As we continue our study in Colossians this morning, we are going to see a few things come to the fore. First, Paul seems to be going from passionate to fiery in what he has to say to these Colossian believers. His love for these believers demonstrates not simply a joy over their having come to faith in Christ but now we also see a concern that they may be led away from that faith; second, and related to this, we are going to begin to sense better than we’ve been able to up until now, the occasional nature of New Testament epistles, or letters. When we write a letter to someone —or e-mail, as the case may be—sometimes we have a specific reason, sometimes we don’t. Someone may have been on our mind and so we decide to try and contact them; or perhaps we want to pass along news of some milestone—a birth, marriage, death, or illness we think the recipient may be interested in knowing about. The New Testament letters always fall into the latter category. They are “occasional” not in the sense that they are written from time to time but there are “occasional” in that there is always an occasion—there is always a reason—why these epistles are being written and distributed. And the reason is never “Oh, hi. I’m just writing to see how things are going with you.”
In this morning’s passage, we see Paul not simply indicating his apostleship as he did in the first chapter but he is asserting his apostleship—his authority. Paul is acting upon the commission and call he has received from God in Christ. He begins by stating “how hard [he is] contending for [ἡλίκον ἀγῶνα ἔχω] [the Colossians] and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met [him] personally” (verse 1). First a quick comment about those at Laodicea. Though not a part of the Colossian church, Laodicea is a neighboring city, only about nine miles away, and there was a close relationship between these churches. So, again, Paul’s concern isn’t just for believers he knows but for all believers, whether at Colossae, Laodicea, or any believer, even those who haven’t met him personally. And the first glimpse we have that all is not right—despite Paul’s opening praise for these believers, for their faith in Christ and love for all of God’s people in 1:4—is in his very use of the word “contend” for to “contend” means to engage in a competition or campaign in order to win something or to struggle to surmount a difficulty or danger. As we’ll see, Paul believes that the faith of the Colossians is clearly in danger.
This is the second time we’ve seen Paul use this verb. At the end of our passage last week, in 1:28, Paul stated similarly that he is “strenuously contend[ing] [κοπιῶ ἀγωνιζόμενος] with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in [him].” So we have to ask: If the faith of the Colossians is doing so well, then why would Paul have to work so hard—why would he have to contend—to present them fully mature in Christ?
Though we, of necessity, have separated chapter 1 of this epistle from chapter 2, chapter two is a continuation of what Paul has presented in chapter 1. It’s not a new line of thought. In the opening verses of chapter 2, Paul is underscoring what he has already stated—not only that he is contending, or fighting, for the faith of the Colossians, Laodiceans, and all who haven’t met him personally, but he specifically reiterates his goal—that all believers “may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom (verse 3) are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Having presented in chapter 1 a magnificent hymn of the exalted Christ—in whom all things were created (1:16), who is before all things and in whom all things hold together (1:17), who is the head of the body, the church (1:18), in whom all of God’s fullness dwells (1:19), and through whom all things are reconciled to himself by the peace he has brought about through the shedding his blood on the cross (1:20)—Paul is again reminding these believers of the mystery of God that has been revealed to them in Christ. And Paul’s mentioning again the “mystery” of God, may be an indication that some mystery religion is challenging God’s clear communication of himself in Jesus Christ, his Son. He is the one who is the fount and source of true wisdom and knowledge. As F.F. Bruce has noted, “There can be no appreciation of divine wisdom without a personal knowledge of Christ” (p. 244, Colossian commentary).
Paul makes clear that the reason he has told them these things is so that, (verse 4) “no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.” This is where we begin to see more clearly that Paul wasn’t writing this epistle simply to encourage these believers and say, “Way to go! So glad to hear about your faith in Christ and love for all believers.” No, there’s more going on here. Something is amiss. Some are trying to “deceive” these believers “by fine-sounding arguments”—and Paul, understandably, is concerned about this. He reminds these believers, who are young in their faith, that “though [he is] absent from [them] in body, [he is] present with [them] in spirit and delight[s] to see how disciplined [they] are and how firm [their] faith in Christ is” in verse 5. Now on the one hand Paul’s mention of his being absent in body but present in spirit sounds vaguely threatening—it’s akin to when parents remind a child to behave because even if no one else sees what they do, God sees what they do. Whether absent or present, Paul’s authority stands. On the other hand Paul is also commending these believers as he expresses delight in hearing—no doubt from Epaphras who planted this church and who is now reporting to Paul (see chapter 1:8)—of how disciplined they are and how firm their faith in Christ is.
What Paul appears to be doing in this section of his letter is intermingling his concern for the Colossians about false teachers with encouragement for the faith that is already there. He is strengthening right belief while confronting wrong belief. Verses 6–7 are on the encouraging side. Just as these believers received Christ Jesus as Lord, they are to continue to live their lives in him—and this is possible by means of Christ’s Spirit who indwells all who proclaim him as Lord. Paul’s reversal of the name “Christ Jesus” from what we more commonly say, “Jesus Christ,” underscores what we’ve said previously—that “Jesus Christ” is a name–title combination rather than a first and last name, or a forename and surname, as we might use it. “Christ Jesus” is a declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. And Paul connects the dots even further as he refers to Christ Jesus as Lord—as God—which, of course he was, is, and ever shall be. The Colossians have rightly received Christ Jesus as Lord and Paul exhorts them to continue to live their lives in him, according to how he would have them live, namely, verse 7, “rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as [they] were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” A strong faith requires a strong foundation and it certainly appears that this was true of the faith that was taught to and received by the Colossian believers.
And there’s this lovely addition that their faith ought to be “overflowing with thankfulness.” Isn’t this a wonderful reminder? We should be thankful for who God is and what he has done. We should be thankful for his love for us in Jesus Christ. It’s easy to take God’s love for granted, isn’t it?—especially when things don’t go the way we would like. Yet we should never view our faith as a hedge from suffering the effects of the Fall nor as an insurance policy that will one day get us to heaven. The point of our faith—the point of what God has done in offering up his Son for us—is that we might avail ourselves of his love and of the relationship—the access to himself, of his true wisdom and knowledge—which has now been made possible by Christ trading our sin for his righteousness so we might be able to know and love him with all our of heart, soul, mind, and strength by his Holy Spirit’s dwelling within us. Faith in Christ—both individually and corporately—is something that is precious beyond measure. We should ever and always feel gratitude for it even as we’ve seen Paul expressing his gratitude for the faith of the Colossians and the Colossians for Christ Jesus their Lord.
Having affirmed the faith of the Colossians, in verse 8 Paul’s pendulum swings back from admonishment to warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” Now we can’t be sure what the specifics of these “deceptive philosophies” or the earlier “find-sounding arguments” (v. 5) might be since their content is never spelled out for us. But whatever they are, we do know that they depend on “human tradition” and “elemental spiritual forces” or “basic principles” (another translation) of this world rather than on Christ. In all likelihood these “elemental spiritual forces” is a reference to demonic spirits. Paul is not teaching that the study of philosophy per se is wrong here. He is saying that deceptive philosophy—or philosophy that runs counter to God’s disclosure in his Word is wrong. Deceptive philosophies base their authority not on God’s teaching and word but on “human tradition” that in this case can be traced back to the influence of demonic forces.
These philosophies, in all likelihood, they are specifically challenging Christ’s supremacy. Immediately after warning of deceptive philosophy, in verse 9 Paul again reminds these believers of what he has already said in 1:15 and 19, where he stated, respectively, that “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” and that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ].” In 2:9 he states again “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” The use of this tiny word “for” is important since it helps us follow Paul’s argument—Don’t be taken in by hollow and deceptive philosophy for in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form. Paul has set up a contrast between two sources of authority—one false and built upon this world’s wisdom and a false spiritual understanding, the other true since it is based on God’s revelation, on God’s communication.
In Christ the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form—and verse 10—“1and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” By God’s indwelling Spirit, believers are united with Christ and so should seek his discernment. As John tells us in I John 4:1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” The means of this testing should be God’s truth revealed in Christ. “He is the head over every power and authority” (verse 10) so the Colossians would do well to listen to him, not the fine-sounding arguments or deceptive philosophy others may be teaching them. Paul isn’t denying that there may be other spiritual forces. He is denying that their power exceeds that held by Christ, God in bodily form, through whom all things were created, for whom all things were created, in whom all things hold together. Because Christ Jesus is Lord and God, there is no power or authority, in heaven or on earth, that can possibly be above him.
What Paul says next has led to some to speculate whether the nature of the false teaching might also be tied to some Jewish denouncement of Christianity. After pointing to Christ’s supremacy in verses 9 and 10, Paul says in verse 11 that in Christ these believers “were also circumcised” albeit “with a circumcision not performed by human hands.” However since these believers are Gentiles, not Jews, I don’t think Paul is confronting a challenge from Jewish teaching since Gentiles wouldn’t have viewed that as being authoritative in the first place. If anything, by stating that the Colossians “were circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands” Paul is rather emphasizing that they belong to God just as much as Old Testament believers belonged to God. In the Old Testament, circumcision was a sign—at least for males—of being part of God’s covenant community. But in verse 11 Paul is speaking symbolically, not literally. He’s not saying that one day they woke up to discover that somehow, miraculously, God had circumcised them in their sleep. What he is indicating is that they are as much a part of God’s chosen people as Old Testament Israel was. The second part of verse 11 indicates this as Paul states “Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ.” Paul is using word-play to make his point. In this case it isn’t their physical flesh that has been cut, as is the case with circumcision, but their fleshly—or sinful—nature was cut off when they were “circumcised by Christ”—in other words, when they placed their trust in Christ for salvation from their sins. Circumcision is a sign of belonging to God’s people and these Colossians have been claimed by Christ’s circumcising them—by Christ’s dying and rising for them—that they might know God.
In verse 12, Paul continues this line of thinking. The way in which the Colossians—these Gentile believers—were circumcised by Christ was by dying to their sinful ways in turning to Christ. They were buried with Christ in baptism, “in which [they] were also raised with him through [their] faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Now I don’t want to raise a debate about which form of baptism is the right one since the Greek for “baptism” merely means to wash so I don’t think we can settle the “mode of baptism” question on purely biblical grounds. But I will say that baptism by immersion does present us with a beautiful symbol of what Paul is saying here. Prior to going under the water, we are sinners in need of a Savior for we are still in our sins; in going beneath the water, we are symbolizing our dying to our former sinful nature; in rising back up from the water, we are symbolizing that we are now a new creation in Christ. As we go under the water, we are “buried” with [Christ] as he dies for our sins and we accept his work on our behalf and die to our old sinful nature; in rising from the water we are “also raised with [Christ] through [our] faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” and God then credits us with Christ’s righteousness, sealing us by his Spirit who now indwells us and gives us his life. And unlike Old Testament circumcision which could only be performed on male infants, New Testament baptism is now required of all believers, both women and men. We are all part of God’s new covenant which has been established in Christ.
Paul continues by stating in verse 13, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.” In other words, prior to coming to faith in Christ, when we followed our ways rather than God’s ways, God already knew he would give us new life in Christ. This is reminiscent of what Paul says in Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The Fall and its consequent effect of turning us from God’s ways to our ways was no surprise to God for he knows everything. And in his wisdom he made provision for us even when we did not yet know him. Paul indicates how it us that God has made us alive in Christ. It is by forgiving our sins by—verse 14—“having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” What Paul is addressing here is our justification, the fact that we can never perfectly obey God’s will and ways on our own for apart from him, we have neither the desire nor the ability to do so. But God in Christ did have the will and ability to perfectly and completely fulfill the debt we owe God. This is forensic or legal language. Though we stand guilty before God because of our sin, when God looks upon us he sees his Son, Jesus the Christ. It is his perfect obedience and his becoming sin, a curse, on our behalf that now makes it possible for God to declare us “not guilty” for he has accepted his Son’s sacrifice on our behalf—he who was fully human and therefore stands as our representative in his obedience even as Adam did in his disobedience, and he is fully God and therefore able to apply his work to all who turn to him. We who have placed our trust in Christ were once guilty because of our disobedience but are now declared “not guilty” because of Christ’s obedience. Our legal indebtedness has been erased. Our just condemnation before God has been removed. Our crime of disregarding God and his ways has been pardoned—it has been nailed to the cross.
This image of nailing our debt to God on the cross is a striking one because at the time in which Paul was writing, when a criminal was condemned to death by hanging on a cross, the custom was to nail to their cross the nature of the crime for which they were being executed. So Paul is indicating that likewise though our sin condemns us to death nonetheless because of Christ’s obedience, our sin has died—our sin has been nailed to the cross—our sin has been canceled so that when God looks upon us he sees Christ’s righteousness and obedience rather than our sin.
Not only has Christ’s death accomplished our justification but, verse 15, Christ’s death has also triumphed over the powers and authorities. Christ’s death has made a spectacle of them, it has revealed them for what they really are. The picture is that of conquered soldiers stripped of their clothes as well as their weapons and paraded in the streets to symbolize their total defeat. Christ, by whom all things have been created and through whom all things are sustained, is victor not only over human sin and disobedience but also over the tempter through whom that sin originally came and who ever seeks, like a roaring lion, to devour those who belong to God. The cross publicly reveals the failure of the demonic powers to thwart God’s plan of salvation through Christ. All of the forces of the universe are subject to him, not only the benign ones but the hostile ones as well. Our redemption is a cosmic one.
Brothers and sisters, as we leave here this morning, let us remember the importance of contending for our faith.
Let us measure every claim to truth—every fine-sounding argument—by the truth of God’s Word.
Let us not forget that we have a powerful foe who seeks to destroy us but let us also not forget that he is a defeated foe from whom Christ will ever protect us.
Let us remember that because of what God has done in Christ, by his Spirit we are now his chosen covenant people—we are now his new creatures in Christ.
And let us ever be thankful for a God who loves us so deeply and cares for us so well
Let us pray….