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Colossians 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Righteousness Without Relationship

The second command expands the first: Do not let anyone . . . disqualify you for the prize. The verb disqualify (katabrabeuo) literally refers to the negative decision of an umpire (Harris 1991:120). Apparently, the person Paul has in mind monitors the congregation's readiness for final justification (the prize) and decides against it when the believers' conduct does not accord with the rules of Jewish celebration (2:16) and asceticism (2:21). But in this case, Paul seems more interested in the sort of self-righteous spirituality that is typically required by such a person. The NIV obscures the modal sense of Paul's phrase thelon en by translating it "delights in"; better is the RSV's "insisting on" the attributes that follow, humility and the worship of angels. The NIV further obscures Paul's point by adding false to the Greek word for humility (tapeinophrosyne). From his perspective, the false teacher certainly does not require a false humility from believers! This word for humility may carry a technical meaning for particular expressions of humility, such as fasting. From Paul's perspective, what makes this demand for humility seem false and even foolish is that it is not motivated by devotion to Christ. A believer's humility, whatever form it takes, is proper only when it boasts in what God has accomplished through Christ (compare Rom 5:1-11). Without Paul's perspective, the various outward expressions of one's inward piety are judged arrogant and unspiritual; at day's end, they represent human efforts to attain what God has already granted us in Christ.

The other item, the worship of angels, has prompted much scholarly discussion (Francis 1975). Wright outlines three possible interpretations (1987:121-22). First, Paul may have in mind actual liturgies of angel worship, borrowed from either pagan or Jewish religious practices. Apparently these liturgies were followed by some Colossian believers for their spiritual formation. If so, Paul would have surely considered such worship idolatrous. Few scholars, however, subscribe to this interpretation; there is simply too little evidence from the ancient world that angels were worshiped either by pagans or Jewish believers. The second possibility is a variation of the first: Paul uses the phrase ironically. Some believers spend so much of their time speculating about angels (as though they worshiped them!) that they have little time left to serve Christ in more practical ways. I doubt that Paul denied that angels exist; rather, in this view, his concern is with a highly speculative and mystical doctrine of angels (angelology), one of the "human traditions" that make up the Colossian "philosophy" of religion (see 2:8). Third and most likely is that Paul has in mind a teaching that focuses on the angelic worship of God. J. B. Lightfoot, for example, contended that humility and worship of angels belong together, so that the sort of humility expected of the spiritually mature believer presumed that God was too holy to be worshiped directly. Only the angels that populated God's throne room had direct access to God; thus the community's worship of God must be mediated through them (1876:222).

Following Lightfoot's lead, I suppose the spiritual umpire could have thought that Christian worship of God is mediated through angelic beings and that worshipers are required to have visionary experiences of angels occupying the heavenly throne room--visions rather like those in the book of Revelation and in ancient apocalyptic literature generally. Thus, according to this view, an extra special visionary experience, which is then verified by its description in great detail, complements religious observance to create an esoteric Christianity composed of idle notions.

One result of this orientation toward religion is the formation of an elite, who alone possess insider information about the mystery of God (1:24-27) and who alone know the path that leads into salvation (1:13-14). Such arrogance disposes of the need for an apostle like Paul, or even of Christ's Spirit, to mentor the congregation's spiritual well-being (compare 1 Cor 1--4).

Returning to the head-body metaphor (see 1:18), Paul now restates his great emphasis on believers' participating with Christ in the liberating results of his messianic work. In doing so, Paul summarizes his objection to a preoccupation with esoteric experience, which when combined with countless regulations detaches the faith community from its Lord just as decapitation severs the head from the body. Even as the head and body must remain attached for strength and growth, so must Christ and the church remain intimately related one to the other. The believer's experience of God does not require visions of angels worshiping God; rather, it is an experience of intimacy with Christ, the real sensation of his purifying love for us and within us that causes [us] to grow.

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Accusation Without Foundation

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