The Commandments of Men

Col. 2:20-22

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?

Keep in mind that the definition of legalism, in scriptural context, is to work one’s way to salvation. It simply cannot be done. The Frowning Four in the cartoon above are familiar to most of us. Perhaps we’ve been part of that fearsome foursome. Most of us have, I think, when we disapprove of what others are doing. The irony, of course, is that our criticism of others is usually self-righteous and therefore not pleasing to God.

Paul asks an interesting question here. Since we profess to have died with Christ from the rudiments (basic principles) of the world, then why do we live under ordinances (rules and regulations) that keep us chained to the world we claim to have forsaken?

“Well, yes, Linda! We agree with that! As Christians, we have liberty and we no longer have to worry about the Old Testament law. We can live as we please!”

What’s wrong with that last sentence in the previous paragraph? I’ll tell you :). “We can live as we please!” No, that’s not true. It is true that keeping all sorts of rules will not earn us our salvation, but because we profess to love and serve God, we are obliged to live in a way that honors Him and is not a stumbling block to anyone else.

The difficulty arises in our apparent need to make and obey rules that are man-made, believing that we are serving God by doing so. “Don’t touch this, don’t taste that, don’t handle the other.”

Legalistic religion is full of such Do nots. Such a religion is defined more but what we don’t than by what we do.

True Christianity is and should be a matter of positive actions rather than negative reactions.

But don’t we need to have negative reactions to some things? Yes. Sexual immorality, for instance, is still wrong, just as it was according to Old Testament law. We are not, however, called upon to punish it by stoning the transgressor to death. We are called upon to confront sin, to plead with the transgressor to repent, and to be restored to a right relationship with God and with His people. That process doesn’t always end well, so instead of lifting that transgressor to God in prayer, we stone him with words, frowns, gossip and cold shoulders. Even when a person must be removed from membership in a church, we should continue to pray, to show the love of God as best we can, and to remember that there, but for the grace of God, goes any one of us.

Still, true Christianity, according to Jesus, is recognized by the way we love one another (John 13:35), not by the way we scrutinize one another.

Too often, the things that are forbidden in this age of grace, are forbidden by the laws of man, and not the commandment of God. This subject has been debated from the beginning of the New Testament church, and probably will be debated until Jesus comes and puts an end to the debate.

If I have certain standards for myself that I believe are based in God’s Word, then I have an obligation to Him to live up to those standards. What I am NOT obligated to do is to impose them on everyone else.

I have seen, more than once, changes in a person’s life when he comes to Christ. “Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (II Cor. 5:17). This change comes about through the conviction of the Holy Spirit; through examples set by other believers, and by the power of the Word of God.

Free from the Law

Col. 2:16-17.

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.

Because of Jesus’ victory at Calvary, we don’t have to let anyone force us to observe the legalisms of Judaic law, or any other form of coercion and control.

Legalism, by the pure definition, is simply the ideology that surrounds religions that promote working one’s way to heaven. “Follow this rule; wear these clothes; do these rituals; don’t do this or that, and you will be rewarded with salvation.”

All of that is a lie. If it were true, then Jesus Christ’s death was useless. If we can earn heaven through our own merit, then His sacrifice was in vain.

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” Titus 3:5-7.

No man, or organization, or member of the clergy, is able to give us forgiveness of our sin and entry into heaven. It is the shed blood of Jesus Christ, His victory over sin and death and the grave, that make entrance into the presence of our holy God a reality.

What about the Old Testament law?

Verse 17 tells us that the law was “a shadow of things to come.” The church is not mentioned in the Old Testament. The system of sacrifices was a picture of what Jesus would do at the cross, completing God’s plan that blood must be shed for the remission of sin. Once Jesus came, we no longer needed the shadow, or picture, or representation of the remission of sins. He was the substance that gave us permanent forgiveness for the sin nature with which we are all born.

He is the One Who established the great mystery, the church, which is the body of Christ. Instead of being concerned with following every little piece of the Law, we can instead rejoice that He has fulfilled all the Law for us. The only thing we can do is to believe and accept that which He offered at Calvary.

The Offence of the Cross

Galatians 5:11-12. “And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution?  then is the offence of the cross ceased. I would they were even cut off which trouble you.”

“If I were to preach the circumcision, do you think I would be persecuted, as I am now? If I preached legalism, no one would be offended. But I can’t do that.  It wouldn’t be true to the calling which God has given me.”

And what does he mean by the offence (scandal) of the cross?

It was a disgrace to end one’s life by dying on a cross. It was a Roman punishment, designed to be as horribly painful, humiliating, and degrading as possible. The Roman philosopher Cicero said,  “The cross, it is so shameful it never ought to be mentioned in polite society.”

Yet the Son of God died on a cross. How shameful!  Surely this Jesus, a rabble rousing nobody from Nazareth, couldn’t possibly be the Messiah Who would deliver Israel.  His contemptible death on a cross proved He was nothing more than another crazed zealot who would become a distant memory very quickly.

Paul is saying to the Galatians that, if they embrace legalism, they are setting that cross aside, making it nothing. And that idea upsets him so much that his next words are “I wish they would cut themselves off that trouble you, because they pervert the gospel of Christ!”

Personal Application

Galatians 5:1. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

These next two chapters teach us what it is to live in the liberty of the Gospel of Grace. We’re not talking about political liberty here. We’re not talking about anyone’s rights or freedoms from a human point of view. We’re talking about being free from the bondage of legalism, which requires us to abide by a complicated set of rules if we want to have any hope of heaven.

Jesus is not about man-made systems and liturgies.  He’s not about religion. He’s about grace, and faith, and the freedom of knowing we have been redeemed through His death and resurrection. The sin question is settled.

So does that mean we can just let down all the standards and live however we please?

Don’t be silly.  You know very well that’s not what is being taught here.  This is Paul speaking, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He is not giving us permission to sin. He is telling us that we are no longer bound by sin, nor by the systems that keep us in bondage to fear and doubt.

I love this first verse of Chapter Five.

Stand fast:  We are never told to go chasing Satan, or attacking him in order to defeat him. What we are told to do is to STAND!  Stand on the Word, as Jesus did when Satan tempted Him in Matthew 4. Stand on the Gospel of Grace. Stand on the freedom  that faith affords. Stand.

The liberty wherewith Christ has made us free:  His obedience to the cross, to the will of the Father, and His submission to the Father and to our need, provides us the liberty of living free and joyfully in our salvation, never worrying that some little law we’ve neglected will send us to hell.  Free from sin and death; free from the lure and temptation of sin; free to live and love as we have been loved.

Entangled:  Sin tangles us up.  It wraps its links around us like a spider wraps up a fly in its sticky web, making us unable to move.  Sin will always take you farther than you expected; it will always do more damage than you ever dreamed. Choosing sin leads to a life of bondage, enslavement.

Don’t believe me?  Come sit with me in my office for a few days, and listen to broken- hearted men and women whose spouses are leaving them for an adulterous affair, or for drugs and alcohol, or just because they can. See the pain on their faces, hear it in their voices, and don’t even try to tell me that sin only hurts the sinner.  That’s a lie.

Talk to anyone who has chosen the path of sin, lost everything that was dear and precious, and has to repent in sorrow to try to rebuild all that has been lost.  Don’t get tangled up in sin. And don’t get tangled up in legalistic religious systems that steal the joy of your salvation from you.

Yoke of bondage: A yoke was used to lock oxen or other animals together.  The yoke is used to train them to walk in perfect step with each other. Once they are yoked together, they can go their separate ways only if the master opens the yoke and sets them free. Sin is a terrible yoke, and locks us into bondage. Legalism is a terrible yoke that locks us into bondage, as well.

The pure definition of legalism is not just keeping a set of rules.  It is doing so in order to earn one’s way to heaven.  I have personal standards that I believe are biblically based and biblically sound. They won’t, however, get me to heaven. My salvation is by grace, through faith, and nothing else at all.

Grace, the Fruitful Woman

Galatians 4:27. “For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not; for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.”

This passage is a direct quote from Isaiah 54:1.  It may seem strange to insert it here, but consider the context.

The previous chapter in Isaiah is chapter 53, where we have the fullest, most complete prophecy of the coming into the world of the Lord Jesus, His suffereing and death and resurrection, that is to be found anywhere in the Bible. Isaiah seems to see Christ on His cross: “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; the the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:5,6).. The final verse in Isaiah 53 says, “He bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

 And then, the very next word is “Sing!” We are to rejoice in the matchless grace that God showed us in Jesus Christ.  Rejoice because Jesus has died, the sin question is settled, and now God can let free grace flow unhindered to us poor sinners.

Grace, before Jesus, had been like a woman who was forsaken and alone, and longed to be the mother of children, but wept and mourned alone.

On the other hand, legalism  is typified by another woman who has thousands of children, people who profess to be saved by their own effort.  Legalism seems to be a fruitful, rejoicing mother, while grace is left to mourn.

But then Grace is set free, the Gospel goes out to the world, and the one who mourned becomes the mother of many more children than legalism has.

Heaven will be populated by the children of Grace, not the children of legalism. And there will be millions and millions who have partaken of the wonderful grace of Jesus!

Labour in Vain

Galatians 4:9-11. “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.”

To be known of God is an amazing concept. We hear of Him, we read of Him in His Word, and we feel we know Him. In truth, we know Him very little, and will spend all eternity learning of Him.

He, on the other hand, knows each one of us; knows our propensity for sin, and our need of a Savior.  In the song I Will Sing the Wondrous Story, we find the words “I was lost, but Jesus found me, Found the sheep that went astray; Threw His loving arms around me, Drew me back into His way.”

And once we have been known of God, how is it possible to leave that incredible place of blessing to return  to a legal system that is no longer necessary?  It’s kind of like going back to eating margarine after you’ve enjoyed the taste of butter!

To depend on feasts, forms, and ceremonies is no longer the way to please God. To love His Son, and to gladly receive the salvation offered by His death and resurrection, is  so much richer; it is free, and it creates freedom. It takes only belief, and true believers will not desire to go back to the rituals.

Paul says he is afraid of having wasted his time and work on them, because they are being so easily seduced back into keeping all the laws when it is no longer necessary to do so.  He fears that he has labored in vain.  He fears that their conversion was not genuine, their hearts not truly changed.

Patches and Wineskins

Matthew 9:16-17. “No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.”

I have four children. Three of them were boys. We went through lots and lots of jeans back in the day.  I used to save jeans that had become too worn to pass down. I would cut patches from them to put in the knees and backsides of jeans that were still in service. It didn’t take me long at all to understand that old fabric needed to be repaired with old fabric. A new-fabric patch would only pull at the hole and make it bigger because  the new patch would shrink with washing, Not a good fit.

I don’t have any experience with wine, so I had to look that one up. Why would new wine break old bottles? What I learned is that the old wineskins  get stretched to their limit during the fermenting process. Putting new wine into an old, brittle wineskin would result in an explosion.

What Jesus was describing here was a whole new order of things. The old garment is Judaism with its legal righteousness.  Because man had turned the Law into an instrument of self-righteousness by which one could gain heaven, it was to be put aside. A new garment, a better righteousness, was to be given  by Jehovah our Righteousness.  Right standing with God was to be gained not by following every letter of the Law, but by accepting the new garment of righteousness provided through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The tragedy is that man loves to believe he can be a part of his own salvation, and the new garment has become an old garment, patched with new fabric, tearing and being pulled out of true by the efforts of man to create yet another works-based path to God. How sad.

To mix law and grace together is to pour new wine into old wineskins.  When we do that, the old wineskins burst and we lose both the bottle and the new wine.

Ritualistic Christendom is also guilty of the new wine-old wineskin error.  It is neither Christian nor Jewish.  When we rely on ritual, legalistic modes of salvation, we have neither the Law nor grace. We are holding an outward form of godliness, but we deny the true power of God and His grace by diluting it with our own ideas of how salvation may be wrought.

My Own Musings: 

Another thought has just occured to me, another application of this principle.  All around the world today, including here in America, we are seeing a generation of  young pastors trying to pour “new wine” into the old church.  They believe the traditional church has outlived its usefulness, and needs a shot in the arm if it’s going to keep the young people.  But if you look, you will see that all this “new wine,” in the form of “new” ideas and modalities, has resulted in a lot of broken churches and broken people. Wouldn’t it be better for those who want to instill new life into the Church to go and build a new church for their new wine?  Then they can grow together, and there is not the loss and pain caused by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Understand that I am NOT saying that this is what this passage is teaching. It is only an application of my own, and you are perfectly free to disagree. Courteously.