Some Thoughts on Colossians 2
Early manuscript of Colossians from Papyrus 46.
The sermon is based on the assumption that Paul wrote Colossians to a church which is facing pressure from false teachers, but has not and is not even on the verge of succumbing to it. Comparing Paul’s rhetoric in Colossians to other letters written against false teachers (i.e. Galatians) reveals Paul is less sharp and specific in his critique of the false teachers in Colossae as he is of those elsewhere. Paul spends little time in Colossians arguing against the false teachers. He spends most of his letter working out his vision of Jesus as the victorious Lord of all creation (1:15-20) and the Colossians’ identification with him in his death and resurrection (2:6-15; 3:1-4:6). In the midst of Paul’s explanation of the glorious reality of Christian faith, Paul briefly dismisses the false teachers as incompatible with that reality (2:8, 16-23).
Paul refers to the false teaching in 2:8 as the “philosophy”. He does not spend much time arguing against the “philosophy”, making it difficult to pinpoint what it taught. The sermon is written with the assumption that Paul is arguing against a form of Judaism in Colossae. Paul’s portrayal of Jesus in 1:15-20 is comparable to the role of Torah in Judaism (N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon TNTC; IVP Academic, 1986: 27). 2:11-15 argues that the Colossians have already been circumcised in Jesus’ death. 2:16 argues against having to observe specific Jewish holidays including the Sabbath because they have been fulfilled in Christ (v. 17) (David E. Garland, Colossians and Philemon NIVAC; Zondervan, 1998, 174-175). 2:16, 21 hint at food regulations. 2:18 introduces a problem to identifying the “philosophy”. Paul refers to the worship of angels, a reference which has led some scholars to posit a syncretism between Judaism and paganism (Wright, Colossians, 24) or Jewish Gnosticism or a pagan philosophy/religion (Bruce W. Longenecker and Todd D. Still, Thinking Through Paul; Zondervan, 2014: 223). Wright draws attention to ancient Jewish literature which speculates about angels and celebrates the giving of the law by angels. Paul would then be using irony to say they might as well be worshiping angels rather than God (Wright, Colossians, 126-127). 3:11 contains a line similar to Galatians 3:28, declaring that in Jesus, the boundaries between Jews and Greeks are no more. In 3:12, Paul uses the language of “Jewish self-identity” from the Old Testament: “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (NIV) (Garland, Colossians, 210). All the evidence in the letter points to Paul dealing with a Jewish-flavored teaching which is putting some form of pressure on the church in Colossae.
Page 3 of the sermon is organized around a series of passive verbs in the original Greek text of vv. 10-12: πεπληρωμένοι, περιετμήθητε, συνταφέντες, συνηγέρθητε. In order to capture the reality that God is the one acting in these verbs, for the sermon, they have been changed to active verbs in sentences with God as the subject: given, circumcised, and baptized (buried and raised).
Structurally, the passage begins in v. 6. Paul moves from an autobiographical section in 2:1-5 to discuss living life in Christ in v. 6. He marks his transition with the adverb οὖν (therefore). He then issues a command in vv. 6-7 for the Colossians to continue walking in the faith they had received. The positive command of vv. 6-7 is followed by a negative command in v. 8, to not be led away from the faith by any empty philosophy or human tradition. ὅτι in v. 9 marks the first reason to follow Jesus instead of the philosophy (vv. 9-10): all divinity dwells in Jesus and the Colossians are in Jesus. They have access to all divine power through Jesus. καὶ in v. 11, translated as “also” introduces a more specific reason. They have already been circumcised by Jesus. So why pursue physical circumcision? The argument is developed in v. 12. Having already described the death of Jesus in v. 11, in v. 12, Paul identifies the Colossian believers with Jesus in his burial and resurrection through baptism.
Colossians 2:12 also serves as a key piece of Paul’s baptism theology. It fits neatly with Romans 6:1-11. In both passages, Paul describes baptism’s role of uniting believers with Jesus in His death, burial, and resurrection. In Romans, Paul details that, for the believer, baptism is a death to sin (v. 2) and resurrection to a life lived in accord with God’s Kingdom (v. 11). A similar argument from baptism is found in 1 Corinthians 10. In v. 2, Paul says that the Israelites “were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (NRSV)”. Yet, “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness” (v. 5). Paul believes that Israel was an example for the Church, “that we might not desire evil as they did” (v. 6). Evil, idolatry, and immorality are supposed to be on the other side of baptism. In Paul’s thought, baptism frees the believer from the powers that previously controlled his or her life and opens up for him or her a life lived in light of who God has revealed Himself to be in Jesus. N. T. Wright writes:
Just as the doorway of a building will often indicate what sort of a building it is, so baptism, the gateway to the Christian life, demonstrates that being a Christian means dying with Christ to the old solidarities and habits and coming alive to the new family of God and its new lifestyle (Wright, Colossians, 112).
What Colossians adds to the discussion is the relationship it draws between circumcision and baptism. In v. 11, Paul identifies circumcision with a kind of death: “the removal of the fleshly body, that is, through the circumcision done by Christ” (NET). Paul finishes the thought in v. 12, describing the Christian’s burial with Christ and with their resurrection, but rather than the language of circumcision, he uses the language of baptism. Calvin comments, “Christ says, he, accomplishes in us spiritual circumcision, not through means of that ancient sign, which was in force under Moses, but by baptism” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul The Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians; Baker Book House, 1981: 185). Baptism, then, serves as the new marker of the people of God.