Last week Matthew Perry (who played Chandler Bing in the hugely popular TV series Friends) sadly died. He has been very open about the struggles he faced in life leading to alcohol and drug addiction. In an obituary in Premier Christianity, Greg Downes wrote:
In his autobiography he (Matthew) recalls how, at his lowest point, he prayed to God in desperation: “God, please help me, show me that you are here.” Having prayed, Perry experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and, in that moment, it caused him to sob uncontrollably. “I wasn’t crying because I was sad — I was crying because for the first time in my life, I felt OK,” he commented. “I felt safe, taken care of.”Perry went on to explain how he’d spent years struggling with faith but, in that moment, all the pain and hurt he’d so desperately been trying to escape disappeared. “I had been in the presence of God. I was certain of it” he said….His conclusion of this divine encounter was this: “He saved me that day, and for all days, no matter what. He had turned me into a seeker, not only of sobriety, and truth, but also of Him.”
Perhaps his openness about his struggles reminds you of your own? Can I commend to you Celebrate Recovery which we run here? There is no easy fix, but you’ll be pointed to help and hope in Jesus. The Celebrate Recovery Celebration Evening that we are running on Monday 13th November is a great opportunity to find out more and hear testimonies of the difference Jesus has made to those who had also reached a point of desperation and turned to him for help.
Matthew Perry was much loved and will be missed. The series Friends was to many something of a comfort blanket. Perhaps you too are a fan. A long running mystery to both the characters and the audience was Chandler's job. Perhaps you remember the episode where Monica and Rachel lose their apartment because they cannot remember what his job was. Chandler's occupation was something in the realm of "statistical analysis and data reconfiguration", a vague and unexciting job that Chandler didn’t seem particularly passionate about. He got a job because he had to, and he failed to get a better one. But then, very late on in the show’s run, he surprisingly quits his job (by now he’s the vice president of his company) to pursue a career in a completely different area: advertising. This was his dream job, and he was willing to give up all he had and start over as an unpaid intern.
So, what has that got to do with Colossians 2.16-23? The apostle Paul invites us to examine our lives in the light of the truth that, through faith, we have died with Christ and now have a new life in Christ. He wants us to see that this new life in Christ is far better than every other alternative so that we do not shift from the hope of the gospel (Colossians 2.23). Colossians 1.13-14:
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
So why would we persist in living (or go back to living) as if we were still part of the kingdom of darkness when we have died with Christ, and now have a new life with him as citizens of the Kingdom of forgiveness in Jesus? That’s a far more significant shift than Chandler’s career change, but that is a small picture of what it’s like to move from one life to a new and much better one. It makes no sense to go backwards. But it also takes adjusting, and at first feels like going from being VP to an intern. Here’s another example: We heard last week that Pete Alston and Fi Jamieson from our staff team are prayerfully considering a move to serving God in Japan. When you move to a new country, you live in a new context and need to embrace it. But old habits die hard! So, they will have access to some of the finest green teas in the world, but perhaps they’ll take with them their favourite box of British breakfast tea, which they will sip while surrounded by matcha enthusiasts. Or maybe they will begin every conversation with their new Japanese friends by discussing the weather – talking about rain, drizzle, and overcast skies as if they’re still in Newcastle. And Japan is famous for its unique umbrella etiquette. But imagine if Pete insists on using his trusty British golfing umbrella, which is about three times the size of the Japanese ones. He becomes a walking hazard on rainy days, bumping into people and signs. Colossians 2.20:
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.
Or here is how the New Living Translation puts it:
You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world.
Since we died with Christ, our life is now to be lived in an entirely new context, Paul wants us to see how foolish it is to denying this basic reality. Why, he asks, would you go on living as if you were still alive in the world, when you have now died with Christ and risen to new life in him? Did you die with Christ or didn't you? This passage looks at three different aspects that Paul says are part of our old way of living and we’ll look at them now. They need to be left behind. But they are old habits that die hard!
1. Depending on Rule-keeping (Colossians 2.16-17)
We see that in Colossians 2.16-17, where Paul addresses the issue of thinking that rule keeping making me more acceptable to God:
Therefore let no one pass judgement 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.
He wanted them watch out for being spiritually judged by those whose framework belonged to the old way of thinking. These individuals set themselves up as judges of who was "right with God" or a "real Christian." Their selection criteria were the specific Old Testament regulations regarding dietary choices, drinking, and religious observances, such as festivals and holy days. Those who didn't conform to these rules were harshly judged and deemed to be distant from God. This way of thinking leads to arrogant self-righteousness and looking down on those who don’t make the cut.
Paul points out the error of this thinking on multiple fronts. They failed to recognize that many of the Old Testament regulations were merely temporary, serving as shadows that pointed to the reality found in Christ (Colossians 2.17). For example, food and drink regulations were symbolic of the calling of Christ's people to be set apart (holy) from the surrounding culture. The Sabbath day of rest foreshadowed the eternal rest found in Christ, and the Temple system taught the need for a substitutionary sacrifice and pointed to the once and for all forgiveness for sin that Jesus would provide as the perfect sacrifice. Jesus fulfilled all these shadows, making them obsolete. But most of all, they forgot that we are only acceptable to God because of Christ alone. Keeping rules cannot bring believers any closer to God because, through faith in Christ, we were already as close to him as we can be. A similar false idea is when you people talk about ‘Karma’. That’s a technical Buddhist term, but often when used, I think most people just mean the principle that when we do 'good' things, 'good' things happen to us, and when we do 'bad' things, 'bad' things happen to us. That is not how things work in the Kingdom of forgiveness in Jesus.
It's worth saying that this warning about depending on law-keeping to be acceptable to God does not mean that it doesn’t matter how we live or that rules have no place in the lives of believers (as we will see in the next chapter). It also doesn’t mean it is wrong to have a church calendar and special dates such as advent and Christmas – this is just warning to look out for thinking that we are earning God’s approval by the keeping of rules and religious traditions. Here’s one possible way this works out: you meet someone at church, and as you chat they mention something or do something and based on that you put them in either the ‘yes, they’re a believer’ or ‘no they’re not a believer’. You judge them – not on faith in Christ alone, but because they follow a particular Christian author. Or based on the church they were part of before. Or because of what they’re wearing. Or how they educate their children. What are the markers that you are tempted to use?
If you’re new – I hope this doesn’t make you more self-conscious! But we all fall into this trap from time to time and need to hear this warning. The gospel is that we depend on Jesus alone for everything we have. But old habits die hard!
2. Depending on Spiritual Experiences (Colossians 2:18-19)
Moving on to Colossians 2.18-19, and here the idea is that that certain spiritual experiences make me more acceptable to God:
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.
This warns against individuals who disqualify others based on their spiritual experiences. This would come from those who claim to have special spiritual experiences, speaking of them at length and disqualifying those who those who had not had the same experiences. They are not depending on Christ alone but on their experiences. This leads to pride, spiritual arrogance, isolation from other believers and the pursuit of experiences over a relationship with Christ. It can also lead to insisting that everyone should have the same spiritual experiences in a way the Bible doesn’t. Paul's message is clear: While some Christians may have unique spiritual experiences, these are not the measure of one's closeness to God.
I began with the account of Matthew Perry’s spiritual experience. This verse doesn’t rule out God working in and through such experiences. And here is why: did you catch how he described it? It didn’t lead to a self-centered and individualistic faith that ultimately disconnected him from Jesus. Rather it led him to dependence and faith in Jesus. “He had turned me into a seeker, not only of sobriety, and truth, but also of Him”. He did not depend on that experience to make him more acceptable to God and he did not insist on imposing his spiritual experiences on others or seeking after such experiences as a sign of spirituality. But while this doesn’t rule out spiritual experiences we need to heed that warning not to be distracted from the things that will bring real Christian growth, a growth that is from God (Colossians 2.19).
We relate to God through his written word. And that occurs within the context of the community of believers. It is very striking that Colossians 2.19 uses the image of a body – Jesus is the head, and we are the joints and ligaments. This is how we are to nurture our relationship with Jesus and grow in faith, love, and obedience. Together, depending on God’s word and his Spirit.
3. Depending on self-denial (Colossians 2.20-23)
This is from Colossians 2.20-23 and the idea that success in self-imposed disciplines and self-denial is how we can change to be more acceptable to 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.
Here we see the key image of this section: because of what Jesus has done for us, Christians have died to their old life and have new life in him. This is a fundamental change to who we are. And they key thing to grasp here is that it is that change in identity that transforms us. So imagine (like Chandler) leaving behind your old job and starting again as a new intern, and in the new job you may depend on techniques and methods you’re used to in your old job, but a new job needs new ways of working. Similarly, what Paul has in mind here is using the techniques of harsh self-discipline to change old and ingrained behaviour patterns. Basically, giving things up: do not handle, taste or touch! And he could not be clearer why this is an error and belong to our old life. These are human precepts and teachings. They have an appearance of wisdom. They are self-made religion. And then the ultimate put down: They simply do not work! They do not go deep enough and cannot change us. Paul's is clear: as believers, we have died with Christ (Colossians 2.20), and severe self-denial is of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Colossians 2.23). When we died with Christ, we were set free from the worldly influences that once held us captive. Therefore, why would we continue to live as if we were under the control of worldly forces, using their techniques and methods?
Again, don’t misunderstand. Self-control is a fruit of God’s Holy Spirit. Saying ‘no’ to things can help us in our relationship with Jesus. Say for example deciding to spend less time on the PS5 or on social media if use has got out of control is a good thing. It also doesn’t mean that change in the Christian life does not require effort on our behalf, as we depend on God’s Spirit. But man-made rules and self-imposed disciplines will never change our inner natures or bring us closer to God. Our transformation comes through faith in Christ alone.
Matthew Perry was very open about his addictions, and as is so often the case, open about the way it was response to deep-seated emotional pain. And the good news is that there is hope. Here is a way out of the seemingly hopeless cycle of addiction. It is not in self-denial. It is through Jesus. Understanding who we are in Christ is essential to real gospel change. We are God's beloved children, justified, and set free from the bondage of sin. Jesus has done all that is needed. He is fully God and has reconciled us fully to Himself and to God the Father through His saving work on the cross. Everything we have, is ours because we are in him. We are forgiven, reconciled, and at peace with Him. But we are also being transformed by him. He is the real deal - so don’t settle for shadows. We relate to him through his word and through taking our place in the family of the church. I am now his child, a new creation and by his Spirit he is changing me. So, hold firm to Jesus.
Just as Matthew Perry's cry to God led to a life-changing encounter with the Holy Spirit, we too can find hope and healing in Jesus, our Saviour. Paul reminds us that through faith, we have a new life in Christ. We have been transferred from darkness to the Kingdom of His Son, where we find redemption and forgiveness of our sins. Paul warns us not to fall back into old habits that die hard, such as depending on rule-keeping, spiritual experiences, or self-denial to make us more acceptable to God. Our acceptance comes solely through faith in Christ. Our transformation comes through our identity in Christ. Just as Chandler Bing changed his career to pursue his dream job, we must embrace the new life we have in Christ and not revert to our old ways. And as we share together the Lord's Supper, the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup remind us of Christ's sacrifice and the new life we have in Him. Let us eat and drink with gratitude for the transformation Christ has brought. Let us remember that we have died with Christ and risen to a new life in Him and hold firm to Christ alone. May this communion strengthen our faith and draw us closer to Him.