Paul did not establish the church in Colossae, the preacher Epaphras did (1:7). But Paul wrote to the Colossians to encourage their faith, reliance and devotion to Jesus Christ, as the Church struggled to grow toward maturity.
Paul, by long standing tradition, is designated as the author. The author claims to be Paul in the greeting (1:1). Paul also refers to himself in 1:23 and 4:18.Modern scholarship casts doubt on this, but it merely distracts from the richer study of the clarity of thought and supreme beauty of Paul’s Christology.
The Colossians were “faithful in Christ” (1:2), exhibited “faith in Jesus Christ” (1:4), were “bearing fruit” (1:6) and “love in the Spirit” (1:8). These statements put the scholarship about the so called “Colossian Heresy,” into proper perspective. Paul was writing these churches, not to admonish them, like the Corinthians, but to encourage them to “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast,” (1:23). This is crucial to determine exactly what the so-called “Colossian Heresy,” consisted of.
As an Epistle, the New Testament book of Colossians follows Paul’s epistolary style. Paul generally begin with a greeting, moving on to thanksgiving and prayer. The body of the epistle is generally apportioned equally between theological instruction and application, while personal greetings reinforce the writer’s attachment to the recipients. The book of Colossians is rhetorically persuasive, with well-styled argumentation clarifying the gospel and its application as one side of a debate between the all-sufficiency of Christ and the false teaching of man-made religion that threatened the Colossian church.
The passage of 2:11-23 is the portion of Colossians that addresses the so-called “colossian heresy,” directly. Paul works through a list of doctrines; circumcision (2:11-13a), the law of Moses (2:13b-14), the intercession of angels (2:15, 18) and the OT sacrificial system with its regulations (2:16-23), that were all being taught as a means of “stopping the indulgence of the flesh,” (2:23). These doctrines constitute the “elemental spirits of the world” (2:8, 20), the “philosophy” (1:8) and the “human precepts and teachings” (2:22) that were trying to captivate (2:8), judge (2:16) and disqualify (2:18) the Colossians from their God-given life (2:19) in Christ (2:13).
The “elemental spirits of the world,” have passed away at the coming of Christ. They were mere “shadows” (2:17) of the body of Christ which has now arisen victorious (2:15) in the new creation that Christ is making through His Cross (1:20; 2:12). Just as the Kingdom of Darkness is fading away with the coming of the Kingdom of Light (1:13) so too is the former authority of that former kingdom (2:15). All the types and shadows, all the darkness and false authorities, the intermediaries, the man-made religions and regulations are all put to flight and destroyed in Jesus Christ, who is preeminent (2:8-23, 1:15-20), just as darkness and shadow dissipate with the zenith of the sun. The Colossian Church needed to firmly establish themselves in this truth as a defense against false teachers.
Verse 8 begins the specific argument against the Colossian Heresy. Paul’s purpose in writing the epistle is to put to death the heresy and to enliven the true faith of the Christians in and around Colossae (1:23). Paul first addresses the fruitfulness and liveliness of the Colossian Christians (1:4; 2:5), then gives a lengthy treatise on the person and work of Jesus Christ (1:15-20).
Paul turns to the heresy directly in verse eight when He says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (2:8). This begins a new section in which the supremacy of Christ is “fleshed” out, and the implications for the body of Christ, the church (1:18, 1:24), are illustrated.
Verse eight contains the first of three warnings that address the Colossian heresy that threatens to recapture the otherwise faithful and fruitful Colossians. Paul wants them to remain captive to Christ alone and not return to the old familial ties, the old idols, the old authorities that held them in bondage, the old Levitical rites and cleanliness laws. The next warning is found in verse sixteen “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you… “(2:16) and then again Paul warns them to “Let no one disqualify you…” (2:18).
Paul was concerned that the false teaching in Colossae would take the Christians captive, condemning them and disqualifying them from the life (2:13; 2:19), unity and inheritance that God had qualified them for (1:12) when He united them to Christ.
After establishing the supremacy of Christ, Paul now instructs the Colossae Christians in their unity to Christ and their identity in Christ. They are not to be held captive to anything; any teacher, authority, religion or regulation other than Christ. They are Christ’s body; they are alive in Christ, they are qualified in Christ and they are judged in Christ.
Paul begins outlining what the supremacy of Christ means for Christians by defining the connection between Christ and the individual believer (2:11-15), in which Paul explains how former identities are stripped away by God in our baptism. Baptism is a fulfillment of Circumcision,highlighted here by Paul’s connecting the entrance sacrament of the old covenant to the entrance sacrament of the New. But before connecting circumcision to baptism, it is crucial to understand exactly what the OT rite of circumcision actually meant.
Circumcision is mentioned in the context of “putting off the flesh” (2:11) and “stopping the indulgence of the flesh (2:23).” Because, to be “circumcised in the flesh,” an Israelite, “was called to renounce flesh with all its pomp.”“‘Flesh’ denotes genetic relation, and a social order grounded on flesh is a social order organized around such flesh relationships…circumcision is a renunciation of flesh, it is also a renunciation of ethnic separation and division. Circumcision separated Israel.”Now baptism separates Israel. Baptism sets apart the believer from the rest of the world by uniting them to Jesus Christ. All other loyalties are subject to the primacy of Christ in the believer’s life (3:11).
“There is, however, another possible metaphorical meaning which gives excellent sense here. As a result of their baptism into Christ, the Colossians now belong first and foremost to the family of God, and not, therefore, to the human families (and their local ‘rulers’) to which they formerly belonged. ‘Body’ can, in fact, easily carry the connotation of a group of people, needing further redefinition to make it clear which group is envisaged (as in ‘body of Christ’). In that context ‘flesh’ can easily provide the further requisite definition, since it can carry not only the meanings of ‘sinful human nature’ but also, simultaneously, the meanings of family solidarity. The phrase can thus easily mean ‘in the stripping off of the old human solidarities’. The convert, in stripping off his clothes for baptism (the baptismal reference in the next verse has coloured the language) 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. This meaning fits very well with the rest of the section.”
Paul assumes that baptism replaces circumcision as the means of transferring us from one family to another; one kingdom to another. Paul is showing how Baptism is the fulfillment of the old sign of circumcision.
“According to Colossians 2:11-12, baptism replaced Old Testament circumcision. Baptism, therefore, is more than circumcision, not in essence but in degree. Circumcision pointed forward to the death of Christ; baptism points back to it. The former ends, the latter begins, with that death. If, however, that circumcision as the sign of the covenant could and must be administered to the children, the same applies a fortiori to baptism, which is not poorer but much richer in grace. This is made manifest in part by the fact that the sacrament of the old covenant was only administered to male persons, but the new covenant is also administered to female persons.” 
Circumcision was donetocovenant members as a sign. Jewish fathers circumcised their eight-day old boys because they were covenant members. The outward sign of the New Covenant is transformed by Jesus because He was cut for all His people. New Covenant members are not required to physically circumcise their sons anymore because baptism replaces circumcision, in Christ. All who are baptized have participated in His death and burial, they have been set apart, cut off from the world and grafted into Christ. This is the circumcision of Christ.
Next Paul turns to the Mosaic law given to Israel to further set them apart. The Law instructs Israel in the way of Holiness. But it is a standard that Israel has not be able to uphold, instead becoming a source of death (Romans 7:7-11; Acts 15:10). N.T Wright explains that the “record of debt with its legal requirements,” “i.e. the Law—kept both Jews and Gentiles locked up in sin. The Mosaic Torah did not, we should note, stand over against Jews and Gentiles in the same way. In Paul’s view, it shut upthe Jews under sin and shut outthe Gentiles from the hope and promise of membership in God’s people.”
In v. 15 the Greek word translated as “disarming,” is found in its figurative usage in v. 11 where it is translated as “putting off.”This is setting the context of the whole passage. False teachers are trying to take the saints in Colossae captive with worship of angels, with the Levitical code, with regulations meant to control the flesh. But Christ as stripped all these things of their power, nailing them to the cross and raising the believers to new life in Christ.
The Mosaic law held all men in the flesh captive with its legal demands. The stripped off flesh of sin and the record of debt with its legal demands which have been stripped by “rulers and authorities,” are both dealt with at the cross. The cross of Christ disarmed or disrobed; stripped bare. Robes are always a symbol of authority.
The fullness of Mosaic Law is found in Christ, who is reconciling all things in himself by the blood of the cross (1:20). That includes the Colossians (1:22; 2:14), they are alive (2:13) in Christ, sharing in His fullness (2:19). They are His body (1:24) and no longer ought to be held captive, judged or disqualified by the flesh, regulations, shadows or a record of debt from the Law.
Verse seventeen demonstrates the difficulty of translating the Genitive Case from Greek to English. In English, the equivalent is the possessive case indicating possession; putting ofin front of words (the Spirit of God), or an apostrophe safter the word (God’s Spirit). In Biblical Greek the possessive is shown by adding genitive case endings to the end of words. The word that the genitive is modifying is the Head Noun; with a phrase such as” the Spirit of God,” Spirit would be the head noun and “god,” would be the genitive.Colossians 1:17 offers one genitive that is disputed. As one well known Greek grammar points out, “Verse 17 contains one genitive that is hotly debated. The discussion turns on the meaning of the word substance which typically means body. Does this refer to the corporate body of believers? Or, does it refer to the individual Christian’s body? In either case, the genitive noun explains whose body it is (possession), namely, Christ’s. “The body belongs to Christ”. On the other hand, the body may refer to the substance of what Christ represents. In this case, the genitive is appositional, essentially explaining of what the body consists (The body, which is Christ). The ellipsis of a verb, which suggests we ought to supply a verb of being, favors the possessive Genitive.”The NET bible’s note on this verse, highlights the difficulty,34“tnGrk “but the body of Christ.” The term body here, when used in contrast to shadow (σκιά, skia) indicates the opposite meaning, i.e., the reality or substance itself.”
However, the word substanceis too vague, given Paul’s overall point. It ought not be a mystery as to what the “substance,” casting the shadow actually is. It is firm and defined by the context, not only of Paul’s epistle but from the very teaching of Jesus. Jesus repeatedly taught that the Law and the Prophets were speaking of Him (John 5:39; Luke 24:23-27).
The old sacrificial system mentioned in v. 16 is a mere shadow. Christ Himself casts the shadow. It is not an intangible otherworldly Substancebut Christ’s body that casts the shadow. Only substantive things cast shadows. But substance is too vague and misses the deeper point that Paul is making throughout this section. N.T. Wright’s translation of verse 17 is clarifying and consistent with the context; “These things are a shadow cast by the coming reality – and the body that casts the shadow belongs to the king!”
This carries right into v. 19 in which Paul says the Head is Christ, head of what? Jesus is the head of a body that is nourished, knit together and grows a growth that is from God, the Father. Jesus is the new authority, the new cleanliness, the new rest, the new standing, the new reality, the new family; the new source of righteousness and life for all who are separated from their flesh in baptism and raised in Christ. This is why Paul warns that Christians should not let, the old rulers and authorities, with their accusations and threats of death, nor the shadows of Levitical law and liturgy pass judgement (2:16) on those who are forgiven by God for the sake of Christ (1:14).
Paul exhorts Christians to cling to the reality, to the head, which holds the whole body together. Paul reiterates his hope for the Colossians from 1:23; “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.”
Paul is calling the Colossians to stand firm in their faith and not return to shadows. The substance is Christ. They have transferred from darkness to light (1:13). If they want to overcome the flesh, He is the way. Not the Old Covenant. Not ascetism. Not regulations of food. This is why Paul mentions the “elemental spirits of the world” (2:20), which is linked” to gods or other spiritual beings, it is more often linked to religious practices.”Leithart explains that the “elemental spirits of the world,” refers to “sacred space, purity rules, sacrifice and priesthood,” which “constitute the foundational reality of religious and social life in the ancient world, both Jewish and Gentile.”And all of this for Israel was merely a shadow of the body, the full substance, the reality of Jesus Christ who has now come into the world. So, Paul is trying to convince the Colossians, “to stop: everything is pure; no more circumcision/uncircumcision; no more holy space other than the human being and human community indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus… the physics of religion and society had been transformed, and that the end of the old elemental system was the great moment of maturation, when the human race grew up from slaves to sons. A world…that is a saved world, a world fulfilled as new creation.”
To stop the indulgence of the flesh one must put away all former alliances, religious practices and shadows. There is a new physics to comprehend and it is that all things are united in Christ (1:16). All human precepts and teachings and wisdom are shadows. The fullness is Jesus and buried in Him, the believer rises in a new body (1:24; 2:17), where true nourishment (2:19) and life (2:14, 2:19) are found.
The whole passage of 2:11-23 is about believers and their union with Christ. The substance that casts a shadow, the reality that Paul has been discussing since v. 11, is the body of Christ, to which every believer is joined as they are buried in baptism and raised in Christ (Col. 2:13).
Believers are circumcised, cut off from their old bodies, here meaning their former familial ties and made alive together with Christ (Col. 2:13) as Christ’s body, the church (Col. 1:24). This is the fulfillment to which circumcision, the sabbaths, legal demands and regulations pointed. The promise to Abraham, that all the nations would blessed and all the promises of God find their yes and amen in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the head of a body (Col. 1:18) that cast the shadows that have passed away at His coming.
The rulers and authorities who held man in bondage with the law, have been disarmed. They can no longer accuse those in Christ, because Christ dealt with the legal demands on the cross. The old rulers and authorities can no longer harm believers because they have already died and risen in Christ through baptism. They are part of a new covenant, established on the blood and body of Christ. They are “hidden,” in Christ as Paul says in Col. 3:3.
The believer has died in Christ, risen in Christ, been transformed from the old body to the new body, in Christ. The believer has been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light (Col. 1:13). The “elemental spirits of the world,” have passed away at the coming of Christ. They were mere “shadows” (2:17) of the body of Christ which has now arisen victorious (2:15) in the new creation that Christ is making through His Cross (1:20; 2:12). Just as the Kingdom of Darkness is fading away with the coming of the Kingdom of Light (1:13) so too is the former authority of that former kingdom (2:15). All the types and shadows, all the darkness and false authorities, the intermediaries, the man-made religions and regulations are all put to flight and destroyed in Jesus Christ, who is preeminent (2:8-23, 1:15-20), just as darkness and shadow dissipate with the zenith of the sun. The Colossian Church needed to firmly establish themselves in this truth as a defense against false teachers.
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Leithart, Peter J. (2016) Delivered From the Elements of the World.(41). Downers Grove, IL. Intervarsity Press.