Colossians 2 (NIV)
I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they 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 are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives 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 elemental spiritual force of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken 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.
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
As we continue our series on the Letter to the Colossians, it may be helpful to begin by recapping some of the background we looked at last week. The letter appears to have been written by the early church planters Paul and Timothy, although it is the former’s voice which dominates, to the church at Colossae, whose leader Epaphras seems to have visited Paul during his time under house arrest. Colossae was a diverse city with competing religious influences, and within that context, there seems to have been a syncretistic attempt to represent Christ as one expression of the divine among many, as well as a gnostic belief that salvation would be found by rejecting the world in favour of hidden knowledge. Paul seemed to counter both of those positions in the first chapter, speaking of Christ as “the image of the invisible God” in whom “all things hold together”, and declaring that “God has chosen to make known...the glorious riches of this mystery”, the implications being that Christ is without equal or compare and there is no secret to be uncovered or kept.
From the opening verses of this second chapter, it sounds like the Colossian church hadn’t given in to syncretism or Gnosticism just yet, but there was a possibility that they might be influenced, and so Paul was keen to keep them from being deceived by “fine-sounding arguments” or “hollow and deceptive philosophy”. Paul doesn’t always come across as very subtle in his approach - he repeatedly gets himself into trouble with his public preaching in the Book of Acts, and he is clearly losing patience in his second letter to the church in Corinth - but here he is actually quite gentle in guiding the Colossians. He doesn’t really give a lot of energy to pulling apart the doctrines that he disapproves of, he simply says that they do not depend on Christ, and then returns to his argument about the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. It’s a really positive way of teaching, focusing on what he is for rather than what he is against, and I think there’s something we can learn from that. It’s really tempting to tear down the ideas we disagree with, whether they are theological or cultural or political, but perhaps we are better to concentrate on building up the ideas we believe in.
So as we’ve just acknowledged, Paul’s main argument here as in the first chapter is the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ, who is “head over every power and authority” and in whom we are to be rooted and built up. He wants the Colossians to keep their focus on what they have learnt of Christ, on the wisdom and knowledge revealed in his life and ministry, and on the fullness and freedom brought about by his death and resurrection. I suspect Paul would have been rather approving of the first point of the Baptist Union’s Declaration of Principle, which says that: Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but in essence all that we believe and all that we do must be focused on Christ as the clearest revelation of God, although what that looks like in practice will be led by the Spirit and worked out in community. Christ is made known in scripture and so we must take it seriously, but we reflect on all that is written in the light of his life and ministry and death and resurrection. That means we should bring a careful and considered approach to our reading of the Bible, and to all other religious ideas and influences including the inherited traditions and practices of the church, asking what will best help us follow in the way of Christ.
Paul’s letter seeks to encourage the Colossians to understand that Christ alone is supreme and sufficient for their faith and practice, seemingly coming from a concern that they would contradict or confuse things with “human traditions” and “elemental spirits”. We may be reading in a different time and a different context, and we recognised last week that not everything that was said to the Colossians will be relevant for us, but we are still subject to distractions and so his letter may still encourage us in the same way. What are the “human traditions” and “elemental spirits” that might contradict or confuse things for us? What are the competing forces that we turn to when Christ seems insufficient? What is there in our lives that knocks against rather than flows from or into our faith? This isn’t about saying that we should have nothing in our lives that isn’t explicitly labelled Christian, not least because there are plenty of things explicitly labelled Christian that can trip us up too, but about making sure that our understanding and purpose are centred in Jesus, and the things that bring us meaning and value are consistent with the way he calls us to live. Paul wanted the Colossians to guard themselves against being led astray by religious and philosophical ideas that may have seemed helpful but would have led them away from Christ, and we too must take care that all our readings of scripture and ideas about worship and worthy causes keep us rooted and built up in Christ.
So the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ is Paul’s overarching theme in this text, but there is a lot going on underneath it, and I think the other important words here are fullness and freedom. These words make clear that Paul's focus on Christ is not to be seen as restrictive but liberating, almost like being drawn to a trail that takes us in a clear direction and then quickly opens up into a glorious vista. This sense of fullness is seen first in Christ himself, in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”. It's an astonishing description of the incarnation, which is spoken of not as a singular event but as a present reality, and it remains utterly breathtaking to me that God should ever have dwelt so completely in this world, and now experiences what we too shall experience in the world to come. My best advice is don't try to understand it, just feel the wonder of it, like fresh rain or warm sun on your skin. Paul goes on to say that through Christ we too are brought to fullness, although he doesn’t elaborate on what that looks like, and so we might wonder for ourselves what it means to be brought to fullness. I’m still pondering it, so I would love to hear your thoughts, and maybe this is something we’ll come back to. Whatever it looks like, this new fullness is expressed as circumcision, which Paul has come to understand in a spiritual sense as a rejection of old ways of being, and through baptism, which Paul sees as a sign of rising to new life. It is also tied to the redemptive work of the cross, and while I have some difficulty with the legal and transactional language which Paul uses here, I do like what he says about Christ disarming the powers and authorities and making a public spectacle of them. It acknowledges that there are still forces and influences that shape our lives in ways we do not wish, but unmasks them as weak and foolish and so gives us the confidence to take them on.
The word freedom does not appear in the main body of the letter, but the final section of this chapter is headlined “freedom from rules”, and here Paul is telling the Colossians not to let others burden them with unnecessary rules and observances. Before we get the impression that Paul thinks anything goes, we might remember that his letters are full of advice and instruction, but what we find elsewhere is largely ethical teaching concerned with how members of the church should live well with one another and in the world, and his primary concern when it came to worship was to make sure it was orderly and respectable so that it might be for the benefit of all. He clearly held that there were certain ways that followers of Jesus were expected to live, but what we see here is that he had no interest in heaping on further expectations or restrictions. I’m sure Gnosticism was in the background of his thinking again, as it held that material existence was evil and so had a tendency towards asceticism, avoiding any kind of pleasure. What Paul is saying is that such practices are unnecessary because they are based on human commands and teachings, and I would also suggest that “false humility and harsh treatment of the body” have little of the fullness that Christ brings us to. Commitment to the life of faith will bring certain demands, but it should also be deeply and joyously liberating, and that is a tension that I think runs throughout scripture. Perhaps we will see it again as we pick up chapter three next week, but for now I believe Paul would want the same fullness and freedom for us as he did for the Colossians, so may we flourish and bear good fruit as we live our lives rooted in Christ.