Chapter Introduction

We have, Paul’s prayerful concern (v1), for their encouragement, unity and growth in knowledge in Christ (v2), who is the all-sufficient source of these blessings (v3). Moreover, he is concerned that they might be on their guard against false teachers (v4).

Paul assures them of his presence with them in spirit, and commends them for their orderliness and firmness in the faith (v5). He urges them to continue in the way they have begun (v6), and to this end recommends that they put down deep roots, and (to change the metaphor) build a strong superstructure on a firm foundation (v7).

He refutes the errors then threatening their faith: a mixture of philosophy, ritualism, and superstition (v8), and contrasts these blind, empty guides with the all-sufficiency of Christ, in whom the fulness of deity dwells in tangible form (v9). It is in Christ that we find fulness (v10).

In particular, the apostle refutes the necessity of circumcision (v11), which is obsolete because in Christ we have the thing signified, and which has been replaced by baptism (v12).

In Christ we have life and forgiveness (v13); in him our debt has been paid (v14); and he has triumphed over all our spiritual enemies.

2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for those who have not met me face to face. 2:2 My goal is that their hearts, having been knit together in love, may be encouraged, and that they may have all the riches that assurance brings in their understanding of the knowledge of the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 2:3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Paul’s purpose

This concerns their

  1. Encouragement – ‘that they may be encouraged in heart’
  2. Endearment – ‘united in love’
  3. Enrichment – ‘the full riches of complete understanding’
  4. Enlightenment – ‘that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ’

United in love – or this could be translated, ‘instructed in love’. ‘Since the context emphasizes knowledge and wisdom, and Paul was less concerned about the need for the Colossians’ unity than their instruction in the faith over against false teaching, ‘taught’ or ‘instructed’ is better. Love, in all its breadth, then refers to the foundation of the Christian life.’ (NBC)

The mystery of God – ‘The meaning is, the doctrine respecting God, which had before been concealed or hidden, but which was now revealed in the gospel. It does not mean that there was anything unintelligible or incomprehensible respecting this doctrine when it was made known.’ (Barnes)

2:4 I say this so that no one will deceive you through arguments that sound reasonable. 2:5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ.

Let’s continue as we began, vv6-7,

  • clearing the ground by rooting out the weeds of false teaching, v8, and
  • putting down strong roots into Christ, who has provided all that we need, vv9-15

Therefore,

  • Don’t let anyone judge you, v16
  • Don’t let anyone disqualify you for the prize, v18
  • Don’t live as if you still belonged to this world, v20-23

Warnings Against the Adoption of False Philosophies

2:6 Therefore, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 2:7 rooted and built up in him and firm in your faith just as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

During Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus, Epaphras had been converted to Christ and had carried the gospel to the town of Colosse situated in what is now southern Turkey.  The young church had become the target of heretical attack.  This led Epaphras to visit Paul, who was now imprisoned in Rome, and Paul responded by writing this letter.

In this passage, the Colossian heresy is deal with in some detail.  It appears to have been a mixture of Christianity, Judaism, angelolatry, and asceticism.

We could take v6f as a theme sentence for the entire epistle.  Moo refers to this paragraph (along with what immediately follows) as ‘the heart of Colossians’.  Moreover, this verse serves as the ‘hinge’ between the first main part of the letter (Col 1:3-2:5) and the second part (Col 2:6-4:6).

You received Christ as Lord – As Wright says, it is anachronistic to regard this as meaning ‘accepting Christ as your personal Saviour’.  This accords with Paul’s teaching about the indwelling of Christ, but is probably not the meaning here.  It is more likely that Paul is referring to the ‘handing down’ of the gospel from God to Paul to Epaphras to the Colossians. This is the genuine apostolic ‘tradition’, in contrast to the ‘tradition of men’, v8. The Colossians are urged to continue as they began, ‘as they had been taught’, v7.  In the words of F.F. Bruce, ‘this short sentence introduces us to the whole concept of tradition in apostolic Christianity…When Paul says that his readers have “received” Christ Jesus as their Lord, he uses the verb which was specifically employed to denote the receiving of something which was delivered by tradition.’

Wright, however, thinks that there are hints within the passage itself that Paul has baptismal confession of faith in mind.  Baptism is mentioned explicitly in Col 2:12, and receiving ‘Christ as Lord’ is close to the baptismal formula ‘ Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:11; cf. Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3).  It is likely then, in Wright’s view, that ‘Paul here refers to the Colossian Christians’ acceptance of the proclamation of Jesus the Lord, to their consequent confession of faith, and to their new status as members of Christ’s body (see Col 2:19). All of these became theirs when (greatly daring in their pagan context) they took their stand of faith and submitted to Christian initiation.’

It is significant that Paul identifies what has been handed down, not as ‘the gospel’, or Christian truth generally, but ‘Christ Jesus as Lord.  This is because ‘the central point in the Colossian heresy was the subversion of the true idea of the Christ’ (Lightfoot).

‘Our tendency is to speak of receiving Christ as Saviour rather than as Lord. Worse still, we even catch ourselves half hiding the authoritative demands of the Lord in our eagerness to commend the attractive offers of the Saviour’ (Lucas).

Continue to live in him – lit. ‘continue to walk in him’.  ensuring that your attitude and behaviour is consistent with the declaration you made at your baptism.  The details of this Christian lifestyle will be spelled out in Col 3:1 – 4:6.

The gospel had been ‘handed down’ from God to Paul to Epaphras to the Colossians.  This is the genuine apostolic ‘tradition’, in contrast to ‘the tradition of men’, v8.  The Colossians are urged to continue as they began.

v7 This is quite a mix of metaphors!  Here we have Christians ‘walking in Christ’ (v6, lit.), being rooted like a tree, built up like a house, confirmed and sealed like a legal document, and overflowing like a jug of wine.

The faith probably does not refer here to the subjective exercise of trust in Christ, but rather to ‘the Christian faith’ as a whole.

Christians, then, must be keen to learn, eager to make progress in knowledge and understanding.  But this must be a building upon, and not an undermining of, what they believed at first.  Lucas remarks that too many Christian leaders, converted into an evangelical faith, go on to think that they have ‘outgrown’ such simplicities.

As you were taught – by Epaphras.

Overflowing with thankfulness – ‘Gratitude is that which completes the circle whereby blessings that drop down into our hearts and lives return to the Giver in the form of unending, loving, and spontaneous adoration. Moreover, such giving of thanks increases the sense of obligation (Psa 116:12-14), so that those who overflow with this grace feel all the less ready to turn away from the abundance which they have in Christ Jesus the Lord, and to follow the advice of false teachers.’ (Hendriksen)

2:8 Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 2:9 For in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form, 2:10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head over every ruler and authority.

Barclay (DSB) says that this (8-23) is one of the most difficult passages in all of Paul’s writings, even though its meaning would have been entirely clear to its original readers and hearers.  It is not possible for us to draw a complete picture of the false teachers who were troubling the Colossian church.  Obviously, Paul was able to assume that his readers knew exactly who he was referring to, and therefore he didn’t need to give a full account.  Piecing together what he does say about them, we can agree, with Hendriksen, that the false teacher was an amalgam of ‘philosopher-ritualist-angel worshiper-ascetic-visionary’.

The original gives both rhythm and emphasis: translated literally, ”according to human tradition, according to the basic principles of this world, not according to Christ.”

Takes you captive translates sylagōgein, and, according to Wright, Paul may well intend a pun on ‘synagogue’.  They were to ensure that no-one ‘kidnapped’ them, or (more literally) ‘carried them off as plunder’.

Hollow and deceptive philosophy – This echoes the ‘fine-sounding arguments’ of v4.  It would be anachronistic to equate what was meant by the word ‘philosophy’ in Paul’s day with modern philosophical enquiry.  Hendriksen cites Josephus, for example, who refers to three Jewish schools of philosophy – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. In any case, Paul is not arguing here against philosophical enquiry per se, even though any such enquiry conducted without reference to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ will be ultimately futile.  He is, rather, arguing specifically against the Colossian error.  He is opposing the thinking which depends on human and worldly things rather than on Christ.

Such ‘philosophy’ is hollow and deceptive, promising much, but delivering little.

There are any number of ‘isms’ that affect, and sometimes infect, the Christian church in our own day: rationalism, individualism, relativism, pluralism.  In our culture generally, it is often held that science can tells us everything, and has completely replaced religion as a source of reliable knowledge.

Human tradition – This teaching was based on human speculation rather than divine revelation.  As with ‘philosophy’, Paul was not ruling all ‘tradition’ out of court, but rather those merely human traditions that deny, ignore, or undermine the truth that God has revealed in Christ Jesus.

The basic principles of this world

What are these 'basic principles'?
The basic meaning of ‘stoicheia’ is ‘members in a series’.  In 2 Pet 3:10,12 they are the materials of the universe, in Heb 5:12 elementary teaching, and in Acts 15:10; Gal 4:3,9 elements of Jewish ceremonial practice.  More specifically, Paul may be referring to:-

  1. specific items of teaching – about circumcision, special days, food and drink, angel-worship and so on – that made up the ‘human tradition’ just spoken of.  Alternatively,
  2. the unseen powers of evil, the elemental spirits that were supposed to rule over individual nations and peoples: this receives some support from the usage in Gal 4:8f (note the reference there to ‘those who by nature are not gods’, who are then characterised as those ‘weak and miserable forces’ (stoicheia).  But this interpretation does not have strong lexical support, and leaves us wondering why Paul would have abandoned here his usual vocabulary regarding spiritual beings (Col 1:16, 20; 2:10, 15).
  3. the material elements of which everything was thought to be composed – usually thought of as air, earth, fire and water.  This was the most common usage of the word in Paul’s day, and many people would have spiritualised or divinised these material elements.  This third view is favoured by Moo.

Rather than on Christ – ‘This is Paul’s most telling criticism of the teaching at Colosse. The philosophy of the heretics did not accord with the truth as revealed in Christ. He is the standard by which all doctrine is to be measured, and any system, whatever its claims, must be rejected if it fails to conform to the revelation God has given us in him.’ (EBC)

‘It is characteristic of Paul in Colossians to use the vocabulary of his opponents, though often in a different sense. Instances of this in the present passage may be “philosophy” (v.8), “fullness” (v.9), “Deity” (v.9), “powers and authorities” (v.15), “humility” (v.18), “disqualify” (v.18), and “self-imposed worship” (v.23).’ (EBC)

Lucas (BST) urges us to recognise the attractiveness of the false teaching that Paul is now opposing.  ‘It urged upon these young Christians the challenge of fullness of spiritual life and experience. It called upon them to be satisfied with nothing less than a life free from the stain and tyranny of sin. It pointed the way to a zeal and devotion that put to shame all complacence or half-heartedness. It spoke of the need to get out of the shallows, and open the heart and mind to the deep things of God. It made much both of leaving the rudimentary stages of spirituality and of the possibilities of swift advance to a wider understanding.’

For – Paul now gives the reason why the Colossians must not be captivated by this ‘philosophy’.

The Deity – not  theiotēs, ‘divinity’, but theotēs, ‘Deity’.  Cf. Col 1:19.  Paul is not saying here that Christ is like God, but that he is God; not merely that he possessed divine attributes, but that in him dwells the very essence of God.

Lives – carries the idea of taking up permanent residence.

In bodily form – This is taken by many to refer to the incarnation (so Lightfoot and others).  If so, this verse succinctly teaches the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ.  If the first part of this verse relates to Jn 1:1, ‘the Word was God’, then the second part relates to Jn 1:14, ‘the Word became flesh’.

Others (including Percy and Hendriksen) think that this expression means ‘fully’, ‘concentrated’, or ‘fully realised’.  It would then be equivalent to Col 1:15, which says that Christ is ‘the image of the invisible God’.

Moo remarks that this language of ‘dwelling’ is a conscious echo of the OT, where God is said to dwell in the Temple, Psa 68:16.  But now God does not dwell in a building but in a body.  And this fact itself stands in opposition to that dualism, so prevalent in Paul’s day, according to which true spirituality could only be attained by abandoning or subduing the body.

If Christ is supreme, then any teaching that bypasses him must be rejected (v8).  All other objects of worship become idols in contrast to him.  As Wright points out, Paul also shows here that monotheism, which would have proved so attractive to Gentiles brought up to believe in the confusing pagan pantheon, is affirmed in Christian teaching.  Christ is not another, separate Deity: he is the embodiment of the one true and living God.

‘In contrast to Gnostic ideas that only some greatly impoverished expression of deity could have any dealings with this material and evil world, Paul explicitly declares, of the incarnate Son, that “in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2.9).  Also, in this immediate context and in this very connection, Paul warns his readers, “Beware, lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2.8).  Such a warning may still have pertinent present-day application.  Just as some first-century Christians needed to beware of Gnostic theories, so some twentieth-century Christians may need to beware of so-called kenotic theories.’ (Alan Stibbs)

Fullness in Christ – Without Christ we must remain forever empty, forever unfulfilled, unable to attain the true end of our existence. But, united with him, we form part of a living body, with Christ as the head.  We should not then be distracted by paying our respects to angels and other created beings.  However lofty and mighty they might be, they are but his subjects and servants.  We are in direct union with the Lord of all these beings.  ‘Possessing him, we possess all. There was no need, therefore, for the Colossians to turn to the “philosophy” of the errorists, the ritual of the Mosaic law, or the spirit-beings worshiped by the pagan world.’ (EBC)

Taking the parallels in Eph 1:23; 3:19 into account, Wright suggests that Paul’s meaning is that ‘God intends to flood the lives of men and women, and ultimately the whole creation, with his own love, power and richness, and that he has already begun to put this plan into effect through Christ and by his Spirit. That is the Colossians’ inheritance in Christ, and they can want nothing more from any other source.’

Many today argue strenuously for or against ‘religion’.  But the consistent message of Scripture, underlined here by Paul, is that ‘religion’ is not in itself a good thing.  It may be good or evil, depending on its motives, methods, objects, and results.  Like the people of Judah in Isaiah’s day (Isa 48:1ff), the Colossians errorists had plenty of religion: but they did not hold it in truth or righteousness.

Head over every power and authority – These are probably the ‘powers’ listed in Col 1:16, and may be the ‘stoicheia’ of Col 2:8.  We should not be distracted by paying our respects to angels and other created beings. However lofty and mighty they might be, they are but his subjects and servant. We are in communion with the Lord of all these beings.

Christ is head over these powers and authorities in the sense that he has authority over them.  ‘It is important to observe that though Christ is here described as head, the powers and authorities are not called his body. That distinction is reserved for Christ’s people.’ (EBC)

‘All power structures, ancient or modern, whether political, economic or racial, have the potential to become rivals to Christ, beckoning his followers to submit themselves to them in order to find a fuller security. The invitation is as blasphemous as it is unnecessary. Christ brooks no rivals. His people need no-one but him.’ (Wright)

2:11 In him you also were circumcised—not, however, with a circumcision performed by human hands, but by the removal of the fleshly body, that is, through the circumcision done by Christ. 2:12 Having been buried with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him through your faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead.

Fullness in Christ

According to the verses which follow, Christians are complete in Christ because:-

  1. In him their sinful nature has been dealt with, v11.
  2. In him they have been raised to new life, v12.
  3. In him all their sins have been forgiven, v13.
  4. In him all the requirements and accusations of the law have been satisfied, v14.
  5. In him the spiritual powers arrayed against them have been disarmed, v15.

Paul now moves from a general to a more specific consideration of the ‘Colossian heresy’.  It seems to have been a strange mixture of Jewish and pagan elements.  These false teacher probably posed as Christians, indeed, better Christians than others.

Circumcised – Circumcision was the surgical removal of the male foreskin, usually carried out when the baby boy was 8 days old. It was a sign of God’s covenant with his people, Gen 17:9 ff.

Circumcision was also intended to be an outward sign of an inward change of heart. It spoke of the removal of sin, of the need for God’s people to separate themselves from all that is unholy. Even the OT writers emphasised that the rite by itself is useless: it must be accompanied by a radical Godward change of heart and behaviour, Jer 4:4 9:25.

In NT times, some were insisting that circumcision was essential to salvation, Acts 15:1. Apparently, the Colossian heretics were making the same stipulation.  Paul responds by saying that Christians have already been circumcised; that is to say, that have already undergone the spiritual change that circumcision signifies.

Putting off the sinful nature – The sarkos somatos, the ‘body of flesh’.  Because ‘body’ can refer to a ‘body of people’ (as in the ‘body of Christ’), Wright thinks that Paul is thinking metaphorically of the ‘stripping off’, in baptism, of those human allegiances to which they were formerly committed.

The circumcision done by Christ – The circumcision which Christ has done is an inward work of grace, not done by the hands of men.  Paul’s argument here is that Christians have already been ‘circumcised’ in their hearts, by Christ. Therefore, insistence on the physical rite is both unnecessary (because they have already been circumcised) and misleading (since it draws attention away from the achievements of Christ and the absolute priority of faith).

This phrase is, lit., ‘the circumcision of Christ’.  Wright thinks that the NIV translation is slightly strained in identifying Christ as the actual performer of circumcision: he understands this as the circumcision pertaining to Christ, i.e., ‘Christian circumcision’.

This ‘is Paul’s only reference to baptism’s accomplishing what circumcision portrayed. He turns from it at once to describe the change that baptism signifies in the language he prefers: “buried with him in baptism. raised with him through. faith in the power of God.”‘ (EDBT)

The two circumcisions contrasted.  To summarise the differences between the one circumicision and the other: one was a physical, outward, removal of one small part of the body by ‘human hands’; the other is the spiritual, inward removal and casting away of the entire evil nature (‘body of flesh’) by Christ.

Christ has dealt with the guilt, power, and presence of sin

1. The guilt of sin. This is justification, ‘the very hinge and pillar of Christianity’, (Thomas Watson). John Stott has said, ‘Nobody understands Christianity who does not understand…the word “justified”.’ Spurgeon tells the story of a man who was so constantly in debt and continually being arrested by the police, that once, when going by a fence, having caught his sleeve on one of the rails, he turned around and said, “I don’t owe you anything sir.” He thought it was a sheriff. And so it is with sinners. Wherever they go, they think they are going to be arrested. Martin Luther once had a dream, in which Satan came and showed him a list of all his sins. Luther did not excuse himself. His reply was, “Write at the bottom of the list, ‘The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin’.” 1 Jn 1:7; cf Rom 8:1.

2. The power of sin. This is sanctification. The Christian, and only he, is freed from the dominion of sin, Rom 6:14. The process of sanctification entails a life-long and all-out war against the old sinful nature. Packer: ‘Regeneration makes a man’s heart a battlefield, where “the flesh” (the old man) tirelessly disputes the supremacy of “the spirit” (the new man).’ Spurgeon adds, ‘Believe it, Christian, that your sin is a condemned thing. It may kick and struggle, but it is doomed to die.’ The ugly duckling realises that he was really a swan; so we need to realise what God in Christ has done to our sin; we have been released from its tyranny. ‘I’m not under sin’s dominion! I’m a new creature! I’m a child of God!’

3. The presence of sin. This is glorification. See Rom 8:29-30, where Paul links the great themes of redemption in a mighty unbreakable chain, the last piece of which – glorification is so certain that it is spoken of as if it has already taken place. Cf 1 Jn 3:2.

How we struggle with sin! How we long to be holy! How we long for the day when we enter heaven, and the battle is over! God speed the dawning of that blessed day.

‘Finish then thy new creation:/pure and spotless let us be;/Let us see thy great salvation,/Perfectly restored in thee./Changed from glory into glory,/Till in heaven we take our place,/Till we cast our crowns before thee,/Lost in wonder, love and praise.’ (C. Wesley)

Christians are complete in Christ, 2ndly, because they have been raised to new life. Entry into the Christian life is symbolised by baptism, which signifies identification with Christ’s burial (death of the old nature), and resurrection (new life).

Buried with him in baptism – ‘so that his death is counted as their death’ (Wright).  Cf. Rom 6:2-11; Gal 3:27.  It would be quite alien to Paul’s thought to think of this in terms of ‘baptismal regeneration’: note the reference to ‘faith’ which immediately follows.

Wright emphasises the communal aspect of Christian baptism: ‘The candidate, being placed into the family where Christ is loved and served, is in the best possible position to grow into mature Christian faith and life. If we find Paul’s definite statements about the effects of baptism hard to understand, it is probably because we have lost his vision of the church as the loving and welcoming family of God, the people who, by support, example and teaching, enable one another to accept the gospel down to the depths of their being, and so to make real for themselves (among other things) the rich statements of Colossians 2:12.’

Your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead – As Wright says, this is not simply to assent to a fact about Jesus, but rather to recognise a truth about God.  God, by the same power with which he raised Jesus from the dead, has raised the Colossian Christians from their old existence, which was, in fact, a living death, to a new world in which the ‘rulers’ of the old world have no authority.  See Col 1:13.

This does not mean that Christians live entirely in the new world.  We have not yet completely escaped the ‘rigours and temptations’ (Wright) of this life.  On this, see 1 Cor 4:8; 2 Tim 2:18.

2:13 And even though you were dead in your transgressions and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he nevertheless made you alive with him, having forgiven all your transgressions. 2:14 He has destroyed what was against us, a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us. He has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. 2:15 Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

See the parallel passage, Eph 2:12.

Christians are complete in Christ, 3rdly, because their sins have been forgiven.

God made you alive with Christ – ‘When God looks at those who are ‘in’ Christ, he reckons that what is true of Christ (particularly his death and resurrection) is true of them also.’ (Wright)

The Jews had a widespread belief in a final resurrection.  But Paul teaches that resurrection has, for the Christian, already begun.  The two ages – the new and the old – overlap.  ‘At one moment [Paul] must emphasize, as here, that believers already partake in the life and power of Christ’s resurrection. At another (e.g. Col 3:5–11; Rom. 8:12–15) he must stress the consequent obligation to ‘put to death’ all that still remains of the old sinful life.’ (Wright)

He forgave us all our sins – Note the shift from ‘you’ to ‘we’: ‘the Colossians have joined Paul in the people of God; Paul joins them in the category of forgiven sinners.’ (Wright)

The theme of forgiveness is prominent in Colossians: see Col 1:13f; 2:13; 3:12f.  This is particularly apt, given that the church met in the house of Philemon.  It is as if Paul is gently saying: “Philemon, if the Lord did all this for you, should you not, with gladness of heart, forgive Onesimus, and fully accept him as a beloved brother?” (Hendriksen)

‘Paul does not attempt here a full theological statement of the achievement of Calvary. He aims, more specifically, to show how those things that might have excluded the Colossians from God’s people were dealt with on the cross.’ (Wright)

Having canceled the written code – or, ‘canceling the written code’.

But what is the written code, with its regulations?  If Eph 2:15 is a parallel, then the Mosaic law is meant.  But there are other nuances here as well, for the law functions metaphorically as a sort of ‘IOU’, or record of sins.  It was ‘against us’ and ‘stood opposed to us’ in that it ‘shut up’ the Jews under sin and ‘shut out’ the Gentiles from membership of God’s people (Wright).

On the law being against us, see Gal 3:10; cf. Deut 27:26.

In what sense did God ‘take away’ the written code, ‘nailing it to the cross’?  Some think that Paul is referring back to the titulus, “The King of the Jews” which was nailed to the cross as the ostensible reason for his execution.  In this case, Paul is affirming that the real reason for the crucifixion was to deal with the law, with its burden of guilt and condemnation.  Christ dies as our substitute and representative, in order that we might live.  The same truth is expressed in different terms in Gal 3:13 and 2 Cor 5:21.

One implication of this is the point out the folly of looking to Judaism as either a replacement for, or an enhancement of, Christian faith and membership of God’s people.  ‘The Torah was not a help, but a hindrance; God has erased its accusing demands and removed them from the scene altogether. No longer need Jews be under its curse; no longer can it keep Gentiles out of God’s family. No longer can it bar the way to the life of the age to come.’ (Wright)

Here, then, is the 4th reason Christians are complete in Christ: in him the requirements and accusations of the law have been fully satisfied. The ‘written code’ is a statement of debt, a certificate of bankruptcy: the Mosaic law is meant, under which everyone is a debtor to God, Gal 3:10.

In Christ, the debt has been erased, the penalty has been paid, we are freed from our obligations to it, ‘its claims against us can never again alienate us from God’ (EBC).  ‘God has not only removed the debt; he has also destroyed the document on which the debt was recorded.’ (NBC)

This verse reflects an ancient oriental custom regarding the settlement of debts. When the debt was settled, because it had been either paid or cancelled, the creditor would take the cancelled bond and nail it over the door of the debtor, so that everyone might see that it had been paid in full.

‘This does not mean that the moral law has lost significance for the believer. It cannot imply that he should now forget about loving God above all and the neighbor as himself. On the contrary, the law of love has eternal validity (Rom 13:8-9; Gal 5:14). It is the believer’s supreme delight. He obeys it our of gratitude for the salvation that he has already received as a gift of God’s sovereign grace. But he has been discharged from the law viewed as a code of rules and regulations, a means of obtaining eternal life, a curse threatening to destroy him.’ (Hendriksen)

Here is a further reason Christians are complete in Christ: in him the spiritual powers arrayed against them have been disarmed, so that we need never be overawed by them again.

Having disarmed the powers and authorities – ‘Disarmed’ = ‘stripped’.

MacLeod (Christ Crucified) explains that the verb is in the middle voice, which would normally give the meaning ‘he stripped them off from himself’.  Moreover, the subject of the paragraph is God, not Jesus, leading to the difficult thought that God stripped the evil powers and authorities off from himself.  However, there is ‘good precedent’ for taking the verb as an active one, giving the meaning expressed in the NIV.

He stripped them of their authority.  ‘He has stripped the powers and authorities just as a conquered antagonist was stripped of his weapons and armor and put to public shame.’ (EBC)

The powers and authorities are taken by some (including Wright) to stand for power structures generally.  It was, after all, the rulers and authorities of Rome and of Israel that had conspired to put Jesus to death.  They stripped him naked, held him up to public contempt, and celebrated their victory over him.  But the wonderful, paradoxical, truth is, that ‘on the cross God was stripping them naked, was holding them up to public contempt, and leading them in his own triumphal procession—in Christ, the crucified Messiah.’ (Wright)

Others take them to be evil angels, who entice people to follow false beliefs and evil practices. We certainly should not be sceptical about the existence of such beings; but neither should we be scared by them.  Their weapons have been taken away, and they have been shown up for what they really are.

With regard to the character and influence of these ‘powers and authorities’, we note that their leader is in one place likened to a ‘roaring lion’ (2 Pet 5:8), and in another, to an ‘angel of light’ (2 Cor 11:14).  The former guise applies especially to his overt activity in pagan cultures, lacking the wholesome restraint that comes from a knowledge of the gospel.  The latter guise applies especially to his covert activity in places where the gospel still has some influence.  It is sobering to realise how effectively Satan and his angels can infiltrate the Christian church.

He made a public spectacle of them – ‘he exposed them to public disgrace by exhibiting them to the universe as his captives.’ (EBC)

‘In the days before the modern news media, the most spectacular method of announcing a far-off victory to people at home was to march in triumph through the city, displaying the booty taken from conquered peoples, and leading a host of bedraggled prisoners through the streets as a public spectacle.’ (Wright)

Triumphing over them by the cross – The original is more ambiguous – he triumphed over them ‘en auto’, ‘by him’, or ‘by it’.  But, as McLeod says, it makes little difference, for the cross was his cross: ‘Christ crucified was God’s agent in disarming Satan, and the cross was his instrument.’

‘The picture, quite familiar in the Roman world, is that of a triumphant general leading a parade of victory. The conqueror, riding at the front in his chariot, leads his troops through the streets of the city. Behind them trails a wretched company of vanquished kings, officers, and soldiers—the spoils of battle. Christ, in this picture, is the conquering general; the powers and authorities are the vanquished enemy displayed as the spoils of battle before the entire universe (cf. 2 Cor 2:14). To the casual observer the cross appears to be only an instrument of death, the symbol of Christ’s defeat; Paul sees it as Christ’s chariot of victory.’ (EBC)

‘Did not Christ triumph over them in the desert of temptation? (Mt 4:1-11). Did he not bind the strong man? (Mt 12:29), casting out demons again and again to prove it? Did he not see Satan fallen as lightning from heaven? (Lk 10:18). When the devil and his hosts asserted themselves from Gethsemane to Golgotha (Lk 22:3; 22:53; cf. Psa 22:12, Psa 22:16), did not Christ by his vicarious death deprive Satan of even a semblance of legal ground on which to base his accusations? Was not the accuser of the brothers cast down, and this not only by means of Christ’s vicarious death but also by his triumphant resurrection, ascension, and coronation? (Rev 12:10; Eph 1:20-23). Is it not true, then, that by these great redemptive acts God publicly exposed these evil powers to disgrace, leading them captive in triumph, chained, as it were, to his triumphal chariot? Yes, in and through this Son of his love, this triumphant Christ, God has achieved the victory over Satan and all his hosts. And that victory is your life and your joy. Whatever you need is in Christ.’ (Hendriksen)

No wonder we call the day on which we commemorate Christ’s death Good Friday!  Let this stand as a corrective to any tendency to think of the cross as defeat, and the resurrection as the reversal of that defeat.  No: the cross was victory, and the resurrection the ratification of that victory.

Heiser (The Bible Unfiltered, p204f) notes that ‘The three verbs Paul uses in Colossians 2:15 are apekduomai (“disarm”), deigmatizō (“put to shame” or “make a public display of”), and thriambeuō (“triumph over”)…Taken together, they refer to a public humiliation, a stripping of authority, or a loss of status and office.’

Heiser says that the key to meaning is in the reference to the ‘rulers and authorities’.  ‘These terms are part of Paul’s stock vocabulary for powers of darkness in the spiritual realm (“heavenly places”; Eph 3:10; 6:12). These terms are often used in tandem with others, such as “thrones” and “dominions” p 206 (Eph 1:21; Col 1:16). They are all labels for geographical dominion by spiritual powers. They reflect the cosmic-geographical supernatural worldview inherited by Paul from the Old Testament, where the gods “allotted” by Yahweh to the nations in punishment at Babel (Gen 11:1–9; Deut 32:8–9; Dan 10:13) turned away from him and seduced the Israelites (Deut 4:19–20; 17:2–3; 29:24–26; 32:17; Ps 82).’

‘Because of the cross,’ (Heiser concludes) ‘these hostile spiritual beings have lost—and are still losing—their status and rank over the nations as the kingdom of Christ expands over the world. They ultimately will be replaced by forgiven believers (Rev 2:25–27) who will “judge angels” (1 Cor 6:3), having become the new, glorified children of God at the end of the age (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1–3; Rom 8:18–19).’

2:16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days—2:17 these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ!

Therefore – because you are complete in Christ, you are not longer subject to those things which were merely preparatory to Christ.

Do not let anyone judge you – pass judgment on you, seeking to disqualify you from the people of God.

‘The false teachers at Colosse laid down rigid restrictions with regard to eating and drinking and with regard to the observance of the religious calendar. ‘Therefore’ shows that this and the following warnings grow out of what Paul says of Christ’s complete sufficiency in the preceding verses. There is perhaps a special reference to his removal of the law and his triumph over the forces of evil (vv14f). In the light of what Christ did, the Colossians were to let no one “judge” their standing before God on the basis of their observance or nonobservance of the regulations of the Mosaic law. In such matters the principle of Christ liberty comes into play. (cf Gal 5:1) Elsewhere Paul insists that under some circumstances Christian freedom should be voluntarily limited by one’s respect for the tender conscience of a weaker brother…But (cf. Rom 14:1ff 1 Cor 8:1ff) “at Colosse it is precisely Christian liberty that requires to be asserted in the face of specious attempts to undermine it” (Bruce).

Graham Goldsworthy (Gospel and Kingdom, p65) challenges the view that the rationale for the OT food laws lay only in hygiene considerations:- ‘The “passing away” of the food laws results from the coming of Christ, not from the invention of the refrigerator!’

Religious festival, New Moon celebration, and Sabbath day probably refer to various holy days of the Jewish calendar – annual, monthly, and weekly…Paul’s thought is that the Christian is freed from obligations of this kind (cf v14; Gal 4:9-11 5:1). No one, therefore, should be permitted to make such things a test of piety or fellowship. (cf Rom 14:1ff) Christianity, as Eadie explains, “is too free and exuberant to be trained down to ‘times and seasons’…Its feast is daily, for every day is holy; its moon never wanes, and its serene tranquillity is an unbroken Sabbath.” Moulton’s caution, however, is apropos today. He writes, “In past generations this verse might…have been gently shown to Sabbatarians. Now they are harder to find. It is not that we have learnt its lesson, but that we care less about worship.”‘ (Curtis Vaughan, Expositor’s Bible Commentary)

Walter Chantry claims that the reference to ‘Sabbath day’ is to any of the ceremonial sabbath days added by Moses to the moral weekly sabbath. (cf Lev 23:24,32,39 25:4, etc) ‘Surely it is of these purely ceremonial “sabbaths” that Paul speaks in Col 2:16f. He is not releasing Christians from the sabbath day over which the Son of man is lord!’ (God’s Righteous Kingdom, 134)

These are a shadow of the things that were to come – Christianity, then, does not replace Judaism, but fulfils it.

Hendriksen remarks: ‘Though it was not wrong for the Jew, trained from his infancy in the law, for a period of transition to observe some of these customs as mere customs, having nothing whatever to do with salvation, it was certainly wrong to ascribe to them a value which they did not have, and to try to impose them upon the Gentiles.’

2:18 Let no one who delights in humility and the worship of angels pass judgment on you. That person goes on at great lengths about what he has supposedly seen, but he is puffed up with empty notions by his fleshly mind. 2:19 He has not held fast to the head from whom the whole body, supported and knit together through its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Delight in false humility – As someone one put it, ‘they are proud in their humility; proud that that they are not proud.’

Worship of angels – Does Paul mean worship of angels by humans or the worship angels themselves offer to God?  The first alternative seems more likely, although Wright suggests that Paul may be using irony (again) here, as if to say: ‘You spend so much time speculating about angels that you are virtually idolising them’.  Hendriksen cites a range of evidence that indicates that angel-worship was quite prevalent in this area and at that time.

There is very considerable interest in angels in our own day, much of which looks more like spiritualism that Christianity, and therefore having more to do with evil spirits than the Spirit of Christ.

The connection between ‘false humility’ and ‘the worship of angels’ is not clear.  Perhaps these false teachers considered it presumptuous to believe in direct access to God through Christ, and therefore thought it suitably humble to go through various angelic mediators. They supported this contention with talk of visions. But this humility is false because it is based on man’s speculation rather than divine revelation. These teachers wanted to disqualify ordinary Christians on the grounds that they were not ‘following the rules’.

Paul distinguishes carefully between the paranormal and the truly spiritual.  His warning is, as Wright remarks, pertinent in every phase of the history of religion.

Goes into detail about what he has seen – Lit. ‘people who … try to enter into some vision of their own’ (NEB).  To complicate the interpretation of this difficult phrase further, some manuscripts have ‘not of their own’, and this is reflected in AV and other translations.  Wright thinks that, once again, Paul is being ironical: rather than entering into the worship of heaven itself, all these people are doing is entering into a set of fantasies of their own making.

He has lost connection with the Head – This implies that they are Christians who have become misguided.  However, the expressed could equally be rendered, ‘not holding on to the Head’, which leaves it possible that these people were Jews who had never embraced the Christian faith.

The apex of Paul’s argument is that the heretic has either lost contact with Christ, or was never connected to him in the first place.  The irony here is that those who were seeking to exclude, or ‘disqualify’ the Colossian Christians were, in fact, excluding and disqualifying themselves.  ‘The true test of whether or not one belongs to God’s people is neither the observance of dietary laws and Jewish festivals, nor the cultivation of super-spiritual experiences, but whether one belongs to Christ, alive with his life.’ (Wright)

Christ, as head, is the means of growth and source of unity of the body. The Christ-centred view of the church stands in marked contrast to the ecclesiastical systems of human devising.

‘Private visions isolate individuals; dietary laws isolated the Jewish nation from the rest of the world; but in God’s plan all belong together in mutual interdependence. It is no shame when a Christian finds that he or she cannot grow spiritually without support and help from fellow believers; it is, rather, a surprise that anyone should have thought such a thing possible, let alone desirable.’ (Wright)

Grows as God causes it to grow – lit. ‘grows with the growth of God’.  The life and power of the church is God’s own life and power, Col 1:11.

2:20 If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to them as though you lived in the world? 2:21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” 2:22 These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings. 2:23 Even though they have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility achieved by an unsparing treatment of the body—a wisdom with no true value—they in reality result in fleshly indulgence.

Now begins (vv20-23) a transition into the more directly practical teaching of chapter 3.  Note the parallel between v20 (‘since you died with Christ…’) and Col 3:1 (‘since you have been raised with Christ…’).

You died with Christ – Death, as Wright remarks, ‘releases people from their previous status’.

Why…do you submit to its rules – Or, since there is no indication that they had actually capitulated to the false teaching, perhaps better taken as a warning rather than as a rebuke: ‘why should you submit to its rules?’

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” – Hendriksen quotes Lightfoot: ‘Some [of these prohibitions] were doubtless re-enactments of the Mosaic law; while others would be exaggerations or additions of a rigorous asceticism, such as we find among the Essene prototypes of these Colossian heretics; e.g., the avoidance of oil, of wine, or of flesh-meat, the shunning of contact with a stranger or a religious inferior, and the like.’

Whether they also forbade marriage (1 Tim 4:3) we do not know.

There is a (conscious?) echo here of Jesus’ teaching in Mt 15:20 and Mk 7:1-23.

Perish with use – not simply wear out with time, but ‘perish by their very use’ (JB).  See Mt 15:17.  There is nothing permanent about food and drink,  They are taken into the body, and pass out of it as waste products.  It is absurd to think that they can contribute to our eternal salvation.

They are based on human commands and teachings – an echo of Isa 29:13.  The NIV’s ‘because’ should be omitted: the two clauses should be regarded as parallel, not the first being explained by the second.

Their self-imposed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment of the body – ‘It is not difficult to picture the sort of religion Paul is opposing here. Its elaborate liturgies and seemingly rigorous self-abasing asceticism give it a name for serious piety: but it is a sham.’

There is a superficial appeal in detailed prohibitions, brutal self-denial, religious rituals, and the appearance of humility, especially when these are bound up in an impressive system of philosophy. But all these things are man-made (‘self-imposed’). By pandering to human pride, they indulge and inflame fallen human nature. They are not authorised by God. They are contrary to the gospel of Christ.

‘Neglect of the body will never cure the soul. Man’s body as well as his soul is dear to the Lord, being a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).’ (Hendriksen)

Clement of Alexandria (ACCS): ‘It follows that celibacy is not particularly praiseworthy unless it arises through love of God. The blessed Paul says of those who show a distaste for marriage: “In the last times people will abandon the faith, attaching themselves to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demonic powers that they should abstain from food, at the same time forbidding marriage.” Again he says, “Do not let anyone disqualify you in forced piety of self-mortification and severity to the body.”’