The reader may have thought that I was being a little flippant in my titling of this page on the Colossians’ ‘Home Page’ as ‘The Greatest Hits’ but, when all things are considered, Paul seems to have brought together a series of those things which Jesus Christ has done both in and for the Colossians into one place for them to consider carefully.
And with good reason, too.
Paul hinted in Col 2:4 that the fellowship needed to be wise as to the arguments of the false teachers and, further in Col 2:8-10, has warned them not to give themselves over to any belief system which pulls away from the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. Here, the apostle is reminding his readers of the great work that Jesus has done in their own lives as a combat against any temptation they may feel to give themselves over to the demands of any other religious experience or doctrine that can give them anything less.
Many commentators include Col 2:9-10 in the opening remarks of the passage which continues to the end of Col 2:15 but the two verses are really a summation of what Jesus has done in its entirety which is now outworked in the specific characteristics of the cross, resurrection and ascension in these next five verses and, therefore, they should really stand alone as a fitting conclusion to the opening observations of Col 2:8.
It does read, however, as if this is but the first of the characteristics of Jesus’ work on the believers’ behalf as the RSV’s ‘also’ in Col 2:11 shows - and which is fully justified from the Greek text. But the five verses dealt with on this web page read more like an exposition of how the Colossians have come (Col 2:10)
‘...to fulness of life in Him...’
than additional benefits which stand alongside it. And these are, indeed, God’s ‘Greatest Hits’ in Christ - so much so that many of them have already been dealt with by myself in my teaching notes in ‘The Cross’ series.
When I first began going through the letter to the Colossians many years ago, I never progressed beyond Col 2:8 because of this passage which confronted me immediately afterwards. At that time it would have meant that I would have had to have restudied my notes on the cross, rewritten them and included them alongside any other notes I’d want to write on the text.
Now that I’ve placed the teaching on the web, it makes it that much easier to cross reference my teachings and the reader will find that I’ve linked to other places on this web site for the particular aspects of the cross that Paul here outlines. It might have seemed better to the reader that I include the notes here but, unless a hard copy ever gets published, there’s no need to do such a thing and the wonders of modern technology mean that it’s easy to click to the relevant notes (and save me a headache in compilation!).
We’ll go on to look at the subject of circumcision in just a few moments but we should note that Col 2:11 and the one following are closely related in topic. Colbruce finds them a continuation of thought when he renders the verse’s mention of
‘the stripping off of the body of flesh...’
as being done (Col 2:12)
‘...when you were buried with Him in baptism’
even though most commentators see good reason for treating these verses as distinct sentences defining different aspects of the cross. Nevertheless, the subject of circumcision is an integral part of a complete understanding of baptism in water and, although I decided to stick to the simpler description of describing the process in terms of the crucifixion of the old nature in my notes on water baptism, it can equally well be spoken of in terms of circumcising the flesh as it is here in Col 2:11 where Paul links the two, writing that
‘In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ’
Therefore, the reader is directed to my notes on ‘Baptism’ under section 2bii entitled ‘What does baptism symbolise?’ which combines the imagery of crucifixion (and, therefore, also circumcision) with water baptism.
The origins of circumcision are shrouded in a great deal of mystery but that hasn’t been sufficient for commentators to leave the matter to one side - rather, speculation on the varied reasons for such a practice are common. Zondervan lists five such possibilities in their short article which range from it being nothing much more than a tribal mark whereby acceptance into a group of men and women was obtained to a type of human sacrifice in which a part was offered to a deity as if it was the whole person.
While I’m sure that there must be good reasons for each and every one of these possibilities, it seems impossible to make a firm decision as to why the first action was ever performed and, then, why a great percentage of civilisation should find it necessary to follow suit.
Genwen notes that it was only in Europe and Central and East Asia that the practice was unknown in ancient times but that’s not to say that such a practice was universal in all other lands. The Philistines who dwelt on the western flank of OT Israel seem to have been a people who remained uncircumcised for it’s one of those derisory labels that was put on them (Judges 14:3). It’s also possible that, even though most of the land of Canaan in the time of the patriarchs might have observed the practice, there were also city states which hadn’t yet submitted themselves to the practice (Gen 24:2,14) and, as we’ll see below, the fact that Abraham was uncircumcised when he entered the land of Canaan is evidence that his original place of birth didn’t know or observe it.
So, although we may speak of the rite as being almost universal in nature, we must also note that it wasn’t universal in acceptance and practice, there being groups of men and women and, perhaps, even large civilisations, who didn’t observe it.
Philo, the Jewish historian who wrote during the first century AD, listed four such reasons for the rite of circumcision (in Special Laws chapter 1) which he notes had been introduced by men of past generations but which retained wisdom in the things which the rite achieved.
His list may or may not be agreed with and I only mention it here because it seems to be at least an attempt to justify circumcision on the grounds of considerations which are separated from the simple command of YHWH upon his people. He notes that such an act can prevent a disease which he calls ‘anthrax’ and which seems to be a growth within the sheath of the penis and which had the effect of making the organ feel on fire when it was ‘caught’. Just what this was is not entirely clear but Philo’s main thrust of reasoning seems to be that it removes a build up of material within the sheath and is, therefore, an act which imparts some sort of cleanness to that area of the body.
Secondly, Philo speaks of ceremonial cleanliness and relates the shaving of the bodily hair by the Egyptians to be a similar practice that removes ‘evils’ from places in which they collect - one of these places being within the foreskin. That the author still viewed religion as an external problem is clear from his writings but that he also gives it as a reason for the practice of other nations might also be all the more significant as to why it came into being.
The third reason is best left to Genwen to summarise for I don’t fully understand Philo’s reasoning here. He writes that it was performed
‘...for teaching the similarity between procreation and thought...’
even though it would appear that something more akin to an external manifestation of what lay within seems to be the burden of Philo’s words - something which would make one think of Moses’ statements about circumcising the heart (Deut 10:16).
Finally and, to Philo, the most important reason of all, the removal of the foreskin was considered to increase fertility by removing any hindrance to the flow of semen. He even cites the amount of children that the circumcised nations of the world have in comparison to those who have remained uncut. He adds two other reasons which, he says, are purely his own thoughts on the matter which have come about through his discussions with the wise men of his own nation and, although I don’t intend recording them here, they seem to be secondary considerations rather than that which could have been the main reason for the institution of the rite amongst the ancients.
That it indeed was more ancient than any written record of mankind might be indicated by Joshua 5:2 (my italics) where YHWH specifically commands Joshua to
‘Make flint knives and circumcise the people of Israel...’
for, even though metal cutting tools were in use at that time, it’s specifically flint ones which are commanded to be used. Archaeology allows us to see that flint implements were among the most ancient of hand-crafted tools used by ancient man and, in the command, there may be a reference by YHWH to the traditional practice that had been handed down for countless generations. It may also have been, however, that a flint implement had much less possibility of causing a secondary infection than that of a metal implement so, even here, observations are purely speculative.
Writing concerning the history of the Persian Empire, Herodotus describes the ancient practices which had been adopted or, rather, the ones which were currently in existence at the time of writing. Just how accurately we might take his statements concerning the origins of circumcision is difficult to know for his record may only be a statement of why circumcision was considered important at that time rather than for it to be a reflection of its origin.
Nevertheless, Herodotus 2:37 records concerning the Egyptians that
‘They practise circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely’
so that it seems to be Philo’s first explanation of the reasons for circumcision which lie at the base of the rite (though it’s possible that Herodotus is referring to the second, ritual, reason). What needs to be stated, though, is that Abraham wasn’t the first to practice it. As Zondervan notes
‘...Egyptian tomb art depicts the practice of circumcision prior to Abraham’s sojourn there. Abraham would have been familiar with the practice before the events described in Genesis 17’
so that, even though Abraham would have been uncircumcised when he entered Canaan and had found no moral, cultural or religious obligation to participate in the rite, he did so because of a subsequent command which he received directly from YHWH when He made a covenant with him. In this way, we might as well put to one side any origin for the rite which we might uncover in ancient texts because it seems that it was used as a start and not as a continuation - that is, YHWH took the ceremony and gave it afresh into Abraham’s hands to perform on both himself and his generations for a reason which may not have been anything to do with why the other ancient nations practised it.
To consider the rite of circumcision in the OT, then, means that it’s best that we allow only Scripture to be our guide in this matter unless we fall into the trap of colouring the Jewish practice with reasons which came from other nations of the world and which weren’t part of its institution amongst the children of God.
That Abraham knew what circumcision was, then, seems fairly certain. That he would have accepted it as being a reflection of the meaning imposed upon it by the nations round about him is doubtful. YHWH had already made a covenant with Abraham (see my notes on ‘Covenant’) in Genesis chapter 15 when he sealed the promise of a son by a ‘cutting’ ceremony that was a natural part of an agreement that two men would have entered into when allowing themselves to be bound to keep to a certain course of action (Gen 15:7-11,17-21). That it was only God who moved between the halves of the animal sacrifices (Gen 15:17) shows plainly that the agreement was purely one-sided and that, at that time, Abraham covenanted to do nothing in order for him to receive the promise.
The patriarch was clearly obligated to respond to the Divine initiative for, in Genesis chapter 17 (an event which took place at least thirteen years after the event of Genesis chapter 15 for we know that Ishmael wasn’t born at that time but that he was thirteen years of age when Abraham his father took him to be circumcised - Gen 17:25-26), God speaks of him (Gen 17:1) needing to
‘...walk before Me and be blameless...’
in order that the covenant might be fulfilled - but it wasn’t a two-sided agreement that Abraham had to struggle to achieve in order to receive the promise. Rather, Abraham was to continue only in the way that he was already going, obeying Him as His will was clearly made known to him. Perhaps strangely to us, God speaks of the keeping of the covenant in terms of a physical action in Gen 17:10-11 when he announces that
‘This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you’
From these two verses we can see that circumcision was meant to be both a sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham and the covenant itself so that every male which wasn’t circumcised on the eighth day was to be considered to have broken the covenant. (Gen 17:12-14). It’s important that we don’t just take the mention of circumcision as a ‘sign’ and leave it at that - that is, that every time Abraham and those who were either descended from him or belonged to him went to the toilet through the day, they were confronted with the remembrance of the covenant that had been made by YHWH with them.
The Scripture says plainly that it not only was to be a sign of the covenant but that it was the covenant (Gen 17:10). The passage which precedes this statement is clearly a revelation that Abraham needed to respond to the free and gracious promise of God with a blameless life (Gen 17:1-2) and, as we shall see below, that circumcision came to be regarded figuratively as a statement of the need to ‘cut away’ those things which were against the will of God seems to be echoed in the original command.
God’s covenant was freely given (Genesis chapter 15) but there was an expectation from God that it should be responded to positively in the manner which was appropriate (Genesis chapter 17). The physical, then, portrayed the need for the spiritual.
And Abraham duly obeyed God’s commands on the same day as he received the command (Gen 17:26) and, when Isaac was born, was careful to obey the command by circumcising the child of promise on the eighth day (Gen 21:4).
The apostle Paul has much to say about the rite of circumcision and it’s best to mention his teaching in Rom 4:10-12 here as it’s particularly relevant. He points out - as we have already done above - that Abraham was considered to have right standing with God before he received the mark of circumcision in his own body and even before he was commanded that it needed to be done, the cutting in his flesh being a sign of
‘...the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised...’
Such an action by God - to delay the mark of the flesh at least thirteen years - shows that God was concerned
‘...to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised’
As such, Abraham is shown to be the type of the man that all the nations of the world need to become like - that is, that they might be considered acceptable to God by their response of obedience and belief of the Word of God (where ‘Word of God’ = that which is being spoken and which is used in the NT to denote the preaching of the Gospel). The patriarch stands as the first man in a long line of men and women who find themselves acceptable to God on the basis of their response to God’s initiative and not as a response to the observance of a written code.
Circumcision is next mentioned in the OT in the story of the rape of Dinah (Genesis chapter 34) but we needn’t go in to the details of that here as it gives us little information that’s useful to our discussion, save that the inhabitants of the land don’t appear to have been universally of the opinion that circumcision was a cultural or religious obligation upon them as a matter of course (Gen 34:14-24).
Some have found it surprising that the rite of circumcision isn’t legislated for in any great detail in the Mosaic Law, the only specific regulations being to remind the Israelites that the Passover could only be eaten by the circumcised and that, even if they had slaves which were non-Jews, they must make sure that they were to be circumcised so that they might be rendered eligible (Ex 12:44,48). There’s also the clear statement that all Jewish males had to circumcised on the eighth day (Lev 12:3).
Zondervan offers a reason for the lack of any great detail of circumcision in the Law by commenting that
‘This infrequency of command would seem to indicate that circumcision was a widely accepted practice, not requiring lengthy prescriptions’
and this seems to be the best explanation. It doesn’t, however, explain why it should lack explanation in the Law and still be widely practised when it wasn’t. The assumption that YHWH needn’t make any great mention of the need for circumcision seems to rely upon the fact that, firstly, the memory of YHWH’s covenant with Abraham was passed down from father to son with insistence that the rite of circumcision was practised and, secondly, that it was currently being done with every male that was born to them.
That the practice didn’t happen during the wilderness wanderings is clear from Joshua 5:2-9. It was YHWH Himself who had to speak to Joshua and command him (Joshua 5:2) to
‘...Make flint knives and circumcise the people of Israel again the second time’
as if the idea hadn’t entered the commander’s mind at all. The writer gives the reason (Joshua 5:4-7) as being because
‘...all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war, had died on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt. Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people that were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. So it was their children, whom he raised up in their stead, that Joshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way’
Even so, God still dealt with the people as the nation which belonged to Him - and He spoke in Numbers chapters 13 and 14 of raising up the next generation of believers to be the people who were to realise God’s promises even though, at that time, they weren’t circumcised. The promise to receive the land of Canaan, then, was taken from the people who’d been circumcised because of their disobedience and given into the hands of those who were uncircumcised but who would respond to the commands of God in the future with a willing heart to do all that YHWH would command them (Num 14:26-35).
Clearly, then, circumcision - just as it was demonstrated in the life of Abraham - has nothing to do with receiving the promises of God and the rite was only given as a sign, firstly, of the covenant that was made by God with His people and, secondly, as a reminder to respond positively to the gracious nature of the promise.
We should turn our attention now to the OT passages where circumcision is spoken of figuratively as being a matter of the heart whereby that which is opposed to God is cut away and replaced with obedience (Deut 10:16, 30:6, Lev 26:41, Jer 4:4, 9:25-26, Ezek 44:7, 44:9).
It wasn’t without application in the Mosaic Law that such an application was made for, when Moses urges the nation to obey God (Deut 10:12-13) and to remember His greatness and graciousness in choosing them as His own special possession in all the earth (Deut 10:14-15), he adds the command (Deut 10:6) that they should
‘Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn’
even perceiving towards the end of the same book that the nation would rebel against YHWH and be scattered amongst the nations (Deut 29:16-28). When these things would come upon them, says Moses, they would remember the covenant and how it was predicted that these things would take place - and, in remembrance, the nation would turn back to God (Deut 30:1-5) who would restore them into the land and (Deut 30:6)
‘...will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live’
Notice the difference here which Moses makes in the two places in the same book of Deuteronomy. In the first, he says that the nation should cut away their own rebellion that they might obey God - in the second, he says that their rebellion will consume them so that God Himself will have to step into the breach and deal with their rebellion. The New Covenant is clearly being spoken of here in which God Himself would see the need to do something about the internal workings of man’s heart and remedy the sickness that was tearing men and women away from obedience.
The circumcised can clearly be considered to be uncircumcised, then, when the rite is viewed only as an expression of the cutting away of disobedience from a man’s life that obedience to God might be found in him. Therefore Jeremiah’s insistence (in the words of God) that the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem (Jer 4:4) that they should
‘...remove the foreskin of your hearts...’
is an appeal to be obedient to the requirements of God upon them, the imagery of which being something which the prophet will record as coming from YHWH Himself once more when He says (Jer 9:25) that He will
‘...punish all those who are circumcised but yet uncircumcised...’
speaking of the nations (Jer 9:26 - see also Ezek 44:7,9) of
‘...Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert that cut the corners of their hair...’
as being uncircumcised (we’ve seen above that the Egyptians were a nation that practised the rite) but going on to explain the words by noting that
‘...all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart’
This uncircumcision, then, is clearly being announced as being upon those people who were naturally circumcised where it was the symbolical act of obedience which it was expected to symbolise when received, actively displayed in the life of the recipient.
Before we move on to the NT, I should note briefly in passing that the mention of someone or some people as being ‘uncircumcised’ was also used in the OT as both an offensive label and as a word of derision for the people concerned (Ex 6:12,30, Judges 14:3, 15:18, I Sam 14:6, 17:26,36, 31:4, II Sam 1:20, I Chron 10:4, Is 52:1, Ezek 28:10, 31:18, 32:19,21,24,25,26,28,29,30,32). If ever the label ‘uncircumcised’ was put on a people, it showed that they weren’t considered to be a part of the community that was labelling them as such and that they were ‘less than worthy’ in much the same way as Americans regard the Polish or as the British regard the Irish as butts of their jokes. It’s not that those who are used as the subjects of derision are anything less than the ones who are deriding but they’re held up as not being a part of mainstream society by the use of association.
And that goes for statements about opposing sets of Soccer fans - or even denominations.
When we come to the NT, we still find the physical rite of circumcision being practised on both John the Baptist (Luke 1:59), Jesus (Luke 2:21), Paul (Phil 3:5) and Timothy (Acts 16:3) and that it was widespread in its observance is clear from the background which would have been necessary to make the statements of John 7:22-23 relevant.
The idea of circumcision being a matter of the heart is also another concept which bleeds over into the new. Stephen addresses the Jewish leaders (Acts 7:51) and accuses them of being a
‘...stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you’
which didn’t go down with them too well on that occasion, it appears. Paul also notes that circumcision implies that the Law is being kept (Rom 2:25-28) and concludes his explanation by noting that (Rom 2:29)
‘He is a Jew who is one inwardly and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal...’
because it’s obedience to the will of God which openly shows that the cutting away of the rebellious nature has been achieved that the follower now lives to obey God the Father in accordance with the work of Jesus Christ.
It wasn’t just the idea of obedience that was borrowed by the believers from the OT for the DSS also testify to the idea of cutting away rebellion in order that obedience to God might reign in the person’s life. In 1QS 5:5, it’s written that
‘No man shall walk in the stubbornness of his heart so that he strays after his heart and eyes and evil inclination, but he shall circumcise in the Community the foreskin of evil inclination and of stiffness of neck...’
so that Paul’s mentioning of the new circumcision would have been perfectly understandable by the Jews who heard the message. In this sense, a New Testament believer might be tempted into thinking that circumcision would be a necessity when the reality of the new birth and the cutting away of the old sinful nature is achieved in Christ.
But circumcision is not necessary - and never was - for acceptance before God. The early Church was plagued by men who were either called by the believers - or who were calling themselves - ‘The Circumcision Party’ (see Titus 1:10-11 for what Paul thought of them) who were advocating (Acts 15:1) that
‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’
something which probably had a detrimental affect on the numbers coming to Jesus if purely natural motives are considered! But, as we saw above, Abraham received the promise of the covenant before he received circumcision - indeed, the mark in his own flesh was only given to him over thirteen years later as a reminder and sign of the covenant that had already been made and of the righteousness which had already been imparted.
Therefore, God doesn’t insist on the Gentiles being circumcised first before he saves them (Acts 10:45) and, by their reception of the Holy Spirit, it’s plain that they received the fulness of what the early Church did in Acts chapter 2. It might be reasoned that Cornelius, being a God-fearer, would have already been circumcised (Acts 10:2) but Peter is pulled to one side by the Circumcision Party and asked (Acts 11:2-3)
‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’
so that it can be plainly seen that this wasn’t the case. It was a difficult point for the early Church to decide upon and the believers in Jerusalem met to decide the issue a number of years after Pentecost when there appeared to be a schism in the Church concerning observance not only to circumcision but to the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:5). The decision reached was a resounding success for the freedom of the Gentiles in serving God without the need for a legalistic observance of Law (Acts 15:23-29) - it’s just a shame that the present day Church hasn’t always remembered the decision of that first Jerusalem Council!
It would appear that the Circumcision Party had their strongholds in certain of the early fellowships for the apostle felt it necessary to write to all the congregations of Galatia (not an insignificant area of modern day Turkey) and urge them strongly (it is, perhaps, the strongest of all Paul’s letters) to come to the realisation that to receive circumcision in accordance with the Law only obligated them to be observers of the Law and not followers of Christ (Gal 5:2-6) for the rite was being used to justify their acceptance before God on the basis of works rather than through a response of faith to the proclaimed message. As Paul notes (Gal 6:15)
‘...neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation’
because the example of Abraham shows that it wasn’t the rite which saved him but his response of faith to the received declaration from the mouth of God. Paul’s statement (Gal 4:19)
‘My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!’
should be given it’s full force and not watered down by those who consider a man not able to be ‘unsaved’ having been converted. Clearly, having started out in the Spirit, they were now seeking justification before God on the basis of works, showing that they were holding up the work of the cross in derision and thinking that Law observance was the source of righteousness.
Legalism kills the believer and axes his relationship with God because the attempt at observance of any written code brings condemnation through failure. Everything came by faith (Rom 3:30). That the unbelieving Jews misunderstood Paul’s position on the matter was obviously a problem of epic proportions who accused him (Acts 21:21) of teaching
‘...all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs’
where, in fact, he was more concerned that a convert stay in the state in which he was called (I Cor 7:18) going on to note the OT association that circumcision was only a sign of obedience to God and not justification before Him (I Cor 7:19). There were clearly good reasons why Timothy was circumcised before being allowed to travel with Paul (Acts 16:3) so that he could accompany and stand with him as he entered synagogues and as he reached out as a Jew to fellow Jews.
In our present passage under discussion (Col 1:11), Paul writes that
‘In [Jesus]...you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ’
and so spiritualises the rite of circumcision into one of the works of the cross. We saw above that Moses had initially urged the Israelites to circumcise their own hearts (Deut 10:6) before observing a time after they’d rebelled against YHWH when He would deal with the rebellion of their heart and would (Deut 30:6)
‘...circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring...’
The work, then, would be God’s and He’d see to it that that which was tending only towards doing what displeased Him would be dealt with once and for all time. The good news of the NT, of course, is that that work has now been completed in Jesus Christ on the cross who took the rebellious side of man and crucified it with Himself, cutting away that which was displeasing to God that a believer might not receive a literal physical circumcision in his own flesh but a spiritual circumcision. Therefore the apostle can write (Gal 6:15) that
‘...neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation’
and that believers (Phil 3:3 - my italics) are
‘...the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh’
that is, who rely upon the work of God and not in the works of their own hands such as the rite of circumcision to achieve justification with God. The circumcision which Paul here talks about in Col 2:11 is clearly the same as the crucifixion of the old nature, the flesh, the old man or the fallen nature (as it’s variously labelled in the NT) and, as I noted above, justification on the basis of God’s work expects the freewill response of obedience which, in the OT, was the expected accompaniment to the literal physical act.
In the New Covenant, the spiritual circumcision received as the application of the cross in the believer’s life at conversion is the mark in the believer that should release them into the response of obedience which in itself is also a work of God as Moses foresaw.
As I wrote at the very beginning of this section on Circumcision, the reader should access my notes on ‘Baptism (in water)’ under section 2bii entitled ‘What does baptism symbolise?’ which combines the imagery of crucifixion - and, therefore, circumcision - with water baptism.
Finally, we should note the comments of Colwright here for he takes the verse to mean something wholly different from the action of putting off the old nature in the crucifixion of the flesh with Christ and, instead, makes a case for the RSV’s ‘body’ to be better represented by the concept of a group of people and the ‘flesh’ to be taken as meaning family solidarity and explains
‘The phrase can thus easily mean “in the stripping off of the old human solidarities”. The convert, in stripping off his clothes for baptism...leaves behind, as every adult candidate for baptism in (say) a Muslim or Hindu society knows, the solidarities of the old life, the network of family and society to which, until then, he or she has given primary allegiance’
What the author has done here (apart from bring home the harsh reality of baptism which I’ll discuss below) is to take Col 2:11 as referring to taking off the garments before the rite of water baptism takes place (and which is the subject of the following verse) and his interpretation makes both verses run together much more easily, giving the reader a logical progression of thought as one first lays to one side the outer garments in much the same way as the covering of the foreskin is removed in physical circumcision before they descend into the water to be buried with Christ.
There’s much to commend this idea because circumcision seems never to be directly linked with water baptism except here but it is linked with the cutting away of the old nature that obedience to God might come about in the believer’s life and this is primarily effected by the crucifixion of the old nature with Christ on the cross, something which is plainly spoken about in Col 2:11.
Although I don’t believe, either, that Colwright has interpreted the verse correctly concerning taking off the outer garments prior to immersion in water, he has outlined the bottom line when baptism in water is practised - something of which we could all do with being reminded for it seems to decay into a rite that has to be gone through in much the same way as ‘confirmation’. Once you have the ‘ticks’ on your card, you’re a fully paid up member of the Church and can be accepted into the Body as a real christian.
In one baptismal meeting that I attended a number of years ago, I heard a candidate publicly testify her reason for wanting to be immersed in water by stating that
‘I’ve been a believer for a great many years now and thought that it was about time I was baptised’
a statement which had me wanting to implore the leader not to let her be immersed because it was for the wrong reasons! We forget that going under the water is death - or, if we do remember it, we think only in symbolical terms. We forget that death isn’t pleasurable in most cases and that the burial with Jesus in the waters (that is, into the grave) means death to everything which was before that moment in order that the follower might have the fulness of new life.
As Colwright notes, in other religious societies, baptism in water is a radical break with the past. In other societies it can also mean literal death for the conversion to Jesus Christ. In the West, however, we seem to have lessened the force of the action and run the risk always of having new converts birthed who still want to live in the safety of the womb.
I see no point at all in revamping my notes on water baptism and including them here when with one click of the mouse, the reader can be whisked away to them (unless, of course, you’ve printed these notes off to read on the bus!). If ever these notes make a hardcopy, I’ll need to do something about this briefest of sections but, for now, the reader interested in the subject of water baptism should access the notes here.
The notes begin with a definition of the Greek words and a background to the Jewish world in which they were used in an attempt to straighten out whether the NT speaks of total immersion or sprinkling before going on to look at the two baptisms which are mentioned in the NT - those of John the Baptist and the believer’s baptism (this latter phrase was used rather than ‘Jesus’ baptism’ because Jesus never baptised anyone in water - John 4:2).
Under the heading ‘What does baptism symbolise?’, the reader will find the explanation of Col 2:12 in two diagrams that attempt a simplification of the work of the cross and resurrection. The notes of the previous section on this web page should also be referred to, however, for the concept of circumcision is equally relevant when it comes to the crucifixion of Christ and Colwright’s unusual interpretation of Col 2:11 is useful in highlighting the dramatic effect that it was meant to have in the life of the new convert - something which can be seen even today as men and women who belong to authoritarian religious structures find themselves ostracised away from friends and family and, in some cases, murdered because of their conversion.
In the context of the letter in which this verse occurs, we should realise that Paul’s intention in mentioning water baptism is not to teach them of the necessity of such a rite and neither is it to emphasise the symbolism inherent within it but, rather, he’s aiming continually at showing the Colossians that in Christ is everything that’s sufficient for their need.
This has been the thrust of his repeated teachings throughout this letter and which we’ve previously observed, the summation of what they have standing at the head of this ‘Greatest Hits’ passage in Col 2:9-10. Whatever the teachings of those false beliefs which were a very real danger to the converts in Colossae (Col 2:4,8), Col 2:12 demonstrates that the old has been cut away from them and that the new has come as a reality in their own lives through the resurrection of Christ.
The apostle isn’t saying that they live in a totally different world age and are separated from those earthly problems which dog everyone but that they’ve already been transferred into the new age which runs alongside the present so that, when the current world order disintegrates, they will stand united to Jesus Christ (see my notes here under the heading ‘The suffering and the glory’).
Baptism in water, then, points towards the new age which is to come, the basis of which is not only in the work of the cross but in the power of God. Whatever the false teaching might announce, the Colossians have already been transferred from darkness to light and from death to life - in short, they’ve been admitted into the heavenly sanctuary by their faith in the purposes of God and no amount of striving after acceptance by earthly works can improve either their condition or position.
Baptism demonstrates not only the truth of their faith but the fallacy of any teaching which undermines the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ
If the reader has been referring to the linked notes in the previous two sections, they will already have read my notes on ‘Baptism’ and come across two diagrammatic summaries of what the actions symbolise under Section 2bii ‘What does baptism symbolise?’.
I’ve copied the first of these two charts into these notes below because they represent the best comment on the state of mankind before conversion and summarise perfectly Paul’s opening statement in Col 2:13 that the Colossians were once
‘...dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh...’
where the first phrase corresponds to the definition ‘sins’ and the latter to ‘sinful nature’ as previously defined above under the section ‘Circumcision’. That men and women think that satan is somehow on the prowl after them most moments in a day and that he’s dropping thoughts into their minds for them to develop is seen to be a fallacy by Jesus’ clear statements in Mark 7:20-23 in which he tells the disciples that
‘What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man’
Although satan may have an ally within mankind that he can seek to stimulate by external sources, I outlined on the web page here under the section ‘Evil thoughts and the solution’, the ways in which stimulation might attempt to be given but observed that it’s trouble with our own nature that prompts us (rather than ‘forces us’) to go our own way to commit sins and so reap spiritual death - that is, separation from the presence of God.
It’s only as these problems are dealt with in Christ that mankind can be free from the degenerating cycle that pulls him further and further away from God. As the chart above shows, the sinful nature needed to be killed off - in Paul’s vocabulary of Col 2:11, he speaks about being
‘...circumcised with a circumcision made without hands by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ’
(though Colcar sees the apostle’s mention of ‘the uncircumcision of your flesh’ in Col 2:13 to be a literal statement that was reminding the Colossians that they were at one time physically uncut and so were separated from the commonwealth of Israel. The problem with taking such a statement this way, however, is that it virtually denies the possibility of the existence of any Jewish believers in the fellowship to which he’s writing - if this is the case, of course, it does mean that the church at Colossae wasn’t predominantly Gentile but totally so. It’s also difficult to see how Paul could regard the Gentiles as being (spiritually) dead by not being physically circumcised where we would expect him to say something more akin to ‘separated from the people of God by the uncircumcision of your flesh’. It seems better, then, to accept the mention of uncircumcision to mean something similar to how the concept’s been employed earlier in Col 2:11 and then, secondarily, for it to be applied to some of the believer’s physical state of being uncircumcised - those, that is, who were Gentiles within the fellowship. In that way it has a dual application and is equally applicable to both Jew and Gentile).
Further, in Col 2:13, he states clearly that God has
‘...forgiven us all our trespasses’
thereby dealing with both causes of the spiritual death which hung over every man, woman and child (for how sins could be forgiven, see my notes on the festival of ‘Yom Kippur’). But spiritual death needed also to be dealt with and transformed back into union with God, and Paul mentions this by writing that
‘...God made [you] alive together with Him...’
thus completely eradicating the problem. Paul stops short of going on to speak of the set up of the believer in newness of life to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be obedient to the expectations of God the Father - this isn’t his intention at this point in his letter although he will go on to contrast the two different ways of living in Col 3:9-10 where he speaks of putting to one side the old nature and of taking upon oneself the new.
We needn’t look at the second chart that occurs in the previously cited notes on ‘Baptism’ for they have little relevance at this point in Paul’s letter except to see the final destination of God’s work in dealing with the man or woman who comes initially to Jesus Christ. The apostle is concerned simply to note the state in which the Colossians once lived and the work that God the Father needed to do in order for them to be restored fully back into a relationship and union with Himself for, as we’ve previously stated, he is trying to show the recipients of his letter that they’re complete in Him.
Although the false teaching was a serious threat to their stability in Christ, it was only trying to deal with incidentals that were of no consequence to what they already had. If indeed they’d come to ‘fulness of life’ (Col 2:10) in Jesus Christ, these attempts at attaining something that they had already surpassed by the free gift of God should be able to be seen for what they were - irrelevancies.
In Col 2:14, Paul changes tack immediately from the mention of the crucifixion of the old nature, the forgiveness of sins and the transformation into life from death to speak of God
‘...having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this He set aside, nailing it to the cross’
and we need to spend some time thinking about how this appears to be a logical consequence of Paul’s statement that God has forgiven the Colossians their sins. As I noted above in parentheses, the idea of ‘the uncircumcision of your flesh’ if taken to be referring to the physical reality of the Colossian believers would cause the reader to infer that to a man the believers were Gentiles.
Here, however, with the mention of the Mosaic Law (the interpretation given to the phrase which speaks of the ‘bond...with its legal demands’), there’s only specific relevance for the Jewish convert (though as this passage is a warning against false teaching, it would have relevancy if part of the perceived danger included an observance to a written code) for it addresses the issue of observance to a written set of commandments and the condemnation that such a set up brought about because (Rom 3:20)
‘...through the law comes knowledge of sin’
and (Rom 4:15)
‘...the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression’
Colwright, however, speaks of the Law which
‘...shut up the Jews under sin and shut out the Gentiles from the hope and promise of membership in God’s people’
but here the idea seems to be primarily the thought that the Law testified to a man’s condition in the sight of God when applied to their own lives and, more especially, to the Jew who was given it. There’s a sense in which all men know they stand condemned before God and that it isn’t necessary for a man to have perceived the requirements of the Law for him to realise his need for cleansing for (Rom 2:12) notes that
‘All who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law’
and the testimony of Rom 1:18ff is that, even though the written code might not be known, the clearly perceivable things about God can be seen throughout the Creation in those things which are in existence so that no man is without an excuse for denying the reality of God and of the demands which He must have upon His creatures by virtue of His having brought them into being.
But, in Col 2:14, it’s man’s relationship to the Law which sits as the prime reason for the statement (the RSV’s ‘legal demands’ surely implies this) and it must be taken to be primarily a comment on the Jewish relationship to God before Christ came (and, of course, after He came to those who still lived opposed to His work). Colbrien speaks of the Gentiles having a similar obligation
‘...to the moral law in as much as they understood it...’
but such a statement clouds the issue for, although we might regard it as ‘law’, there’s no implication that it was ever ‘written’ as the first part of the verse requires.
It may well be that Paul’s mind was aware that the false teaching which would seem tempting to give themselves over to would insist on the complete and literal observance of the Mosaic Law and so counters the arguments even before it seeks infiltration into their ranks. But there’s a great danger in giving the ‘false teaching’ a face for it would necessarily have to be something akin to the ‘Circumcision Party’ who abrogated the way of faith and, instead, insisted the way of legal observance for justification.
The RSV’s translation of ‘bond’ (Strongs Greek number 5498) is more rightly rendered ‘handwriting’ and, according to Colcar, was
‘...a statement of debt signed by the debtor in token of his acknowledgement of his indebtedness’
so that, for the Jew, the written code stood as a constant reminder that there was a debt which needed to be paid that the people of God might stand perfect before YHWH. Otherwise, why would there be the need for the annual reminder of sins being dealt with if the Law had made anything perfect (Leviticus chapter 16, Heb 10:1-3)? Kittels sees the word to mean, rather
‘proof of obligation’
which has the interpretation to mean that the Law stood as the evidence man needed that he stood opposed to the things of God. Colcar’s definition which speaks of it as meaning that which was signed by the debtor in acknowledgement of the debt is too strong for the statement isn’t so much signed by the debtor but revealed to him in the giving of the categorical Law.
Although the Jew had transformed the Law into a way for a man or woman to be justified before God, nevertheless, it stood as a constant reminder that perfection wasn’t possible under the Mosaic Covenant and that there was a need not only for sin to be dealt with but for man to be put right that the way back into God’s presence might be secured. Colcar observes that
‘The law of God not only stated our guilt but cried out for the penalty due to such guilt’
and this was the final conclusion to which the Law led if no element of hope (as in the promise to Abraham) was ever allowed to shine into the precepts of the regulations.
Whilever there was a remembrance of sin, then, there would always be condemnation. But, in Christ, the testimony of the Law has come to a conclusion because the provision of God for mankind has been made effective and available to all men. Therefore Paul elsewhere writes (Rom 10:4) that
‘...Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified’
Colbruce sees the mention of the Law as being nailed to the cross as paralleled in the accusation which was nailed to the cross when Jesus was crucified (Mark 15:26) so that, even though mankind’s accusation of Jesus is held up for the world to see, the important aspect for believers to perceive is that God’s accusation against them is also being nailed there so that God’s final remedy can be seen to be fulfilled for His people.
Satisfying the demands of the Law in those three areas that we considered at the start of this section (Col 2:13) meant that the condemnation which lay upon all men was dealt with and removed in the cross where the crucifixion of the old nature, the forgiveness of sins and the way that was opened back into God’s presence was secured.
Finally, there’s also a contrast in the two phrases rendered by the NIV ‘against us’ and ‘opposed to us’ and which the RSV summates into the singular occurrence ‘against us’. However, Colwright and Colbrien can’t seem to decide which Greek word means which so all that can be said is that one is taken to mean as Colwright’s
‘active opposition or enmity’
while the other signifies
‘a barrier which stands in one’s way’
The Law is envisaged, then, not simply as something which the Jew couldn’t get round but something which stood as his enemy, pointing out that which was wrong and bringing them into condemnation. It’s not simply a passive body of literature, then, but thought of as an active force which was bringing condemnation to all who were living under it.
As such, Jesus’ work isn’t simply to remove an obstacle but to disarm an active enemy, something which will be repeated in Col 2:15 but which, there, takes on a totally different meaning.
Although, at first glance, this verse might seem incredibly straightforward, it weaves more of a tale of intrigue than meets the eye in a lot of the translations. In systematically trying to come to terms with the meanings of the words used here, however, we should be able to arrive at a fairly good attempt at an interpretation.
So that it’s easier to be able to refer to the notes I’m recording, I need to put down as a conclusion first the meaning of the verse as I’ve come to understand it - perhaps the reader will need to do no more than read my paraphrasing and get on with the meaning rather than continue with my notes - and it may be understood as an attempt to offer a conclusion before I’ve gone through a discussion of the general meaning. However, at least it gives a point of reference for the reader to see where I’m headed. My own rendering of the verse, then, is
‘[God] disarmed the principalities and powers and publicly exposed them for what they are, leading them in triumphal procession in [Christ]’
There’s been much discussion amongst commentators as to whether the subject of the verse changes without warning or indication here from God to Jesus Christ. I see no reason to alter the subject and so have begun the verse with the subject - God - to make it plain how I intend understanding the One who’s performed the action.
Others feel that Paul slips into a statement about Jesus Christ at this point and, although this is quite possible, it means that the end phrase rendered by the RSV ‘in Him’ (that is, ‘in Christ’) would have to be taken as meaning ‘in it’ (that is, ‘in the cross’) which is an entirely plausible interpretation.
Indeed, before we go on to think about the rest of the verse, we should, perhaps, observe that Scripture is entirely possible of more than one interpretation so long as what’s gleaned from the verse is in keeping with and is generally confirmed by what’s recorded elsewhere.
Even though some commentators may get from this verse something slightly different in meaning - or even very different in meaning - shouldn’t worry us that we must be ‘right’ and they ‘wrong’ for, as I’ve noted on a few occasions, when Leon Morris underwent a comprehensive studying of the Gospel of John in the process of writing his classic commentary (Johnmor), he noted that he was sometimes confronted by various options of what a particular text meant, each of which was possible from the Greek and each of which were confirmed elsewhere in the Scriptures.
All he could do when he came to such a dilemma was to accept all the possibilities and realise that Scripture can be superficially easy to understand and, at the same time, possible of containing so much meaning that two readers can gain something totally different from it!
Having decided upon the subject of the verse - and the object of where the action takes place - we can move on to the main body.
I’ve retained the RSV’s translation ‘disarmed’ because it seems the best word to use (Strongs Greek number 554). Kittels simply states the meaning as ‘to disarm’ observing that it’s a compound word from the verb ‘to arm oneself’ and a prefix denoting that what’s conveyed is the opposite.
The more general meaning which has been applied to the verse sees it as meaning ‘to put off’ as one would discard a garment from off one’s back (and this is the way it’s used in Col 3:9, the only other place where it’s employed in the NT) but, if this is taken as many commentators have done, it seems to imply, firstly, that there’s a need to understand Christ as the subject (where it would be said that Christ has removed from Himself the principalities and powers) because making God the subject would have it become almost non-sensical (that is, YHWH would be seen to be removing the authorities from Himself).
And, more than this, it would then cause the verse to be saying that Jesus somehow had these opposing forces affixed to Him and that they were fully and finally cast off from his own physical body on the cross when he died for mankind. Colbrien observes that the Latin fathers thought of Jesus stripping away the flesh of His own body as He died physically on the cross because it’s in the physical body that satan was understood to rule and reign.
Although we should be quite willing - as I’ve noted above - to accept alternative interpretations, when these begin to add something altogether unusual to the clear message of the Gospel (how would it be possible that the perfect man would have satan’s armies attached to him or operative within Him?), we should sit up and be cautioned in case we add something to what Paul is intending the reader to understand. It’s better to follow Colcar in his quoting of Moule who understands the meaning to be that God was
‘stripping them (...of their possessions) for Himself’
where God is seen as the conquering Victor who removes the threat of those forces which had set themselves opposed to Him. As we’ll see from a consideration of the word from which we get ‘triumphal procession’, the idea of a disarming is much more in keeping with the overall understanding of God as the Victor who is glorying in the victory won rather than the One who’s pictured as achieving the victory - a difference between what takes place in the camp of the victorious once they’ve ceased fighting and what they do in order to secure the victory itself.
The rendering of the word as ‘disarmed’, then, adds a meaning to the ‘stripping away’ and is obtained from a consideration of what’s being mentioned later on in the verse. Colbrien observes that the sense seems to be that
‘...God stripped the principalities and powers, utterly divesting them of their dignity and might...’
going further to note Lohmeyer who points out that the imagery may well have been gleaned not from the battle field
‘...but from a royal court in which public officials are degraded by being stripped of their dignity’
This is quite possible and certainly not against the detail in the latter part of the verse about the triumphal procession for it’s the glorying in the victory that’s here being mentioned as those vanquished are held up to derision - something which would be equally at home pictured as occurring in the palatial residency in Heaven.
We seem forced to accept the phrase ‘principalities and powers’ as meaning those spiritual forces which have set themselves as opposed to God. The same two Greek words (Strongs Greek numbers 746 and 1849) have occurred earlier in Col 1:16 where we noted that, because they occur in a list of all types of rule, it might be best to take the fourfold description as indicative of all authority rather than to try and define what each word may have meant.
Leaving this previous occurrence to one side, we can note two other places in the NT where a similar phrase occurs. In Eph 3:10 (my italics), Paul comments that
‘...through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places’
where the italicised words define the content of meaning of our phrase. Clearly, Paul understood by the phrase something which wasn’t earthly in its stand and position. This is also clearly the case in Eph 6:12, where he informs his readers firstly that
‘...we are not contending against flesh and blood...’
that is, against physical forces which exist all around them
‘...but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places’
where again the idea is of something above the affairs of man which are seeking to exercise their dominion and authority to get their own will done. What we’re to make of these forces needs a fairly lengthy consideration not only of the NT writings but of the comments which we find in the OT concerning the set up of the first Creation, what happened in the Fall and the way that Scripture indicates that spiritual forces existed ‘over’ both people and areas to influence and empower them.
We shouldn’t be going too far wrong, then, if we accept Paul’s words at face value and understand them to mean that the apostle saw spiritual beings (who seem to be easiest identified with the rebellious angelic horde than anything else) as ruling over mankind but that God had effected a victory over them in Christ so that He could announce such a victory to everyone.
Colbruce goes too far when he notes that just such a
‘...theosophy...was beguiling the minds of the Lycus churches’
for he’s positively equating the dangerous false teaching to be based upon homage or sacrifice to angelic powers that were held up to be ruling over the affairs of men and women. However, we should note that Paul perceived that there was the possibility of such a danger and, therefore, he warns them, once more, that Jesus Christ holds the liberating answer to anything which might attempt to be added to the all-sufficiency of the Gospel.
The next phrase that I’ve represented by the words
‘publicly exposed them for what they were’
is only three words in the Greek, one of which is the preposition transliterated ‘en’. This represents another problem for the commentator, the RSV giving the sense
‘made a public example of them’
The first word used in the Greek (Strongs Greek number 1165) is used in only one other place in the NT in Mtw 1:19 where we read that
‘...Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly’
where Kittels notes that the inference of the verb denotes bringing something to the light publicly - even though the translation ‘public’ in the RSV’s translation and ‘publicly’ in mine is actually a rendering of the other Greek word employed here.
That word (Strongs Greek number 3954) is also indicative of something done openly and publicly and the problem is that to take both words as holding a similar meaning would cause the translation to run something like
‘an open public example’
which stretches the point a little too far. Colcar, realising the problem, prefers to render the second word as ‘boldly’ or ‘with confidence’ so that
‘...it adds to the picture of the conqueror who exhibits his vanquished foes with the sure confidence of one whose triumph is complete...’
Although this is quite possible (the Greek word is employed elsewhere with such a meaning), I prefer Colbrien’s rendering of the first word where he dwells on the revealing nature inherent in the word and uses the second word’s meaning of doing something openly and publicly to demonstrate where the act was done. He renders the word
‘show them in their true character’
and continues that
‘By putting them on public display, God exposed the principalities and powers to ridicule...This open manifestation of their being divested of dignity and authority only serves to demonstrate more clearly the infinite superiority of Christ...’
Whether we take the RSV’s, Colcar’s or Colbrien’s interpretation of the verse, however, the commentator is still confronted with providing a framework in which the triumphal entry of the next phrase is best understood, for we’re not looking at an event which is recorded by Paul as continuing and to which the Colossians can refer to see it’s truth, but an event which has already taken place in which God has already led them captive.
There may also be a reference to the cross which was similarly present in Paul’s observations in Col 2:14 that the demands of the legal regulations were ‘nailed to the cross’ where a parallel might be seen in the charge which hung over Jesus’ head. Colwright sees the principalities and powers
‘...angry at His challenge to their sovereignty, stripped Him naked, held Him up to public contempt and celebrated a triumph over Him’
the latter taking place in the ridicule and public humiliation of their words before the cross (Mtw 27:39-44). The true triumphal procession, however, was still to come and what the powers were anticipating before their victory had been won was turned back in their faces when Jesus secured the everlasting victory over them. In this way, there may be an intended contrast.
The final word (Strongs Greek number 2358) is a straightforward one which denotes, as Colbrien
‘...that of tumultuous procession through the streets of Rome to celebrate a military victory’
and, in the context here in which the word is directed towards an object (‘in Him’), it takes on the meaning
‘to lead as a conquered enemy in a victory parade’
But one must also safeguard oneself from the translation which sees Paul as referring to the Victory itself and not, rather, to the triumphal procession which follows it, for the Greek word employed here means the latter and not the former. The only other place it’s used is in II Cor 2:14 where Paul writes that
‘...in Christ [God] always leads us in triumph...’
which is better rendered
‘...in Christ [God] always leads us in triumphal procession...’
where the thought isn’t that the believer is to go round achieving victory after victory in either his own strength or God’s power, but that they’re part of the triumphal procession in which the victory which has already been won is now rejoiced and celebrated over as it’s being experienced.
The demonstration of the victory won on the cross is in mind, then, and it’s not to say that the believer shouldn’t see the victory being enforced in the situations around him - but it’s a different type of victory than would be expected had it been the believer who was winning them.
Colbrien cites Aemilius Paulus by Plutarch (32-34) as a
‘...colourful account of a triumph...’
through the streets of Rome. But, probably of more interest to the reader is Josephus’ account of the Triumphal procession which took place in the streets of Rome following Titus’ return from Judea following the re-subjugation of the province in response to the Jewish rebellion (War 7.5.1-7), some forty years after Jesus’ resurrection. Although this is a fairly lengthy passage, it is, nevertheless, worth reading - not only because it gives us a good indication of the spectacle that’s being referred to in Col 2:15 but because it shows us that the wealth of Jerusalem was removed from the land and into the Roman treasuries at that time.
Having arrived in Rome to a great crowd cheering and receiving him with joy and having been met by his father Vespasian who had had to return from the war in Israel to receive the crown of Emperor much earlier, it was determined that it would be in just a few days once all the spoils had been gathered together that one triumphal procession would take place which would celebrate the victories of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian - even though the Senate had decreed that each of them should receive their own.
The inhabitants of Rome went out in their droves so much so that Josephus records that there was barely enough room for the procession to make its way along the streets. He then turns his attention to the procession and writes
‘Now all the soldiery marched out beforehand by companies, and in their several ranks, under their several commanders, in the night time, and were about the gates, not of the upper palaces, but those near the temple of Isis; for there it was that the emperors had rested the foregoing night. And as soon as ever it was day, Vespasian and Titus came out crowned with laurel, and clothed in those ancient purple habits which were proper to their family, and then went as far as Octavian’s Walks; for there it was that the senate, and the principal rulers, and those that had been recorded as of the equestrian order, waited for them.
‘Now a tribunal had been erected before the cloisters, and ivory chairs had been set upon it, when they came and sat down upon them. Whereupon the soldiery made an acclamation of joy to them immediately, and all gave them attestations of their valour; while they were themselves without their arms, and only in their silken garments, and crowned with laurel: then Vespasian accepted of these shouts of theirs; but while they were still disposed to go on in such acclamations, he gave them a signal of silence.
‘And when every body entirely held their peace, he stood up, and covering the greatest part of his head with his cloak, he put up the accustomed solemn prayers; the like prayers did Titus put up also; after which prayers Vespasian made a short speech to all the people, and then sent away the soldiers to a dinner prepared for them by the emperors.
‘Then did he retire to that gate which was called the Gate of the Pomp, because pompous shows do always go through that gate; there it was that they tasted some food, and when they had put on their triumphal garments, and had offered sacrifices to the gods that were placed at the gate, they sent the triumph forward, and marched through the theatres, that they might be the more easily seen by the multitudes.
‘Now it is impossible to describe the multitude of the shows as they deserve, and the magnificence of them all; such indeed as a man could not easily think of as performed, either by the labour of workmen, or the variety of riches, or the rarities of nature; for almost all such curiosities as the most happy men ever get by piece-meal were here one heaped on another, and those both admirable and costly in their nature; and all brought together on that day demonstrated the vastness of the dominions of the Romans; for there was here to be seen a mighty quantity of silver, and gold, and ivory, contrived into all sorts of things, and did not appear as carried along in pompous show only, but, as a man may say, running along like a river.
‘Some parts were composed of the rarest purple hangings, and so carried along; and others accurately represented to the life what was embroidered by the arts of the Babylonians. There were also precious stones that were transparent, some set in crowns of gold, and some in other ouches, as the workmen pleased; and of these such a vast number were brought, that we could not but thence learn how vainly we imagined any of them to be rarities.
‘The images of the gods were also carried, being as well wonderful for their largeness, as made very artificially, and with great skill of the workmen; nor were any of these images of any other than very costly materials; and many species of animals were brought, every one in their own natural ornaments.
‘The men also who brought every one of these shows were great multitudes, and adorned with purple garments, all over interwoven with gold; those that were chosen for carrying these pompous shows having also about them such magnificent ornaments as were both extraordinary and surprising.
‘Besides these, one might see that even the great number of the captives was not unadorned, while the variety that was in their garments, and their fine texture, concealed from the sight the deformity of their bodies. But what afforded the greatest surprise of all was the structure of the pageants that were borne along; for indeed he that met them could not but be afraid that the bearers would not be able firmly enough to support them, such was their magnitude; for many of them were so made, that they were on three or even four stories, one above another. The magnificence also of their structure afforded one both pleasure and surprise; for upon many of them were laid carpets of gold.
‘There was also wrought gold and ivory fastened about them all; and many resemblances of the war, and those in several ways, and variety of contrivances, affording a most lively portraiture of itself. For there was to be seen a happy country laid waste, and entire squadrons of enemies slain; while some of them ran away, and some were carried into captivity; with walls of great altitude and magnitude overthrown and ruined by machines; with the strongest fortifications taken, and the walls of most populous cities upon the tops of hills seized on, and an army pouring itself within the walls; as also every place full of slaughter, and supplications of the enemies, when they were no longer able to lift up their hands in way of opposition.
‘Fire also sent upon temples was here represented, and houses overthrown, and falling upon their owners: rivers also, after they came out of a large and melancholy desert, ran down, not into a land cultivated, nor as drink for men, or for cattle, but through a land still on fire upon every side; for the Jews related that such a thing they had undergone during this war.
‘Now the workmanship of these representations was so magnificent and lively in the construction of the things, that it exhibited what had been done to such as did not see it, as if they had been there really present.
‘On the top of every one of these pageants was placed the commander of the city that was taken, and the manner wherein he was taken. Moreover, there followed those pageants a great number of ships; and for the other spoils, they were carried in great plenty. But for those that were taken in the temple of Jerusalem, they made the greatest figure of them all; that is, the golden table, of the weight of many talents; the candlestick also, that was made of gold, though its construction were now changed from that which we made use of; for its middle shaft was fixed upon a basis, and the small branches were produced out of it to a great length, having the likeness of a trident in their position, and had every one a socket made of brass for a lamp at the tops of them. These lamps were in number seven, and represented the dignity of the number seven among the Jews; and the last of all the spoils, was carried the Law of the Jews.
‘After these spoils passed by a great many men, carrying the images of Victory, whose structure was entirely either of ivory or of gold. After which Vespasian marched in the first place, and Titus followed him; Domitian also rode along with them, and made a glorious appearance, and rode on a horse that was worthy of admiration.
‘Now the last part of this pompous show was at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, whither when they were come, they stood still; for it was the Romans’ ancient custom to stay till somebody brought the news that the general of the enemy was slain.
‘This general was Simon, the son of Gioras, who had then been led in this triumph among the captives; a rope had also been put upon his head, and he had been drawn into a proper place in the forum, and had withal been tormented by those that drew him along; and the law of the Romans required that malefactors condemned to die should be slain there.
‘Accordingly, when it was related that there was an end of him, and all the people had set up a shout for joy, they then began to offer those sacrifices which they had consecrated, in the prayers used in such solemnities; which when they had finished, they went away to the palace.
‘And as for some of the spectators, the emperors entertained them at their own feast; and for all the rest there were noble preparations made for feasting at home; for this was a festival day to the city of Rome, as celebrated for the victory obtained by their army over their enemies, for the end that was now put to their civil miseries, and for the commencement of their hopes of future prosperity and happiness’
The scene must have been fairly spectacular and the reader should note that the victorious military commander ‘led captivity captive’ - that is, he brought back not only the spoils of war but the prisoners and leaders of the subjugated nations to which he’d gone, openly displaying them before the multitudes before taking at least one of them - the leading figure - and having him executed to symbolise not only their subjugation but the removal of the country’s authority to be replaced by Roman rule.
I’ve already dealt with Eph 4:8 in a few places in my notes where it says of Christ that
‘When He ascended on high He led a host of captives [or ‘Prisoners of war, prisoner’ or ‘Captivity captive’] and He gave gifts to men’
and have interpreted it to be indicative either of the distribution of people as gifts to the Church or of the release of those righteous who were being held in Hades awaiting the final solution to the problem of their sin. But it must also mean the leading of those powers which had been rebelling against the rule of God Himself. The Ascension is, therefore, also able to be viewed as a type of a Triumphal procession in which everything which stood opposed to the rule of God was declared and paraded as being subjugated.
The correct place to see the fulfilment of this procession, then, must be in the ascension and we must note - as I suggested earlier - that it’s the victory procession that’s being mentioned and not the Victory itself. The Victory was in Him - that is, in His entire life - and not primarily in the cross because it was a life of perfect obedience which defeated those powers which had been given authority over man by man himself in the Garden (see my notes here in Part 2 Section 3 under the title ‘Man - Created to Rule’).
This may not be the most traditional way of understanding how Jesus defeated those authorities who ruled over the affairs of men and women but it seems to be the most all-inclusive one. Simply saying that Jesus defeated satan on the cross gives no indication of how this was achieved but, if the reader accesses my previously cited notes, they’ll see that authority over Creation was a pre-Fall right of mankind which was lost through disobedience and that, in Christ, the Man who’s perfectly obedient must necessarily receive back the right to rule and subjugate those who had once usurped his authority.
Col 2:15 doesn’t mean, however, that the principalities and powers are forced into doing something which is against their own will - and neither should it necessarily be thought that they choose to obey the Victor’s rule now that they’re defeated. As Colbrien comments
‘These authorities are not depicted as gladly surrendering but as submitting against their wills to a power they cannot resist’
To think of the parallel of the Triumphal procession in Rome, the captives were present against their will and were forced into participating in the celebrations because the greater power had overcome and subjugated them, dealing with them as it saw fit (for an explanation of Col 1:20 where it’s written that ‘all things’ have been reconciled in Christ, see my notes here under the heading ‘The Reconciliation of Creation’ where I’ve tried to show that, when thinking of the rebellious spiritual forces, it can only be conceived that reconciliation has taken place by their defeat rather than by a change of enmity into friendship).
In like manner, Christ’s sovereign rule in heaven follows not only the Triumphal ascension but the establishing of the Victory, and the control over mankind which had been usurped has been re-taken. Colbrien also sounds a note of caution by observing that
‘They continue to exist, opposed to man and his interests...But they cannot finally harm the person who is in Christ and their ultimate overthrow, although in the future, is sure and certain’
so that, although the Triumphal procession mentioned here is very real, it must also be seen as a first effect of a work which will only be fully outworked at a point still future.
Further than this, perhaps we shouldn’t go except to note that the statement seems to have been particularly relevant to the Colossians’ situation because the perceived threat from the false teaching was based upon either subservience to or a method of overcoming those forces which men and women respected as governing their own lives.
Paul says, however, that Christ has already led those enemies away in triumphal procession so that they’re forced to obey His will as and when He requires it, thus announcing once more the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
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