The Disciplined Life (Colossians 2:20-3:3)
When we read the first three verses of Colossians 3, we automatically think that Paul is speaking against worldliness. He urges us to “set our affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” To most preachers, that is an argument against materialism. And to be sure, we can make a lawful application to materialistic worldliness here. But that is not Paul’s primary point. In fact, Paul’s point is just the opposite. Far from repudiating all the pleasures that this life can afford, Paul instead repudiates those who would deny themselves the lawful pleasures that this life can afford. In other words, Paul exhorts against a different kind of worldliness here.
You might notice the phrase that begins chapter three: “If ye then be risen with Christ…” The Greek words are ei oun — “if therefore.” Paul connects this statement to the point he made at the end of chapter 2. There, Paul gave three warnings to the believers at Colosse: beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, and etc., and let no man beguile you of your reward. The false teachers, including Gnostic false teachers, wanted to strip them of their liberty in Christ. Paul urges these believers to resist the Gnostic chains. And he does this on good ground… you are dead in Christ from the rudiments of the world. If you are dead from the rudiments of the world (and you are), then why would you act like you are living under these rudiments, and in particular, why are you subject to ordinances (the Greek word is the present passive indicative form of dogmatizo) (touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using;)? All of these ordinances are after the commandments and doctrines of men. Earlier, Paul warned the Colossians to beware of these rudiments of the world, these traditions of men (2:8). Now he shows them why.
These pseudo-standards, these acts of voluntary humility, all of them have a show of wisdom. As Scofield pointed out, they give you a reputation for superior sanctification. The word for “shew” in verse 23 comes from the Greek word logon. I found this interesting. The word logos is often translated “word,” and of course, we recognize that this word is often used for Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The Greeks used logos in a variety of ways. Our word “logic” is derived from logos, and the Greeks used logos to refer to “reason” in argumentation. In rhetoric the three artistic modes of persuasion are ethos or ethical proofs (proofs that rely on the reputation of the speaker); pathos or pathetic proofs (proofs that rely on the emotions of the audience); and logos or logical proofs (proofs that rely on argumentation). But the Greek idea of logos runs much deeper than this use. To the Greek, logos was a person’s identity, his reputation, his name in the community. In Colossians 2:23, Paul is saying that your being subject to these ordinances gives you a name, a reputation for wisdom. And this reputation for wisdom is found in three areas: in will worship, in humility, and in neglecting of the body. Will worship has to do with self-imposed and self-invented service. The humility is of the sinful kind described previously — it is fake, pharisaical humility that is all put on, that is all feather and plumage. “Neglecting of the body” speaks of the practice of ascetic discipline, “hard treatment of the body.” In other words, a very rigid form of self-discipline and self-denial. And Paul says that while these three things give one the reputation for wisdom, they are of no value — “not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.” They do not serve to remove the lusts of our flesh, nor do they ensure greater victory.
So, Paul has a low view of the disciplined life, or at least of the kind of disciplined life being promoted to the Colossians. “Since you are risen with Christ,” he says, “seek those things which are above… Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” And he gives a good reason. “You are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”
Does Paul find no value in a disciplined life? Didn’t Paul say that he kept under his body and brought it into subjection so that he would not be a castaway? Did he not urge us to be temperate in all things (I Corinthians 9:25)? Did he not urge us to mortify the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13)? Did he not say, “I die daily” (I Corinthians 15:31)? What are we to think of this argument?
Paul opposes the kind of ascetic lifestyle, the kind of self-discipline promoted among the Colossians. Not that he opposed the disciplined life. But that he opposed the disciplined life for the sake of reputation, for the sake of impression, for the sake of discipline. When Paul exhorted the believers in Colosse to set their affections on things above, not on things on the earth, this is what he was speaking of. This will worship, this humility, this neglecting of the body was nothing more than seeking those things which are beneath, and setting affection on things on the earth.
Paul instructs these believers that there is no need for your neglecting of the body in that sense, for “ye are dead.” Before you were risen with Christ, you were dead to the things of God, to spiritual things. Now, you are risen with Christ, and therefore you are dead. You are dead to carnal things, including carnal exertions that can be summarized by the wonderful phrase in chapter 2, verse 21: “touch not, taste not, handle not.” Paul asks the question directly in verse 20 of chapter 2: “why, as though living the world, are ye subject to ordinances?” He repeats it as an instruction in the first three verses of chapter 3.
Every January, we have a time-honored tradition of making “New Year’s Resolutions.” Every February, we have another time-honored tradition of breaking “New Year’s Resolutions.” Perhaps some perspective would be helpful. When we set our resolutions in order to make ourselves better humans, better people, or to ensure better success in our earthly pursuits, we have set our affection on things on the earth. It is no wonder that we fail in this. Only in cases of extreme self-centeredness do men achieve ultra-discipline, and success through it. We must avoid this sort of earthly pursuit. Self-discipline does not make you a better man. In some cases, self-discipline is worse than no discipline, because it can remove a man’s need for and reliance upon the Lord.
Rather, we must seek Christ, because our life is hid with Christ in God. We must not seek Christ in an earthly way, but we must seek Christ where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Part of this seeking those things which are above involves mortifying our members which are upon the earth (Colossians 3:5). In this context, Paul speaks often of self-discipline. But self-discipline for the sake of recognition and admiration and success in this life is worldly. Perhaps not a materialistic kind of worldliness. But it is very worldly nonetheless (I John 2:16).