challenge you every now and then, and there are those in our church community who need you to do that for them.
So let me say something right now that might be taken offensively but you just have to know that it’s not my intention. You cannot experience significant, sustained growth in Christ by only coming on Sunday mornings. Now I know that just by saying that I might have offended some of you. I hope you know by now that I love you. I mean, my family and I just have come to have such affection for you in Christ. And so I say this to you because of that affection, not in spite of it. It’s true. You won’t experience significant and sustained growth trying to walk with Jesus all on your own. You need others. You need a church. And honestly, you don’t really get deep into the Bible or deep into relationships with others or deep into serving just on Sunday morning.
I know some of you have life situations that prevent you from coming any other time. The Lord knows your situation and He understands. He doesn’t expect you to do the impossible. But for those of you who are able, without neglecting sick family members or jobs or other urgent priorities, why not start, this week, coming to one additional thing: Sunday evening Bible study, Wednesday evening Bible study, Sunday Morning Bible Study, Missions Night - all this is in our bulletin and on the website. Take the one-month challenge. One small step of faith beyond Sunday morning, for just one month. And see what God does with it.
The reality is that we will never break the judgmental spirit in ourselves - and we will never learn to free ourselves from the judgmental spirits of others - if we are not holding fast to Christ our Head.
So who is there this morning that you need to release from your unfair expectations? Who among us this morning needs to firmly reject the unfair expectations of others? Jesus is here with us this morning. He wants to free both groups - Jesus loves those who judge unfairly, and Jesus loves those who are unfairly judged. And He wants to set both free.
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