The Antidote for Man-Made Religion

Colossians 1:15-20 – “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together, And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things,whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Background & Context

The apostle Paul likely wrote this letter to the church at Colossae around 62 AD while he was imprisoned in Rome.

Ten years earlier,around 52 AD, a man named Epaphras had most likely traveled to Ephesus and was converted by the Gospel that Paul preached on his three year missionary journey, (Acts 19:10).

It was this man, Epaphras, that visited Paul while he was in prison in Rome, (Col. 1:7). He shared with him the state of the church at Colossae and a concern about a false teaching that was creeping in amongst the believers there.

Even though Paul had never been to Colossae, he felt a kinship with and responsibility for this church because of the shared faith in the Gospel of Christ that Epaphras had preached to them and they had received.

Problem– The young Colossian church was not mature enough to ward off false teaching that was gaining a foothold in their midst.

Solution– Paul wrote this letter to remind the Colossian Christians of the sufficiency of Christ and His atonement in hopes that it would mature them and give them proper footing to repel the false teaching.


Main point: “A high view of Christ’s nature and atoning work will protect us from man-made religion.”

We’ll take a look at the specifics of this false man-made religion later, but it would do us good take a look back into Biblical history to see that the Colossians were not alone in this propensity to fall victim to wanting a religion that they could see, touch, manipulate and control.

The ancient Israelites provide us with a couple of memorable examples of this…

Exodus 32- around 1400-1200 BC The people of Israel ask Aaron for an idol and he gives them a golden calf. This is the story when Moses had been up on Mt. Sinai receiving God’s law and the people became impatient. They demanded that Aaron give them a god or gods that they could follow. Aaron caved to their demands, took their gold and fashioned it into a golden calf. The people were elated and partied as they worshipped the calf. They had a few good days with the calf, then three thousand of them ended up dead by the swords of the Levites.

1 Samuel 8- a couple hundred years later around 1050 BC The people Israel ask the prophet Samuel for a physical king to rule over them and the Lord allows Samuel to give them what they want and anoint Saul as king. The people had grown tired of being ruled directly by God through the judges and prophets. They wanted a physical king like all the nations surrounding them. They got what they wanted and we all know the stories of the pain and consequences Israel experienced at the hand of evil kings that turned their backs on God and His law.

The young Colossian church that Paul was writing to here was not alone in this weakness. This malady had plagued humankind from the beginning when sin entered into creation. Even now, in our sinful flesh we all secretly long to be gods and if we can’t be gods, we’d like to worship one other than the living and true God that requires justice for our sin.

In our flesh we will always tend back towards wanting a controllable religion. We want to be able touch it, manipulate it, see it and know that by our effort we can either be gods or be made right with God. This is the great lie. The great deceitfulness of sin that allows us to believe that we don’t actually need God to do anything on our behalf. We say,

“We’ve got this God. We can do it. Just one more try, just one more golden calf, just one more great leader, just one more bit of effort on our part to be made right and I think we’ll get it this time!”

But isn’t it interesting that the solution God provided for us was physical, touchable and knowable?

The Gospels of Matthew & Luke- proclaim the birth of the Messiah around 5 BC, a thousand years after Saul was anointed king. The God of the universe became a man and existed fully as God and man at the same time. He came to die and do something for us that we could never accomplish on our own.

God’s answer to our longing for a religion to be touchable, seeable, & knowable, was exactly that. He became one of us. He entered into time and space in a manger in Bethlehem around 5 BC.

Colossians 1:15 says…”He is the image of the invisible God…”

Let’s not move past this too quickly… The invisible God became visible!

Consider for a moment a bit of science to help illustrate this point.

(Powerpoint slides of visible light range and audible frequency range)

The human eye can only see a very narrow band of electromagnetic radiation. Everything on either side of this narrow band of wavelengths is beyond the ability of our eyes to see without the aid of electronics.

The same goes for our ability to hear. We can only hear within a certain range of frequencies, outside of which we are blind, or in this case, deaf to.

Our ability to operate effectively as humans is also restricted in the area of temperature. Our planet’s surface roughly never gets above 150 degrees fahrenheit or below -150 degrees fahrenheit in it’s most extreme spots. And the human body, of course, does well to stay right around 98.6 or it starts having trouble. In comparison, the surface of the sun hovers around 5,700 degrees fahrenheit and it’s core is estimated to be about 27 million degrees.

God created electromagnetic radiation, He created frequencies, He created temperature. The whole spectrum. He created it all and holds it all together.

God could have entered into space and time as a physical being at infrared radiation levels, with a very low frequency and at 27 million degrees F of temperature. He could have, but we wouldn’t have been able to see Him, hear Him or feel Him because He would have melted us. Literally.

But what did He do instead?

The creator and sustainer of all things entered into creation on the tiny edge of a proverbial razor where we exist and have our being, where we can see, hear and feel within a narrow band of physical realities. He emptied Himself of His right to express His 27 million degreeness to meet us where we were and to do what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

Which leads us back to Paul’s letter to the Colossians…

As I read and reread the book of Colossians, 1:15-20 stood out to me in a way it never had before. I asked the question,

Why did Paul put this ‘high christological’ hymn in a letter to a church that was doing fairly well and only beginning to struggle with some false teaching?

It seemed a bit out of place and odd that Paul would launch into such high and lofty language that was different from the tone of the rest of the letter.

They had a problem and Paul had a solution.

We find out later in the letter that they were slipping back into the age old sin of trusting in man-made religion and Paul had a solution. THE solution. 1:15-20 was an address shouted from a rooftop that said,

“Look to Christ! Look long and hard at who He is and what He did. Sing a song about it, memorize it and never forget that Christ is the only game in town. The only way by which we are saved. The only thing that keeps us in right standing before God. The only thing. There is no other!”

Ok, so what was the false teaching? What got Paul all fired up to deliver Colossians 1:15-20 to them? I think it will mean much more to us if we examine what it was delivered in reaction to. Let’s take a look at the three main sections of Colossians that address the false teaching:

1. It is introduced in 2:4 when Paul says,

“I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.”

2. He expounds on that in 2:8 when he says,

“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

3. It is addressed again in 2:16-19 where we see a fuller picture of it and learn that it may have something to do with at least one influential individual,

“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head,from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations–Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

What we find sprinkled throughout these are four main themes:

  1. Jewish religion and traditions
  2. Harsh treatment of the body as a means towards higher spiritual experience
  3. Worship of angels and spirits
  4. Philosophy and plausible arguments

Rather than diving into each of these in detail, I want to ask two questions that will move us towards application of this scripture in the here and now.

1-Why were they struggling with these particular things? Why not a golden calf or the desire to anoint a king like we saw in the old testament examples?

2-How does this apply to us today?

1) Colossians 2:23 answers part of the question of why they were getting duped by these things, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom…”

This stuff made some sense. It fit with what mature and respected people were doing and saying at the time. It fell in line with the respected Jewish faith, from which Christianity had emerged, and had elements of truth such as visions and angels, all things that were found in the scriptures.

The golden calf account in Exodus 32 and the account of the forced anointing of King Saul in 1 Samuel 8 give us the other answer-

  • Namely that humans are creatures of familiarity and of wanting to identify themselves with those they are surrounded by.
  • The Israelites called for an idol to be fashioned by Aaron because they had seen and experienced their pagan captors do it in Egypt.
  • The Israelites later called for a physical king to lead them because they wanted to be like their neighboring nations.

Who were the Colossians surrounded by and coming into contact with? Jewish false teachers and modern pagan thought.

They were no different than the early Israelites. They just wanted to fit in. They also shared the same indwelling sin that always wants to bring us back to man-made religion.

2) You may be sitting there thinking,

“How does any of this apply to us? I’d never fall for any of that. My theology is much too sound.”

We need to be careful if we think we are above this kind of temptation. We may not be so different from the Colossians. If we really examine ourselves in light of this passage, we may just find some things that the apostle Paul would have written to us about.

One tendency that is easy for modern reformed churches like ours is fall into is too heavy of an emphasis on having correct doctrine at the expense of a living relationship with Jesus and practical obedience to all that is so near and dear to the heart of God.

We can tend to have the form of godliness, but lack its power.

Now correct doctrine is good, but even good doctrine can easily become an idol if we disconnect it from a loving relationship with Christ and obedience.

If we live our Christian lives only in our heads, giving mental ascent to doctrinal truths, but lacking in love and obedience we are in danger of the same type of idol worship that built a golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Another ever present temptation that surrounds us in our current culture is materialism and the love of things.

Like no other society in history, we have been bombarded with wealth and the temptations to spend it on worthless stuff. We live in a culture that values material possessions. Our entire economy is based off of consumer spending and consumer borrowing more to spend more. We may not like to admit it, but we do tend to resemble the world around us much more than we’d like to think.

In this environment of reliance on doctrine alone and material possessions, if we’re not careful, church can be quickly reduced to showing up, looking the right way, saying the right things, but never really getting much below the surface. It is more than a little conceivable that these two idols could very much be in our midst here at Grace.

I really want to challenge us as a church to take a long hard look at ourselves to test if we have been fostering the worship of these idols:

  • Do we share the gospel on a regular basis with those we know are walking in darkness?
  • Do we long and pray for the salvation of those we are in contact with that are not saved?
  • Do we clothe the poor? Feed the hungry? Care for widows and orphans?
  • Do we visit those in prison and pray for the persecuted church around the world?
  • Do we give financially more to the church and ministries that we do to our 1st world standard of living extras like: the best smart phones, tablets, and cutting edge data plans, new and extra vehicles, big and trendy houses, more toys, eating out, unnecessarily new and up to date clothes, vacations, hobbies and the like?
  • Do we agonize over whether to go on the mission field ourselves or send others with prayer support and finances?
  • Do we experience the power of the holy spirit in our prayer life and in our worship gatherings?
  • Do we see ourselves and others around us in the church being set free from the bondages of sin and growing in holiness?
  • Do we eagerly seek to be discipled by someone else in the church and in turn seek to disciple others?

If you answered no to more of these than you’d like to admit, there may be a problem. You and we might have a man-made religion problem and be in a very similar boat as the Colossian church was.

The good news is that the answer that Paul gave to them is the same answer that is for us today–namely “A high view of Christ’s nature and atoning work will protect us from man-made religion.”

(Read Colossians 1:15-20 again)

Jesus is alive. He is physical. His atoning sacrifice was sufficient to cover all our sin debt and make us beloved children of God if we repent of our sin and put our faith in Him.

Rely not upon doctrine alone, but upon the living one who the doctrine points to.

Rely not upon the satisfaction that comes from wealth and things, but upon the one who created all things.

Look upon Him in His word. Pour out your heart to Him in prayer. Fellowship with Him as you fellowship with other believers. Join yourself to Him as you join yourself to a local church. Love others sacrificially and point them to Christ.

As we fix our eyes upon this Jesus who is the image of the invisible God, our idols will be smashed, we will mature and we will find all we need for to live spiritually alive in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul has the last word for us here from Colossians 3:1-3

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”