If you were here last week, you’ve probably noticed the gap. Last Sunday, we read up to verse 5 of chapter 2, and now we’re picking up this morning with verse 9. Given that I’m a humanities wonk by my own confession, you might feel justified in wondering if this represents a small problem with my math skills—perhaps I haven’t noticed before that there are those other numbers in between 5 and 9?
Don’t worry, though—it’s nothing like that. I’ll grant you I’m not the first person you’d want planning economic policy or doing the math to make sure your roof will bear the snow load, but I’m up to basic counting. The truth is, we read what we read this morning because of the way verses 6-23 of this chapter are structured. We have this long passage in this chapter in which Paul for the first time explicitly attacks the Colossian heresy, the false teaching that’s been seducing them away from Christ, and tells them how they ought to be living. It’s practical in the beginning and practical at the end—you might say that’s the “what”—and then here in the middle, we have the section we read this morning which gives the “why”: the theological foundation and justification for what Paul says before and after it. So what I decided to do is to take things a little out of the order Paul uses, take this section first, and then look at the passage as a whole next week and see how he applies it.
The opening statement of this section should sound familiar to you by now: “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” If this sounds a lot like “He is the image of the invisible God,” chapter 1 verse 15, and “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,” 1:19, to you, good, because it should; Paul here is making that same point in a different way, from a bit of a different angle, because this is the point that the Colossians just have to get straight. They want to see God, they want to know God, they want to experience the reality of the presence of God, which is completely right and completely admirable—but they don’t know where they need to go to do that, or how to have that experience, because they haven’t really figured out who Jesus is. They haven’t grasped that in Jesus, the invisible God became visible, and the whole of God—not just part of God, not just certain aspects of God, but God in all of who he is, in all his character, all his love and mercy and justice and grace and holiness, in all his power and glory, became human, and (as we talked about earlier this year) is still human. They haven’t figured out that everything they’re seeking is already theirs in Christ.
And so Paul says again, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,” and then he continues, “and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.” For the Colossians, as we’ll talk about in greater detail next week, those words “power and authority” relate to the spiritual powers they thought they needed to appease in order to pursue the fullness of spiritual life; for us, they may mean something different. The point is clear regardless: whatever other powers there might be, whatever other authorities you might think you need to acknowledge and respect, they are under Jesus’ control, and they aren’t the way for you to find the fullness you’re looking for. The only source of true fullness of life is Jesus—and in him, if you belong to him, you already have it.
Where Paul goes next with this may sound quite strange to our ears, since we lack the Jewish background: he discusses this in terms of the Jewish sacrament of circumcision. (“Sacrament” of course isn’t a Jewish term, but I think we can reasonably use that language.) Circumcision of males was a physical sign of God’s covenant with his people, going all the way back to the covenant he made with Abraham in Genesis 17; but fairly early on in the life of God’s people, God started using it as a metaphor and talking about the necessity for a spiritual circumcision—that his people didn’t just need to snip their flesh, they needed to circumcise their hearts, to cut away the parts of them that resisted God and his will. Just as physical circumcision was an act of outward obedience, accepting the sign of the covenant, so too they needed an act of inward obedience, accepting the authority of the covenant; but as the history of Israel showed, this spiritual circumcision was a task beyond their ability or will to accomplish. It was only in the work of Christ that that could finally become a reality.
I should note at this point that I part company with the NIV in verse 11. A more literal translation here would read, “In him you also were circumcised in the putting off of the body of flesh”; the NIV, as you saw, takes “the body of flesh” to mean “the sinful nature,” but I don’t think that’s what Paul’s on about here. Rather, I think he’s using this as a metaphor for the death of Christ on the cross. In circumcision, a strip of flesh was cut off to mark the entry of the boy or man into the covenant of God; in the crucifixion, Jesus’ whole body was torn away on our behalf to bring about our entry into the new covenant of God. In his death, we received that spiritual circumcision to which Moses and the prophets had pointed, because our hearts were made new.
Specifically, our hearts were made new through our participation in the death and rebirth of Christ. We were circumcised with him in his circumcision—which is to say, who we were before, our old natures and old selves, died with him in his death—and then buried with him in baptism; and then in his resurrection we were raised with him, with a whole new life—his life in us, by the work of his Holy Spirit. The work of God has obviously not been completed, and will not be until Christ comes again, but it has already been accomplished; all that remains is to see it worked out and brought to its full harvest, because the work Christ has begun, he will most surely finish. In the meantime, we can live in the assurance that, as Paul says in Galatians 2:20, it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, and that we have his power by his Spirit to walk in his ways.
In verse 13 Paul intensifies this point by changing his terms: not only have we been given new life in Christ, but that life is the first true life we’ve had; before the work of Christ in our hearts, we were alive physically, but dead spiritually, crushed under the weight of our sin and “the uncircumcision of our flesh.” Here again, the NIV takes “flesh” to mean “sinful nature,” and here again I disagree. This is a literal statement with a symbolic meaning: many at least in the Colossian church were in fact uncircumcised, because they were Gentiles. This was significant because circumcision was an act of obedience to the command of God to his people, and thus uncircumcision had been a marker that one had not accepted God’s authority; it was a symbol of alienation from God and his covenant. The point of Paul’s words is clear: you were estranged from God by your disobedience, you were spiritually dead in your sin, and then God came to you in Christ and forgave your sins in order that he might bring you back to life in Christ. He did this freely, as an act of his grace, in spite of the fact that we didn’t deserve it.
But how did he do it? Well, that’s where things get a little tricky, in verses 14-15. The NIV doesn’t help matters here—in truth, their translation committee didn’t cover themselves in glory on this passage—but the translation “written code” is just a bad one, because that suggests a code of laws to our ears, and that’s not what’s in view here. The Greek word at this point literally means “handwritten,” and it was used to signify a note of indebtedness written in one’s own hand—an IOU, but legally enforceable, and containing penalty clauses. We owed God obedience, and the penalty for defaulting on that debt was death; that certainly includes the Old Testament Law, which made both the debt and the penalty explicit, but it’s a far larger thing than that, going all the way back to God’s creation of humanity at the very beginning. God had an IOU on us, and he could have simply enforced it. Instead, he erased it, and then he took it and nailed it to the cross. The IOU against us was nailed to the cross of Christ as the accusation against him; the debt we could never repay, he paid with his life.
Now, remember, back in verse 10, Paul proclaimed Christ the head over every power and authority; one of the points he’s trying to make to the Colossians is that these spiritual powers they’re all caught up about are nothing next to Jesus. Here in verse 15, he comes back around to that point, in a very strange sentence. The word the NIV translates “disarmed” here, following the standard English translation, is actually the same word that’s translated “putting off” back in verse 11; it means that God stripped the powers and authorities. Of what? The translation “disarmed” suggests their weapons, but I think there’s a better read here than that. I believe the imagery here is of a royal court, of a king stripping public officials of their position, authority, rights, and pay, reducing them to powerlessness and insignificance, and symbolizing that by taking away their badges of office and their finery.
I think that’s what we have here. Jesus, by allowing those powers and authorities—working through human leaders—to strip him of his body by killing him, turned the tables on them; in doing that, he took the IOU against us that gave them their power over us and destroyed it, thus enabling him to strip them in turn of that power. And then, having reduced them to utter helplessness, he exposed that utter helplessness to the world, displaying them in a triumphal procession. This was something the Romans did; when one of their generals won a war, he would drag the enemy leaders back to Rome, where he would have a massive victory parade through the streets, with all the people of the city turned out to cheer him—and right behind the general would come the leaders he’d defeated, in chains, naked, exposed to the whole city of Rome in every sense of the word. They had dared to challenge Rome, they had dared to think that they had the power to resist—so they would receive the just punishment of having their complete powerlessness, their inability to resist the might of Rome, put on display before the gods and everybody. Jesus did the same to the powers and authorities in his resurrection, proving their complete powerlessness before him by showing the whole world that not even their greatest weapon—death—could overcome him.
And the sign of his triumph, the banner of his procession, the mark of his victory, was the cross. Normally an instrument of torture, both physical and psychological, designed to make dying not only as long and agonizing but also as humiliating and degrading as possible—the Romans were big on making examples of anyone who gave them trouble; the idea that criminals should be allowed to die with dignity in comfort would never have occurred to them—the cross was a horrible thing; but Jesus took that and flipped it around, making that place of sorrow and defeat a place of glorious victory.
Now, this is pretty dense stuff, and it comes out of a mindset that’s unfamiliar to us; that’s why I thought it was important to take the time to go through it this week and lay it all out before looking at the whole passage, and how this section fits into it, next week. So, we’ll be coming back to this; but for this morning, I want you to notice something. Let’s look at this in the ESV, since it’s a more literal translation and we can see this more clearly. Verse 9: “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and”—verse 10—“you have been filled in him”; verse 11: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands”; verse 12: “having been buried with him in baptism,” and here I think the ESV gets it wrong, “in him you were also raised with him through faith”; verse 13: “God made you alive together with him”; and then verse 15: “He [that is, God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in him.” In whom? With whom? Christ. Everything is in Christ, with Christ, by Christ. It’s not in our own strength, it’s not in our own work, it’s not in our own accomplishments, it’s not in our own determination, it’s not in our checklists or anything we can do; it’s only in Christ, only by his grace, only by his power, only through the cross.