Yesterday, Paul encouraged his readers to continue basing their worldview and way of life on Jesus as Lord, and not be deceived into looking elsewhere – to the human philosophies of this age – to experience “fulfilment.” (We’ll look at those in more depth next week.) The reason he gave is that in Christ we already have the fullness of God – so why look elsewhere? And we are being brought into that fullness. How? That’s what he talks about in today’s passage.
Colossians 2:11 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
“Circumcision not performed by human hands” – are we talking robot laser surgery? No, this taps into the metaphorical use of “circumcision” in the Old Testament. Let’s quickly look at the background.
Physical circumcision was a sign (for Israelite males) that they belonged to God’s people, and it implied a commitment to live by God’s law. Most of the time, Israel failed to live up to the obligations of their circumcision, so God promised one day to act on their behalf and circumcise their hearts, so that they would be able to obey him:
Deuteronomy 30:6 The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
This would be an action of God, rather than human striving. And from later prophets like Ezekiel (36:26-27), it became clear that it would happen when he brought in his kingdom: something else which would happen “not by human hands” (Daniel 2:44-45).
Paul, then, is affirming that this longed for act of God – in which he enabled his people to obey him – has now happened in Christ. Our hearts have been circumcised*, meaning we are free from being ruled by “the flesh.”
But how did that happen?
Colossians 2:12 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.
Just as physical circumcision was the sign of being incorporated into God’s old covenant people, so baptism is the sign of being made a part of God’s people under the new covenant. Baptism does this – as an outward sign of our inward “faith in the working of God” – because it unites us in Christ; specifically, in his death and in his resurrection. The transforming power of Jesus’ resurrection is what gives us that new life and circumcised heart, and the right to be part of his people.
Colossians 2:13-14 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, 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.
We were dead because of sin; Christ’s death on the cross dealt with the “legal indebtedness” that kept us in slavery to sin, and subject to death. He paid, on our behalf, the IOU note that death had over us. Thus, sin and death no longer have any power over us; they’ve been “disarmed.”
Colossians 2:15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Again, the key term “powers and authorities” is greatly debated. Does it refer to spiritual beings? Does it refer to the ruling authorities of the world which are opposed to God (in Paul’s case, the Roman empire)? Or does it refer to the former made manifest in the latter? Probably the third option is best.
At any rate, the point Paul is making is that God’s triumph over them is through the victory won, ironically, on the cross. Ironically, because the cross was designed by one of those powers, Rome, to be a demonstration of its triumph over rebels. Here, it’s the very place God defeats them, and all other powers opposed to him. He publicly shames them at the very point they are trying to publicly shame him.
Which takes us back to Paul’s bigger point in the letter. Why would you want to base your worldview on anything but Christ when:
- He’s the revelation of the fullness of God – his presence in bodily form (v9);
- He’s more powerful than any other source of power, whether in the human world or the spiritual realm (v10);
- He’s made it possible, by his resurrection, for us to be part of God’s people, and to live in obedience as God’s people with the long-promised new heart (v11);
- He’s delivered us from the power of sin and death by paying what we owe (vv12-14);
- He’s done this on a Roman cross, turning their own act of triumph against them, demonstrating again his supreme power over all rivals (v15).
Why, then, would you want to go looking for fulfilment anywhere else than in Christ?
But still, we’ll take a look at some of those alternative worldviews that were tempting the Colossians, starting next week in verse 16.
*The Greek is literally, “…was put off by/in the circumcision of Christ.” Does this refer to the metaphorical circumcision performed on us by virtue of being in Christ; or Christ’s own “circumcision”, i.e. his perfect obedience to God, leading ultimately to his death? Commentators are divided.