Rules – 2:20-23


20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

The first verse of this section requires two explanations. First, what does it mean that believers have “died with Christ?” In Paul’s language, to die with Christ means to be crucified with him. In other words, believers participate, in spirit, in the death that Jesus experienced in his body. This is what is symbolized in our baptism. We are buried with Christ in death as we go under the water, and we rise again to new life as we come out of the water.

Second, what does Paul mean when he talks about “the elemental spiritual forces of this world?” Interpretations vary. Several translations use the phrase “elemental spirits,” while other commentators use the term “basic principles.” In their respective translations, N.T. Wright and Eugene Peterson opt for “worldly elements” and “pretentious and infantile religion.” It is difficult to say, with precision, what Paul had in mind, but he seems to be talking about paradigmatic human spirituality, which is always full of rules but devoid of spiritual value. Humanity’s basic and universal efforts to be better are useless, and therefore ought to be rejected.


Humanity’s basic and universal efforts to be better are useless, and therefore ought to be rejected.
This type of life, bogged down by religious rules and regulations, belongs to the old way of living. When we die with Christ, we die to the fruitless human efforts to become more than we are. Growth, which we have seen earlier in this chapter, is only possible through the power of, and connection to, Christ. Humanity’s rules, which sound like a list of Don’ts, don’t have lasting value because they only function within this world. This kind of asceticism doesn’t actually make us better, because “asceticism has to do with the rudiments of the world and not the riches of the kingdom.”[i] Asceticism, whether Jewish or pagan, cannot teach us about the kingdom of God because it does not deal with the things of the kingdom. It is focused, often with laser-like precision, on the things from which we must abstain in this life. “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch,” Paul mocks. But abstinence from food or drink do not, in and of themselves, bring us closer to God.

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Bad Religion – 2:16-19


16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In this paragraph, Paul warns the Colossians against the influences of bad religion. More specificially, he tells Christians not to let false teachers judge them by their religious observance or spiritual experiences. Many scholars believe that Paul had specific opponents in mind when he wrote the letter, likely a group of Judaizers (strict Jewish Christians who taught that salvation was open to Gentiles through Christ, but that all must obey Torah to be saved) like those who corrupted the Galatian churches. While this is quite plausible, I struggle to see that Paul is singling out any particular group or teacher, as he does in Galatians or 2 Corinthians. It seems more likely that the apostle is drawing on his long experience and warning the fledgling church about the types of false teaching that he has seen creep into churches elsewhere. He is alerting the church that attacks will come from both sides – from Jewish teachers and pagans alike.

In verse 16, he is clearly sounding the alarm against Jewish Christians who would seek to place Gentile believers under the yoke of Torah. Food laws and holy days were essential to the life and culture of Judaism, and Jewish converts would have sensed no need to abandon these. But Paul is clear that the Gospel does not demand Gentile believers take up these practices. No doubt he is remembering here the words of Peter at the Jerusalem Council: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”[i] Torah observance never saved anyone; therefore the Gentile Christians could not be condemned for failing to keep it.

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The Fullness – 2:9-15


9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Once again Paul returns to the theme of the fullness of God, echoing a line from the previously cited hymn (1:19): For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ]. Jesus is the embodiment of the fullness of the Deity. Everything that is true of God is also true of Jesus (excepting, of course, those attributes which cannot be contained in a body, such as omnipresence). Jesus is not, therefore, a second-level deity, or an exalted man, or anything less than God incarnate. “He is the embodiment and full expression of the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”[i] Jesus is, quite literally, Immanuel, God with us, God among us.


If what you believe about God does not fit the person of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels, then what you believe about God is false.
The implications of this theological truth are astounding. We can only comprehend God by looking at Jesus, by reading about his life in the Gospels, by obeying his teaching, by participating in his suffering, and by placing our hope in his resurrection. If what you believe about God does not fit the person of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels, then what you believe about God is false. “All the fullness” is a phrase the defies explanation, rationalization, or minimization. Paul’s language is extreme because he wants us to grasp the depth of the truth of the Incarnation, which is itself the most extreme event in history. (See the section on 1:15-20 for more on this subject.)

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Rooted in Christ – 2:6-8


6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. 

These three verses offer, first, an encouragement to continue to live faithfully for Christ, and second, a warning against being taken in by false teaching. It is never enough that someone simply “prayer the prayer of salvation” and then go on about their business as though nothing significant had actually happened. Embracing Christ is a cosmic event with eternal ramifications. It is not simply a one-time transaction, but rather the beginning of an eternal relationship with one’s Creator and Redeemer.


Embracing Christ is a cosmic event with eternal ramifications.
As we have received Christ Jesus as Lord, so should we continue to live in him. He is not an object that we might purchase and then discard after we grow bored with it. No, he is a person – The Person – that has been received as Lord and King. This One, whom Paul has already named The Image of the Invisible God (1:15) and The Mystery of God (1:27, 2:2), is the world’s rightful Ruler. The essence of faith is to recognize the Crucified Messiah as the Risen Lord, and the practice of faith is to continue to live in such a way as to be “in him.”

Paul is fond of using variations of the phrase “in Christ.” To be in Christ means to be intimately connected to Christ. The larger idea is familial. To be in Christ means to be a member of his family. No doubt this phrase, for Paul at least, carries with it intonations of God’s covenant with Abraham. When someone receives Jesus as Lord, they enter into a long-standing covenant family, borne out of God’s promise to Abraham, consummated by Christ Jesus at the cross, and extended by the Church to all peoples as an offer of grace through faith.

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Struggling for the Saints – 2:1-5


1 I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. 2 My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. 5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

Paul continues his use of the athletic metaphor from the end of chapter one by using the word “contending” to describe his work for the churches. He is not simply putting in his hours; he is actively engaged in a competition, of sorts, on behalf of the Gentile churches. As he says in Ephesians 6, Paul recognizes that he is not contending against other human beings (as tempting as it may be, at times, to think of it that way), but against the cosmic forces of darkness that are manifest in temptation to sin and heretical teaching.

As Paul uses the metaphor of athletic competition, it is important to ask what winning looks like for him. When Paul envisions a victorious church, he sees three elements, each building upon the previous:

  1. Unity in agape love and encouragement in heart;
  2. Possession of the full riches of complete understanding;
  3. Knowledge of the mystery of God, who is Christ.

A unified and encouraged church is a victorious church that is capable of possessing, together, the vast wealth of complete understanding and knowing, in a full and radical way, the mystery of God, who is Christ our Lord. In contrast, a divided and discouraged church cannot access the glorious storehouses of knowledge available in Christ Jesus. Paul’s hope for the church in Colossae (and the church in Laodicea, and elsewhere), was that the congregation would be united in the self-giving love of Jesus, and through this love, mutually enacted every day by and to each member, to come to the full, lived knowledge of Christ. This is a high calling, and not one that can be accomplished by any single member. “Christ’s love for them provided a basis for unity and formed a common bond between them. Christian growth is a group task! The individuals of the church needed each other.”[i]

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