We are studying Colossians 2:1-15 for Sunday, June 23. This is a portion of a letter that draws on an exalted view of Christ’s relationship to creation to encourage its audience to hold firm in the faith. [Discussion questions for the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Colossians is a letter addressed to the church at Colossae, a small city in what is now Asia Minor and was then Phrygia. We may not know its exact location, but we have an idea (and here’s a map that shows it). It was not a church Paul founded, or ever visited. That’s assuming Paul wrote this letter, which a slim majority of scholars (around 60%, I read somewhere) do not. If it wasn’t Paul, it was presumably someone who shared a lot of Paul’s theology, but who seems to have an even “higher” Christology – literally, as Jesus is portrayed as seated on the right hand of God, but mainly theologically, as the Christ hymn in chapter 1 portrays Jesus in seriously cosmic terms.
Arguably, the author of Colossians has a different view of eschatology, too – Christians are not just waiting for the [imminent] second coming, but are meant to be living the new life because they have actually been raised with Christ already. [I have to say, while I can see this, it seems like a really straightforward extension of Paul’s eschatological themes.] It might be evidence of a late view of “the church” – or, evidence that a robust view of “the church” was in place earlier than we sometimes think it was. In other words …
The letter seems to have been written to respond to the threat of pressure from competing religious ideas. These ideas show up in our reading in verse 8, and they get a bit more treatment in verses 16-23. But since that’s as full as the treatment ever gets, most of the comments about those competing religious ideas are vague and speculative. All we really know about them is what’s written in the book of Colossians itself – in other words, not much. [So we could almost fill in the blank with competing religious ideas of today.]
Our portion of the text follows the letter’s opening, thanksgiving for the congregation’s faith, a hymn of praise to Christ for his awesome work and awesome person (“the image of the invisible God”) that introduces the themes of Christ’s victorious power and status as head of the church, and then an upbeat take on suffering for the sake of the faith and faithful. It’s followed by a discussion of the practical, daily implications of the believers’ status as raised with Christ and already living the mysterious but exalted resurrected life of Christ.
CLOSER READING: Verses 1-5 seem really to round out the appeal to Paul’s/the author’s “sufferings for your sake” (Colossians 1:24-29). They explain why it was even worth mentioning those sufferings, and what the effect of that mention is meant to be. The repeated references to “wisdom” and “knowledge” and “hidden mystery” (vv2, 3) link these verses to the statements in Colossians 1:24-29 as well.
The key to the experience of this mystery is the church’s relationship of love (v2) – and that seems to require a certain kind of practice, for which this ongoing work of reminder and exhortation [and, we may suspect, prayer as well] is required. That, in turn, may explain what the author means by “struggling” in v1.
Verses 6-7 are the positive advice to “continue to live your lives in [Christ]”, “rooted” (like irises) and “built up” (like homes) “in” Christ. In context, it seems, responsive to correct teaching (understanding, wisdom).
Verse 8 contrasts the wisdom and knowledge of the hidden, mysterious life in Christ [“how do they do that??”] with the competition: the alternative wisdom of philosophy, which is deceptive and of human origin, or of some alternative spiritual origin, or both. So, ultimately, defeated and humiliated, as is made clear in verse 15.
Verse 9 is a strong statement of Jesus’ divinity – Christ embodies God’s divinity, and has God’s supreme authority.
Verses 10-14 make a complex set of associations between circumcision, baptism, death (specifically crucifixion) and resurrection, the upshot of which seems to be that the Colossians are free and alive and unburdened at present, and so have no reason either for concern about their spiritual status, or to go seeking any improvements in their situation – which wouldn’t really be improvements at all.
This might be the place to notice that there is a lot of reference to the body or flesh in this text, starting with v1 (which we don’t see, because the translation is “face to face,” but in Greek it’s more like “seen my face in the flesh”), v5, v9, v11, v13. All of which will be summed up in v23. So – don’t be persuaded by the competing religious ideas that seem to be promoting some kind of body modification; rejoice in being one with the others who are newly alive, in the body of Christ, the church.