Mysticism: The Gospel of Deeper Experience (Sermon)
I want to begin this morning by reading you an excerpt from a book—a book that you could find at almost any Christian bookstore, a book that has sold more than 10 million copies in 26 different languages.
The author of the book writes: "I had been writing in prayer journals for years, but that was one-way communication: I did all the talking. I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day. I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believed He was saying. I felt awkward the first time I tried this, but I received a message….My journaling had changed from monologue to dialogue. Soon, messages began to flow more freely, and I bought a special notebook to record these words. This new way of communicating with God became the highlight of my day. I knew these writings were not inspired as Scripture is, but they were helping me grow closer to God….This practice of listening to God has increased my intimacy with Him more than any other spiritual discipline, so I want to share some of the messages I have received."[i]
The book is full of messages this author claims to have received from God. I want you to hear this account because the word mysticism may bring to mind something foreign or something rare. Mysticism might conjure up a picture of the Far East, where people are sitting on mats in the lotus position, incense in the air, humming quietly. Mysticism is not a distant danger. It’s a clear and imminent threat. Mysticism is real, pervasive, and dangerous.
Chapter 2 of Colossians ends with three ancient warnings about three false gospels. We looked at the first warning last week—a warning about the danger of legalism. In verses 18–19, the focus turns to a second danger—the danger of mysticism, the gospel of deeper experience.
(Colossians 2:18–19 ESV) 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.
Mysticism, like legalism, has surfaced throughout church history. No technological advancement protects us from the danger of mysticism. It’s imperative we listen and heed this warning. Do you know how to recognize mysticism? Are you aware of its presence?
This warning focuses less on the particular details of the situation in the Colossian church, and instead preserves the larger principle, which protects us from being distracted by wrinkles that may not be present in our situation. We’re shown the core of mysticism in order to detect its presence in our context. We can identify four common characteristics of mysticism in these verses.
Mysticism is based on new revelation
Look at the phrase in the middle of verse 18—“going on in detail about visions.” The mystic claimed divine authority based upon some type of mystical experience. We don’t know what that experience was—maybe it was a fantastic dream or Jesus whispering in his ear. Based upon his visions, he claimed God commanded at least two things—asceticism (denial of self) and the worship of angels. We’ll look at asceticism in detail next week (that’s the focus of verses 20–23). As for worshipping angels, we’re not sure what was being taught. But we do know angel worship is wrong.
(Matthew 4:10 ESV) You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.
(1 Timothy 2:5 ESV) For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,
It’s sin to worship anyone or anything other than God. It’s sin to look for a mediator between God and man other than Jesus Christ. It’s possible this angel worship was actually demon worship in disguise—verse 8 says the false teachers were trying to take Christians captive to the “elemental spirits of the world,” literally “demonic powers.”
My guess is that angel worship was like the Roman Catholic veneration of saints. Mystics were trying to go to God through the angels. Offering prayer, seeking protection, and asking the angels for intercession on their behalf.
Ultimately this passage isn’t about angel worship. Notice the believers aren’t commanded to stop worshipping angels. It’s so obviously wrong that the apostle Paul doesn’t have to directly condemn it. The focus is more on listening to these mystics who claimed to speak on God’s behalf.
It’s not surprising that those who claim special, direct revelation from God are fascinated with the supernatural. We see this same fascination today. TV shows and books focus on angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. There’s something compelling about supernatural creatures. There’s something alluring about secret revelation.
The first article in our church’s statement of faith is about God’s revelation to us. It reads: “We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.”
We understand the danger and allure of secret revelation. That’s why our foundational belief is that God has openly revealed His will in His Word. We don’t need to seek new revelation. We need to test everything and everyone by this supreme standard—the God-breathed, God-inspired, God-revealed, and God-revealing Scriptures.
Mysticism is cloaked in false humility
Verse 18 says the mystic is “puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind.” Puffed up—I picture the blowfish from the Pixar movie Finding Nemo. When the fish would get worked up, it would lose its cool and inflate, then drift away with the current. These mystics were puffed up. They had an inflated opinion of themselves. When someone challenged them, their heads would swell.
But this is key—they cloaked their arrogance in humility. Remember how they commanded the Christians to practice asceticism? The word for asceticism is actually the word “humility.” They would arrogantly demand that Christians be humble like they were humble.
Imagine a man walking around the church building with a homemade gold medal around his neck. When you asked him what it was for, he soberly replied, “I made it to celebrate my humility.” These mystics practiced humility for show. We know they weren’t humble. Listen to their claim. They told the Christians, “God has given me a special vision. You must obey my vision from God.” What’s humble about that? It’s extremely arrogant to make your experience the standard for all Christians.
They were doing the same thing with mysticism that they did with legalism. They were commanding Christians to observe their man-made rules and regulations for worship. These mystics were claiming supernatural revelation from God. They were claiming to have visions of heaven. Paul says, “The reality is their minds are captivated by this world (v.18). They think they’re spiritually-minded, but their thoughts could not be more worldly.”
Mysticism is fixated on disqualifying others
A number of years ago, I coached Jack’s basketball team in the Town of Fuquay league. One of the other fathers, also named Josh, was my assistant coach. Josh is a good guy, and I enjoyed having him help me. One Saturday, we were winning our game, when Josh’s son got hit in the face two plays in a row. I called a timeout, and Josh said something to the referee. I look up a moment later, and the referee is standing in our huddle berating Josh. He finishes yelling at him and gives him a very undeserved technical foul. A minute later, the same referee comes walking back over to our bench, yells at Josh some more, gives him a second technical and kicks him out of the game.
I remember my first thought was, “I hope no one from Redeemer hears about this.” I was in shock. What just happened? It was as if this referee had made up new rules to basketball and decided to enforce them on us. I don’t know if it was his birthday, but it felt like we were his piñata.
(Colossians 2:18 ESV) Let no one disqualify you…
The mystics assumed the role of spiritual referees and disqualified the Christians for not playing by their rules. They made up new rules on the spot and attempted to force them on the Christians in this church. They said that anyone who failed to keep their rules, like celebrating certain festivals and avoiding certain foods, along with worshipping angels and practicing extreme self-denial, would be kicked out. They set themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner. They alone were the arbiters of what pleased God.
Mysticism is unconcerned with minimizing Christ
(Colossians 2:19 ESV) and not holding fast to the Head…
Christians have received Christ (v.6) and are rooted in Christ (v.7). He is the head of every Christian and the head of the church. He is the center and source of our life. He is the ruler and chief over us. Everything revolves around Christ, and we exist to make much of Him. The mystic elevates his religious experience over Christ. Searching for a deeper, newer experience, he moves away from Jesus.
False teaching is on a jihad against the glory of Jesus Christ. The end goal of all false teaching is to lead the believer away from Jesus so that His glory is not magnified in their life. So false teaching doesn’t mind angels being worshipped, as long as they’re worshipped instead of Jesus. False teaching doesn’t mind making experience ultimate, as long as Jesus is not seen as ultimate.
Have you noticed that no false teaching attempts to give more glory to Jesus Christ? I’ve never had to warn you about a certain error that makes too much of Jesus. It’s impossible. All glory belongs to Jesus. All worship is rightfully His. He deserves every word of honor, every song of praise, every act of affection that we can ever give.
Every day you enter a glory war. Will Jesus receive the glory He deserves or will you give His glory to someone or something else? False teaching always pushes us to give glory to something other than Jesus.
Give glory to ourselves? Sure.
Give glory to supernatural beings?
Give glory to idols?
Give glory to created things?
Give glory to anything and everything other than Christ? Absolutely.
All false teaching is designed to minimize the glory of Jesus.
Now that we’ve identified four characteristics of mysticism, we can develop a working definition of mysticism. Here it is—mysticism is the quest for ever-increasing, subjective religious experience.
The authority for mysticism is located outside of God’s Word. In fact, it’s often located inside of us. Whether it’s our experience or our unique interpretation of the Bible, the source of authority is not Jesus Christ—the Head of the church—it’s our own opinion.
We can see how mysticism has crept into other religions. We see it in the papal decrees of Roman Catholicism, the new revelation of the Mormons, and the visions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But it’s far more dangerous in the subtle ways it strikes us closer to home.
We see it in the religious fervor found in some Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, where being slain in the Spirit or speaking in tongues carries more weight than the testimony of Scripture…where Jesus is less celebrated than the experience of the Spirit whose role is to point Christians to Jesus (John 16:14).
We see it in the commands of the fiery evangelist, who claims Jesus told him all of these things which cannot be found in Scripture and often contradict the clear statement of the text.
We see it in the devotional books that are cranked out by evangelical authors, discovering new, unique truths from Scripture in each day’s reading. (Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you’re the first person to discover it in Scripture, especially after 2,000 years of church history, then it’s probably not there.) God does speak to us through His Word, but He speaks through the clear meaning of the text.
I want you to see this about mysticism, and it’s equally true of all false teaching. False teaching always accelerates. False teaching can be spotted by its relentless pursuit of more.
Consider legalism for a moment: Legalism is always telling you that you have to do more. Keep more rules. Follow more regulations. Abstain from more activities. The more you do, the more favor you earn. Mysticism is always telling you that you have to experience more. More visions, more revelations, more secret knowledge, more fuzzy feelings, more unexplained phenomena. More, more, more.
False teaching always accelerates. The Bible provides a number of examples:
Do you think the first teaching of paganism was the need to sacrifice babies? No, but the Old Testament tells us about the pagan practices of Molech, which demanded that babies be burned alive. It didn’t start there, but the need for more pushed the pagan religion to unimaginable horrors.
When Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to see whose God would respond, the false prophets began by calling out to their god. When that didn’t work, they had to accelerate things, eventually cutting themselves to get their false god’s attention (by the way, it didn’t work).
The religious hypocrites in Jesus’ day were constantly adding new regulations to God’s law. If God gave one regulation, they added a dozen smaller regulations to protect the one. More and more laws.
Mysticism follows the same course as every other false teaching—it demands more. You can think of mysticism like a sugar high. When kids go to a birthday party, they have all this sugary cake and ice cream. The sugar kicks in, and they’re bouncing off the walls. They’re flying high. They’re loving life. The party ends, and they get in the car. On the 10-minute drive home, what happens? They crash. They’re zonked out in the car, dead to the world. High highs and low lows—that’s the calling card of mysticism.
Now that we understand mysticism, let’s consider how we guard against mysticism. How can we, both individually and as a church, protect against this false gospel? What steps can you we to prevent mysticism from gaining a foothold in our hearts? Here are three principles to protect us from mysticism.
We don’t need something new, but something old
Did you know that you can buy an air-freshener for your car called “New Car Smell?” We love new things—new cars, new clothes, new restaurants, new experiences. Our love for new things can sneak into our spiritual life. Mysticism latches on to our love of the new and fresh and funnels it into a dissatisfaction with anything that isn’t unique or novel. Instead of returning again and again to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we search desperately for something no one has ever seen or experienced. Mysticism convinces us that old means “stale, out of date, and irrelevant.” It feeds our ego with words like progress and innovation.
Brothers and sisters, we don’t need something new. God has already given us everything you need in this 2,000-year-old book.
(2 Peter 1:3 ESV) His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.
We have the “old, old story of a Savior who came from glory.” What we need is to remember what He did for you, walking through each new day in light of these ancient realities.
Many of us are prone to generational snobbery. We think anything more than a year or two old is outdated. Can you even remember life before smart phones? Have you watched a movie from the 80’s? We apply the same criteria to the Christian life. We act as if no one else had it figured out. In our arrogance, we assume we’re the first to get it right. We’ve embraced mysticism—where new is always better than old, where “wisdom” means modern progress not settled truth.
We don’t need something private, but something corporate
(Colossians 2:19 ESV) 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.
Mysticism pushes us away from community, telling us that true knowledge is found in private experience. Brothers and sisters, we are part of a body—the body of Christ. We are intimately tied not only to Christ, but also to one another. Beware of anything that drags you away from other Christians.
Real maturity comes through Christ and His church. Maturity comes not through private, subjective, religious experience, but corporate participation in the life of Christ. Maturity is not measured by your religious highs, but in how you serve others on their low days. Maturity is not living on the mountain. Maturity is walking with others through the valley.
I love how one author put it; “We only fool ourselves if we think we can find our meaning, purpose, and significance for God through an isolated contemplation of religious truths.”[ii] Do you see how mysticism feeds our ego? It tells us we’re the only ones who received this special knowledge from God. It tells us we’re part of God’s inner circle. It tells us the rest of the church just doesn’t get it. It cuts us off from the body. And what good is an amputated body part? Mysticism leads to amputation, and this is ultimately how it kills a church.
But before it gets to amputation, it gives the impression of growth. Your body can grow in more than one way. There’s good, healthy growth. Verse 19 tells us that God causes healthy growth as we hold tightly to Christ. But your body can grow in unhealthy ways. For instance, tumors grow. You know what else can cause growth? Infection. Infection can lead to swelling, and ultimately amputation. Mysticism is an infection in the body of Christ. It promises us growth, but only delivers swelling, and if we’re not careful it leads to amputation, being cut off from the body.
God designed your spiritual growth to happen within a community of Christians...within the church. Are you pursuing growth as God intended?
We don’t need something subjective, but something objective
The apostle Peter had an amazing experience with Jesus Christ. He was standing with Jesus on a mountainside when Jesus began to glow with a bright light, and the two greatest prophets in Israel’s history, both of whom had died centuries earlier, appeared beside Him. A voice from heaven identified Jesus as the Son of God. When the experience ended, Peter wanted to build tents on that site and remain there forever. Jesus told him no. Peter’s experience would have been a mystic’s nirvana.
Listen to how an aged Peter described that experience:
(2 Peter 1:17–21 ESV) For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Peter’s subjective experience on the mountaintop was not as certain as the objective Word of God. There’s nothing wrong with experience or feelings, but experiences need interpretation and feelings are fickle. We long for the subjective, but we’re told to place our faith in the objective. We are recipients of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and it is to this objective body of truth about Jesus Christ we must return. These objective truths tell us about our standing before God, regardless of that day’s experience or that moment’s emotions.
Christian, there will be days when you may not feel forgiven. Will you believe your feelings or will you trust what God’s Word declares to be true?
There will be days when you question God’s love for you. Will you seek for some experience of feeling loved by God? Or will you trust God when He says that nothing separates you from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35)?
There will be days when your sin makes you feel dirty. Will you look for ways to feel more righteous? Or will you hold tightly to the truth that God sees you clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ?
Ultimately, does the Bible interpret your experience and your feelings, or do your experience and feelings interpret the Bible? Will you trust what God says or how you feel? A quest for ever-increasing, subjective religious experience makes experience your god. You unseat God from the throne of your heart, and in His place you put experiences. You need the truth, not what feels true. You need what’s right, not what feels right.
In 1987, the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship. Their coach was Pat Riley. He wrote a book about that season and the season which followed. In the book, he coined a phrase, “the disease of more.” He said the disease of more infects teams that win. The next season, everyone wants a little more—a little more money, a little more fame, and a little more playing time. Often, the disease of more derails the most talented team, and they fail to repeat as champions. Mysticism could be called the “disease of more”—more visions, more revelations, more secret knowledge, more warm feelings, more, more, more.
Friend, if you’re not a Christian, mysticism is enticing because you are missing something. You are missing peace with God. Your sin has cut you off from God, and only Jesus’ death in your place can pay for your sin and reconcile you with His Father. Don’t look for a mystical, subjective experience. Instead, repent of your sin and believe these objective truths: Jesus died for your sin, rose again and deserves your worship. Jesus is what you’re missing. He’s all you need—nothing more.
Brothers and sisters, we need to beware of the disease of more, to b eware of the temptation to ever-increasing subjective religious experience. Remember what was written earlier in Colossians 2—“You have been filled in Him (v.10).” You have everything you need in Christ. You need nothing more.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2019.
[i] Sarah Young, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace In His Presence (Thomas Nelson, 2004), pg. XII-XIII.
[ii] David E. Garland, Colossians/Philemons, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), p. 198.