Concerning the ordinances mentioned in Colossians 2:14–23, which Paul says not to touch, taste or finger (handle), he continues by saying that these things have indeed a reputation of having wisdom in self-imposed worship and humility and in unsparing abuse of the body not having any value to protect against overindulgence of the flesh. (See verse 23.) In his epistles, Paul accuses those who desire to teach Christians to keep the ceremonial law of doing so for the satisfaction of the flesh. For example: “As many as desire to look good in the flesh, these compel you to be circumcised, only that they be not persecuted for the cross of Christ. For not even those having been circumcised themselves keep the law, but they desire you to be circumcised so that in your flesh they may boast.” Galatians 6:12, 13. [Literal translation.]
What is it about keeping the ceremonial law that involves unsparing abuse of the body, self-imposed worship, and, furthermore, allows a person then to boast in his flesh? In the time of the apostles, the Jews and those Christians who attempted to keep the ceremonial law did not keep it only in the manner as prescribed by Moses, but also as taught by the Jewish scribes and doctors. Concerning this, one writer describes it as follows: “Feasts, rituals, sacrifices, pilgrimages, tithes, Sabbaths, and fasts—these were all alike but expressions of the profound determination to keep God’s law as expounded in the synagogue. … For scrupulosity, unhesitating logic, conscientiousness as regards the moral aspect of every act of life it stands unparalleled. … Pharisaism laid upon the people burdens impossible to be borne. The rabbis’ insistence upon tithes and other religious charges must have been burdensome in the extreme, but even more deadening must have been their insistence that righteousness was impossible except through an unbroken observance of the Mosaic and the Moral Law; for who among the people could hope to master the accumulation of rabbinical teaching? In proportion as legalism grew, did the old prophetic teaching retreat, and life became less a direct service of a loving Jehovah and an ever increasingly fettered and hopeless succession of impossible tasks.” (A History of New Testament Times in Palestine, Shailer Mathews, A.M., D.D., New York, The MacMillan Company, 1914, 176–178.)
The abuse of the body and self-imposed worship involved, first, all rules by which eating or drinking or traveling or even acts of mercy and kindness were forbidden or restricted because of either the seventh day Sabbath, or ceremonial sabbaths, feast days, or certain weeks, months, or years. Second, the person who was successful in doing all these things (like Saul of Tarsus) could look down on others who did not succeed in the rigor of the system and could glory in their superior righteousness, which righteousness Paul said was rubbish (Philippians 3:8).