Date: February 17, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Colossians 2:8–2:15
I wonder if anyone here this morning watches the PBS series Antiques Roadshow. Did you know that show has been on the air for 22 seasons? I find it fascinating that in a culture awash with new and exciting entertainment, folks are still tuning in to a show about old stuff. But it’s not really the antiques that get people to tune in, is it? It’s the possibility that someone will bring in what they think is an old trinket that turns out to be a priceless treasure. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you can imagine it, right? The lady who brings in great-grandpa’s pocket watch only to discover it’s a rare early American masterpiece worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think that’s what keeps a show about old stuff on the air – it’s the thrill of seeing people discover that they already possessed a priceless treasure. They didn’t need to go looking for riches. They already were rich – they just needed to realize what they had.
If you’ll forgive the historical inaccuracy, you could say our passage today in Colossians 2 is like an Antiques Roadshow moment. In these verses, the apostle Paul wants the Colossians to understand the treasure they already possess. The Colossians have received the gospel, as we saw last week in v6. They received Christ Jesus the Lord. But here in this text, it’s as if Paul says, “Yes, but what you need to realize is that the gospel you already have makes you rich beyond measure. That gospel you already possess is the only treasure you need.” This is Paul’s strategy in writing. It’s not that the Colossians need some new information to help them stand firm. No, the Colossians need to recognize that already, they are rich in Christ. Already, they have received the treasure of treasures in the gospel. Already, they are complete in the Lord Jesus.
And that’s what makes this passage so valuable for us as Christians today. I would contend there are many believers today who view the gospel like that old antique. We know it’s important, we know it has some value, but we don’t realize that it’s actually a priceless treasure. We don’t see the spiritual riches we already possess in Christ. And that, in part, explains why we so often drawn to other things, or why our Christian life seems kind of anemic – it’s because we miss the treasure we’ve already been given.
Brothers and sisters, if I had to sum up Paul’s point this morning, it would be this – already, believers are spiritually complete in Jesus Christ. Those who have Christ are rich – not in earthly riches, which fade and lose value, but in spiritual riches that will last for eternity. Already, believers are spiritually complete in Jesus Christ. And therefore, since believers are spiritually complete in Christ, what we need is not to going looking for something else. Instead, we need a renewed understanding of the treasure we already have in Christ. That is Paul’s point in this text –already, believers are spiritually complete in Jesus Christ.
Now, let’s look at the details of the passage, and see how Paul makes this important and encouraging point. You may have noticed the shift in Paul’s tone in v8. Having laid a solid doctrinal foundation, Paul now goes on the assault. For the remainder of chapter 2, Paul attacks the claims of the false teachers. These verses are full of negative commands and prohibitions, things the Colossians must not do, things they must resist.
And yet, even in the midst of those commands, Paul continues to apply the truths of the gospel. That’s important to recognize. All of these negative commands and prohibitions – they all flow from the gospel. This is how the apostle Paul fights for the faith – by helping the Colossians to see the treasure they’ve already received in Christ.
Here in our passage, there are three distinct sections to Paul’s teaching. There is the Warning that Protects Us in v8. There is the Truth that Defines Us in vv9-10. And there is the Treasure that Completes Us in vv11-15. Warning, Truth, Treasure – that’s the outline. Let’s consider each one more closely, beginning in v8 with the Warning that Protects Us.
The warning that protects us
Right from the start, you can hear Paul’s concern. Notice the cautionary tone of v8 – “See to it that no one takes you captive.” Beware, in other words. Be vigilant. Be on guard, specifically against those who would take you captive. Think about a city that has been captured in battle. What do the victors do following the battle? They take away the spoils, don’t they? They loot the city and even take the people into captivity. That’s the idea Paul warns against. Don’t let the false teachers take you as plunder. Don’t let them take you away into slavery.
Paul then goes on to explain how this captivity might happen. Notice the next phrase – “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit.” Now, when Paul says philosophy, he’s not talking about classical philosophy, like Plato and Aristotle. Paul has in mind ideas that sound good but are actually empty, meaningless, and even deceptive. In fact, that’s the key point here. The false teachers have an appearance of wisdom, but in the end, their ideas only lead away from the truth.
But Paul is not finished unmasking this deception. Notice the next phrase, v8 – “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition.” Notice the powerful contrast Paul draws here. Unlike the gospel, which has been revealed from God, the false teachers base their ideas on merely human tradition. If your eternal life hangs in the balance, what should rest your hope on – human tradition, or divinely-revealed truth? The answer is clear! Human tradition cannot save. Man-made ideas cannot bring you to God. In order to have spiritual life, we need truth from God, and indeed, Paul reminds the Colossians, that is what they have received in the gospel.
Still, Paul is not finished. I told you he goes on the assault in this section. He hammers the false teachers. Notice the next phrase, v8 – “according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of this world.” Now, this phrase is very difficult to interpret. It could refer to the elementary or basic teachings of the old covenant, like the regulations of the Mosaic Law. Or elemental spirits could refer to the powers and principalities of this age, what Paul calls in Ephesians the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Honestly, it’s a hard interpretive decision, but considering how often angels and powers show up in Colossians, I tend to prefer the second option. The false teaching is empowered by spiritual forces that seek to enslave people in darkness. In other words, these ideas won’t free you, Paul says. It’s just the opposite. They’ll enslave you, and therefore, beware.
But it’s the final phrase that captures the real danger of this empty, deceitful philosophy. Notice the final phrase, v8 – “according to the elemental spirits of this world, and not according to Christ.” That’s the danger. The false teachers are apparently saying many things, but what they’re not advocating is the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. You can rest assured – any idea or movement that does not exalt the Lord Jesus Christ does not come from God. That is the foundational point for biblical discernment, and it comes here from the apostle Paul. Any idea or movement that does not exalt Christ does not, indeed it cannot, come from God.
Based on Paul’s warning, we can sketch the outline of the false teaching in Colossae. It’s empty – it doesn’t add anything of value. It’s earthly – it comes from man, not God. It’s demonic – it’s empowered by the forces of this age. And most serious of all, it undermines Christ.
Brothers and sisters, I mentioned it briefly a few weeks ago, but we find it here again in this text. The world is not neutral. The same forces that were lurking around the Colossian church lurk around us today. The world is not neutral. There are empty, deceptive ideas that seek to take us captive and lead us away from Christ. If you’re not seeking to grow in the knowledge of God through his Word, then you’re in a dangerous position. You’re like the soldier who heads to the battlefield without his shield and sword. You’re not prepared to fight. You’re not prepared to stand.
And so, the place to start is with the Word of God. Know your Bible, brothers and sisters. Compare what you hear out there with what you read in here. Know God’s Word, and ask the Holy Spirit to grow you in the knowledge of God. Paul begins here with a Warning, and if we will pay attention, it is a Warning that Protects Us.
The truth that defines us
As we come to v9, Paul shifts from warning to instruction, and it’s here we see the Truth that Defines Us. Vv9-10 give us the reason for Paul’s warning. Why must we see to it that no one takes us captive? “For”, Paul writes, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Here, we return to the truth that has marked so much of the letter – that Jesus Christ is the complete and final revelation of God. To know Christ by faith is to know God as he is. The emphasis in v9 is on the divine nature, and Paul’s point is that Christ possesses that divine nature in full. All that it means to be God, Jesus Christ possesses in himself. In fact, Paul’s expression is technically redundant. Did you catch that? He says the whole fullness. That’s like saying all the everything. It’s unnecessary, so why the repetition? So that there is no mistake. All that it means to be God, Jesus Christ possesses in himself.
But Paul’s point goes a bit further here. Christ possesses the fullness of deity in bodily form, Paul says. This is a reminder that the Incarnation is surely the most profound miracle in all of Scripture. While not ceasing to be fully divine, the Son of God took on human flesh, so that the fullness of deity dwells together with the fullness of humanity in one person – Jesus of Nazareth. And following his resurrection, Jesus Christ continues as he is – fully God and fully man. That’s incredible, brothers and sisters. Right now, seated at the right hand of the Father, is one who is like us in every way, yet without sin. Our mediator is the man, Christ Jesus, a man in whom the fullness of deity dwells bodily.
Now, you can see what Paul is doing here, can’t you? The contrast is unmistakable. The philosophy of the false teachers is empty, but Christ is the fullness of God. The philosophy of the false teachers is deceptive, but Christ has all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden in him. If the question is between this empty philosophy and Christ, then there is really no question. Compared to Christ, these new ideas are worthless.
And indeed, that’s the direction Paul goes in v10. Notice the play on words between v9 and v10 – “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him.” Christ is the fullness of God, Paul says, and you believers have been filled from his fullness. If Christ lacks nothing in himself, then you lack nothing because you are in him. That’s the key application. What is true of Christ the Redeemer is true of those whom Christ redeems. This is the doctrinal truth we call Union with Christ, and as John Murray once said, “it is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” To be united with Christ by faith means that the Son of God shares his life with us. We know God as Father because the Son of God shares his sonship with us. We have stand righteous before God because the Son clothes us in his righteousness. We are dead to sin because we share in Christ’s death at the cross. We are alive to God because we share in Christ’s resurrection. Do you see it, brothers and sisters? Believers are in Christ, and Christ is in them. Christ lacks nothing in himself, and therefore, those who are in him by faith are complete. What is true of Christ the Redeemer is true of those whom Christ redeems.
What a wonderful and needed reminder that when it comes to the gospel, our greatest joy is not the benefits we receive from Christ. No, our greatest joy is that we receive Christ, in all his fullness. This is the truth that defines us, brothers and sisters – that believers are in Christ, Christ is in them, and therefore, there is nothing to add. Believers are complete in Christ Jesus.
The truth that completes us
Now, one of the great things about this text is that Paul doesn’t stop in v10. We’ve seen the union with Christ, but beginning in v11, Paul begins to explain in more detail what that union means. In our outline, this is the third section of Paul’s teaching – the Treasure that Completes Us. It’s here in vv11-15 that Paul shows the Colossians the riches they already have in Christ. He wants the Colossians to see the incredible spiritual realities that already define who they are. Now, this section is full of interpretive challenges, so this would be a good section for you to study a bit more on your own. My aim is not to sort out all the interpretive minutiae. Instead, my aim is to help us grasp the core gospel truths that drive Paul’s application. To that end, note with me the riches, the great spiritual realities Paul emphasizes to the Colossians.
First of all, Paul tells the Colossians they have new life in Christ. Notice v11, where Paul takes a surprising turn – “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without human hands, by putting off the body of flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” Now, when you hear circumcision in the Bible, you probably think first of Abraham and God’s command that every Hebrew male be circumcised at eight days old. But that’s actually not what Paul has in mind here. Paul is not thinking about physical circumcision. Notice that phrase a circumcision made without human hands. In other words, whatever this circumcision is in v11, it’s not a human action.
If this is not about Old Covenant, physical circumcision, then what is Paul getting at? Paul is picking up on the OT promise of a spiritual circumcision. Even in the Law of Moses, Deuteronomy 10 and Deuteronomy 30, there was already the expectation that something greater was needed. The people needed something more than physical, outward circumcision. They needed a spiritual circumcision of the heart. They needed God, by his grace, to strip off their dead hearts and give them new spiritual life.
That is Paul’s point in v11. That promise of spiritual circumcision has come to pass in and through Christ, specifically Christ’s death. Those are united to Christ are united to his death. And through Christ’s death, God strips away the believer’s dead heart, and God joins the believer to Christ, which brings new life. This is why Paul can say in Romans 6 that believers are no longer enslaved to sin. It’s because through Christ, God has stripped away sin’s slavery and given his people new life. The work of Christ is like a spiritual circumcision for those who believe.
But this spiritual reality does have an outward expression. Notice where Paul goes in v12. He goes to baptism – “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him.” Baptism pictures this new life that believers receive through the work of Christ. Notice the repetition of the phrase with him. In baptism, believers are immersed in water as a sign of their union with Christ. We are united with Christ in his death, and therefore, we are united to Christ in his resurrection. Baptism pictures that the old has gone, having been stripped away, and the new has come.
But here’s the key that ties this all together. Here’s the link between the spiritual reality of v11 with the outward sign of v12. Notice the final phrase, v12. How is this union with Christ brought about? “Through faith,” Paul says, “in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” How have we been buried and raised with Christ? Not through the actual waters of baptism, but through faith, Paul says– faith in the powerful working of God. Note, then, what ties together v11 and v12. The spiritual circumcision of v11 is made without hands, that is, it is accomplished by God in Jesus Christ. And the reality that baptism pictures is seen through faith, that is, through an expression of trust that God has accomplished this in Christ. It is faith, then, that forms the links between the spiritual reality of v11 and the outward sign of v12. This is one of the clearest reasons why we practice believer’s baptism in our church – because without faith in Christ, baptism loses its link with the spiritual reality God has accomplished in Christ.
All of that to say, Paul wants to the Colossians to understand there are no external practices that can bring them into life with God. There are not any outward things they can do to find freedom from sin’s slavery. Instead, the Colossians need to understand that they have already been made alive with Christ. They have new life in him.
Along with this new life, Paul also tells the Colossians they are forgiven in Christ. In v13, Paul reiterates the point he has just made. Notice v13 – “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him.” Again, notice that the saving action of the gospel is accomplished by God, not by us. We were dead in our trespasses; we were dead in the uncircumcision of our old nature, which means we had no ability to raise ourselves up with Christ. But God, by his grace, does for us what we could not do ourselves. God makes his people alive in Christ, uniting them to the Lord Jesus through faith. You can hear Paul’s repeated emphasis. Believers have been made alive in Christ by the grace of God, that grace leads us to faith in the Savior, and therefore, there is nothing to add to the work of Christ.
Paul then goes on, however, to explain that this new life brings with it forgiveness for sins. Notice the end of v13 and following – “having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” Now, there is some question as to just what this record of debt is in v14. From the context, it seems Paul has in mind the record of our sin against God. Our lives are likened to an account before God, and by breaking God’s commandments, we stand in debt before him. It is a debt we cannot pay. But Paul’s point is not so much about the nature of our debt as it is about the extent of God’s action to remove it. Notice v14 where Paul says God cancelled the record of our debt. The idea here is to obliterate something, to eradicate it completely so that there is no more record of it. That is what God has done for the sins of his people. He has obliterated the debt, so that there is no trace of it left. The point is that the forgiveness God accomplishes for his people is complete, total, and absolute. There is no debt left to pay for those who are in Christ.
And how has this debt been eradicated? Notice the end of v14 – “This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” It is the death of Christ at the cross that purchases forgiveness for God’s people. This is important. When God forgives his children, he does not simply sweep sin away and pretend like nothing happened. No, God does something much more costly, much more amazing. God puts forward his own Son as the payment for sin’s debt. Please note how central the Lord Jesus Christ is at this point. Forgiveness comes only through union with him. Forgiveness is not a thing God gives out. No, forgiveness is a fruit of the work of Christ, a work that was accomplished for all who are in him by faith.
If you belong to Christ today – if you are repenting of your sin and trusting in Christ alone to save you – if you belong to Christ, the Father is not holding your sin against you. Your debt has been fully paid at the cross. There is nothing to add to the work of Christ. There is no fear of condemnation. There is no longer any dreadful expectation of judgment. There is forgiveness. Your debt has been removed, eradicated, obliterated, paid for by the blood of Christ. We need to take sin seriously. If you are hiding sin today, I plead with you to confess it. Keeping sin in the dark will destroy you. If you do not know Christ today, then I plead with you to trust him – to believe he died and rose again in order to save sinners like us. We need to take sin seriously.
And at the same time we need to take forgiveness seriously too. If you are in Christ by faith, the Bible says you are forgiven – completely, totally, absolutely. God is not waiting for you to make amends before he will use you and bless you. No, he’s already done the work. Forgiveness is complete in Christ. And one of the ways you honor Christ is by believing that his blood forgives completely and absolutely. We sang it earlier this morning – “My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought – my sin, not in part but the whole; was nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord.” This is part of the spiritual riches that every believer has already received in Christ. We have complete forgiveness in him.
New life, forgiveness for sin – these are the treasures Christ bestows on his people. But there is one more spiritual reality Paul intends for us to see. V15 – believers are secure in Christ. If you look back at v10, you’ll notice that Paul says Christ is the head of all rule and authority. The point there is Christ reigns over every spiritual power in the universe. All powers and principalities are under the lordship of Christ.
Here in v15, Paul gives us more insight as to what this means. Notice again what he says, v15 – “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” In the ancient world, when a victorious general returned home, he would parade his defeated enemies before him in a triumphal procession. And in doing so, that victorious general exposed his enemies to shame. He showed the world how powerless those enemies were compared to him. Here in v15, Paul employs that image to describe the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he once and for all conquered the spiritual forces that oppose God’s people. The rulers and authorities of this age have no hold on the people of God. And by raising Christ from the dead and seating him in the heavenly places, God has revealed just how powerless those spiritual forces truly are. Think about it. All the forces of darkness were arrayed in opposition to God and to his Christ, and yet, those spiritual powers could do nothing to derail the purpose of God. In fact, the power of God is so great that God used death itself to crush the power of death forever. In Christ, God has put the rulers and authorities to open shame. They have been disarmed in him.
Let’s put it all together now. I know there’s a lot, but let’s bring it all together. Christ is the fullness of God, v9, and believers have been filled in him, v10. There is nothing to add. For those who trust in Christ, we already have new life in him, vv11-12. We have already been completely and totally forgiven, vv13-14. And we have already been secured forever through the victorious resurrection of Jesus, v15. There is nothing to add, and perhaps, more importantly, there is nothing to fear. Do you see how v15 links back to the warning in v8? Yes, we must see to it that no one takes us captive. We must be vigilant, but our vigilance is not rooted in fear. Our vigilance is rooted in our glorious union with Christ. We have all we need in him. There is nowhere else we need to go.
These are the riches of Jesus Christ and these riches belong to all who trust in him by faith. If you don’t know Christ today, I pray that God, by his Holy Spirit, would open your eyes to see that there is nowhere else you need to go for salvation and life with God. Look to Christ, trust in him, and be saved. If you are trusting in Christ today, I pray that you’ve been encouraged to see the unspeakable riches of Christ that have been given to you through your union with him. And seeing those riches, brothers and sisters, I pray that each of us will grow in faithfulness to him. Amen.