We have all had the experience of buying a special gift for a special child; a son or daughter; a niece or nephew; a grandchild. You’re as excited as they are to see them open it. And to your wonder and amazement, they prefer the box to the gift inside. You don’t make too much of it, and find you can’t suppress a warmhearted chuckle, at the wonderful reminder of the capriciousness of youth.
What’s adorable in youth, however, is not so cute in adults. In adults it’s a cause for concern and may be a cry for help. Yet the many in the church who have been deluded into valuing the box more than the gift, has gone unnoticed. In fact, it’s so common that the church is often characterized by the box and not the gift. We are known by the religion and not by the Christ.
The delusion is not unique to the modern church. It’s been with us from the beginning. In a similar and powerful metaphor, the Apostle Paul warns the church at Colossae of exchanging the Substance for the Shadow.
Colossians 2:17 (NAS): 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
In this rich metaphor, it’s not hard to identify the substance. In Christ Himself are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge. He is our hope for glory and He has cast an immense shadow over human history. He is the substance. What’s not so easily identified is the shadow, and the delusion that causes us to value it more than the substance itself.
Philosophy and Deception
Colossians 2:8 (NAS): 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
We are taken captive by the shadow of religion through human wisdom. This human wisdom is translated philosophy in the passage above. This human wisdom is undoubtedly in contrast to divine revelation. We are susceptible to it because, in our humanity, we identify with its wisdom. It’s a wisdom we hold in common, and without divine revelation to thwart it’s advances we fall easily.
The Traditions of Men
The shadow of religion is appealing because it comes to us through generations. It has the soothing aroma of heritage, family, and inheritance. The delusion can be as powerful and appealing as Grandma’s cooking. Though, circumcision was a sign of the covenant that was to be fulfilled in the promised seed of Abraham, when the seed came, many would continue to insist upon the sign.
The Elementary Principles of the World
The shadow of religion also appeals to us because it’s easy; it’s according to the simplest things of the faith. It is comfortably and quickly apprehended by the immature. It’s unencumbered by the discomforts of growth and maturity. The shadow does not require the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
Instead of the work of understanding the nature of our relationship to the risen Christ; of coming to know what it means to have died with Christ and been made alive together with Him, it’s simpler to pay our tithes, keep the Sabbath, and abstain from cultural taboos.
Colossians 2:23 (NAS): 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
Despite the shadow’s appearance of wisdom, it’s still merely self-made religion. It has no value against fleshly indulgences; no power to deliver us from the flesh. The great mystery, hidden in ages past, has now been revealed through the Apostles—Christ in us is our hope of glory. In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And our lives are hidden with Christ in God. What the shadow could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, Christ has already done. So we have no need of the shadow, now that we have the substance itself.