Studies in Colossians and Thessalonians
4. Colossians 2:6-19 - Victory on the Cross
The believers in Colossae are doing quite well, but Paul wants to help them resist not only bizarre teachings, but also those that subtly deviate from the simplicity that is in Christ.
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (2:6-7). Epaphras had already given them the full gospel message (1:7). There are no additional secrets to learn — all they need is to better understand the message they already received, continue in it, and to be thankful for what God has given us in Christ!1 Christianity is not a search for the mysterious and the exotic — it is a simple faith in a Savior who died for us. It does not need to be complicated with extra ideas.
Fullness in Christ
Paul warns them again: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (2:8).
The Colossians probably knew what Paul was talking about, but it is difficult for us to be sure. The ancient world had a wide variety of religious ideas and philosophies. Many of them offered special mysteries for the select few. Others were taught by traveling philosophers who tried to show how sensible and practical their ideas were.
In contrast to that, Paul taught salvation through a crucified man. He taught that God was in this man who was killed, and that God had brought the body back to life. (Most other religions taught that physical bodies were inferior and not worth saving.) Paul taught that this Christ would return on some future day to bring all bodies back to life and to judge the entire world.
In other words, Paul’s gospel did not depend on human wisdom — in some ways it went against human wisdom. It had a wisdom of its own. It did not depend on principles that most people already agreed with. It did not depend on clever arguments. It depended on Christ alone, on who he was and what he had done.
Gospel wisdom is backwards. Most religions try to figure out what people’s problems are, and from that, figure out what they need to solve those problems. But the gospel has a reverse logic. It begins with what Christ did, and from that, it discerns what the human problem is, and what it is that we need to be saved from. Once we see that the answer is Christ, we are better able to ask the right questions.
From what Paul says in verses 21-23, the “philosophy” taught a variety of restrictive rules, or self-abasement. Verses 11 and 16 suggest that it included Jewish customs such as circumcision and sabbaths. In Gal. 4:3, Paul uses the phrase “elemental spirits of the world” to refer to Judaism. The Jewish historian Josephus uses the word “philosophy” to refer to different schools of Jewish thought.
In several cities, Paul struggled against people who tried to mix Jewish ideas into Christianity, and it is likely that this was also going on in Colossae. People had added human traditions to Judaism (Mark 7:8), and were trying to add them to the gospel. Paul is telling the Colossians that they shouldn’t fall for it. It might sound good on the outside, but it is empty on the inside.
Christians have something far better: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9). Christ is fully divine, and he has (present tense) a human body. If we have Christ, we do not need any other ideas added on. Christ is superior to everything else, and all Christians have fullness in Christ, and he is fully God.
It is not only Christ, but we also “have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority” (2:10). Our salvation is complete in Christ.2 When we are in him, we are brought into divine life. We do not need anything else. Through belief in Jesus Christ, we are already connected to God, brought into the life of the triune God. Christ is not only supreme, but also sufficient.
Paul then begins to explain the practical significance of how thoroughly we participate in Christ:
- “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ” (2:11). On several occasions, Paul argued against people who said that Christians ought to be circumcised and obey the laws of Moses. It seems that someone suggested that the Colossian Christians ought to be circumcised. That isn’t necessary, Paul responds, since you have already been circumcised spiritually, through your faith in Christ. How were they circumcised? In Christ.” Physical circumcision could only symbolize the removal of sin, but Christ performs the reality in our lives, making the symbol unnecessary. Through Christ, we are cut free from the rule of the flesh. The reality has been achieved, so the ritual is not needed. When we have Christ, we have enough. We do not need to add physical circumcision.
- “When you were buried with him in baptism
- “You were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:11-12).
These are the results of faith in a Savior who is fully divine. The old person, corrupted by sin, is dead and buried. Paul is speaking spiritually and figuratively. Through faith in Christ, we are united with him, and what he has done is effective for us. He died for us, for our sins, so that our sins are no longer counted against us. He has paid for them.
In the death of Christ, our sinful self (spiritually uncircumcised) received the wages of sin. And in the resurrection of Christ, we also live with new life. What God did in Jesus Christ, he also did it for those who have faith in Christ. One practical significance of this is that our sins are fully forgiven. We do not need to do anything extra to kill them, pay for them or make up for them.3 Through Christ, we have the spiritual status of being circumcised. It is done in him and by him because of our union with him.
Enemies are defeated
Paul tells us what we were apart from Christ: “when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh …” God solved this twin problem: He “made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:13). When we followed the desires of our flesh, we were spiritually dead and cut off from God — but in Christ, the sins that separated us have been forgiven, and because they are gone, we live with Christ.
In verse 14, Paul describes this forgiveness: “erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” “The record” comes from the Greek word cheirographon, which often refers to a note of indebtedness; this is what was against us. We are forgiven and given life because our debts (our sins) were cancelled by Christ. They were transferred to him on the cross, and paid in full.4
Paul is using this financial illustration to again make the point that our sins are effectively and completely taken away in Christ. Those sins have no power over us; sins cannot impose regulations about what we have to do, because they were removed on the cross of Christ — gone. Christians do not need extra rules to deal with sin — we have Christ.
The forgiveness we have in Christ is a strategic victory for us: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (2:15).
Paul again uses the phrase “rulers and authorities,” probably referring to something the false teachers were teaching. Perhaps they were saying that Christians should do something to please or get help from some mystical powers. Paul is saying that Christ has conquered them all. When we have Christ, nothing else has power or authority over our lives.
The power called sin has no authority over us. We do not need special rituals to break that power — what we need is Christ, who has already triumphed over that power. And he has done it in public. Here Paul refers to the parades that victorious generals had — after disarming their enemies, they would take many of the conquered people as slaves, displaying them as booty from the conquest.
To most observers, it would seem that any crucified person had been conquered and publicly humiliated. Paul reverses that image, proclaiming that Jesus was the one who really won the battle. Because his death freed us from our debts, the “rulers and authorities” lost the power they had over us. We owe them nothing, and they are exposed as powerless impostors. There is no special secret involved. All we need is faith in Christ, and our old sinful self is considered dead, and our new life is with Christ.
Jewish rituals a shadow of Christ
Because of Christ’s victory, Paul writes: “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (2:16). Since we are fully forgiven and fully qualified in Christ (1:12), we should not let anyone question our salvation due to our “failure” to obey rules about diet and days.5
The false philosophy criticized the liberty that the Christians enjoyed, and Paul is saying, Pay no attention to their objections. You don’t have to obey those rules because you have been given everything you need for salvation in Christ. You are forgiven, and that philosophy has no authority over you.
The false teachers were saying that food and drink would somehow help people deal with sin in their lives. Whether they were saying a person had to avoid certain foods, or that a person had to eat certain types of foods, does not matter. Food and drink have no power to take away sin.
Paul is saying that we are fully forgiven in Christ, and we should therefore not let anyone judge us or criticize us about what we eat and drink. Of course, we cannot prevent what people think about us, no matter how careful we are. What Paul is saying is that we should not accept their judgments — we should not believe that our standing with God depends on food and drink regulations.
Similarly, because we are fully forgiven in Christ, we should not let others judge us with regard to festivals, new moons or Sabbaths. These, like circumcision, were part of the Jewish religion. Apparently the false teachers of Colossae included a mixture of Judaism in their heresy.
But how could people in Colossae observe festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths? They could not do any of the sacrificial rituals in Asia Minor. Even Jews in Jerusalem did not think of sacrifices when they thought of how they observed the weekly Sabbath. Ordinary Jews observed the weekly and annual Sabbaths by not working. The false teachers were saying that this cycle of annual, monthly and weekly observances would help the Christians deal with sin in their lives.
That’s not true, Paul said. Abstaining from work does not help anyone deal with sin. It does not forgive past sins, nor does it give power to avoid sin in the future. Sin was dealt with completely by Jesus’ crucifixion, and as a result, we should not let others judge us by what we do or don’t do on various days of the calendar.
Those rules may have had some value before Christ came, but are not needed now: “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (2:17). The dietary rules and sabbaths, like circumcision, symbolized a reality that we now have in Jesus. When we have the fullness, we don’t need the silhouette.
The Jewish worship days were a shadow, a silhouette, of things to come. Paul does not elaborate about whether these days had any predictive value. He does not say how the new moons were shadows. He does not comment on how accurate a picture these days gave. He could see, however, that most of the people who kept such days did not accept Jesus as the Christ.
No matter what Paul meant by shadow, no matter whether the things to come are past or future, the result is clear: these days had no effect on sin. We should not let others criticize us regarding any portion of these days — nor should we judge others. As far as sin is concerned, these days are irrelevant.
Paul then makes this contrast: “but the substance belongs to Christ.” The Greek literally says “but the body of Christ.” This part of the verse has no verb, so we need to add one. Translators usually add the verb “is,” because Greek often omits the verb “is.” It was also common in Greek to contrast shadow and body as terms for picture and reality. The meaning is that food, drink and days are shadows, but the reality is Jesus Christ. Christ deals with sin in reality; foods and days can do it only in picture. Paul is saying that Christ is important; the shadows no longer are.6
False humility has no value
Paul said, “Do not let anyone judge you about diet and days.” Now he gives a parallel admonition: “Do not let anyone…disqualify you” (2:18). No one can actually disqualify us, of course — Paul means that we shouldn’t let anyone make us think that we have to keep special rules in order to qualify.
These unnamed people are “insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels.” The rules may look like a demonstration of humility, but in actuality, they arrogantly claim that Jesus did not do enough for us. The false teachers, in addition to ideas about circumcision, foods and days, seem to have had some strange notions about angels. The people may not worship angels directly, but may claim that certain behaviors will help us join the angels in their worship of God.7
Paul reveals more about the false philosophy when he says that those people were “dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking” (2:18). The people (like various Jewish writers of the time) probably said they had visions of heaven, and although they offered humility, they were actually full of pride, leaving Christ out of the picture.
Their focus had taken them away from Christ: “and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God” (2:19). Growth comes from Christ, not from secret information and special rules. This person is not helping the body grow.
Paul now uses another argument, building on what he has already written: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [and he implies that we did], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?” (2:20-21).
The Christian life is not lived by worldly wisdom. The things that sound good to religious philosophers are often wrong. We do not live by those regulations, but by Christ. When Christ died to “the elemental spirits of the universe,” we died to those regulations, too. Those petty rules have no authority over us. Our victory over sin does not come from our ability to keep rules — it comes from Christ on the cross.
“All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence” (verses 22-23).
Rules about avoiding certain foods, or avoiding work on certain days, may sound good and wise. They might make it look like we have power over our bodies, but they cannot break the power of sin. Only Christ can do that, and he has done it fully and effectively on the cross.
Things to think about
- What deceptive ideas endanger Christian faith today? (v. 8)
- Does my union with Christ change the way I view myself? (vv. 11-12)
- If God forgave all my sins (v. 13), why does the Lord’s prayer include a request for forgiveness?
- What powers used to hold a grip on me? Does my life show that I am now freed? (v. 15)
- Has anyone ever tried to tell me that I wasn’t qualified for salvation? (v. 18)
1”The first three participles are in the passive voice, ‘implying that divine action is essential in Christian growth.’ Paul’s readers have not rooted themselves, built up themselves, or strengthened themselves; God has” (David E. Garland, Colossians and Philemon, NIVAC, 140, quoting Murray Harris, 89). “The primary dynamic that should govern Christian behavior is…a living out of our relationship to Christ, an appropriating of what God has already accomplished in Christ. This also puts the emphasis where it belongs in Christian living — not on human willpower or effort but on God’s grace — and enables such living to be characterized by thankfulness” (A.T. Lincoln, New Interpreter’s Bible XI, 621).
2By using the word “fullness” for us right after using it for the Deity, Paul seems to be hinting at something we find in 2 Peter 1:4 — through Christ, we “participate in the divine nature.”
3Garland and Lincoln argue that the circumcision of Christ was his death, in which he put off the flesh. But it seems to me that the people in Colosse, who did not have Romans 6, would not have understood it in this way. Either way, he represented us in what he did.
4It is not clear what the “regulations” are; Paul uses a similar word in verse 20 for the ascetic rules of the non-Christian “philosophy.” It is likely that the philosophy taught various rules as a means of dealing with a person’s spiritual debts; Paul is saying that since Christ has cancelled the debts, we do not need to do anything further to reduce them.
5Paul’s opponents taught restrictions (2:21); it is not likely that they would object to Jewish restrictions about wine, meat, and days on which people must abstain from work. But they would object to the freedom that the gospel gives Christians to eat and drink (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:25) and to ignore restrictions about days (cf. Romans 14:1-6).
6 Some have suggested that we should add a different verb: Don’t let anyone judge you by food and days, but [let] the body of Christ [judge you]. It is true that Paul sometimes uses “the body of Christ” to refer to the church, but Paul does not say that we should let the church judge us. He has just explained that our sins are fully forgiven in Christ; he is not going to reduce that idea by saying that we should let the church judge us. This is not in his thought or in the context. His point is that Christ is the reality that foods and days could only hint at. Moreover, most people who say that we should let the church judge on this matter, have ironically rejected the judgment that the church has already given regarding foods and days.
7Paul may be using sarcasm to imply that the philosophy gives so much attention to angels that it’s like they are worshiping them. Paul would probably react more strongly if people were overtly worshiping angels.
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2007, 2013