2:8-23 Beware lest there will be anyone who will carry you off as his spoil, by insisting on the necessity of a so-called philosophy, which is, in fact, an empty delusion, a philosophy which has been handed down by human tradition, and which is concerned with the elements of this world, and not with Christ; for in him there dwells the fullness of the divine nature; and you have found this fullness in him who is the head of every power and authority. In him you have been circumcised with a circumcision not made by man's hands, a circumcision which consists in putting off the whole of that part of you which is dominated by sinful human nature, which you were able to do by the circumcision which belongs to Christ. You were buried with him in the act of baptism, and in that act you were raised with him through your faith in the effective working of God, who raised him from the dead. God made you alive with him, when you were dead in your sins and were still uncircumcised Gentiles. He forgave you all your sins, and wiped out the charge-list which set out all your self-admitted debts, a charge-list which was based on the ordinances of the law and was in direct opposition to you. He nailed it to his Cross and put it right out of sight. He stripped the powers and authorities of all their power and publicly put them to shame, and, through the Cross, led them captive in his triumphal train.
Let no one take you to task in matters of food or drink, or with regard to yearly festivals and monthly new moons and weekly sabbaths. These are only the shadow of things to come; the real substance belongs to Christ. Let no one rob you of your prize by walking in ostentatious humility in the worship of angels, making a parade of the things he has seen, vainly inflated with pride because he is dominated by his sinful human nature and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, supplied and held together by the joints and muscles, increases with the increase which only God can give.
If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you continue to submit yourselves to their rules and regulations, as if you were still living in a world without God? "Handle not! Taste not! Touch not!" are their slogans. These are rules which are humanly taught and humanly imposed, and they are rules which deal with things which are destined for decay as soon as they are used. These things have a reputation for wisdom, with their self-imposed devotion and their flaunting humility and their stern treatment of the body, but they have no kind of value in remedying the indulgence of sinful human nature.
There can be no doubt that for us this is one of the most difficult passages Paul ever wrote. For those who heard or read it for the first time it would be crystal clear. The trouble is that it is packed from beginning to end with allusions to the false teaching which was threatening to wreck the Colossian Church. We do not know precisely what that teaching was. Therefore the allusions are obscure and we can only guess. But every sentence and every phrase would go straight home to the minds and the hearts of the Colossians.
It is so difficult that we propose to treat it in a slightly different way from our usual practice. We have set it out as a whole, in what is more of a paraphrase than a translation. We will take out its leading ideas, for it is possible to see the main lines of the false teaching which was troubling Colosse; and then, after we have looked at it as a whole, we shall examine it in more detail in shorter sections.
One thing clear is that the false teacher swished the Colossians to accept what can only be called additions to Christ. They were teaching that Jesus Christ himself is not sufficient; that he was not unique; that he was one among many manifestations of God; and that it was necessary to know and to serve other divine powers in addition to him. We can distinguish five additions to Christ which these false teachers wished to make.
(i) They wished to teach men an additional philosophy ( Colossians 2:8 ). As they saw it, the simple truth preached by Jesus and preserved in the gospel was not enough. It had to be filled out by an elaborate system of pseudo-philosophical thought which was far too difficult for the simple and which only the intellectual could understand.
(ii) They wished men to accept a system of astrology ( Colossians 2:8 ). As we shall see, there is a doubt about the meaning but we think it most likely that the elements of the world were the elemental spirits of the universe, especially of the stars and the planets. It was the teaching of these false teachers that men were still under these influences and needed a special knowledge, beyond that which Jesus could give, to be liberated from them.
(iii) They wished to impose circumcision on Christians ( Colossians 2:11 ). Faith was not enough; circumcision had to be added. A badge in the flesh was to take the place of, or at least be an addition to, an attitude of the heart.
(iv) They wished to lay down ascetic, rules and regulations ( Colossians 2:16 , Colossians 2:20-23 ). They wished to introduce all kinds of rules and regulations about what a man might eat and drink and about what days he must observe as festivals and fasts. All the old Jewish regulations--and more--were to be brought back.
(v) They wished to introduce the worship of angels ( Colossians 2:18 ). They were teaching that Jesus was only one of many intermediaries between God and man and that all these intermediaries must receive their worship.
It can be seen that here there is a mixture of Gnosticism and Judaism. The intellectual knowledge and the astrology come direct from Gnosticism; the asceticism and the rules and regulations from Judaism. What happened was this. We have seen that the Gnostics believed that all kinds of special knowledge, beyond the gospel, was needed for salvation. There were Jews who joined forces with the Gnostics and declared that the special knowledge required was none other than the knowledge which Judaism could give. This explains why the teaching of the Colossians' false teachers combined the beliefs of Gnosticism with the practices of Judaism.
The one thing certain is that the false teachers taught that Jesus Christ and his teaching and work were not in themselves sufficient for salvation. Let us now take the passage section by section.
Traditions And The Stars ( Colossians 2:8-10 )
2:8-10 Beware lest there will be anyone who will carry you off as his spoil, by insisting on the necessity of a so-called philosophy, which is, in fact, an empty delusion, a philosophy which has been handed down by human tradition, and which is concerned with the elements of this world and not with Christ; for in him there dwells the fullness of the divine nature; and you have found this fullness in him who is the head of every power and authority.
Paul begins by drawing a vivid picture of the false teachers. He speaks of anyone who will carry you off as his spoil. The word is sulagogein ( Greek #4812 ) and could be used of a slave-dealer carrying away the people of a conquered nation into slavery. To Paul it was an amazing and a tragic thing that men who had been liberated ( Colossians 1:12-14 ), could contemplate submitting themselves to a new and disastrous slavery.
These men offer a philosophy which they declare is necessary in addition to the teaching of Christ and the words of the gospel.
(i) It is a philosophy which has been handed down by human tradition. The Gnostics were in the habit of claiming that their special teaching was teaching which had been told by word of mouth by Jesus, sometimes to Mary, sometimes to Matthew, and sometimes to Peter. They did, in fact, say that there were things which Jesus never told the crowd and communicated only to the chosen few. The charge Paul makes against these teachers is that their teaching is a human thing; it has no basis in Scripture. It is a product of the human mind; and not a message of the Word of God. To speak like this is not to drift into fundamentalism or submit to a tyranny of the written word, but to hold that no teaching can be Christian teaching which is at variance with the basic truths of Scripture and with the Word of God.
(ii) It is a philosophy which has to do with the elements of this world. This is a much-discussed phrase of which the meaning is still in doubt. The word for elements is stoicheia ( Greek #4747 ), and stoicheia has two meanings.
(a) It means literally things which are set out in a row. It is, for instance, the word for a file of soldiers. But one of its commonest meanings is the letters of the alphabet, no doubt because they form a series which can be set out in a row. Because stoicheia ( Greek #4747 ) can mean the letters of the alphabet, it can also very commonly mean elementary instruction in any subject. We still speak of learning the A B C of a subject, when we mean taking the first steps in it. It is possible that this is the meaning here. Paul may be saying, "These false teachers claim that they are giving you knowledge which is very advanced and very profound. In point of fact it is knowledge which is uninstructed and rudimentary because at the best it is knowledge of the human mind. The real knowledge, the real fullness of God, is in Jesus Christ. If you listen to these false teachers, so far from receiving deep spiritual knowledge, you are simply slipping back into rudimentary instruction which you should have left behind long ago."
(b) Stoicheia ( Greek #4747 ) has a second meaning. It means the elemental spirits of the world, and especially the spirits of the stars and planets. There are still people today who take astrology seriously. They wear signs of the zodiac charms and read newspaper columns which tell what is forecast for them in the stars. But it is almost impossible for us to realize how dominated the ancient world was by the idea of the influence of the elemental spirits and the stars. Astrology was then, as someone has said, the queen of the sciences. Even men so great as Julius Caesar and Augustus, so cynical as Tiberius, so level-headed as Vespasian would take no step without consulting the stars. Alexander the Great believed implicitly in the influence of the stars. Men and women believed that their whole lives were fixed by them. If a man was born under a fortunate star all was well; if he was born under an unlucky star, he could not look for happiness; if any undertaking was to have a chance of success, the stars must be observed. Men were the slaves of the stars.
There was one possibility of escape. If men knew the right pass-words and the right formulae, they might escape from this fatalistic influence of the stars; and a great part of the secret teaching of Gnosticism and of kindred faiths and philosophies was knowledge which claimed to give the devotee escape from the power of the stars; and in all probability that was what the false teachers of Colosse were offering. They were saying, "Jesus Christ is all very well, he can do much for you; but he cannot enable you to escape from your subjection to the stars. We alone have the secret knowledge which can enable you to do that." Paul, sufficiently the child of his age to believe in these elemental spirits, answers: "You need nothing but Christ to overcome any power in the universe; for in him is nothing less than the fullness of God and he is the head of every power and authority, for he created them."
The Gnostic teachers offered an additional philosophy; Paul insisted on the triumphant adequacy of Christ to overcome any power in any part of the universe. You cannot at one and the same time believe in the power of Christ and the influence of the stars.
The Real And The Unreal Circumcision ( Colossians 2:11-12 )
2:11-12 In him you have been circumcised with a circumcision not made by man's hands, a circumcision which consists in putting off the whole of that part of you which is dominated by sinful human nature, which you were able to do by the circumcision which belongs to Christ. You were buried with him in the act of baptism and in that act you were raised with him through your faith in the effective working of God, who raised him from the dead.
The false teachers were demanding that Gentile Christians should be circumcised for circumcision was the badge of God's chosen people. God, they argued, had said to Abraham, "This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you, and your descendants after you; Every male among you shall be circumcised" ( Genesis 17:10 ).
All through the history of Israel there had been two views of circumcision. There was the view of those who said that in itself it was enough to put a man right with God. It did not matter whether an Israelite was a good man or a bad man; all that mattered was that he was an Israelite and that he had been circumcised.
But the great spiritual leaders of Israel and the great prophets took a very different view. They insisted that circumcision was only the outward mark of a man who was inwardly dedicated to God. They used the very word in an adventurous sense. They talked of uncircumcised lips ( Exodus 6:12 ), of a heart which was circumcised or uncircumcised ( Leviticus 26:41 ; Ezekiel 44:7 ; Ezekiel 44:9 ; Deuteronomy 30:6 ); of the uncircumcised ear ( Jeremiah 6:10 ). To them being circumcised did not mean having a certain operation carried out on a man's flesh but having a change effected in his life. Circumcision was, indeed, the badge of a person dedicated to God; but the dedication lay not in the cutting of the flesh but in the excision from his life of everything which was against the will of God.
That was the answer of the prophets centuries before: and that was still Paul's answer to the false teachers. He said to them, "You demand circumcision; but you must remember that circumcision does not mean simply the removal of the foreskin from a man's body; it means the putting off of that whole part of his human nature which sets him at variance with God." Then he went on: "Any priest can circumcise a man's foreskin; only Christ can bring about that spiritual circumcision which means cutting away from a man's life everything which keeps him from being God's obedient child."
Paul goes further. For him this was not theory but fact. "That very act," he said, "has already happened to you in baptism." When we think of his view of baptism we must remember three things. In the early Church, as today in the mission field and even in the Church extension areas, men were coming straight out of heathenism into Christianity. They were knowingly and deliberately leaving one way of life for another; and making in the act of baptism a conscious decision. This was of course, before the days of infant baptism which did not and could not come until the Christian family had become a reality.
Baptism in the time of Paul was three things. It was adult baptism; it was instructed baptism; and, wherever possible, it was baptism by total immersion. Therefore the symbolism of baptism was manifest. As the waters closed over the man's head, it was as if he died; as he rose up again from the water, it was as if he rose to new life. Part of him was dead and gone for ever; he was a new man risen to a new life.
But, it must be noted, that symbolism could become a reality only under one condition. It could become real only when a man believed intensely in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It could only happen when a man believed in the effective working of God which had raised Jesus Christ from the dead and could do the same for him. Baptism for the Christian was in truth a dying and a rising again, because he believed that Christ had died and risen again and that he was sharing the experience of his Lord.
"You speak about circumcision," said Paul. "The only true circumcision is when a man dies and rises with Christ in baptism, in such a way that it is not part of his body which is cut away but his whole sinful self which is destroyed, and he is filled with newness of life and the very holiness of God."
Triumphant Forgiveness ( Colossians 2:13-15 )
2:13-15 God made you alive with Christ, when you were dead in your sins and were still uncircumcised Gentiles. He forgave you all your sins and wiped out the charge-list which set out all your self-admitted debts, a charge-list which was based on the ordinances of the law and which was in direct opposition to you. He nailed it to his Cross and put it right out of sight. He stripped the powers and authorities of all their power and publicly put them to shame and, through the Cross, led them captive in his triumphal train.
Almost all great teachers have thought in pictures; and here Paul uses a series of vivid pictures to show what God in Christ has done for men. The intention is to show that Christ has done all that can be done and all that need be done, and that there is no need to bring in any other intermediaries for the full salvation of men. There are three main pictures here.
(i) Men were dead in their sins. They had no more power than dead men either to overcome sin or to atone for it. Jesus Christ by his work has liberated men both from the power and from the consequences of sin. He has given them a life so new that it can only be said that he has raised them from the dead. Further, it was the old belief that only the Jews were dear to God, but this saving power of Christ has come even to the uncircumcised Gentile. The work of Christ is a work of power, because it put life into dead men; it is a work of grace, because it reached out to those who had no reason to expect the benefits of God.
(ii) But the picture becomes even more vivid. As the King James Version has it, Jesus Christ blotted out the handwriting of ordinances which was against us; as we have translated it, he wiped out the charge-list which set out all our self-admitted debts, a charge-list based on the ordinances of the law. There are two Greek words here on which the whole picture depends.
(a) The word for handwriting or charge-list is cheirographon ( Greek #5498 ). It literally means an autograph; but its technical meaning--a meaning which everyone would understand--was a note of hand signed by a debtor acknowledging his indebtedness. It was almost exactly what we call an I.O.U. Men's sins had piled up a vast list of debts to God and it could be said that men definitely acknowledged that debt. More than once the Old Testament shows the children of Israel hearing and accepting the laws of God and calling down curses on themselves should they fail to keep them ( Exodus 24:3 ; Deuteronomy 27:14-26 ). In the New Testament we find the picture of the Gentiles as having, not the written law of God which the Jews had, but the unwritten law in their hearts and the voice of conscience speaking within ( Romans 2:14-15 ). Men were in debt to God because of their sins and they knew it. There was a self-confessed indictment against them, a charge-list which, as it were, they themselves had signed and admitted as accurate.
(b) The word for wiping out is the Greek verb exaleiphein ( Greek #1813 ). To understand that word is to understand the amazing mercy of God. The substance on which ancient documents were written was either papyrus, a kind of paper made of the pith of the bulrush, or vellum, a substance made of the skins of animals. Both were fairly expensive and certainly could not be wasted. Ancient ink had no acid in it; it lay on the surface of the paper and did not, as modern ink usually does, bite into it. Sometimes a scribe, to save paper, used papyrus or vellum that had already been written upon. When he did that, he took a sponge and wiped the writing out. Because it was only on the surface of the paper, the ink could be wiped out as if it had never been. God, in his amazing mercy, banished the record of our sins so completely that it was as if it had never been; not a trace remained.
(c) Paul goes on. God took that indictment and nailed it to the Cross of Christ. It used to be said that in the ancient world when a law or an ordinance was cancelled, it was fastened to a board and a nail was driven clean through it. But it is doubtful if that was the case and if that is the picture here. Rather it is this--on the Cross of Christ the indictment that was against us was itself crucified. It was executed and put clean out of the way, so that it might never be seen again. Paul seems to have searched human activity to find a series of pictures which would show how completely God in his mercy destroyed the condemnation that was against us.
Here indeed is grace. And that new era of grace is further underlined in another rather obscure phrase. The charge-list had been based on the ordinances of the law. Before Christ came men were under law and they broke it because no man can perfectly keep it. But now law is banished and grace has come. Man is no longer a criminal who has broken the law and is at the mercy of God's judgment; he is a son who was lost and can now come home to be wrapped around with the grace of God.
(iii) One other great picture flashes on the screen of Paul's mind. Jesus has stripped the powers and authorities and made them his captives. As we have seen, the ancient world believed in all kinds of angels and in all kinds of elemental spirits. Many of these spirits were out to ruin men. It was they who were responsible for demon-possession and the like. They were hostile to men. Jesus conquered them for ever. He stripped them; the word used is the word for stripping the weapons and the armour from a defeated foe. Once and for all Jesus broke their power. He put them to open shame and led them captive in his triumphant train. The picture is that of the triumph of a Roman general. When a Roman general had won a really notable victory, he was allowed to march his victorious armies through the streets of Rome and behind him followed the kings and the leaders and the peoples he had vanquished. They were openly branded as his spoils. Paul thinks of Jesus as a conqueror enjoying a kind of cosmic triumph, and in his triumphal procession are the powers of evil, beaten for ever, for every one to see.
In these vivid pictures Paul sets out the total adequacy of the work of Christ. Sin is forgiven and evil is conquered; what more is necessary? There is nothing that Gnostic knowledge and Gnostic intermediaries can do for men--Christ has done it all already.
Retrogression ( Colossians 2:16-23 )
__ Colossians 2:1-23 __
2:16-23 Let no one take you to task in matters of food or drink, or with regard to yearly festivals and monthly new moons and weekly sabbaths. These are only the shadow of things to come; the real substance belongs to Christ. Let no one rob you of your prize by walking in ostentatious humility in the worship of angels, making a parade of the things which he has seen, vainly inflated with pride because he is dominated by his sinful human nature and not holding fast to the head, from which the whole body, supplied and held together by the joints and muscles, increases with the increase which God alone can give.
If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you continue to submit yourselves to their rules and regulations, as if you were still living in a world without God? "Handle not! Taste not! Touch not!" are their slogans. These are rules which are humanly taught and humanly imposed, and they are rules which deal with things which are destined for decay as soon as they are used. These things have a reputation for wisdom, with their self-imposed devotion and their flaunting humility and their stern treatment of the body, but they have no kind of value in remedying the indulgences of sinful human nature.
This passage has certain basic Gnostic ideas intertwined all through it. In it Paul is warning the Colossians not to adopt certain Gnostic practices, on the grounds that to do so would be not progress but rather retrogression in the faith. Behind it lie four Gnostic practices.
(i) There is Gnostic asceticism ( Colossians 2:16 and Colossians 2:21 ). There is the teaching which involves a whole host of regulations about what can and can not be eaten and drunk. In other words there is a return to all the food laws of the Jews, with their lists of things clean and unclean. As we have seen, the Gnostics considered all matter to be essentially evil. If matter is evil, then the body is evil. If the body is evil, two opposite conclusions may be drawn. (a) If the body is essentially evil, it does not matter what we do with it. Being evil it can be used or abused in any way, and it makes no difference. (b) If the body is evil, it must be kept down; it must be beaten and starved and its every impulse chained down. That is to say, Gnosticism could issue either in complete immorality or in rigid asceticism. It is the rigid asceticism with which Paul is dealing here.
In effect he says, "Have nothing to do with people who identify religion with laws about what you may or may not eat or drink." Jesus himself had said that it made no difference what a man ate or drank ( Matthew 15:10-20 ; Mark 7:14-23 ). Peter had to learn to cease to talk about clean and unclean foods ( Acts 10:1-48 ). Paul uses an almost crude phrase which repeats in different words what Jesus had already said. He says, "These things perish as they are used" ( Colossians 2:22 ). He means exactly what Jesus did when he said that food and drink are eaten and digested, and then excreted from the body, and flushed away down the drain ( Matthew 15:17 ; Mark 7:19 ). Food and drink are so unimportant that they are destined for decay as soon as they are eaten. The Gnostics wished to make religion a thing of regulations about eating and drinking; and there are still those who are more concerned with rules about food than about the charity of the gospel.
(ii) There is the Gnostic and the Jewish observation of days ( Colossians 2:16 ). They observed yearly feasts and monthly new moons and weekly sabbaths. They drew out lists of days which specially belonged to God, on which certain things must be done and certain things must not be done. They identified religion with ritual.
Paul's criticism of this stress on days is quite clear and logical. He says, "You have been rescued from all this tyranny of legal rules. Why do you want to enslave yourself all over again? Why do you want to go back to Jewish legalism and abandon Christian freedom?" The spirit which makes Christianity a thing of regulations is by no means dead yet.
(iii) There are the Gnostic special visions. The King James Version in Colossians 2:18 speaks of the false teacher "intruding into those things which he hath not seen." That is a mistranslation. The correct translation should be "making a parade of the things which he has seen." The Gnostic prided himself upon special visions of secret things which were not open to the eyes of ordinary men and women. No one will deny the visions of the mystics, but there is always danger when a man begins to think that he has attained a height of holiness which enables him to see what common men--as he calls them--cannot see; and the danger is that men will so often see, not what God sends them, but what they want to see.
(iv) There is the worship of angels ( Colossians 2:18 ; Colossians 2:20 ). As we have seen, the Jews had a highly-developed doctrine of angels and the Gnostics believed in all kinds of intermediaries. They worshipped these, while the Christian knows that worship must be kept for God and for Jesus Christ.
Paul makes four criticisms of all this.
(i) He says that this kind of thing is only a shadow of truth; the real truth is in Christ ( Colossians 2:17 ). That is to say, a religion which is founded on eating and drinking certain kinds of food and drink and abstaining from others, a religion which is founded on Sabbath observance and the like, is only a shadow of real religion; real religion is fellowship with Christ.
(ii) He says that there is such a thing as a false humility ( Colossians 2:18 ; Colossians 2:23 ). When they talked of the worship of angels, both the Gnostics and the Jews would have justified it by saying that God is so great and high and holy that we can never have direct access to him and must be content to pray to the angels. But the great truth that Christianity preaches is, in fact, exactly that the way to God is open to the humblest and the simplest person.
(iii) He says that this can lead to sinful pride ( Colossians 2:18 ; Colossians 2:23 ). The man who is meticulous in his observance of special days, who keeps all the food laws and who practises ascetic abstinence is in very grave danger of thinking himself specially good and of looking down on other people. And it is a basic truth of Christianity that no man who thinks himself good is really good, least of all the man who thinks himself better than other people.
(iv) He says that this is a return to unchristian slavery instead of Christian freedom ( Colossians 2:20 ) and that in any event, it does not free a man from fleshly lusts but only keeps them on the leash ( Colossians 2:23 ). Christian freedom comes not from restraining desires by rules and regulations but from the death of evil desires and the springing to life of good desires by virtue of Christ being in the Christian and the Christian in Christ.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)