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Colossians 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Christ Is Lord over History

Paul's second christological argument is a more direct response to the Christless philosophy in Colosse: Christ is the head over every power and authority (2:10). Paul is here alluding to his earlier confession that Christ is the head of God's new creation, the church (1:18). In expanding his earlier claim, Paul includes every power under Christ's lordship. He has in mind certain spiritual authorities, probably angelic (see 2:18), because the Colossian heresy contends that God's rule over the church is mediated by angelic agents. Paul's logic is convincing: if the Lord Christ rules over these authorities, who in turn supposedly mediate the human-divine relationship, then he is the ultimate mediator of God's rule (compare 1 Tim 2:5). Worship is due him alone. To suppose that any other devotion is required for salvation slights the centrality of the Lord Christ: for God's salvation is by him and is entered into only through him.

While few people today view the world as the ancients did, Paul's commentary on Colossian sophistry remains pertinent. Many of us so elevate our spiritual authorities, whether pastors or religious leaders, that we come to depend upon them and are devoted to their teaching to the exclusion of all else. When our focus is thus moved from Christ's lordship, the formation of authentic Christianity becomes impossible. In effect, the church is decapitated and rendered spiritually dead. Rather than proclaiming their pet project or special wisdom, pastors must teach their congregations about the Christ to whom they are submitted.Circumcision by Christ (2:11)

The implication Paul draws for his Gentile readers (that is, those who were once dead in sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature--2:13) is centered on the Jewish practice of circumcision--a symbol of identity with the people who are covenanted with God for salvation. The word translated putting off (apekdysis) has the sense of stripping off one's clothes. In this case, it is used in parallel with "to circumcise" to create the harsh (and therefore vivid) image of stripping off the flesh (or foreskin) of the penis, done by the rabbi during circumcision. Thus, Paul is able to make a bold contrast between Jewish and Christian identity. In some quarters of Judaism, Gentile converts were made to endure physical circumcision; in the Christian faith the same rite of passage is done by Christ, who "cuts off" the sinful nature (literally, "the body of flesh") of those in him. Paul has made this same christological point with different words and images in 1:13-14. There, the rite of passage is into the Son's kingdom, where redemption is found because God has forgiven our sins and rescued us from their consequences.

In this more polemical setting, Paul recasts this christological point in order to contrast Judaism and Christianity. Some commentators speculate that Colossian Judaism, whose mysticism many think influenced the false teacher (see introduction, under "The Crisis in Colosse"), taught that the act of circumcising the Gentile convert to Judaism triggered the activity of heavenly powers and authorities, which resulted in the convert's mystical passage into the covenant community. It is possible that Colossian Judaism has influenced the teaching of Colossian Christianity, and that Paul is challenging a similar belief and practice among these believers. Against this teaching, Paul redefines circumcision as done by Christ rather than by the hands of men (compare Rom 2:28-29), so that Gentile converts to Christianity may have renewed confidence that their membership in the covenant community is by trusting in Christ's death and resurrection.Alive with Christ (2:12-13)

Thus, membership within the true Israel of God is conditioned upon faith in the Risen Christ, whose trustworthiness is vindicated by the power of God. According to Paul, membership in the community covenanted with Christ for God's salvation has always required faith in God's power over sin and death (see Rom 9--11). Sarah and Abraham believed that God had the power to bring human life from sterility (for the purposes of procreation, both were "as good as dead"--Rom 4:19-21); and Christ also believed that God would raise him from the dead. Such faith results in the revelation of God's salvation-creating righteousness (Rom 3:22). This kind of faith in the power of God is the condition of maintaining membership in the covenant community (1:23).

Paul's reference to God's power provides the setting for him to speak of the believer's baptism as the rite of passage into Christ, since this is where God's power is found. He continues to contrast Judaism and Christianity by showing that Christian baptism and Jewish circumcision (2:11) have a similar purpose: marking the covenant of a people who belong to God rather than to the powers and authorities (2:15). Paul is concerned that in Colosse certain liturgies have been vested with divine power and have become substitutes for trust in Christ's work. For this reason, and without denying the more formal and sacramental meaning of baptism, he emphasizes its spiritual significance for Christians. In fact, he says, circumcision has a similar meaning. Thus, the "true Jew" is the believer whose identity is fashioned by the Spirit's "circumcision of the heart" rather than by Judaism's "circumcision of the flesh" (Rom 2:28-29). In this view the Spirit, not formal religion, is the agent of God's covenanting grace. Likewise, for Paul the "true Christian" is the believer who is baptized by the Spirit into the redemptive results of Jesus' death and resurrection (see Rom 6:4; 1 Cor 12:13).

In alluding to baptism here, Paul is not referring to a specific rite or liturgy that may mediate divine grace or be its visible sign. While such a notion may be in the background, baptism here is principally another metaphor for Paul's participatory Christology. It signifies that believers participate with Christ in the outworking of God's salvation within their history. While the agent of the believer's baptism, as of the circumcision of the "true Jew," is the Spirit (rather than the church), there are outward and visible results of joining Jesus in his death and resurrection (which is not the rite of baptism itself). Even as Christ's death (1:20, 22), burial (2:12), resurrection (2:12) and exaltation (2:13; 3:1) are all historical and public events, so also are their results in the lives of his disciples.

In this passage, then, Paul uses a sequence of three passive verbs in combination with the prefix with (syn) to chart the community's participation in Christ's redemptive work: by God's empowering grace, we have been buried with him (synthapto), raised with him (synegeiro) and finally made alive (syzoopoieo) with him (syn auto). Those who are baptized into Christ because of their confidence in the redemptive results of his messianic work participate with him in those demonstrative and life-changing results. This is hardly the stuff of mystical religion!Triumph over the Opposition (2:13-15)

The foil for Paul's description of what results in the lives of those who participate in the Christ event is Jewish Torah (or law). According to Acts, the religious crisis provoked by Paul's Gentile mission has to do with both circumcision (see Acts 15:1) and Torah observance (see Acts 15:5; 21:20-21, 28). The two are principal symbols of Judaism's covenantal theology. Circumcision is the public expression of a family's faith in God's rule and is required for getting into the community covenanted with God for salvation (see above), while obedience to Torah is required for staying in the community. Opponents to Paul's mission inside and outside the earliest church did not protest the fact of Gentile conversion; rather, they were displeased that Paul did not require Gentile converts to become Jewish as well as Christian.

Perhaps the false teacher in Colosse is demanding that Gentile converts to Christianity follow Judaism's pattern of proselyte conversion. Accordingly, the Colossian "philosopher" may argue that while faith in Christ (perhaps even indicated by one's circumcision; see Gal 2:3) gets the believer into the covenant community, observance of Torah and tradition keeps the believer in. To be a true believer, then, requires two conversions--to Christ and to Judaism, which together maintain the church's social identity and religious practice. Of course, such teaching goes against Paul, for whom the only condition for Gentile membership within the Israel of God is faith in Christ. To stipulate any other membership requirement is to demote the work of Christ and its result: that God forgave us all our sins. Paul has translated the Jewish significance of circumcising the Gentile convert into christological terms for Christians (2:11-13), and he will do the same for Torah observance (2:14).

According to Paul's gospel ministry (see Acts 15:19), the Gentile convert is obliged to identify with Christ by faith alone. Getting in and staying in the church are conditioned upon faith in Christ's faith expressed by the cross (compare Gal 3:22-25; Rom 3:21-25). On the cross of Christ, God has canceled the written code, nailing there its regulations, which legislated payment on the debt of our sinful nature and opposed the Gentile mission, since the law made a relationship with God even more difficult for non-Jews (see Eph 2:11-18).

Paul recycles the important catch phrase powers and authorities, which before spoke of Christ's cosmic lordship over all powers (1:16; 2:10), to express here God's final, decisive verdict against all competing powers. Because of Jesus' messianic death by the cross, these anti-God powers are disarmed . . . made a public spectacle of and triumphed over. These verbal metaphors roughly correspond to the chronology of Christ's death, burial, resurrection and enthronement (2:12-13; 3:1), during which he disclosed and brought about God's triumph over sin and death. The NIV translation envisions this verdict as the result of military victory--a common image of God's triumph over the anti-God kingdom in Jewish apocalypticism (see Rev 19:11--20:10). Paul's images, which he draws from his background in apocalyptic Judaism, compel the reader to conclude that any ruling elite that challenges God's reign has already been humiliated on the cross.

Wright has argued for a more concrete and political understanding of the powers, especially in this passage. Christ's death humiliates Roman and Jewish authorities, civil and religious, who conspired together to execute Jesus and who continued to undermine the work of his church (1986:114-16). In this same sense Christ's resurrection vindicates his political innocence, humiliating in turn those who executed an innocent man (see Lk 23:4, 14, 22, 41, 47).

With Wright, I do not think the phrase powers and authorities necessarily envisions a demonic kingdom, even though it refers to an entity clearly antagonistic to God's purposes. But against Wright, I think Paul may be speaking of certain Christian (rather than Roman or Jewish) powers and authorities, perhaps those in Colosse who some have come to depend on for spiritual vitality. It is the most subtle kind of corruption to depend on anyone or anything other than Christ to mediate God's reign within the church (see 2:8). If this is the case, then Paul's message is clear and pointed: Christ has replaced any other spiritual authority, whether angelic or human; God's promised salvation is now mediated through Christ alone. The apostle's admonishment is that his readers nurture a spirituality that depends upon the lordship of Christ, as Paul (along with Epaphras and others) proclaims and exemplifies.

Colossians 2:4-15 is an important passage for us today. The seductions of the false philosophy that enticed Colossian Christians away from Christ are similar in substance to several popular movements within the contemporary church (see introduction, under "Paul's Message for Today"). In particular, we should share Paul's concern for "fine-sounding" words (2:4) that seem orthodox but are actually Christless and shaped by the myths and values of humanistic culture (2:8). The success of the prosperity gospel, which legitimizes materialistic greed by Christian language and selective proof-texting, is but one example of how secular ideas have found a home within the church. Even more blatant an example comes from the Republican Party convention in my home state of Washington, where the religious right demonstrated around a portrait of Jesus praying before the Liberty Bell--as though Christ himself stood behind the political platform of a particular wing of a secular institution!

In his article announcing "the return of Spiritism," Marvin Olasky comments that the promise of "warm and fuzzy spiritual feelings" draws even mature believers from the "dull, pedantic preaching" of mainstream Christianity into more trendy but contentless religious movements. Olasky laments the current "era of frivolity" which helps to shape believers, leading them to tolerate and even encourage the self-centered precepts and easygoing demeanor of popular religion. He exhorts church leaders to stress the importance of "Christ-centered worship that is oriented to the glory of God rather than to the needs of men and women" (Olasky 1992:24).

Similarly, Paul calls for the formation of a critical mind that is rooted in apostolic teaching (2:5-7), necessary to discern truth from falsehood. He also makes the essential criterion of discernment what is claimed for Christ Jesus (2:9-10). To the extent that Christian worship and witness are determined by something or someone other than Christ, they will fail to produce a congregation that participates with Christ in God's salvation (2:11-15).

Paul's concluding caution about the powers and authorities (2:15) also provides us with a biblical commentary on the church's participation in America's therapist culture. The Blys and Bradshaws of the public arena and the movements they sponsor have become our principal interpreters. Those who treat the human spirit, often with occultic and fraudulent strategies, have great "power and authority" in American life today. This is nowhere clearer than on public television, where various specialists in popular psychology with their quasi-religious notions of self-fulfillment attract large audiences, including many supportive Christians. More and more believers bring their problems, even their desire for spiritual well-being, to their Christian therapists, seeking psychological answers to spiritual questions. More and more of our preaching proclaims the gospel of a secured and serene psyche rather than of forgiven sins and reconciliation with God.

I do not deny that in certain cases therapy is required for healing, yet I believe that our growing dependency on therapists too often reflects our failure to depend wholly upon Christ. More attention to the spiritual disciplines (such as personal prayer and Bible study, corporate worship and witness), which nurture one's relationship with the Lord, and less attention to psychological analysis (which nurtures one's relationship with self) will ultimately promote the wisdom and peace to empower a more contented humanity.

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