Paul has already pointed out the pointlessness of rituals and esoteric experiences as far as the Christian life is concerned. He then mentions a third wrong emphasis of the false teachers in Colosse, which was that Christians should live by a set of rules based on human wisdom.
In Colosse the false teachers had compiled a list of items regarding which it was wrong even to touch or handle. Paul’s response is that because the false teachers were concerned with perishable things such as food they were giving a focus to things that did not matter a great deal and were of no benefit for living a holy life.
Paul instructs the Colossian Christians to recall what happened at their conversion. They died then to the opinions that had gripped their thinking before (he calls these ideas ‘the elemental spirits of the world’) and had replaced these sources, whether human or demonic, with Jesus. Yet now they were putting themselves under a similar source again by embracing the false teaching. They had to realise where it came from.
The biggest danger, says Paul, with the false teaching is that it produces an impressive appearance. Those who followed such instruction about what should not be touched produced an outward display that seemed impressive. Onlookers could admire a person who lived scrupulously according to a set of rules that governed a method of asceticism. But the issue is not the outward effects. Any religion can achieve such changes.
Instead, says Paul, what matters is inner change. And these outward rules cannot bring about inner change. It might be good for me physically to stop eating sweets, but even if I never eat another one my abstinence will not make me even a little more holier. The issue is not what changes me, but who can change me? So the next time someone comes along with a plan for Christian living that does not stress union with Jesus, ignore it.
It is not hard to see that many contemporary wrong claims regarding how to live the Christian life fall into the categories of misapplied Bible passages, mystical encounters and a focus on external activities. There are many books that distort the meaning of scriptural passages, there are many books in which the subjects claim the most exalted of spiritual interactions with celestial beings, and there are many books that deal with issues of sanctification in a trivial and human-centred way. They promise much and deliver nothing of value as far as living the Christian life is concerned.
Since we face similar possible diversions, it means that the instruction Paul gave the Colossians is very relevant for us today. The obvious conclusion is that Paul taught that union with Jesus was the answer regarding how to live the Christian life. Practical union with him is brought about by the Holy Spirit using the means of grace (Bible reading, prayer, church attendance) and not by elaborate schemes and esoteric encounters.