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God’s Word for You

Colossians 2:20-21 Do not eat! Do not taste! Do not touch!

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, May 18, 2019

20 If with Christ you died to the basic principles of the world, why are you pestered by its rules as if you are still living in the world? 21 “Do not eat!” “Do not taste!” “Do not touch!”

Paul already mentioned the “basic principles of the world” in verse 8 of this chapter. There we saw that this is a reference to all of the false and worldly teachings, social, scientific, and religious, which are held by many people to be the elementary things, but which have no basis in the word of God. Just as Christ died and removed himself from the governing forces of the world by entering into his permanent and eternal state of exaltation, so also Christians are freed from the unchristian teachings of the world and the rules that are either sinfully or even piously thrust upon us. Paul’s example is “Do not eat!” “Do not taste!” “Do not touch!”

Translations have wrestled valiantly with Paul’s words, hapse, geuse, thiges (ἅψῃ, γεύσῃ, θίγῃς). All three are Greek subjunctives which can also be taken as imperatives or commands. But the first, hapse, and the third, thiges, both mean just about the same thing. Translations have used “Do not handle/taste/touch” (NIV, ESV), “Do not touch/taste/handle” (KJV, EHV), or “Do not pick up/eat/touch” (New Jerusalem Bible). The first term, hapse (from ἅπτω) can also be used in the sense of “touch food” (“eat,” as in Homer’s “Touch/take of the food and be glad,” Odyssey 4,60). For this reason I have suggested a list proceeding from the specific (“Do not eat!”) to the general “Do not touch!”) as a way of seeing the passage and making sense of two very similar terms.

“Why are you pestered by them?” Paul asks. The verb is purely passive; the Colossians were not necessarily submitting to these things, but they were being bothered by them, and there was a danger of many Christians bowing the knee to useless teachings. This is the kind of thing I sometimes used to run into in the Emergency Room in our local hospital. More than once I was called to the hospital after a child had died, and a nurse (I don’t remember whether it was the same nurse—perhaps it was) would be trying to console the family: “She’s an angel now—isn’t that right, Pastor?” Should I have bowed my knee to her false doctrine? The death of a loved one, especially the death of a child, is the most emotional moment in anyone’s life, and to be confronted with false doctrine in that moment is a particularly nasty assault of the devil. I learned to answer that nurse’s claim (“She’s an angel now”) with an encouragement that put the gospel of Jesus Christ front and center: “She’s better than an angel, because her body will rise from the dead. She is with Jesus, and you will see her again!” Those were parents being pestered with false teaching.

The basic principles that were pestering the Colossian Christians were coming from two different directions. One was an early form of Gnosticism which focused on the severe self-discipline of asceticism. Another was an extreme form of Judaism which rejected Christ. While we don’t have many details about the form of Gnosticism that was a local infestation, we can easily recognize the Pharisaic or Essene extremism, holding onto the Law of Moses cautioning against unclean foods. “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten” (Leviticus 11:47).

But Christ freed us from these things. We died to such rules in our baptism and we were washed into the family of God, no longer to be subjected to the laws even of Moses, because Christ kept them all in our place. We are free to consume any of the animals formerly held to be unclean, as Peter was shown in his vision on the rooftop in Joppa (Acts 10:8-16). This doesn’t only apply to food. Peter himself applied it this way: “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28). There is no one with whom we should not associate, just as there is no food we need to abstain from. Do not be pestered by petty rules from unbelievers, which may buzz around us like mosquitoes and fleas. Share the gospel.

This warning looks two ways. First, no one should be pestered by false teachings that certain things merit God’s grace in some way, or make satisfaction for sins. There is no greater or lesser service to God in eating or abstaining from certain foods or certain days. This is also true of ceremonies. Earlier this week I was with a man who was dying, and although I read half a dozen Psalms to him as well as particular chapters from the Gospels and from Paul’s epistles, and I used a certain benediction with him and other things, I would not insist that this is a ritual we should observe with every dying Christian. He is in heaven, whether I read Psalm 8 or 19 or 23, and he would be in heaven even if I hadn’t gotten to his bedside in time. In the same way, the Lord’s Supper is valid because of the word of God, not because of whether or not my shoes are shined to someone’s demanding expectations.

Second, we must be careful never to teach new ceremonies, new orders, new holy days, or new fasts, as if they are necessary or might be confused by some of our Christians. We praise people for their childlike faith, and we must never do anything to bruise that faith. “Learned men in the churches exacted these works as a service necessary to merit grace and sorely terrified the consciences of those who omitted any of them. From this opinion concerning traditions much harm has resulted in the church” (Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVI, 2-3).

Christians have struggled with the Laws of Moses and especially the dietary laws for many centuries. It would almost be better to allegorize them as the “Epistle of Barnabas” does than think that they still apply to us today: “What does ‘a split hoof’ mean?” the writer says, “That the righteous man both walks in this world and looks forward to eternal life” (Barnabas 10:11). But we do not need to allegorize, because we understand that Christ has fulfilled the law. Let Paul be our teacher: “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:24-25). So do not be pestered by someone else’s rules. Look to Christ. O taste and see that the Lord is good! (Psalm 34:8). Blessed are they who take refuge in him!

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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