When I was in junior high, freedom came in chrome. To be free was to have a bike. Not just any bike would do, though. That's because most of the time I spent with my brothers was in the woods near our house. You had to have a bike that could go off-road and handle all sorts of terrain.
For a long time, I saved allowance, did chores for money, and scratched together funds in any way possible. I worked hard to get what I needed. Eventually, I gained the reward of my labor. It was a BMX-style dirt-racing diamondback bike. It was sweet. One of the things I loved about it was how unique it was. It was previously owned, and its loving owner had put all kinds of specialty parts on it. It was one of a kind; you could recognize it anywhere.
In our neighborhood, we had no concerns. We would drop our bikes next to the street at whomever's house we were visiting. We would leave them leaning against fences and even park them at the edge of the woods as we explored. There was never a thought that someone might steal my great reward.
One Saturday, I woke, looking forward to a free day of riding and adventuring. I came to the place I had left my bike, and it wasn't there. I looked around, but after about fifteen minutes, I realized someone stole it.
I was so upset. Over the next week, I had asked all my friends and checked every possible place. It wasn't long before I was out of options. The following week I convinced my mom to take me to the local pawn shops. I was world wary enough to know that a chronic bike thief usually dumped his haul on one of the pawnshops.
In the most disgusting of all the local shops, I spotted my bike. It must have been a Sunday because the pawn place was closed for the day. It had bars over the windows and a padlock on the door. I stood staring through the glass, thinking about what to do next.
I called the police. I explained what had happened. I jumped through all the hoops. We filed a police report. We had them meet us at the pawnshop. We pointed out the bike.
“I wish I could help,” the officer said.
“But that’s my bike. I worked really hard to buy it.”
"Sorry, Kid,” he said. "You got cheated. That's how the world goes."
He explained that without written proof of a serial number, he couldn't go in and take my bike back. I got cheated, and despite his desire to help, there was nothing more he could do. He explained that if I wanted to avoid getting swindled in the future, I should invest in a bike lock. I lost the reward of my labor. From that point forward, I was much more careful.
If you're a Christian, there will be a reward for your spiritual labor. Of course, your salvation is a free gift that you get when you place your faith in Christ. However, your eternal reward is a bonus, above and beyond salvation.
Did you know that some are working hard to cheat you out of your reward? Some will lead you down a path that heads straight for significant loss. No one can steal your salvation in Heaven. However, there are those who can block you from gaining your full reward there. On the day when eternal reward is being given out, there will be some who have a great reward, and there will be those who have missed out, though possibly not for the reasons you might think.
As we begin to explore our passage, it's valuable to note that verses 11-15 are talking about what happened when you believed in Jesus for eternal life. He needs to remind his readers, and us, of the inalienable gift we've received by faith before he starts talking about eternal reward. When you gained salvation by faith alone in Christ, these are some of the things that happened:
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, (Col 2:11)
All who are in Him have received a spiritual circumcision. He defines what he means in the second half of the verse. The moment you received salvation by faith alone, it resulted in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh. This doesn’t mean that you will no longer be able to sin, but instead that the sins you commit are legally dealt with by Christ’s finished work. Let’s take a look at what other things happen at the moment of your salvation:
[You were]…buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him… (Col 2:12-13)
Everyone who has believed in Jesus for salvation has gone through a spiritual baptism. Your faith in him has raised you from Spiritual death. In other words, you have eternal life. You lacked the kind of everlasting life you needed to be with God forever. If you've believed in Him, then you now have that. Notice what else happens when you believe in Him for salvation:
…having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col 2:13-14)
Notice how thoroughly Paul says this. He has forgiven you all trespasses. That includes past, present, and future sins. If you've believed in Jesus, then you're forgiven. He has wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us. The law given by God and delivered by Moses declared that everyone is guilty according to the law. However, for those who believe in Jesus, that legal guilt is gone. Why? He has nailed it to the cross. What an amazing metaphor. There is one more statement that Paul makes about the benefits of our salvation. At the moment, Christ accomplished our salvation, he:
…Disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:11-15)
Christ's triumph was a grand one. In his death, he made possible, not only our eternal salvation. He disarmed anyone's right or ability to call us guilty. Since Christ's victory was so sweeping, there is no one who can re-convict us.
Paul’s point in sharing all of these benefits of salvation is pretty simple. He’s making the point that there is no need to follow the law. In fact, trying to follow the law will actually cause damage. How?
In the world in which the Colossians lived, some were not happy that gentiles were coming into God's graces. Many of the religious Jews who had put a lot of effort into living under the law were upset that gentiles could have God's grace without following the law. This debate was raging in Colossae and other places as well. Some believers of Jewish descent said you had to follow the law in addition to believing in Jesus as the Messiah. This false teaching was beginning to persuade a lot of the gentiles, and it was causing damage. That's why Paul follows his statement with this.
So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. (Col. 2:16-17)
Paul is saying, "Don't fall for it. You're not required to follow the law if you've believed in Jesus for salvation." He acknowledges that the law was a shadow of things to come and that the substance is of Christ. The law isn't bad. God designed the law to bring people to Jesus. Now for those who are in Christ, the law has been fulfilled. Now here's an amazing statement. He's still talking about the same concept when he says:
Let no one cheat you of your reward… (Col 2:18)
Eternal reward is not the same thing as salvation. Salvation is a free gift; eternal reward is something Christ will give to believers based on their faithfulness to him. If you're not familiar with this concept, I've written a whole book on it. Eternal Reward: It Will Pay To Obey. Now let's consider what Paul is saying in this verse.
It'd be easy to take this line out of its context. If I were to ask you, "What is a way you could miss out on reward?" many Christians would say, "by sinning." That would be the conventional wisdom; that running headlong into sin is the way to lose eternal reward. So it should come as a surprise that what Paul is saying is a little different.
Notice he says, Let no one CHEAT you of your reward. This is something that someone else can play a part in. We've got to remember what Paul is getting at. He's just told these Christians that they shouldn't let anyone peer-pressure them into trying to follow the law. The legalists said, "You have to have law and faith to be saved." That's what he's combating.
So, when Paul says, Let no one cheat you of your reward, he's saying that you can be cheated out of your eternal reward by trying to follow the law. If you try to live the Christian life by the rule book instead of by the Spirit, then you are going to lose eternal reward. Whoever it is that convinced you that you have to follow the law book is the one who has cheated you out of your reward. This is especially true when a Christian gets into the thinking that they have to prove they have salvation by doing good works.
This probably seems counterintuitive. You’d think that following the rules would result in more eternal reward, but we see why it’s a cheat by what he says next:
Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, (Col. 2:18)
One of the problems with legalism is that it must come from somewhere other than Scripture. We can see this in many of the American Christian spin-off and non-Christian groups. They teach legalism-for-salvation. To do it, they must appeal to some higher power than humanity. They can't appeal to God's word, so they have to turn to testimonies from angels. In other religions, often, the testimony comes from a small-g god (which are really demons in disguise). Legalism doesn't come from God, so it must come from somewhere else.
The person who claims his authority comes from angels is intruding into those things which he has not seen. False teachers who teach legalism and base it on the testimony of angels, or little g gods, are messing with stuff they don’t understand.
We start to see why trying to follow the rule book is so dangerous, but there's more. The primary reason it's so destructive to teach legalism is that it results in false humility. Have you ever seen this before? It never fails. The person who tells everyone else how they are failing at following the rules is also the most prideful about his own performance. There's a kind of broken, mistaken, and false humility that comes with being a rule follower. After all, false humility is pride in disguise. Rule following brings about sin, the sin of pride. This is why it will rob you of your eternal reward; it's a cleverly disguised sin.
The last line of verse eighteen is haunting to me. Paul says that the one who teaches legalism is vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind. Legalism is like a drug. It's addictive. It gets into the head and delivers the pleasure the fleshly mind wants. What is a fleshly mind? It's a mind set on the things of the flesh. One of the greatest desires of the flesh is to be admired, adored, and even worshiped. Pride is the result of this desire in the mind. So legalism offers the fleshly mind something that it wants very badly.
That is dangerous because, on the outside, a person can look "holy" because they follow the rule book. However, on the inside, the legalist is simply a pride addict. That is why legalism is so destructive. It will rob you of your eternal reward and leave you addicted to pride, all the while fooling those around you into thinking you're humble. Paul explains what the ultimate problem is when he says that legalists are:
…not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. (Col. 2:19)
To fight legalism and to retain our eternal reward, we have to hold on to our Head. What, or we should say, Who is the Head? We already know. The Head is Christ! Jesus is the Head of the church. The church is Jesus’ metaphorical body. Paul has already made that clear in previous verses. As His body parts, we need to hold onto our Head, which is Christ.
The real problem is that legalists have let go of the head. Imagine the body part that decides to sever itself, to separate from its head. What if your arm determined that it was going to go off and start a new body? How do you think that would go? Not well. Legalists are like body parts that have cut themselves out of the body and are trying to start a new one. Why does it matter so much that we hold onto the Head?
He says that Christ is the one from whom all the body is nourished and knit together. We have strength against falsehood when we are knit together in love. The only way for a body to hold together is for all the parts to be attached to the head. That's how the body is knit together in Christ.
He says that the body grows with the increase that is from God. You aren't growing if you're engaged in legalism. Having your nose buried in the rule book means your eyes are not on Christ. Growth doesn't happen by rule-following; it happens by holding on to the Head, who is Christ.
Everything comes from the Head, which is Christ. Nourishment. Unity. Growth. It all comes from the Head. When you're growing, nourished, and united, you stand to gain great eternal reward. If you're engaged in legalism, your spiritual life is malnourished, disharmonious, and lacks growth. We have to cling to Christ. Hold on to your Head to gain a great reward.
Would you like to know how to hold onto the head? We’ll take a look in the next section.