Colossians 2:15-23

In this lesson the Apostle delves into the heart of the gospel message by listing the blessings accomplished by the cross of Christ. He also encourages the church not to be pulled away from the core doctrine of the cross.
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This letter is being sent in order to respond and refute false teachers and doctrine that have crept into the church at Colossae. These false teachers were trying to displace Christ and His doctrines with a mixture of ideas from different sources. There was the pagan idea that various spirits (angels in this case) were responsible for the manipulation and care of the creation, and should somehow be honored or worshipped. There was the insistence that in order to be acceptable to God, one had to observe Jewish traditions and the Law – especially the requirement to be circumcised. The false teachers, or Judaizers as they were called, were boasting that their Jewish heritage (of which circumcision was some kind of badge of honor) and their insight into these supposedly new religious mysteries, made them superior to the Gentiles. They used this attitude and teaching about angels and circumcision requirements to draw the Gentiles away from their faith and dependence on Christ and only Christ for salvation.

In this letter Paul responds in several ways:

  • He shows that Jesus and only Jesus is the link between God and man. Jesus created the world for His purpose and maintains it, not the angels.
  • He also demonstrated that as far as doctrine is concerned, every mystery (or revelation) that God has made to man, He has made it through Jesus. He says that if you believe in Jesus Christ, you have the key that will unlock every mystery of heavenly wisdom and knowledge there is.
  • And, as far as circumcision was concerned, Paul explains that the circumcision that the Gentiles receive in baptism by Christ is far superior to the fleshly circumcision that the Judaizers boast about and want to impose. He teaches them that Jesus has cut away their old man of sin and given them the Holy Spirit in baptism. This spiritual circumcision results in forgiveness and eternal life, two things that mere physical circumcision could not do. Paul explains that this forgiveness, this cutting away of the old sinful nature in baptism, was made possible by Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. Forgiveness can be offered because sins have been paid for on the cross by His precious blood.

As we continue in this section, Paul will explain several other things that Christ accomplished with His cross; and he will admonish them not to be pulled away from this teaching.

Victories of the Cross

Verse 15 is the summary or concluding statement from the passage we were previously studying.

Vs. 8-15 – See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.

Verses 8 to 14 were explained in the last chapter and in the review section in the beginning of the chapter. Verse 15 is an additional statement that piles on all of the victories that the cross of Jesus accomplishes. Not just forgiveness and the renewal of the sinners' life, but victory over the unseen forces that were against God and man in trying to destroy the church or block man's entry into the church. Paul uses a gentile image here:

  • To make a display of your vanquished enemy was very much a Roman tradition and one the Gentiles would understand.
  • When a returning Roman general would be victorious in war, he would return to a hero's welcome and parade in Rome.
  • At this time he would trail behind him the captives and prizes that he had plundered – even the noblemen of the conquered land.
  • Paul uses this imagery to describe Jesus' victory at the cross and the defeat of the spirits and satanic angels who lost in their effort to possess and destroy mankind because Jesus' blood and His Word now protect believers.

Of course, his reference is directed towards the false teachers who were pushing the notion of spirits and angels as mediators between God and man. No faithful angel or spirit would be in such a position so these were evil spirits and their teaching was not much more than magic and doctrines of demons and the occult.

In verse 15 Paul adds one more link in the chain between God and all other things. Jesus is the link with God as a divine person; He is the link with creation as its creator; He is the link with mankind as mankind's savior; He is the link with the church as its head; and finally Paul says, He is even the link with the underworld because He is its conqueror.

The Traps of False Teachings

Now that Paul has firmly established Jesus as the pre-eminent individual in their spiritual lives, and His teachings the pre-eminent doctrine to guide them – he warns them of the various traps set by the false teachers and their doctrines:

The Trap of False Authority

Vs. 16-17 – Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day-- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

In this section we catch a glimpse of how the Judaizers were trying to manipulate and dominate these Gentile Christians. They set themselves up as the authority by introducing rules concerning issues over which they had no real authority:

  • Laws on food and drink which the Jews had in the Old Testament (e.g. no pork, priests no alcohol) and which the Pharisees had raised to a point of obsessiveness (e.g. tithing condiments).
  • Rules on observing certain feasts which were part of the Jewish culture in the Old Testament (e.g. Passover, Pentecost) or the many obligations concerning the Sabbath which again were part of the Old Testament laws and traditions.

The false teachers were putting rules and regulations concerning these things and claiming that by following their teachings, the Gentile Christians would become stronger and wiser as Christians. Paul responds to this by saying that all of the things mentioned (feasts, Sabbath, food laws…) and every other element in the Jewish religion were a shadow, a kind of preview of Christ and His work.

For example, the sacrifice of animals in worship was a shadow or preview of the sacrifice of Jesus.

The special diets that made the Jews unique among the nations pointed to the unique separation from the world Christian disciples would experience. Everything in the Jewish religion pointed to or foreshadowed the coming of Jesus, His life, death and resurrection as well as the establishment and eventual glorification of His church. These false teachers were trying to convince the Gentile Christians that the shadow was more important than the actual substance of the shadow – Jesus Christ.

His admonition is: do not let them act as judge for these things, they are free to do as they please concerning food, festivals, and special holy days. If they have Christ, meaning if by faith they are united to Christ, they have achieved the ultimate religious goal – all of these other things are secondary and fall in the realm of personal choice.

The Trap of False Spirituality

Vs. 18-19 – Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.

The "prize" of course is freedom from condemnation due to sin, and the reward of having an eternal relationship with God through Christ – because our sins are forgiven. Paul says that the Gentile Christians should not allow anyone to deny them this prize claiming that they are not spiritual enough to deserve it and basing this denial on their concept of false spirituality.

In the Judaizers' case, this claim to superior spirituality was based on their practices and claims which Paul enumerates briefly:

  • Self abasement
    • Asceticism.
    • Vows of abstinence from marriage or certain foods or codes of conduct.
  • Worship of angels
    • Discussed previously their concept of the role of angels.
    • Paul says that their only proofs for this are personal claims of visions.
    • These claims create a false sense of spiritual pride in the ones who say they have them.

Paul brings his readers back to the only source for religious authority and spiritual growth – God Himself! By extension, Paul infers here that since Jesus is divine and part of the Godhead, the only source of authority and teaching that causes the body (church/Christians) to grow spiritually is Christ, not the false spirituality of the Judaizers.

Verses 20-23 are a summary statement:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

Paul asks his readers a question:

If you have died to this world (in the waters of baptism) and have risen as new creations (eternal spiritual beings), why do you think that material things which are temporal (food, feasts, etc.) and human teachings (from the Judaizers) will have any effect on you for good or bad?

You cannot manipulate, improve or destroy spiritual things with physical things. For example, if you have eternal life through Christ, how can eating or not eating certain foods add to this or take away from this?

He does admit that from a human perspective these practices (asceticism, religious festivals, traditions) seem "spiritual" or look "religious" to the human fleshly mind. He concludes, however, that none of these things give one the spiritual power to overcome sin or be forgiven for sin. Only the blood of Jesus removes the stain of sin; only the Holy Spirit within the Christian and the Word of God can enable the Christian to overcome sin in this life; only resurrection and glorification can free man from sin forever, not food or drink laws, religious rituals, feasts or false religious teachings.

Summary / Lessons

So in this section Paul really focuses on the teachings and tactics of the false teachers revealing their basic worthlessness to achieve any spiritual goals. He also establishes the gospel, the teachings of Christ as pre-eminent, sufficient and effective in accomplishing our dearest spiritual desires.

  • to be forgiven for sin
  • to be enlightened spiritually
  • to live forever with God

A couple of modern day lessons from this section can help Christians maintain their faith:

1. Be Careful

In every generation there are religious hucksters who try to build a following using the same gimmicks from 2,000 years ago --- The claim that they have a special calling, vision or message from God.

God has given us His final message until the return of Jesus. Believe in Jesus and obey all of His commands. God has given all the miracles, visions and direction to carry out that message to the Apostles who have recorded it and preserved it in the New Testament. The only thing we wait for is the return of Christ; everything else we need to know concerning God and His will for us is in the Bible.

2. Be Confident

Do not let:

  • gurus who starve themselves or never marry or live in caves make you feel unworthy
  • religious zealots with a one doctrine religion make you doubt
  • new religious movements with lots of publicity sweep you up
  • criticism or scorn of the Bible weaken your faith

If you have been united to Jesus Christ in repentance and baptism and continue to follow Him daily – you are forever a child of God and your salvation is guaranteed. Nothing you can do or say will make you any more saved. God is pleased with those who believe and obey His Son. This is the ultimate spiritual condition and the only way to spiritual growth and eternal life. Above all else: Be confident in Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. Summarize the three explanations from the introduction to this lesson about why the false doctrines were insufficient for our salvation.
  2. Summarize in one or two sentences the theme of Colossians 2:8-15.
  3. Discuss the following traps of false teaching:
    1. The trap of authority (vs. 16-17)
    2. The trap of false spirituality (vs. 18-19)
  4. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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