This year as we walk with Jesus through the passion week we invite you to think through Colossians 2:6-19. I think of this passage as the heart of Colossians. Paul presented the passion of Jesus as the alternative to the errors that threatened to captivate the Colossians—human traditions involving angel worship and rules about diet and calendar. We may be confronted by different errors today, but the passion of Jesus remains central to how we respond to them. We need to look no further than Christ crucified and risen to find all we will ever need to overcome our sins and live a life filled with God’s presence.
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During this week you may want to look into our previous posts on the cross and the empty tomb:
- Following Jesus through Passion Week
- Enigma: Why did Jesus choose a Judas?
- Speaking Truth to Power on Good Friday (John 19)
- Famous Last Words: Jesus Speaks from the Cross
- Why does it matter that the tomb was empty?
- Easter Isn’t Over . . . (John 11)
- The Cross: For us, by us, and in us
You will find a teaching video on Colossians 2:6-19 here.
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Walking through Colossians 2:6-19
Context of the Confrontation. Everything so far in Colossians—Paul’s pastoral prayer (1:3-14), his profound poem in praise of Jesus (1:15-20), his warning about perseverance (1:21-23), and his rehearsal of his own struggles in ministry (1:24-2:5)—leads up to his confrontation of the erroneous teaching that distracts the Colossians from the sufficiency of Christ and threatens to imprison, condemn, and disqualify them (2:6-19). In 2:6-19 we find out why Paul really wrote Colossians.
Exhortations backed by Explanations. Paul confronts the errors that are distracting the Colossians with exhortations backed up by explanations. He exhorts them to (1) maintain their current walk with Christ (2:6), (2) watch out for the bondage of human traditions (2:8), and (3) avoid those who pass judgment (2:16) based on those traditions and rob (2:18) the Colossians of their salvation in Christ alone. He explains that (1) they have already been taught the foundational truths about life in Christ (2:7), (2) the distracting teachings are empty human traditions that contradict the sufficiency of Jesus (2:9-15), (3) these teachings are mere shadows of the reality that is in Christ alone (2:17), and (4) these teachings decapitate the church from its head, the all-sufficient Lord Jesus Christ (2:19).
Distraction leading to Disaster. Paul exposes two distracting errors that still plague the church today, legalism and preoccupation with angels. He describes the origin of these teaching as human—not divine. But these human teachers were puppets of evil spiritual beings, fallen angels. The Greek word for these negative influencers is stoixeia (στοιχεῖα, compare Gal 4;3, 9). The word is translated variously as “elemental spirits” (ESV), “spiritual forces” (NIV), or “spiritual powers” (NLT). To catch Paul’s meaning, compare his language in Colossians 1:16 and other passages (1 Cor 2:6, 8; 15:24; Rom 8:38; Eph 1:18-22; 2:2; 3:10; 6:12). Paul’s reference to the stoixeia here reminds us of his teaching that we must take up “spiritual armor” because our enemies are not mere humans (Eph 6:10-20).
The legalistic teaching Paul traces back to the stoixeia involved abstinence from certain foods and drinks, as well as observance of special festival or sabbath days (2:16). This was combined with esoteric instructions about how to worship angels, or perhaps how to enter a mystical state where one could worship God with the angels in heaven (2:18). We might just call this weird, but Paul viewed it as a dangerous distraction that drew believers away from Jesus. He spoke of the disastrous results of the teachings as imprisonment (2:8), condemnation (2:16), and disqualification (2:18). Apparently these teachings were concocted by blending bits of the Old Testament law with Jewish mysticism and Greek philosophy. Scholars have argued about it for centuries, but Prof Phillip Long explains the gist of it here on his website. Whatever the precise historical details, Paul viewed the teaching as spiritually toxic because it diminished the person and work of Jesus.
The Passion at Colossae
In Colossians 2:11-15 the powerful sufficiency of Jesus’ cross and empty tomb comes crashing down on the empty human traditions used by the spiritual powers to distract the Colossians. Drawing on the Torah (Deut 10:16; 30:6) and the Prophets (Jer 4:4; 9:25-26), Paul speaks of Christ’s cross as performing a circumcision of the Colossians’ hearts (Col 2:11; compare Rom 2:25-29; Eph 2:11; Phil 3:2-3). What’s more, he says the Colossians’ baptism signified and sealed their union with Christ in his death for sin and his resurrection from death (2:12). When they came to faith in Jesus (Col 1:4 ff.), they were raised from death to life with him and forgiven of all their sins (2:13-14). Why would they want to drift away from Christ into rule-keeping and angel-worship?!
Paul goes one step further in expounding the passion of Jesus for the Colossians. Christ’s passion crushes the spiritual powers that seek to captivate, condemn, and rob the Colossians. Paul says Christ disarmed, shamed and triumphed over these evil powers. This language alludes to the ancient practice of generals celebrating victories with triumphal parades that flaunted the spoils of war, including prisoners who were openly taunted and shamed. There is in Rome today a stark reminder of this ancient practice, the Arch of Titus, which shows the Romans celebrating their victory over hapless Jewish rebels by parading the Temple menorah and other artifacts through the streets of Rome.
What Paul is saying here is that the passion, the cross and the empty tomb, amounts to Jesus shaming and taunting the evil powers by rubbing their noses into the dirt at the foot of his cross. It’s as if he invited them into his empty tomb and asked them to produce his body. And when they couldn’t, imagine him saying “Hit the road Jack, and don’t you come back no more.” It’s not much of a stretch to say that on Easter morning all the myriads of angels in heaven were singing in chorus to Satan and his evil powers . . .
Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye! Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye! Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye!
The irony of the cross is palpable. Crucifixion involved a helpless criminal who was publicly stripped naked, whipped, taunted, and put through the unspeakable agony of being nailed to a cross. This most cruel and unusual of punishments was carried out in public places as a warning to anyone passing by who might think of rebelling against the triumphant glory and power of imperial Rome. The gospel accounts are full of snarling people who hurled taunts at Jesus, sarcastically telling him that if he were king of the Jews, he should come down from the cross. But this moment of Jesus’ greatest weakness was in reality the moment of Jesus’ greatest power, as demonstrated on Easter morning. The resurrection turned the taunt table on all the evil powers. The resurrection showed imperial Rome that Jesus—not Caesar— is Lord. Jesus won, and by the grace of God, we share in his glorious victory. Why then would we allow ourselves to be distracted by the ruses of the very spiritual powers Jesus defeated? Why would we put our hopes for the future in the same sort of political powers that crucified Jesus?
Christ’s passion has freed those who believe in him from the drudgery of keeping human rules, from the futility of worshiping [with?] angels, and from the slavery of trying to placate evil spiritual powers.
We close with the wise words of N. T. Wright:
When people try to entice you into particular styles of piety and devotion other than single-minded devotion to Jesus, you need take no notice. . . . All you need is Christ, the king. Hold fast to him and you’ll have all you need. . . . Can you sense the sigh of relief the Colossians may have experienced on being assured that they were already complete in Christ and didn’t need anything else, just more of what they already had? Have you ever come under pressure to ‘add’ to your Christian experience? Do you know the same sigh of relief yourself?N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), excerpted from pp. 171-72.
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Music is a key way to reflect the work of the Spirit in our lives—”Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Eph 5:19 NLT). Songs that reflect on the passion are especially meaningful, for example: