Center of My Belief

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about keeping Christ the center of your belief by rejecting any thinking or practices that deny the centrality of Christ.

Choose Fullness Over Emptiness:  Colossians 2:8-15.

[8]  See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. [9]  For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, [10]  and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. [11]  In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, [12]  having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. [13]  And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, [14]  by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. [15]  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.  [ESV]

[8]  Paul wants his readers to watch out lest someone takes you captive. The verb vividly expresses the danger that the readers may be carried off as plunder by an alien and fundamentally anti-Christian form of teaching. Paul now indicates the means by which the false teachers are seeking to carry off the Colossians as captives: by philosophy and empty deceit. Paul continues his strong denunciation of this deceitful philosophy by further characterizing it with three parallel prepositional phrases, all using the same preposition. The repetition of this preposition, according to, lends both rhythm and emphasis to the characterization. In the first phrase, according to human tradition, it probably refers to the source of the philosophy. But in the second and third phrases, it may specify the content of the teaching. In contrast to the tradition that the Colossians have received [2:6], which is from God, the false teachers’ philosophy depends on human tradition. This phrase reminds us especially of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees and teachers of the law for following their own tradition rather than the word of God [Mark 7:1-23]. The second according to phrase is clearly pejorative as well, but its precise meaning is difficult to determine. The elemental spirits of the world occurs here and in verse 20 with reference to the false teaching. Whatever precise sense we end up giving to the second phrase, it is clear that the real sting in Paul’s characterization of the false teachers comes in the third, negative description: not according to Christ. The false teachers are proclaiming a doctrine and demanding practices that do not come from Christ. In this short phrase the dominant theological teaching of the letter is brought to bear on the central purpose of the letter. Christ is the one in whom God exclusively is to be found, the one through whom the world was created and through whom it is redeemed, and the one who has decisively defeated all the hostile powers. Any teaching that in any way detracts from Christ’s exclusive role is by definition both wrong and ineffective. The teachers themselves are probably not denying that Christ was central to God’s saving purposes. They seem rather to be arguing that certain practices must be added on in order to achieve true spiritual fulfillment. But, for Paul, in this case, addition means subtraction: one cannot add to Christ without, in effect, subtracting from His exclusive place in creation and in salvation history.

[9-15]  The for at the beginning of verse 9 ties the argument of verses 9-15 with verse 8, and especially to the last phrase of verse 8. In effect, these verses elaborate the negative not according to Christ by detailing the positive side: in Christ, and Christ alone, is found the whole fullness of God; and believers have been made full in Him [10-15]. God has chosen a body in which to take residence and through that body sacrificed on the cross and raised from the dead, to win the ultimate victory over the powers of darkness. In Christ alone God has decisively and exhaustively revealed Himself. All that we can know or experience of God is therefore found in our relationship with Him. Thus the Colossians should have no interest in listening to the false teachers once they realize that they are already filled in Christ. Christ is the head of all rule and authority, which refer to spiritual beings, as they did in 1:16. Head is a metaphor that undoubtedly includes this notion of authority over. As the head is the animating and directing force of the body, so Christ is the source of the spiritual beings’ existence and the one who ultimately determines what they can and cannot do. Christians need not fear these powers, therefore, because they are firmly under the control of Christ, the one in whom all the fullness of deity has come to reside. In verses 11-15, Paul explains how that state of fullness has come into being. The also in verse 11 connects the in Christ of verse 10 with the in him in verse 11. This concept of being in Christ and therefore of experiencing things with Him is the dominant theme of verses 11-13. Physical circumcision was instituted by God to be a sign of the covenant between Him and the people of Israel. But already in the Old Testament it was also being used as a metaphor, Moses himself calling for the circumcision of the heart [Deut. 10:16; 30:6]. Paul takes up this concept, claiming that it is the circumcision of the heart, performed by the Spirit that marks a person as belonging to the people of God [Rom 2:28-29]. It is this nonphysical circumcision that Paul has in mind here, as the qualification made without hands suggests. The circumcision of Christ is a metaphor for the conquering of the power of sin that takes place when a person comes to Christ. Body of the flesh is equivalent to body of sin in Romans 6:6. In both verses Paul intends to describe the body not as sinful in itself but as under the domination of sin. The circumcision of the heart that Moses called for and that Paul identified as marking the new covenant people of God has been definitively accomplished in our union with Christ. This is Christ’s circumcision and it fully provides for that subduing of the flesh for which the false teachers were advocating elaborate and strenuous rules. At the beginning of verse 11, Paul claims that it is in Christ that we are circumcised by having our sinful impulse cut off. In verses 12-15 Paul elaborates this in Christ. Christians have participated with Christ in His burial and resurrection [12], bringing us new life in Him [13] by virtue of having our sins forgiven [13b-15]. The with Christ language that Paul uses here is the tip of an important Pauline theological iceberg. As Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 in particular reveal, Paul views Christ, as he does Adam, as a corporate figure. As all people were somehow included in Adam when he sinned and brought death into the world, so all believers were in Christ when He died, was buried, and was raised to new life. By being identified with Christ in these key redemptive events, Christians experience in themselves the change that God in Christ has brought to pass. No longer are we dominated by those powers of the old age, sin, death, and the flesh; we are now ruled by righteousness, life, grace, and the Spirit. Paul’s logic runs like this: you have been spiritually circumcised. This circumcision took place when you were buried with Christ and raised with Him. And this burial and resurrection with Christ happened when you were baptized. Having said that our resurrection with Christ takes place in baptism, Paul now adds that it also takes place through faith. This addition reminds us that baptism, while important in its own right as a natural component of conversion, has no power apart from faith. Faith is highlighted repeatedly as the critical, necessary, and sufficient human response to Gods’ converting grace. By referring to the powerful working of God, Paul reminds us that our being raised with Christ provides all the power we need to conquer the sinful impulse. In verse 13 Paul sums up his teaching in verses 11-12 about being circumcised in Christ and having been buried and resurrected with Him with the broader claim about new life. Uncircumcision of your flesh has a primarily metaphorical sense in this context as being controlled by the sinful nature. But God made us alive and forgave our sins by the circumcision of Christ which stripped off the sinful impulse of the flesh. The forgiveness that we enjoy in Christ is total: having forgiven us all our trespasses. The completeness and definitiveness of our forgiveness are the theme of verse 14, which Paul presents via two striking word pictures. Paul’s first word picture portrays a record of debt in which we pledge complete allegiance to God. Our sins stand as conclusive evidence that we have failed to give God that allegiance, and so that document is against us and condemns us. But God has taken that document and wiped it clean; indeed, He has taken it completely out of the picture. He has, in fact, in a second word picture that both highlights the completeness of the removal and the means by which it was accomplished, nailing it to the cross. In causing Christ to be nailed to the cross, God has provided for the full cancellation of the debt of obedience that we had incurred. Christ took upon Himself the penalty that we were under because of our disobedience, and His death fully satisfied God’s necessary demand for due punishment of that disobedience. In verse 15 Paul brings to a conclusion his explanation of how we have been brought to fullness in Christ [10]. In a reflection of a key concern in Colossians, the verse ends as the section began, with a focus on the rulers and authorities. In verse 10, Paul asserted simply that Christ is the head of those spiritual powers, now he shows how that headship has been expressed, as God, through the cross of Christ, has won a victory over the rebellious powers. In both verses a rebellion against God’s rule on the part of at least many of these spiritual beings is assumed. God’s victory over the powers did not remain a private matter: having disarmed them, He put them to open shame. Paul is making it as clear as he can that God has removed any claim that the spiritual powers might have over us, and that He has done so clearly and publicly. Paul insists that God, by sending Christ to the cross as the final and definitive means to take care of the sin problem, has removed any power that these evil spirits might have over us. This victory, celebrated and displayed in the resurrection and ascension of Christ, is what believers need to grasp as their own.

Choose Substance Over Shadows:  Colossians 2:16-19.

[16]  Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. [17]  These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. [18]  Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, [19]  and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.  [ESV]

[16-19]  The therefore at the beginning of verse 16 connects the theology about the fullness in Christ in verses 10-15 with Paul’s exhortation to resist the false teachers in this verse and following. Because it is in Christ that you have spiritual fullness, Paul is saying, do not let anyone impose upon you a program of spiritual development that does not have Christ at its heart. Paul enumerates two sets of issues on the basis of which the false teachers are passing judgment: food and drink, and the observance of special religious days. Paul’s reference to rules such as do not handle, do not taste, do not touch [21] make it clear that the false teachers were advocating abstinence from some kinds of food and drink. Similarly, it is virtually certain that the teachers were advocating observance of special days. Our text gives no information about just what foods or kinds of drink were being prohibited. Although there is universal agreement that the false teachers’ insistence on observance of days was influenced by Judaism, dispute remains over the degree and nature of that influence. The language and logic of verse 17 suggest that the primary problem with Sabbath observance was a failure to reckon with the fulfillment of such institutions in the new era of salvation. That Paul without any qualification can relegate Sabbaths to shadows certainly indicates that he does not see them as binding and makes it extremely unlikely that he could have seen the Christian first day as a continuation of the Sabbath. It is wrong for anyone to pass judgment on someone else over the matters mentioned in verse 17 because these matters are only the shadow of the reality that Christians now find in Christ. Things to come refers to those realities that have now come in Christ but were still to come from the perspective of the original institutions. According to the fundamental salvation-historical perspective of the New Testament writers, the Old Testament, and especially the law, belonged to the time of promise, to the time when God was preparing His people and the world for salvation in Christ. With the coming of Christ, the new era of fulfillment has dawned. The old era and the law have now been brought to their culmination. Believers who belong to the new era through their incorporation into Christ therefore experience the reality to which the Old Testament and its law pointed. The Colossian Christians should not let anyone insist on their observing the rules and ceremonies of the earlier era that has now passed. The word translated substance is the word for body. It can also be translated “reality.” Paul does not say that the substance is Christ, but that it belongs to Christ. Verse 18 furnishes the most important evidence about the false teaching, but it is also arguably the most difficult verse in Colossians to interpret. The beginning and the end of the verse are clear enough. As he did in verse 16, Paul again urges the Colossians not to let anyone stand in judgment over them by attempting to disqualify you. The bulk of the verse is made up of three descriptions of the false teachers. The last one is clear enough: puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind. Puffed up expresses the idea of arrogance which, in the false teachers, expressed itself in their claiming for themselves the right to stand in judgment over others. Such arrogance, Paul asserts, has no basis in the facts; it is without reason, and it originates in their sensuous mind. Sensuous translates the word for “flesh”, which Paul uses here in his typical fashion to refer to that which belongs to this world and which therefore often fails to take into consideration the truth of the spiritual realm. Paul says two other things about these people who arrogantly claim to stand in judgment over others. First, they insist on or delight in asceticism. The word translated asceticism can also be translated as “false humility” especially as it relates to fasting. So it appears that Paul refers in general to ascetic practices that the false teachers may have used to prepare themselves for or to stimulate visionary experiences which they saw as making them more spiritual than others. The second thing in which the false teachers take delight is the worship of angels. Debate about the precise shape of the false teaching continues as we come to the final description of the false teachers in this verse: going on in detail about visions. Evidently the false teachers were hung up on the visions that they have been receiving, relating them endlessly to anyone who would listen and perhaps bragging about them as well. To summarize this difficult verse, then, we find Paul to be asserting four things about the false teachers: (1) they put a great deal of stock in ascetic practices, perhaps to induce visions; (2) they are so concerned with calling on angels as a means of protection from evil forces that they are virtually worshiping them; (3) they focus on visions they have experienced, perhaps citing the content of those visions in their teaching; and (4) they display, perhaps because of their boasting about visions, an arrogance that reveals a worldly orientation. The false teachers were apparently professing Christians, who, because of their preoccupation with rules and spiritual beings and visions, had lost contact with the only effective source of spiritual growth. Working from a metaphor that Paul has introduced earlier in Colossians [1:18; 2:10], Paul calls Christ the Head. As the rest of this verse indicates, the metaphor of the human body governs Paul’s imagery here. Christ is the authority to whom the church should look for its rules and commandments and the one who empowers its members to grow spiritually. Paul’s main point here is how the ultimate source of the body’s growth is Christ, its head. It is through Him that the body grows with a growth that is from God. The growth Paul has in view here is probably the growth in maturity of the existing members of the body rather than the growth of the body by the addition of new members. For it is the matter of how individual believers find spiritual fullness that is the precipitating issue in the letter. Identifying both Christ and God as the source of the body’s growth is typical of the way that Paul associates the work of the Father and the Son in his conception of the Christian life.

Choose Relationship Over Rules:  Colossians 2:20-23.

[20]  If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– [21]  "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" [22]  (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? [23]  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.  [ESV]

[20-23]  The if clause in verse 20 reminds us of a key theological point that Paul has made earlier: believers have died with Christ. Paul is not simply stating the fact that we have died with Christ; he is inviting us to consider whether, indeed, we have died with Christ and thus ponder its implications. Paul frequently portrays the believer as one who has participated with Christ in the great inaugural events of the new covenant era. This with must not be reduced simply to a comparison, as if Paul were saying that we died in the same way that Christ did. With the biblical worldview of “corporate solidarity” as his basis, Paul claims that we really did die with Christ, were buried with Him, and were raised with Him [see Rom. 5:12-21; 6:1-6]. We enjoy the benefits that Christ has won in His death because of our union with Christ. But Paul’s concern in verse 20 is not simply to remind us of our death with Christ, but to indicate the effects of that experience. Paul again refers to the elemental spirits of the world [see 2:8]. The phrase refers primarily to the basic components of the physical universe and, secondarily, to the spiritual forces often thought to be associated with those physical components. Many people in Paul’s day lived in fear of these spirits or forces and sought ways to live in harmony with them. The sense of bondage to these powers appears to have been what made the false teachers’ program especially seductive. Paul is therefore at pains to show that Christ’s victory over the spiritual beings that are included in the elemental spirits was complete and final [14-15] and that people who are in union with Christ share in that victory. In this and the following verses it becomes clear that the main remedy for appeasement of the elemental spirits being suggested by the false teachers was a set of rules focusing on an ascetic lifestyle. Thus, in the “then” clause of his conditional sentence, Paul asks why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations. Clearly Paul does not mean to imply that believers do not continue to live in the world, whether we define world as the physical universe or as the fallen and sin-prone state of existence. His point, rather, is that believers no longer count the world as their true home or as the place that dictates who they are or how they are to live. By dying with Christ, we have been set free from the elements of this world and we no longer therefore belong to the world over which they rule. How foolish, then, to continue to submit to the rules of this world! In verse 21 Paul provides some examples of the rules that the false teachers were trying to impose on the Colossian Christians. It is most unlikely that he is quoting the rules as the false teachers themselves presented them. Rather, Paul is giving us his own interpretive paraphrase of what those rules amounted to. The second of these rules, Do not taste, reflects the issue of eating and drinking that Paul introduced as one of the matters on which the false teachers were passing judgment [16]. Paul does not mean, of course, that the false teachers were prohibiting all eating and drinking. Rather, they were apparently arguing that living in harmony with the elemental spirits required abstinence from certain food and drink. In verses 22-23 Paul justifies his rejection of the false teachers’ rules by making three points: (1) the rules have to do with matters of this world; (2) the rules reflect human and not divine teaching; and (3) the rules cannot bring spiritual transformation. The first two of these points are made in verse 22. Paul’s point in verse 22 is that the false teachers have been making far too big a deal of matters that do not get to the essence of true Christian spirituality: the change of heart and mind that leads to true holiness. Jesus made a very similar point in His rebuke of the Pharisees for their preoccupation with their own rules of ritual uncleanness in Mark 7:15. Verse 23 as a whole both summarizes and concludes Paul’s rebuttal of the false teaching. The false teachers’ system, Paul says, consists, first of all, in self-made religion or worship. This worship is surely related to the worship of angels in verse 18. The second source of the purported wisdom of the false teachers’ program is their insistence on asceticism which is closely related to the third characteristic: severity to the body. The ascetic practices of the false teachers embrace various disciplines especially fasting and the avoidance of certain food and drink [16,21]. When Paul presented the Christians’ fullness in Christ as the alternative to the false teaching [11-15], he highlighted the problem of the flesh. In Christ believers have the body of flesh or the sinful nature stripped off, curing the problem of the uncircumcision of your flesh [13] that produced death. The lure of asceticism as a way of managing the sin problem and finding true spiritual enlightenment is seen in many religions throughout human history. Paul, of course, does not want to suggest that appropriate discipline of the body is of no spiritual importance. But the false teachers were both imposing rules on others that they had no right to impose and, more seriously, elevating their rules and practices and giving spiritual beings so much credit that they were, in effect, losing contact with Christ, the only source of spiritual power and growth. It is for this reason that the regulations of the false teachers could not accomplish the subduing of the sinful nature that they were promising.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         In 2:8-15 Paul shows us that the way to defend against false teaching is to focus on Christ and what He has done. List all the things Paul says about Christ in 2:9-15. Note the repeated use of in Him and with Him. Meditate this week on all the benefits you receive by being in Christ and with Christ and on the sufficiency of His salvation.

2.         The false teachers sought to add Old Testament requirements upon believers indicating that they did not think Christ’s work on the cross was sufficient for a complete and full spiritual experience. How does Paul handle these false claims? What does he mean by shadow and substance?

3.         Summarize Paul’s argument here against the false teachers. What were the false teachers telling the people? Why did Paul say this was wrong? What did Paul say the believers should do instead of following the false teaching? If we have already received all the spiritual blessings available to us in Christ, why are we tempted to look elsewhere?


The Message of Colossians & Philemon, R.C. Lucas, Inter Varsity.

Colossians, Philemon, Richard Melick, Jr., NAC, Broadman.

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Douglas Moo, Pillar, Eerdmans.

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