Tag: Colossians

Life in Christ (Colossians 2:6-23)

by on Jun.16, 2009, under Sermon

On the first of January, 1863, the American Emancipation Proclamation came into effect. By it, all of the black slaves in the United States were set free. Yet a strange thing happened, for many continued to live in slavery. When an Alabama slave was asked what he thought of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator he replied, ‘I don’t know nothin’ ’bout Abraham Lincoln cep they say he sot us free. And I don’t know nothin’ ’bout that neither’.1 It is not enough to declare someone as being free if they ‘don’t know nothin’ ’bout it’ – instead, they must be taught and shown what it means to be free. And, as we shall see, this is very close to the Apostle Paul’s heart.

In tonight’s passage, Paul proclaims life and freedom for those who are in Christ. But he doesn’t leave it there, going on to explain what this life and freedom looks like, and encouraging the Colossians not to return to the death and slavery from which they have been liberated. This is signalled in the opening three verses:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (6-8)

There are two things here. Firstly, Paul says to the Colossians ‘just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him’ (6). And secondly he gives an instruction: ‘See to it that no one takes you captive’ (8). These two ideas form the framework for the rest of this passage, as he explores them and explains them in greater depth.

‘Just as you received Christ Jesus, continue to live in him’ (6-7, 9-15)

We cannot know exactly what it was that prompted Paul to write this letter, but we can take some pretty good guesses based on the things he says. One of the recurring words in Colossians is the word ‘fullness’.2 One of the most widely held theories about the situation in Colossae is that new teachers had come and were teaching that the gospel they had received was not the ‘full’ story, that there was more to know and to do. As we know, Paul did not bring the gospel to Colossae himself. That was the privilege of Epaphras. But Epaphras was not an apostle, and perhaps the newcomers were claiming some superior authority to proclaim that his gospel was in some way defective, and that to achieve ‘fullness’ as Christians more was required. The Colossians were missing out, unless they paid attention to the new teachers and did what they said.

This still happens today, doesn’t it? Our entire advertising industry is built on the premise that you, the consumer, are missing out unless you buy this product or that service. And Christian marketing is not immune. Consider the list of titles in a recent catalogue from a popular Christian bookstore: Happiness is a lifestyle; Leadership on the Front Foot; The Power of Prayer to Change Your Marriage; and Your Best Life Begins Each Morning. Each of these titles makes an implicit promise that your life will somehow be better, more fulfilling, if you buy and read the book.

Paul’s response is clear:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ. (9-10)

The fullness of God is found in Jesus Christ. You can’t get much more full than that. And those who have received Christ, including the Colossians (6), have been given fullness in him. If you are a Christian then the good news is that you have been given all the fullness of God; you will spend the rest of your life learning what that means, but there is nothing more to do for all has been done for you by Jesus.
What does this fullness look like? Paul gives us a couple of images to help us understand, and they are all expressed in terms of freedom. First, we are freed from the dominion of other powers and authorities, for Christ is head over them all. The powers and authorities here are spiritual beings. Many of you will be familiar with C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, either from the book itself or the more recent movie. In it, the Witch stands before Aslan and demands the life of the traitor, Edmund. ‘You know,’ she says, ‘that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.’3 The impression is of a debt owed to the evil power, yet the reality is very different for God owes no debt to Satan. Jesus Christ is the head over every power and authority, and that includes the devil. No longer are the spiritual powers and authorities to be feared, for they have been publicly humiliated in Christ’s triumph on the cross (15).

We belong to Jesus, and so our allegiance is to him, not to the powers and authorities. We know this because of three signs: the sinful nature is removed by Christ, a kind of circumcision (11); the Christian is buried with Christ in baptism (12); and the Christian is raised to life through ‘faith in the power of God’ (12).

Paul expands on this point with his second picture of freedom, freedom from sin and death.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. (13)

Death comes because of sin, and sin from sinful nature. But for Christians, God has removed our sinful nature and forgiven our sins, thus making us alive! If you are not a Christian, you need to know that the only place where you will find fullness and life is in Jesus Christ. This is the amazingly good news – the gospel – of Christianity: those who are dead, God makes alive with Christ; those who are captive, God sets free in Christ… and that offer is open to you!
Paul’s point is that there is life, fullness and authority in Christ, and those who are in him are given freedom from oppression, sin and death. Why then does Paul warn the Colossians not to be taken captive (8)? I believe that he is correcting a misguided view of the gospel.

‘See to it that no one takes you captive’ (8, 16-23)

Christian brothers and sisters, how do you see the gospel? Some Christians think of it as the first step of the stairway that leads to God, or a doorway which one passes through and leaves behind as they approach him. Let me suggest to you a better image: the gospel is the hub which holds the wheel called ‘Christianity’ together. The gospel is the fullness, if you like, of Christian teaching and theology. If you cannot see the ‘spoke’ connecting a teaching to the gospel then it is likely an addition to what is already full. And you cannot add to fullness, or else, by definition, it was not really fullness in the first place.

It seems that that is exactly what was happening in Colossae, for Paul feels the need to instruct the Colossians not to let themselves be taken captive by things that are ‘hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ’ (8). He gives three examples of these: hyper-religion (16-17); hyper-spirituality (18-19); and hyper-discipline (20-23).

Hyper-religion is where the forms of religion are stretched beyond their original intention, and where observing them gives one a ‘status’ beyond that of other believers. The examples Paul gives are of people observing religious rules, festivals and holidays, things that he says are mere shadows of the reality found in Christ (16-17). Have you ever wondered why we do not make sacrifices as the Old Testament priests did? Or why we do not strictly observe the Sabbath as Jews did and do? The reason is that these things were pointers to Jesus who is both sacrifice (Heb 8:26) and Sabbath rest (Heb 3-4). So do not be fooled by those who say you must pray in a particular way, sing specific songs, perform certain rituals or support such and such a cause to be a ‘full’ Christian. The fullness that comes in Christ is not dependent upon which church you attend or which preacher you listen to. In Christ ‘you have been given [past tense]4 fullness’ (10).

A variant on this theme is hyper-spirituality. In Paul’s language, hyper-spiritualists are those who delight in ‘false humility and the worship of angels’ (18). Where hyper-religion says a person achieves fullness by what they do, hyper-spirituality emphasises what a person has experienced. Their humility is false because they point away from themselves to their experiences, expecting that they will in turn reflect well upon themselves. Some examples today might be Christian leaders who claim influence and authority because of a vision they have seen, a word that they have received from God, a supernatural healing performed through them and so on. When I was in Year 12, all I wanted was to be able to speak and pray in tongues. For a long time I felt like an inferior Christian, because I did not and do not. This seemed to me to be something every Christian should expect, and those who didn’t were missing out. But the truth we find in this passage is that fullness is found in Jesus Christ, not Christ plus something else.

Hyper-discipline is where a person imposes rules upon themselves and others in order to bring about perfection in themselves. Some examples would include those who fast, refuse alcohol or will not watch television in order to make a point to those around them how holy they are. In extreme cases, this manifests in what Paul calls ‘harsh treatment of the body’ (23), such as the self-imposed beatings and cilice employed by the fictional character Silas in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. The rationale such a person gives if asked is that they are ‘restraining sensual indulgence’, but Paul says that these things ‘lack any value’ in doing so (23).

One of the clearest signs of a hyper-religious, hyper-spiritual or hyper-disciplined person is that they judge others according to their religion, spirituality, discipline or lack thereof. ‘Unless you are like I am, you do not have everything that the Christian life has to offer,’ they say. Thus they ‘judge’ (16) and ‘disqualify’ (18) others. Their teachings ‘have an appearance of wisdom’ but they are ‘self-imposed worship’ (23) and so are ultimately ‘destined to perish’ (22).

How are we to respond when confronted with hyper-religious, hyper-spiritual or hyper-disciplined people? The instruction is clear: ‘Do not let anyone judge you… Do not let anyone… disqualify you’ (16, 18). Some will remember the 20km walking event at the Sydney Olympic Games, when Australian athlete Jane Saville was disqualified as she entered the stadium for violating the rules of the competition; how silly it would be if she had allowed herself to be disqualified because of something that was not in the rules, such as the brand of shoes she wore, or the amount of water she drank.

Religion, spirituality and discipline are not in and of themselves bad things. In most cases, in fact, they are tremendously beneficial. Yet good though they are, they do not have the authority or power to govern our lives, for life in Christ is governed by a different set of rules, namely Christ, the head. Unless teacher and teaching are connected to Jesus Christ and his gospel they are but ‘human commands and teachings’ (22) and they have no hold over us, so do not be taken captive by them.

The only thing more tragic than a slave who does not know he is free is one who, having experienced and understood freedom, returns to slavery. Let us suppose that the slave we heard from earlier, having tasted his freedom, was approached by a man claiming the virtues of slavery and offering to take him captive once more. Would he accept this proposal? Of course not!

If you are in Christ, you have been given fullness and freedom. Do not seek them in anything that does not have Christ as its head, or else you will be taken captive.

Bibliography

Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. London: Lions, 1980. Reprint, 1987.
Swindoll, Charles R. Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations & Quotes (Formerly Tale of the Tardy Oxcart and 1501 Other Stories: A Collection of Stories, Anecdotes, Illustrations, and Quotes), Swindoll Leadership Library. Nashville: Word Pub., 1998.


Endnotes

  1. Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations & Quotes (Formerly Tale of the Tardy Oxcart and 1501 Other Stories: A Collection of Stories, Anecdotes, Illustrations, and Quotes), Swindoll Leadership Library (Nashville: Word Pub., 1998), 524-25.
  2. Gk. plērōma (1:19; 2:9) and the verbal cognate, plēroō (1:9; 1:25; 2:10; 4:12, 17).
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Lions, 1980; reprint, 1987), 128.
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