Before Paul begins explicitly to interact with the false teaching that was troubling the Colossian church, he exhorts his listeners to continue in the teaching they had received from Epaphras. The verses we are about to read, especially the first few, sum up much of what has already been said. [O’Brien, 102] This section, through v. 18, has been often characterized as “the heart” of the letter. Here Paul summarizes the response he wants from those who hear this letter read out to them in the church. [Moo, 177]
During this period the word “Christ” was turning into a proper name. It is often so used in the NT. Here it retains its original sense as a title: “the Anointed One or the Messiah, Jesus the Lord.” And, of course, “Lord” makes him Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This identification of the Lord Jesus is paramount to Paul’s point. If you have the right view of Jesus Christ you cannot go far wrong. Everything flows from getting him right. In 1:10 Paul prayed that these folk would walk worthy of the Lord; now he exhorts them to do so and explains again in v. 7 what this entails. In context it means: “remain where you are! Don’t go off in some new direction.” [Moo, 179]
Now comes the first explicit instruction regarding the false teachers. If we cannot now precisely identify the false teachers or the details of their teaching, those hearing Paul’s letter being read would have known exactly what he was talking about. The alternative in Colossae was what it always is: the faith that has been once and for all delivered by Christ and his Apostles, the truth of divine revelation, on the one hand, or, on the other, some human invention, call it philosophy or religion or whatever you will.
The term “philosophy,” used only here in the NT, was no doubt used by Paul because it was used by the false teachers. Then as now the word had positive connotations; it carried with it the impression of intellectual depth and sophistication, so Paul hurries on to describe this particular philosophy as empty, deceitful, and made up — an invention of men, hardly the truth that God had revealed to men in Christ. A great deal of human philosophy is of this type. What Cicero observed in his day has been repeatedly confirmed in the two millennia that have passed since: “There is no idea so ridiculous that it hasn’t been taught by one philosopher or another.” The teachers had probably sought to identify their teaching with antiquity, hence the reference to “tradition.”
“The elemental spirits of the world,” pose a question. The Greek word here translated “elemental spirits” (stoicheia) does not, in and of itself, refer to spiritual beings. It could by some transfer of meaning refer to the demonic realm from which, ultimately, comes all untruth and deceit. But the ordinary meaning of the word was not “spirit” but “element” or “fundamental component.” It was a formal term that depended on its context for its meaning, very like the English word “element.” It could, for example, refer to the letters of the alphabet (the elements that make up the alphabet), the notes of the musical scale, the propositions of geometry, or the essential teachings of some subject. Taken that way Paul may here be referring to the sort of ABC’s of human religion, the “do this and get this in return” sort of teaching common to all religions and philosophies of life apart from Christianity. I lean to that latter understanding but the former could be right; we know that spiritual beings figured somehow in the teaching of the false teachers from the reference to them in 1:16 and 2:18. In any case, the fundamental problem of this teaching is that it is not according to Christ, a statement Paul will now hurry on to explain. The use of such a term accents the historical nature of the Bible. The Colossians themselves, no doubt, knew exactly what Paul meant. The context of its use was their own personal history.
This statement repeats the one already made in 1:19. The simple point is that all that God is, Christ is. In Jesus Christ one is face to face with the living God. “Bodily” emphasizes that Christ, in his incarnate life, in his humanity, nevertheless is fully the embodiment of God.
There is obviously a play on the word “fullness.” The latter is a verb, the former a noun. As Christ is the fullness of God, so those who are in Christ are filled. But the statement is left incomplete and it is hard to know with what we are filled? Usually when Paul uses this idea of filling in his letters he is referring to godly qualities or graces: in his letters, for example, being filled with joy and peace, filled with the fruit of righteousness, the knowledge of God’s will, and so on. [O’Brien, 113] It certainly doesn’t seem likely that he means that these Christians have been filled with all the fullness of God in the same way that Christ was. Probably the false teachers were promising some kind of “fullness” and Paul is reminding them that there is no greater fullness than that which believers have in Christ who is himself the fullness of God!
To get ahead of ourselves a bit, the Christians in Colossae were being taught by the false teachers that the way to fullness of life was to please or appease the spiritual powers by a strict discipline of religious ritual and self-denial. But, as Paul has already reminded them in 1:16, those powers were absolutely subject to Christ who created them and rules over them. They need not worry about them if they are living their lives in submission to the one who created the spiritual realm and rules over it. It is a form of the argument Paul uses in Romans 8: if God is for us, who can be against us?
No one can say for sure why Paul introduced circumcision here, as he doesn’t refer to it again in the letter, even in vv. 16ff, the list of regulations the false teachers were insisting that the Colossians observe. Still, given the other Jewish regulations mentioned there, it seems likely that the false teachers were demanding circumcision of the Gentile believers and it was that demand that prompted Paul to remind them that they these Gentile Christians had already been circumcised in the way that matters most. But the idea that Christians have been circumcised in the circumcision of Christ appears only here in Paul’s writings. What does he mean? And what is the circumcision of Christ?
We know that circumcision had already come to have a metaphorical meaning in the OT. There we read not only of physical circumcision but of the circumcision of the heart and the circumcision of the lips. Paul says explicitly he is talking about a circumcision “not performed by hands,” that is, he is not talking about the physical rite of circumcision. He goes on to speak of “putting off the body of the flesh.” The interpretation of these remarks is complicated and consumes pages in the commentaries, but it seems likely to me that the false teachers were arguing that purity and the higher reaches of spiritual life could only be achieved by ritual and ascetic practices, a strict regimen of religious observances and self-denial, in all likelihood, circumcision among them. So Paul reminded them that their putting off of the flesh, the stripping off of their sinful impulses, the putting off of their old sinful nature — what he calls here their circumcision and what the false teachers were claiming could only be gained by following their regimen of ritual and asceticism — occurred rather when they came to Christ and became participants in his salvation. It certainly seems to me that Paul is telling these Gentile Christians, at least in part, that they do not need the ritual of circumcision because they already have the substance.
The previous thought continues with the assertion that it was at their baptism that their circumcision took place, the power of sin was broken in their lives, and they were united with Christ in the power of his resurrection life. It is typical of the NT, as you know, to consider baptism as the beginning of the Christian life, the anointing of a believer, the forging of his union with Christ, but the reference in this verse to their faith reminds us that it is not baptism in and of itself, or baptism in isolation from faith that Paul is talking about. God may be at work in someone’s life before his or her baptism — no doubt he is — but baptism still marks the beginning of new life in Christ and incorporation of a person in Christ. And that union with Christ is the key thought. This can be confusing for someone who was baptized years before he became a Christian, but Paul isn’t thinking about such a situation here. He is talking to a congregation of exclusively first generation believers.
Alright; let’s sum up. How does one go on in the Christian life? The false teachers were suggesting that to go on to fullness — whatever that meant to them — these believers had to follow a course that they would chart for them. There was something more for them to do; something different than what they had so far done. Now, before we think about what might be wrong with what these teachers were proposing, let’s admit that there is a reason why teaching that promises real progress in godliness, spiritual power, and communion with God is so likely to get a hearing in the church. That much of that teaching is bogus must be acknowledged; but that it proposes to satisfy a very real hunger Christians have must be acknowledged as well. Put the best construction on what the false teachers were proposing. They were challenging these young Christians to go on in their spiritual life; to rise higher. They were calling on them to be satisfied with nothing less than a life free from the tyranny of sin. “They pointed the way to a zeal and devotion that put to shame all complacence and half-heartedness.” They “spoke of the need to get out of the shallows, and open the heart and mind to the deep things of God.” They “made much both of leaving the rudimentary stages of spirituality and of the possibilities of swift advance to a wider understanding.” [Lucas, 86-87] Do we not all want that? Do we not all long for that for ourselves and our children? I do; I’m sure you do as well.
I had several email exchanges this week with a young man, not of this church, who was literally despairing of his faith and Christian life. He felt he was and had been for far too long in the death grip of sin and couldn’t escape it no matter how much he prayed, no matter how many steps he took to avoid temptation and to increase his accountability to others, and no matter how much advice he had sought from pastors and other spiritual advisors. He knows the gospel, he knows the grace of God, he knows the Bible, but he was not getting on top of his sins. He desperately wanted to, but he wasn’t. The power of sin was supposed to be broken in his life, but it doesn’t seem to be so. What is going on? Why doesn’t this work? He had come finally to the question that virtually every Christian comes to sooner or later: is my problem with sin that I am not a Christian at all, or is it that I was a Christian but I have committed the unpardonable sin and God has left me?
It is this reality — the terrible scourge of sin in a Christian’s life — that makes it so easy for the purveyors of bogus methods of spiritual advancement to gain a hearing. We all want to enjoy daily, intimate, glorious, joyful communion with God. We want to feel his presence with us at all times. I hope you do; I know you do. We all want to gain mastery of our sins, especially our besetting sins, whatever they may be: anger, lust, envy or greed, laziness or sloth, whatever forms of pride or self-love sin takes in our lives. And the more thoughtful we are and the more we care about living for God, the worse it becomes. Most of you have been there; some of you are there right now. If we’ve ever breathed the air of true joy in Christ and in his salvation, or felt the power of his life in us – and most of us have – we want that, more of that, much more!
Some of you may remember this chapter in J.I. Packer’s spiritual autobiography. I know you’ve all profited from reading Dr. Packer. I think when the story of the second half of the twentieth century church is told J.I. Packer will be given a prominent role in that story. His book Knowing God is one of the great books of 20th century Christianity. He had become a Christian, if you remember, as a freshman at Oxford as the result of a sermon he heard on a Sunday night in October, 1944 at St. Aldate’s church. The sermon had convinced him to his surprise, having grown up in nominal Anglicanism, that he was not a Christian. He had always supposed that he was a Christian, but when he was invited to come to Christ at the end of the sermon, he came. Approximately 100 feet from where George Whitefield had committed himself to Christ in 1735, Jim Packer did the same. That sort of thing can happen in England! Immediately he became a member of the Oxford University Christian Union and began growing in his knowledge of the gospel and the Word of God.
But, as happens to every young Christian, it was not long before he realized that sin was still a power in his life, a real power. At that time the so-called “higher life” or “victorious Christian living” teaching, long associated with the Keswick Convention, dominated the Oxford Christian Union. Booklets touting this approach to sanctification were widely distributed and many of the sermons sponsored by the Union had the theme of finding deeper spiritual enrichment through its particular form of what was typically then called “consecration.” Some very fine people were representatives of this movement; its teaching was treated as if it were self-evidently the teaching of the Bible, and as a result this way of thinking about sanctification gained a remarkable hold on English undergraduates during these years. What this approach taught was that there was a way to obtain full deliverance from sin and a much closer relationship with Jesus Christ than anything these young Christians had so far experienced. We might say, it offered “fullness” to them.
The method the higher life teachers recommended to their hearers was that of “total surrender” to Jesus. By this they meant that if only you would trust totally in Christ’s power and willingness to work his perfect will in you, if only you would abandon all effort to please him “by the energy of the flesh,” you would ascend to spiritual heights unknown before. Active, energetic obedience was criticized as a form of self-effort, a failure of faith, a lapse into legalism, and a dangerous reliance on one’s own abilities. If you remember, it was to counter an earlier form of this teaching a century before that was the special object of Bishop J.C. Ryle’s great book Holiness which I know many of you have read.
Young Jim Packer longed for the “sustained victory over sin” that his spiritual teachers were promising him, the end of spiritual failure, but he found that his efforts at total consecration “seemed to leave him exactly where he was before — ‘an immature and churned-up young man, painfully aware of himself, battling his daily way, as adolescents do, through manifold urges and surges of discontent and frustration.’” [That is Packer’s own description of his state as a young college student trying to make his way as a Christian.] “Somehow,” he felt, ‘it all seemed a long way from the victorious, power-packed life which spirit-filled Christians were supposed to enjoy.’” [McGrath, J.I. Packer, 23-24]
The only remedy his teachers could offer was “to let go and let God,” which amounted to a demand that he re-consecrate himself to God because obviously he hadn’t done that sufficiently the last time. But after repeatedly attempting to do that he had still not identified whatever obstacle it was that was standing in the way of fullness of blessing and holiness and communion with God that he longed for. He never doubted that he was a Christian, nor did he doubt the truth of the Christian faith, but there was a serious tension between what he was being taught about the Christian faith and his own experience. If you remember the story, it was his discovery of an still uncut volume of the works of John Owen, the great Puritan, particularly volume 6 of the 19th century reprint of Owen’s Works, the volume that contained his works On Indwelling Sin in Believers and On the Mortification of Sin in Believers that led Packer into the light of a more fully biblical view of sanctification and spiritual growth and made him an admirer and student of the Puritans and an expert in their theology, out of which expertise has come so much of his contribution to the church in our day.
Well, the situation was in some respects similar in Colossae. Probably the teaching was much more dangerous than that Dr. Packer encountered as a young man, but it bore some similarity to it. It offered the promise of spiritual maturity, of perfection of life and of intimacy with God — something every Christian aspires to and should aspire to — and the means to attain these things: another method that they had not yet learned; another approach they had not yet mastered. The problem was then, as it has been with all such “second-blessing” teaching, that it taught believers to expect too much and too little at the same time. It suggested that Christians actually could have full freedom from bondage to sin in this life — you will not be surprised to learn that none of the Keswick teachers thought that the Apostle Paul was talking about himself as a Christian in Romans 7:14-25 where he talked about his frustration at being unable to escape his bondage to sin — they all imagined that no Christian Apostle would ever speak that way about a Christian life. They were sure Paul must be speaking as a man before he became a follower of Jesus or before he learned the secret of victorious Christian living. They thought that Christians could actually have full deliverance from sin. But, in order to think that, they had to redefine sin and consider sin only as outward behavior and not unholiness at the deeper level of desire, motivation, and attitude. It traded — such teaching has always traded — in a measure of dishonesty, however well-intentioned, because sinless perfection or victorious living had to be redefined downward in such a way as to make the idea seem actually plausible and not ridiculous to earnest Christians who knew very well that both they and those who claimed to be living victoriously were not free of sin. They could see it for themselves. They were not remotely close to being free of sin.
So we begin with this recognition. What the false teachers were offering to the Colossian Christians is what every Christian longs for: great advance in holiness of life, deeper intimacy with God, deeper understanding of his ways, and freedom from the debilitating power of sin. The desire for these things is so strong, in fact, that even Christians who ought to know better, fall for one or another of these programs of over-heated super-spirituality, none of which has proven to work, even after all these centuries have passed. As Dr. Packer learned from John Owen, as the Apostle Paul will teach us later in this letter, and as must be the case given what the Bible teaches us about the chronology of salvation — how it begins, continues, and ends — the quest for holiness of life and communion with God will be marked in every Christian’s life by conflict, weariness, frustration, and struggle. As Alexander Whyte put it while deflating someone’s expectation of soon being raised above the struggle with temptation altogether, “Aye, it’s a sair fecht [sore fight] all the way.” [In Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 111] The Lord has determined that there be a great difference between this world and the next and this is one of the greatest differences between the two: in heaven there is no more fighting, no more battle with sin, total victory in heart, in speech, in behavior.
The Lord Jesus was in the enemy’s crosshairs every moment of every day and sin was everywhere around him, temptation was pressing upon him from every direction, including from those he worked with and those he worked for. That made his life a life of conflict, exhausting and frustrating work, and very often a deep disappointment. Why should those of us who have aligned ourselves with him and are seeking to further his cause not find it to be the same with us for the same reasons. We must carry with us to the end of our days the residue of our former nature, and if you wish to know the terrible corrupting power of sin, all you have to do is consider what the remnants of your old nature — not the entire old nature itself, just what is left of it after you have been made a new creation in Christ (its dregs if you will) — I say, consider what just the dregs of that old nature make you think and say and do! And then there is the world and its constant, unrelenting influence upon us. As D.L. Moody said, “The place for the ship is in the sea, but God help the ship if the sea gets into it.” And as we heard from Augustine a few weeks ago, most of us are bailing every day of our lives. Are we not?
So what does Paul say about all of this. Certainly not that once one is a Christian he or she need hunger for nothing more. There is much more to Christian faith, life, and experience than simply getting into the kingdom. There are places any Christian has not yet gone, vistas he has not yet seen, depths of truth he has not yet plumbed, measures of joy, peace, and love he has not yet experienced. Receiving Christ is not the end, it’s the beginning.
But, says Paul, the way forward is not some other way than the road we began to walk when first we followed Christ. The language Paul uses here for the Christian life, as a walk is very instructive. You know that way of speaking comes from the Old Testament where the life of faith was pictured as a road that one travels along. It is often contrasted with the other road that the wicked walk along. It is a way of picturing things. It is a way of imagining our lives as Christians. Remember how Isaiah describes the day when the Lord will return to his people and bless them?
“…though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” [30:20-21]
That is, you will be helped to stay on the right road when tempted to leave it. Paul’s point here, in using this way of speaking, is that we are to continue to follow the road we have been walking along as Christians, not leave it for another. Is this not what he says in the plainest way as he begins in vv. 6-7?
“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding with thanksgiving.”
And throughout the verses we read the point is made again and again. You don’t need a new man-made philosophy; You need Christ and only him. You don’t need a new circumcision, of whatever kind; you need Christ’s circumcision which you already have; the putting off of the sinful nature. Trees grow from their roots and your root is Christ. Foundations are laid precisely so that something can be built upon them. You have discovered the faith that was once and for delivered to the world through Christ and his apostles: now you have only to be more fully established in that faith. The reason you should be abounding in thanksgiving is because all you need you already have in Jesus Christ; all you will ever need, you have already.
The Christian longing for fullness is natural and absolutely proper. Anyone who has learned to hate sin and love God’s righteousness should long to be rid of sin and live a life that is pleasing to God. Anyone who has come to love God should long to be nearer to him and enjoy his presence, his company if you will, more immediately and intimately. But there is no secret handshake or password that will get you into some inner sanctum. There is no button to push, no mystery to solve, no esoteric formula to apply to the Christian life. What is required is that you walk the road that you set your feet on when Christ first appeared to you and pointed the way. The way of faith, as Paul says, in v. 12, the way of confidence in what the Lord has done, what he is doing, and what he has promised to do. It is the way of obedience because to love Christ is to serve him, struggle and trial as that obedience will be, and it is the way of thanksgiving because no one can receive such fabulous gifts as we have received from Christ without undying gratitude.
There are all kinds of different trees, to be sure: mighty firs, short and twisted bristlecone pines, lovely hardwoods, and all the rest. There are trees that grow quickly and trees, like the spruce, that grow very slowly. Some trees stand in thick forests and others, like some near our mountain cabin in Colorado, grow, or so it seems, right out of the side of a tower of granite. But what is true of all of them is that their life is drawn from their roots which, in turn, go deep into the source of water and other nutrients necessary for their life. No tree sends its roots into the air but always into the soil. Well, such is Paul’s figure of speech in v. 7. We are rooted in Christ; we draw our sustenance, our strength, our growth from him. It cannot be otherwise in the nature of the case. Christ is our life: it begins, continues, and ends in him. It is he who purchased this life with his blood, he who sent his spirit to bring us to faith, he who promises to be with us always, to answer our prayers, to teach us what we do not yet know; it is Christ Jesus who is coming again to bring us to his Father’s house and to make complete and perfect the work he has begun and continued in us. Everything about our Christian life depends upon our walking with Christ and, much more, his walking with us. We don’t need something else; we need simply a stronger faith in Jesus, a deeper understanding and appreciation of who he is and what he has done, and a greater devotion to him that will reveal itself in more consistent obedience and more devoted service. Whatever it is that we think we need most — courage, joy, patience, self-control, or love — Christ is the source of it all — he must be because all the fullness of God dwells in him and there is no fullness outside the fullness of God.
If you feel that today, however long you have been a Christian, you have more lusts than true and noble affections in your heart; if you mourn because it seems to you that there is more unbelief than faith in your life, don’t waste your time looking for some shortcut to true godliness. There is no more a shortcut to true holiness of life and intimate fellowship with God than there was a shortcut to our redemption. Our Lord Jesus walked one road his entire life, the road to the cross, the road of self-denial, trust in his heavenly father, obedience to his commandments; the road of faith, hope, and love that only the man of faith can walk and will walk. The Lord’s life was, in one respect, one long Gethsemane, though in his case as in ours, there were concentrated periods of suffering, weariness, and near despair. As the master, so his disciple shall be. But he never left that one way for another; that he would not, could not do, sore trial that it was for him to walk that way. And nor can we. How could someone else or something else be more important to us, helpful to us, or needful to us, than the one in whom all the fullness of deity dwells and who has loved us and given himself for us?
In the twelfth canto of the Purgatory, Dante descends to the seventh circle of hell and finds there the murderers, those who have done violence to their neighbors. They live in a river of blood, the blood of their victims. If they try to escape the river, Centaurs guarding the river bank, armed with bow and arrow, prevent them. They must remain in the blood of those they murdered. That is their just judgment. Well, you and I, rooted in Christ, are the opposite case. And I think it’s a vivid if somewhat dramatic way of thinking about what Paul is teaching us here. Our life came from the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and the roots of our life go down into that blood. Nothing would make the devil happier than if we should find some way out of that blood and up one of the banks of that river. No Centaur will prevent us. Our roots are in him, so if our roots come away from him we will and must die. His blood was shed for us and has delivered us from judgment; we draw our nourishment from his blood. Christ has joined us to himself and in him we have all that human beings hope for. But the devil is always tempting us to leave that place and look for another. It is necessary for us to realize how foolish to leave the suburbs of heaven to go walking toward hell just to see if we might discover some new, some better way forward. No; it is ours to stay where we are and never leave it, but to make the very most of the happy place in which Christ has placed us: that place in him.
Years ago, after the communist empire fell, we heard of many former Soviet citizens who were undergoing severe emotional trauma because they had been forced to admit that they had lived their entire lives in vain, in the pursuit of a false principle, looking for a world that, as it happens, does not exist: the world of peace and harmony that was to be created by the worker’s state, the paradise that Marx promised them. Never the Christian! The world Christ has promised those who trust in him does exist: it is already known to believers and its fullness is guaranteed to him or her by the Lord Christ who is God himself, the Maker of heaven and earth and the King of Kings.
Paul deals with the false teaching in Colossae as a “threat to Christocentric living.” [Moo, 183]
That was the problem and that is what he defines to be the problem. These men are taking you away from a “Christocentric” life. When Paul gets to the “how-to” of Christian living in chapter 3, his instruction will not be to let go and let God, but it will be all about how Christ should be the object, the hope, and the strength of our Christian living. Look at those first three verses of chapter 3: Jesus Christ is everywhere in Paul’s teaching about the Christian life: what he is doing, what he will do, and how we are related now to him.
We will take the great apostle’s counsel to heart if we renew our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ and to living in him, by him, and for him. If all the fullness of God dwells in him, and if we are in him, then the more he is to us, the better we shall be; the stronger our love for him, the purer our lives must be, and the more faithfully we obey and serve him the greater our progress in everything worthy and beautiful must be. That is Paul’s logic and it is unassailable. We don’t need somebody else. We don’t need something else. We need more and more and more of what we already have. We need our lives to be entirely absorbed with Jesus Christ. Here is Paul’s practical counsel for frustrated, discouraged Christians: keep your eye, your heart, your mind, your body fixed on Jesus Christ. There is no other way. If it is a struggle to do so, then struggle it must be. You won’t do better somewhere else than on the road that Jesus walks with his disciples.