Colossians 2:9-14

Colossae moundYou’ll notice that I’ve skipped a few verses. I meant to. This was supposed to be a one-quarter series of classes, and I’m two months into and haven’t even finished chapter 1. It’s time to make some hard choices.

(Col 2:8 ESV)  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.

Now, the NIV translates “hollow and deceptive philosophy,” but most translations agree with the ESV, which is certainly closer to the Greek. It’s not just certain philosophy that Paul is challenging.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Colossians. This was a Greek city, with deeply Grecian roots. Nowadays, philosophy is an elective in college that no one takes. Then, to be educated at all was to know philosophy. Philosophy was the core of their worldview. They learned Plato and Aristotle in school. Educated people were schooled in philosophy.

And philosophy was a broader discipline in those days, as well. Today, a Ph.D. — a doctor of philosophy — is given in many fields other than philosophy, because philosophy once covered a much broader range of learning.

Paul’s point is that Christ and the gospel judge philosophy, not the other way around. Philosophy is not so much wrong as uninformed. How could Socrates and Zeno teach us what really matters when they’d never heard of Jesus or YHWH?

“Human tradition” uses the same word that Paul sometimes uses to refer to Jewish traditions, but here is speaking more broadly. In a competition between truth from the lips of God and any other claim, God’s truth prevails. Period. It may be that the Colossians were caught up in Jewish traditions, but traditions never, ever trump God’s own words.

The “elemental spirits” translates stoicheia, meaning “elements.” The same word is used by Paul in —

(Gal 4:3 ESV) In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.

(Gal 4:9 ESV) But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

(Col 2:20 ESV) 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–

The reference seems to be the way the world is without Jesus. It’s our condition before salvation. We are enslaved to the basic nature of things — especially the fact that sin damns and we can’t escape it. It’s the unredeemed world corrupted by the curse of Genesis 3. To a Jewish rabbi such as Paul, this is the elemental nature of the world.

The ESV and New Revised Standard use “elemental spirits,” but that seems unlikely, especially given Paul’s use of the word in Galatians. Most translations say “rudiments” or “elementary principles.”

And there’s a sly implication in that word. Paul is saying that the advanced lesson, the truly serious education, is found only in Jesus. Outside of Jesus, you can only find elementary things. You see, the Colossians were being taught that they had to move beyond Jesus to something more sophisticated, something suitable for true philosophers, and Paul says that Jesus is the most advanced, most sophisticated learning there is. And that’s an important lesson.

(Col 2:9-10 ESV) 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.

Why is Jesus superior to and more advanced than philosophy, the traditions, and such? Because he is fully God. He is as divine and as much a partaker of the Trinity as the Father! You don’t graduate from Jesus to God. Rather, God is revealed in Jesus. Jesus is all we need. Understand Jesus and you understand God.

Now, there are lots of implications here. We tend to think of God as the “God of wrath” and Jesus as dying to protect us from God. But Jesus is the revelation of God. God is willing to die to save us!

Just so, some argue today that we must graduate from Jesus to the Spirit, and while Jesus is received by faith, the Spirit is earned by works. No, no, no! Jesus has the fullness of deity. If we have Jesus, we have the Spirit.

Some see Jesus as distant. When we need a favor from Jesus, we figure we should pray to a deceased saint, figuring that he or she will ask Jesus for help and Jesus will be more inclined to listen to them. But Paul’s point is especially that there is no spiritual being that holds the key to Jesus. We have JEsus, and therefore all other “rule and authority” is beside the point.

(Eph 6:12 ESV) For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

“Rule and authority” can be better translated “ruler and authority” as in Eph 6:12, except for being singular.

(Col. 2:10 NIV) and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

(Col. 2:10 NRS) and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.

And Ephesians shows that Paul can use these words to refer to spiritual powers, but in other verses, Paul uses the words to refer to earthly powers. But to a First Century Grecian audience, there was much difference. They lived in a world where every nation and province had its own god and nearly every thing had a spirit or demon or demigod. The First Century world saw gods and demons everywhere — and Paul sometimes adopts their language.

By saying that Jesus is over “every ruler and authority,” Paul claims that no spiritual being holds the keys to Jesus. No spiritual being stands between us and Jesus. When we have Jesus, we have all the deity there is to have.

Evidently, the Colossians were being taught by false teachers that they must please certain angels in order to have full access to God — basing this on an odd blend of Jewish traditions and Greek philosophy. Paul doesn’t bother with the details: Jesus is sufficient because he is all there is to have.

(Col 2:11-12 ESV)  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.

Now, it’s common in many denominations that this verse means that baptism is like circumcision. Well, that interpretation really misses Paul’s point. Paul, you see, is discussing a “circumcision made without hands” — which is not baptism. In fact, every baptism I’ve ever seen involved hands. So does circumcision. So that’s not the contrast or comparison Paul is making.

Rather, Paul is alluding to —

(Deu 10:12-16 ESV) 12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,  13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?  14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.  15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.  16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.

Deu 10:16 — “circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart” — is announced at the beginning of the reading of the Law of Moses just before the Israelites crossed the Jordan to conquer the Promised Land. The purpose of this figurative circumcision was to change your heart so you can love and serve God “all your heart and with all your soul.” The requires a changed heart.

Later in the book, God warns the Israelites that if they disobey, severe curses will fall on them. But in chapter 30, he says that even if they rebel and are cursed, he’ll save a remnant.

(Deu 30:6 ESV)  6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

This is the circumcision not made with hands. It’s God changing our hearts so that we’ll love God as we should — and so live. And this happens at baptism, Paul says. It is, of course, a reference to the work of the Spirit in us —

(Rom 2:27-29 ESV)  27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.  28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

It’s all about the heart — a heart changed by the Spirit. Very atypically, Paul doesn’t mention the Spirit in this context in Colossians, likely because he is wanting to emphasize the sufficiency of Jesus.

(Col 2:13-14 ESV) 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.

The ESV gets this translation right, but the NIV bungles it —

(Col 2:14 NIV) 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.

This Greek is well-explained by Bobby Valentine

Paul says that the cheirograph was nailed the cross. This word is a Pauline hapax and never occues again in the NT. In the 19th century the word turned up in the sands of Egypt inscribed on papyri. Adolf Deissmann in his epoch making book Light from the Ancient East demonstrates that the term refers to an I.O.U., a certificate of debt incurred by a person (cf. pp. 331-334).

Historical context is a cardinal rule in biblical interpretation. In Jewish apocalyptic there was an idea that there existed a book of records that kept track of our evil deeds. This book, like the mortgage (an I.O.U.) at the bank, provided powerful leverage with less than friendly spirit beings called principalities, powers, angels and the like. This book is mentioned often in Jewish literature of the time (1 Enoch 89.61-64; 108.7; Testament of Abraham 12.7-18; 13.9-14; and many other places). Enoch, for example, tells how he heard the words “write down every destruction {sin} … so that this may become testimony for me against them.” We have an IOU that stands against us and that IOU is our own sin debt. It is that sin that the malignant powers hold over us.

The Law of Moses wasn’t nailed to the cross. Rather, it was our I.O.U.’s to God, the record of our indebtedness to him. God forgave our trespasses. It’s just that simple. And he did this by bringing us into Jesus — in whom the fullness of deity dwells — and resurrecting us with him and circumcising our hearts (through the Spirit) when we were baptized.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Colossians, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.