(Col 2:15 ESV) 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Recall the context. V. 14 vividly speaks of God nailing our indebtedness to him to the cross. V. 15 continues the theme of describing what God has accomplished in the cross.
(“In him” at the end of v. 15 could equally well refer to “in it,” that is, “in the cross,” which would be the natural antecedent. “Cross” is a masculine word, leaving the pronoun at the end of v. 15 ambiguously referring to God or the cross. I think “the cross” is the more natural reading, but translators disagree. The context is nonetheless clearly Jesus’ death on the cross.)
Paul speaks of the “rulers and authorities” being disarmed, openly shamed, and triumphed over — all by the power of the cross. Jesus’ death overcame the rulers.
Now Jesus had raised Lazarus a few days before the resurrection. Why wasn’t this a defeat for the rulers and authorities?
1. The rulers and authorities weren’t trying to defeat Lazarus, but they were most certainly trying to defeat Jesus.
2. Lazarus was restored to life but he later died. Death was not defeated, only postponed. But Jesus was resurrected with a new body — a spiritual body (that is, a body from the Spirit) — unlike flesh and blood bodies. This body could cook, eat, walk, talk — and pass through doors, travel great distances easily, and ascend into the clouds. Jesus received more than life. He received a body suitable for living with God forever.
You see, eternal life is not necessarily a blessing. Indeed, for many of us, being forced to live in this world forever would be hell. Many long for a better place. The promise of the resurrection is not only the defeat of death but resurrection to a better life, a life without pain and sorrow and filled with bliss in the presence of God.
The rulers and authorities surely didn’t realize that Jesus had defeated them. In what sense was the cross a defeat?
The rulers and authorities were still ruling and in authority after Jesus’ resurrection. They’d been worried about a violent insurrection, and none came. They surely felt that they’d accomplished their goal of putting down one more false messiah.
But the victory of Jesus was like the Allies’ victory on D-Day. Once they’d established a beachhead at Normandy, Germany was defeated. There was no way Germany could win the war — and yet Germany kept on fighting and many troops died winning a war that had already been won.
Just so, Satan and the rulers and authorities were defeated when Jesus arose from the grave — they just didn’t know it. Their fate was sealed, but they continue to fight in the hope of delaying the day of victory.
So how is the “open shame” and triumph being realized today?
As I type this, I’ve just read about Christian volunteers who were killed in Afghanistan for helping bring dental hygiene to the Afghans in the name of Jesus. Is their death a triumph for Christianity in Afghanistan? It’s a victory — if Christians refuse to be scared away. You see, Islam is winning in places because it’s adherents are willing to die for their beliefs. Therefore, they have little respect for Christians who don’t have the courage to do the same thing. To persuade an Afghan of the superiority of Christianity, we have to be willing to die for our beliefs. Therefore, death is a victory — if we let it be a victory.
Just so, Jesus’ death and resurrection was a victory because his followers were willing to follow him to the grave. Many of his followers suffered unspeakable tortures and deaths — and the church grew because of it. The growth of the early church was watered by the blood of martyrs.
Jesus death is a victory if it emboldens us to live the life to which he’s called us. If our courage fails, if indeed we see this life as preferable to the next, then the victory was for nothing. You see, the “open shame” suffered by the powers and authorities is their inability to stop the forces of Christianity — because the worse they can do is kill us, and death only takes us to a better place.
(Phi 1:21 ESV) For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
If we truly believed that death would be an improvement — a victory — then we’d have the courage to live for Jesus and the church would grow beyond our ability to imagine. Today the church is growing most rapidly in China, Africa, and Latin America — where there is often very little freedom and prosperity. Indeed, I have far more confidence in the persecution-trained Chinese Christians to defeat Islam than us Westerners. They, like the Israelites, were raised in the wilderness and so are ready for battle. Those of us who’ve grown up in the luxurious slavery of Egypt are too soft.
So how should we live?
What would Jesus do? Well, Jesus lived his life in obedience, willing to pay any price for the mission. We therefore turn to a parallel passage about Jesus’ defeat of the powers and authorities —
(Phi 2:1 ESV) So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
The conclusion of being like Christ is to treat others as more important than yourself. If you don’t like the color of the parlor at church, treat the other person’s opinion as more important than your own. This is exactly the attitude that will end the worship wars and fights over styles and traditions. Treat the others as more important than yourself — because Jesus did this for you. If Jesus can surrender his life, you can surrender your taste in music.
More broadly, we are taught to be servants. Our role is to serve, not to be served. And this is the essence of who we are to be. It’s not something we do in addition to being served. No, service is the heart of Christianity.
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus left heaven to live in First Century Palestine — a land that was under Roman occupation, heavily taxed, brutally ruled, and without soap, antibiotics, or air conditioning.
He “made himself nothing” taking the form of a slave. Most translations say “servant,” but doulos means “slave.” And the slaves did the nasty work — cleaning latrines, washing feet, whatever they were told. (In the Roman Coliseum, the toilets were designed to allow the Romans to be cleaned by a slave from a room behind the toilet bowls, allowing the Roman freemen to avoid even having to wipe themselves.)
Therefore, Paul says, this is the “mind” we should have. To be like Jesus is to think like Jesus is to empty ourselves so that we become slaves of one another — willing to do the dirty, nasty work. Even willing to die for people who don’t deserve it.
And the result of this was that God exalted Jesus above every name “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” And if we have the same mind, we too will be exalted.
(2Co 12:9-10 ESV) 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Do you want power — real, earth-changing power? The kind of power historians will write about for centuries afterwards? Then follow the path of weakness, insult, hardship, persecution, and calamity.
(1Pe 5:6-7 ESV) 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.