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The all-sufficient Christ gives freedom from human regulations
Colossians, Chapter 2, verses 6-15
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Paul has eloquently spoken of the greatness of the Lord Jesus and of the immensity and completeness of the spiritual blessings that believers have in him. He has reminded the Colossians that the great purpose of his ministry was to preach that all-sufficient Christ. Paul closed the previous section by complimenting the Colossians on their firm stand in Christ. Now, in what is really the main message of the epistle, he urges them to continue in that firm stand. This encouragement comes in both positive and negative forms in verses 6 to 8, then moves on to another inspiring description of our all-sufficient Savior in verses 9 to 15.
The apostle was pleased by the reports Epaphras had brought him about the Colossians’ firm stand in Christ, but the false teachers were challenging that stand every day. Paul was concerned about the Colossians’ spiritual depth, so he encouraged them, “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him.” The Colossians had heard the gospel from Epaphras and believed it, embracing Jesus with a Spirit-given faith.
When they came to faith, Jesus came to live in their hearts. They lived in intimate fellowship with him, and they needed to continue to live in Jesus. They needed to live in conscious awareness of his presence in their hearts and lives. They needed to go forward in connection with Christ, trusting his Word, cherishing his forgiveness, obeying his commandments, and guarding against everything that might disrupt their blessed relationship with him.
With four brief phrases, the apostle expands upon what he means by “continue to live in him.” As he does, he suggests to us the key qualities of a life in Christ. When the Spirit first led them to faith in Jesus, the Colossians were “rooted” in Christ. They were implanted in Jesus, their all-sufficient Savior. Now they needed to continue to draw strength and nourishment from him, always sending their roots of faith down even deeper into Jesus and his Word, as a tree sends its roots deeper into the soil to draw nourishment from the earth. The more Christians use God’s Word and the sacraments, the deeper they sink their roots of faith into Christ. The more firmly they are rooted in Christ, the less likely they are to be blown over by the storms of false teaching and the fierce winds of the troubles and sorrows of life.
When he brought them to faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit established the Colossians upon Jesus. Jesus is the firm foundation on which the constantly growing structure of believers’ faith and lives rest. On that foundation the Colossians are to be “built up.” They are to grow in their faith and progress in their Christian living, like a building rising higher and higher as it progresses to its completion.
Sending their roots of faith down into Christ and being built upward upon Christ will result in the believers being “strengthened in the faith.” Their spiritual knowledge and their hold on Christ, in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden, will be strengthened. Their faith will be constantly confirmed. They will become ever more firmly convinced that no new doctrines or directions for their spiritual lives are necessary, because they have all that they need in Christ.
Because of all the blessings that result in the spiritual conditions described here, Paul urges the Colossians to be “overflowing with thankfulness.” As believers view their spiritual blessings from the perspective of a living, growing faith, their thanksgiving will overflow and rush forth in mighty streams into every area of their lives. Christians who are rooted and built up in Christ and daily strengthened in faith in him cannot help but be thankful, and they will cheerfully and lovingly make that thankfulness evident in their words and actions every day.
Expressed positively, continuing in Christ means all that the apostle has held before us in verse 7. Expressed negatively, it means not letting oneself be carried away by human teachings that do not honor Christ or recognize the all-sufficiency of what he has done for man’s salvation. Such errors were being promoted by false teachers in Colosse. Paul did not want the believers there to be misled by clever arguments.
The apostle never dignifies the Colossian heresy by describing all its features, but from what he says here in verses 8 and 9 and also in verses 16, 18, and 20 of this same chapter, we can conclude that this false doctrine was a rather clever and devious mixture of Jewish ideas and pagan philosophy. Those who promoted this false teaching claimed that it was a more complete form of Christianity.
For all its wisdom and supposed sophistication, the Colossian heresy failed to acknowledge the all-sufficiency of Christ. At the very moment he penned these words, Paul knew that those false teachers with their Christ-denying errors were trying to make the Colossian believers their prey and lead them away as captives. Paul’s advice to the besieged Colossians is simple: Don’t let the false teachers succeed. You belong to Christ. Don’t let anyone kidnap you by false teaching and make you spiritual slaves.
The enemies of the gospel were trying to take the Colossians’ souls captive by a religious system based not on divine revelation, but on human reasoning. This system claimed to offer explanations of divine things according to ideas generally acceptable to men. It was no doubt cleverly presented by its proponents. Perhaps they even were sincere about it. It seemed both logical and learned, as do many systems of religious thought and morals invented and proposed by human beings.
Nevertheless, this religious system and all others like it are not only hollow and empty; they are dangerous and deceptive. They are invented by men and used by men for their own purposes. Those who propose such teachings and systems and traditions are like traders in fake stock. They try to persuade people to surrender valuable stock in exchange for something worthless.
The phrase “the basic principles of this world” is probably best understood to mean the elementary religious ideas of sinful human beings by which both Jews and Gentiles vainly tried to earn God’s favor. Such false ideas have lurked within the sin-blinded hearts of human beings since the fall. They enslave people to earthly laws, customs, and traditions. To these basic principles of this world, people or their teachers attach the idea of merit. Thus they attempt to pay for sin and to set things right between themselves and God by their own efforts. The Colossian false teachers were presenting notions about things like circumcision, festivals, food and drink, and the worship of angels as ways of achieving salvation, or at least a more complete Christianity. The false teachers presented their ideas as a more sophisticated form of Christianity. They looked down with haughty disdain on those who held to the simple gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus.
It’s that way today too. Many modern teachers of religion present what seem to be sophisticated and clever systems of belief, complete with impressive-sounding terminology and logical explanations. They also look down on those who hold to the simple gospel and who put their trust in a verbally inspired Bible. They regard such believers as intellectually deprived and spiritually naive, but here Paul dismisses all human religious speculation as hollow and deceptive philosophy. He makes it clear that those who propose clever human religious systems are captives to the elementary religious ideas of the unconverted world.
In marked contrast to such hollow and deceptive philosophy, the apostle sets forth the all-sufficient Lord Jesus Christ. He reminds his readers that in Christ alone all fullness dwells, and in Christ alone believers themselves are made full. The statement in verse 9, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,” is another key doctrinal statement of the New Testament dealing with the person of Christ. Very simply, yet very powerfully, it tells us that Jesus is both God and man in one person. It tells us that all the characteristics that belong to God dwell in Christ, not only as the Son of God but also as the Son of man. When Jesus took on a human nature, the fullness of the Godhead was actually contained within his person and within his body.
Human reason rebels at the idea that within the human Christ that men could see was contained, and still is contained, all the fullness of the majesty of God. That’s like saying that all the water in the ocean is contained in a pitcher held in one’s hand. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the Bible says when it tells us that all the fullness of the Deity dwells in Christ.
It is evident from Scripture that Jesus was a man. He was like every other man in stature, appearance, habits, and needs. It is also evident from Scripture that God is extraordinary. He is eternal and present everywhere. He is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise. He is all goodness and love. Yet in the human nature of Christ are contained all the extraordinary characteristics—yes, the very substance and being—of God. When Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary, God himself took on human nature and became man. When Jesus died on the cross, God died. The body and blood that bought our redemption did so because all the divine fullness dwelt in the human nature of Christ.
This truth is a divine mystery. It is something that we cannot even begin to comprehend with our sin-limited human reason. But it is something we know and believe, because God clearly reveals it to us in passages of his Word like this one. Such inspired words of Scripture assure us beyond all doubt that Jesus Christ, the God-man, is our all-sufficient Savior and Lord. Since all the fullness of the Deity dwells in Christ, he is the all-sufficient Savior, and we can find all that we need for our spiritual fullness and complete salvation in him.
When we by faith are connected with a Savior in whom all fullness dwells, we too are filled to the limit. We have all that we need for time and eternity, the fullness of every spiritual blessing. We have no need for human philosophies or schemes that are developed in accord with the elements of this world. None of these traditions, philosophies, or schemes could ever add a single thing to that which Jesus has already made complete. In divine matters, addition always equals subtraction. When human beings try to add to the completeness found in Christ, they lose. Only to those who abide in the all-sufficient Christ and in him alone will the blessings of his fullness flow.
Christ’s fullness and sufficiency also include his absolute rule over every power and authority in the spirit world. As part of their complicated religious system, the errorists in Colosse seem to have taught that spiritual beings (powers and authorities) could somehow affect believers’ lives apart from Christ. We know they advocated the worship of angels (see 2:18). Paul counters this false speculation by reminding his readers of the truth he has already set before them in 1:15,16, the truth that Christ is the supreme Lord over all created beings, including those that inhabit the spirit world.
Apart from Christ, good angels cannot help believers; and with Christ, believers will not be harmed by evil angels. So why should Christians look for something more or try to add to what the Savior offers, when in him they already have everything they need? The false teachers said, “You need Jesus, plus . . .”; Paul says, “You need Jesus, period.” In Jesus, believers have complete fullness and need not fear any power in heaven or on earth or under the earth.
Some of the ideas being promoted by the false teachers in Colosse were obviously Judaistic in character. We met the Judaizers in this book once before, in connection with our study of Philippians chapter 3, especially verses 1 to 6. These people were Pharisees with a Christian label. They insisted that believing in Jesus was not enough for salvation; Christians also had to observe a certain number of the outward laws and ceremonies that Moses had given to the Old Testament Israelites. Like the Judaizers in Philippi, the false teachers in Colosse put a great deal of emphasis on the ceremony of circumcision. Paul’s remarks in verses 16 and 17 of this chapter indicate that they also called for adherence to Old Testament dietary restrictions and strict observance of Old Testament festivals and Sabbath laws.
By insisting on these things, these teachers claimed that they were supplementing Christ’s work and thus making themselves better, more complete Christians, but in reality they were trying to establish and fill a need where there was none. They were like beggars who claimed that they had a good business opportunity for people who were already wealthier than they were.
Paul refutes those who insist on circumcision as a condition for salvation by reminding the Colossians, as he reminded the Philippians, that believers in Jesus possess a vastly superior circumcision not done with hands. By insisting upon physical circumcision as an outward ritual that supplements Christ’s work, the Colossian errorists had reduced circumcision to what Paul calls in Philippians a “mutilation,” a mere physical operation. There was absolutely no promise of God connected with it.
The circumcision that believers receive is a spiritual thing. It is a truly beneficial and blessed putting off of their old, sinful nature through the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. When the Spirit brings believers to faith in Jesus, their old sinful nature, like a filthy garment, is cut off and thrown away. Then the dominant force in believers’ lives is the new nature created by the Spirit, a nature that loves God and seeks to serve him. Because they have this new nature, believers’ bodies are no longer instruments of sin but instruments of righteousness for God.
As long as believers live on earth, the old nature will continue to lurk within them and try to regain its mastery over their lives. But the Holy Spirit, who gave believers their new nature, daily renews and strengthens that nature through the power of the gospel. Thus he enables believers to defeat the sinful nature with its lusts and desires. What was a mere physical operation like circumcision in comparison to the spiritual operation that the Holy Spirit had already performed within the hearts of the Colossians?
The Colossians had received this spiritual circumcision, Paul says, in Baptism. Incidentally, by making a connection here between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament Baptism, Paul indicates that in the New Testament, Baptism has taken the place of circumcision. The Old Testament circumcision, as God gave it to Abraham, was a sacrament, a means of grace by which God made the male children into members of the covenant line and sharers in the covenant promises God made to Abraham. Those covenant promises centered on the Savior from sin that God promised to send from Abraham’s descendants.
When Christ came, he fulfilled all those covenant promises. Before he ascended into heaven, he gave Baptism to his New Testament church. When they were baptized, Paul assures his readers, they were buried and raised with Christ through faith. Jesus died and was buried as the substitute for all mankind. The sins of the whole human race were nailed with him to his cross and buried with him in his tomb. He bore the punishment that satisfied the Father’s divine justice, and on Easter morning God raised him up in a great declaration that his atonement had been accepted and the world was saved.
In Baptism, Paul says, the Colossians had been made personal sharers in all of that. Through Baptism they had been brought to faith or strengthened in faith, which personally joined each of them to Christ. Through Baptism each one had personally received the blessings Christ had won for them. By virtue of their union with Christ in Baptism, God regarded Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as if they were each individual believer’s own death, burial, and resurrection. Through Baptism the Colossian believers’ sin-laden natures had been crucified and buried with Christ, and a new nature, created by the Holy Spirit in God’s image, had arisen in their hearts. Their status had been changed from objects of God’s wrath to members of his spiritual household. All these blessings and more were spiritual blessings bestowed by Christ, transmitted to individual believers through Baptism and received by faith.
Again, what a contrast there was between this blessed spiritual circumcision connected with the promises of God and the outward, mechanical circumcision advocated by the false teachers. That circumcision was performed on the body, and its supposed merits were connected to no divine promise but only to the deceptive religious theories of men. New Testament believers have no need for circumcision as a religious rite or a meritorious act, and they should not be intimidated by those who claim they do. New Testament believers, by virtue of their being baptized into Christ, have received a far better circumcision, the spiritual circumcision of heart and life.
In a genuine spirit of Christian jubilation, Paul expands upon that same thought in verse 13. In their natural spiritual state the Colossians, together with all human beings since the fall, were morally and spiritually dead. Their thoughts and desires, as well as their words and actions, were completely opposed to God and his Word and will. In this condition they were spiritually impotent and totally unable to help themselves. They deserved only God’s wrath and condemnation.
But God’s amazing grace did not leave the Colossians in their lost and helpless state. Ponder this, Paul encourages them. Continue to reflect on it. Upon you, the deeply fallen and utterly, hopelessly lost; upon you, Gentiles, no less than upon the Jews, his chosen people of Old Testament times, God’s grace has been bestowed. God, who raised Christ from the dead, has raised you from the death of spiritual ignorance and unbelief and made you spiritually alive with Christ.
If sinners are to be made spiritually alive, their sin and guilt must be removed in God’s sight. To do this, Paul says, “He forgave us all our sins.” Forgiveness is God’s bountiful, unmerited gift. Paul’s subtle change from the pronoun “you” in the first part of verse 13 to “us” in the last part of that same verse is worth noting. In Christ, God has forgiven the whole world of sinners, and Paul cannot talk about so great a subject without including himself. He too had experienced God’s forgiveness. He too had been made alive in Christ and rescued from eternal damnation. God’s forgiveness stood at the very center of his life. It stands at the center of every believer’s life. Every believer is included in the “us” of this sentence.
In forgiving sinners and making them alive, God canceled the written code, with its regulations that stood against us. The written code is the written law of God, the divine decrees, with their uncompromising “You shall” and “You shall not.” No doubt Paul is thinking here of the moral law, the unchangeable will of God for human behavior that applies to people of all times, as well as the Mosaic ceremonial laws, which included the laws God gave to the Old Testament Israelites concerning foods, festivals, and circumcision.
That written code, Paul says, was against us. In both its moral and ceremonial character, the law demanded a perfection that no human being could achieve. It set forth a way of salvation impossible for human beings to attain. So it stood as man’s accuser. But in Christ, God canceled that written code. He took away its demanding, curse-pronouncing character. He took it and nailed it with Christ to the cross.
When Christ died, the law as man’s accuser also died. The historical purpose of the Mosaic laws was fulfilled. Their very necessity was brought to an end. On the cross Christ paid the punishment that a world of sinners deserved because of their transgressions against God’s moral law: the curse of eternal death.
If the law had not died in the blood of his cross, Christ could not have risen. But he did rise, thereby guaranteeing forever that the law as our accuser is dead and gone and that spiritual quickening and resurrection are ours. Our debt of sin and guilt has been canceled. At the foot of the cross we find deliverance and life. This does not mean, of course, that God’s unchangeable moral law has lost all significance for believers or that believers can now forget about loving God and their neighbor. No, the moral law still serves as a perfect mirror, daily showing Christians their sins and their need for the Savior’s forgiveness.
In their Christian lives of service to their Savior, believers use the moral law as the perfect standard and guide, but the law as a code of rules and regulations that demands perfection and pronounces curses on imperfect sinners has been wiped out and removed by the power of Christ’s cross. All who are joined to Christ by faith no longer need to fear the law’s threats and curses. Nor can they be bullied by those who try to make the law their accuser again by making the keeping of a written code a condition for salvation.
When Christ, by his successful atoning work, brought about the death of the law as man’s accuser, he also disarmed “the powers and authorities,” the wicked spirits about whom the false teachers were so concerned. These evil hordes, led by Satan, brought sin into God’s perfect world. They plunged humanity into sin at the fall.
They still tempt man to sin, and then, when sinners have fallen, these evil spirits turn around and accuse those sinners before God. They are at war with God and believers and arrogantly try to usurp the powers that belong to God. These evil spirits are powerful and devious. The Colossians, who were being troubled by all sorts of strange and frightful teachings concerning the spirit world, needed to know that Jesus had disarmed all those evil powers and authorities.
As man’s substitute he overcame the devil’s temptations in the desert. He won victory upon victory over the hosts of demons throughout his ministry, and on Calvary, when the evil powers had their dark hour and did their worst, Christ administered the final blow, forever stripping the devil and his hosts of the power to accuse sinners before God.
Then “he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” In the days of the apostles, the Roman emperor or senate often granted a victorious general a grand triumphal entry upon his return to Rome. There would be a procession through the streets of the city. The general, together with his legions, marched proudly, and the captives and spoils they had taken were displayed. In the triumph of which the apostle speaks here, the defeated powers of hell are made to march as chained captives as a result of Christ’s victory on the cross.
We take this statement of the apostle as referring to Christ’s descent into hell. Here and in 1 Peter 3:18,19, Scripture indicates that after Christ had achieved salvation, he descended into hell and publicly proclaimed his absolute, complete, and final victory over the devil and the hellish hosts. He publicly put them to shame.
This, in turn, assures us believers that the devil and evil spirits have no real power over us. Yes, they are still our enemies. They are still powerful and dangerous, and we must daily beware of them and struggle against them. But Christ, our all-sufficient Savior, has defeated Satan and all his forces. Because we share in his victory by faith, we too have the power in him to defeat the devil’s hosts.