Paul has hinted at the problem of the false teaching all throughout his letter. He now finally addresses the problem head on in this section (2.8-23). Verses 9-15 describe how believers experience and share in Christ’s victory and, consequently, why they have no need for any additional religious claims on their life. In verses 16-23, Paul directly attacks the beliefs and practices of the “false teachers.” We’ll deal with vv. 8-15 first:
2.8 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. 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 sinful nature 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 sinful nature, 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 (TNIV).
Notes: Verse 8 functions as the heading of vv. 8-23, warning the believers from being swayed by the erroneous beliefs of the antagonists (similarly, 2.4-5; 1.23). It’s hard to say what the “human traditions” and “elemental forces” refer to exactly. At this point, let’s just say that religious rules of some sort—which are not according to Christ—are being advocated. The “elemental forces” may be indicative of religious belief(s) in the region, which held that celestial beings or spiritual forces possess a certain degree of power over individuals’ lives (various forms of this thought are recognizable in our society today). Whatever the case, Paul declares that these things are “not according to Christ.”
Verse 9 transitions into an explanation of why the believers don’t need anything outside of Christ. For in Christ all… In the last post, Scott commented on the importance of the “in him/in Christ” language of 2.6. And, I think now would be an excellent time to touch on these theologically rich words. When we place our faith in Jesus Christ, the one worthy of our trust, we identify ourselves with his person and can thereby share in his victory. Our identification with him—or better yet “in him”—places us into a new corporate entity, a new (covenant) community, comprised of the body of believers (see Col 1.18). This is what Paul means when he tells the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, [he/she belongs to the] new creation,” (2 Cor 5.17; my translation). And it is “in Christ” that we move from the old age of sin and death into the new age of life and righteousness; hence, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15.22). Through faith we are incorporated “in him” and can thereby experience the benefits of his victory. Does that all make sense? Take some time to digest it… We’ll likely return to this idea as Paul develops it in this letter.
Back to verse 9 and 10: For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. The logic runs like this: Christ is the fullness; since you are “in Christ,” you are the fullness (recall also 1.19). Therefore, nothing else is needed outside of Christ. “He is the head over every power and authority.” This recalls the earlier hymn that spoke of Christ’s supremacy over all things (esp. 1.16, 18—notice how the entire hymn is fundamental to these verses).
Next Paul provides a series of metaphors, which serve to remind the believers of all the benefits that they share “in Christ”:
In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands (2.11). In Christ, what matters is not outward physical circumcision but an inward circumcision of the heart (good news indeed for the Gentile God fearers!). This eliminates any claim of superiority based on ethnicity (on circumcision of the heart, see esp. Rom 2.28-29; cf. Deut 10.16; 30.6; Jer 4.4; 9.25-26). Your sinful nature was put off when you were circumcised by Christ: here again we see more emphasis on transferring from old to the new (cf. 3:9-10; 1.21-22). Our identification with Christ marks the end of living in the old age.
having been buried with him in baptism (v. 12a): the mention of baptism likely recalls their whole “conversion-initiation” experience (as Dunn calls it), which the believers would associate with their identification with Christ.
The TNIV continues, the sentence, “…in which you were raised with him through faith” (v. 12b). Though, I think it’s better to view this as a separate clause and understand the pronoun as “in whom” (i.e., “in Christ”); thus, “in whom you were also raised through faith” (my translation), which better captures the “in him” theme in these verses (5x in vv. 9-15; same Greek words are used in 2.11). Though, if baptism marks the time of identification with Christ, I’m not so sure that it matters a great deal. Whatever the case, we must be clear that it is through faith (and not by means of the outward ritual of baptism) that our resurrection to new life has been made possible.
Although you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins (2.13): This, again, highlights the disadvantaged state that the Gentiles formerly had in comparison to God’s chosen people, the Israelites. Though more so, it refers to their old lifestyle that was characterized by sin. Christ has removed their sinful nature and brought new life to all of humanity, through the forgiveness of our sins (See also Col 1.14).
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 (2.14): To put this simply, our transgressions and all our wrong doings render us guilty before God. But Jesus has taken our sins with him to the cross. They are no more; the record of our wrong doings has been blotted out. No wonder the Christian life is to be one of gratitude and thankfulness (2.7).
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (2.15): The powers and authorities likely refer to the spiritual beings that were thought to have power over peoples’ lives. Christians need not fear these powers or spiritual forces: Jesus has stripped them of their power and made a public spectacle of them, parading over them (my paraphrase). Dunn (170) aptly notes, “To treat the cross as a moment of triumph was about as huge of normal values as could be imagined, since crucifixion was itself regarded as the most shameful of deaths.”
Let’s take a few moments to let this text minister to us. Reflect on all the blessings that we share in Christ… And reflect on God’s compassion for the nations, which is ultimately how we find ourselves in Paul’s message… We need nothing outside of Christ: he is the fullness.