Colossians 2:6-8 Commentary: Continue in Christ

6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives [Greek: “walk”] in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. NRSV

In Col. 1:1-2:5 Paul gave a lengthy introduction to his letter, in which he greeted the Colossians, reminded them of his relationship to them, expressed the general aim of his letter, offered a statement of the gospel tailored to the Colossians’ context, reviewed his commission to make the word of God fully known, and revealed the specific aim of his letter—to counter deception among the Colossians.

Now, having finished this introduction, in Col. 2:6-4:6 Paul wades into the heart of the letter and the specific teaching he has for the Colossians. In Col. 2:6-8 he begins with a general summary of the teaching: the Colossians are to “continue” in Christ (2:6-7). A crucial aspect of continuing in Christ for the Colossians will be for them to avoid various deceptions that have been plaguing the church (2:8). In subsequent verses Paul will clarify certain specific deceptions they should avoid (2:16-19) and the reasons they should do so (2:9-15 and 2:20-23).

Colossians 2:6-7 Commentary

Paul’s central teaching of the letter, then, is that the Colossians should continue to live their lives in Christ (2:6). Just as they began by “receiving” Christ Jesus, the Lord, so they should continue to live their lives “in him.” The Greek word here translated as “received” has the sense of accepting or affirming a certain religious tradition—namely, the teaching that Christ Jesus is the Lord. From Paul’s prior teaching in the letter, the sense in which Christ is Lord is lofty indeed: Christ is the divine creator and supreme authority over all creation, which includes the Colossians. Thus, just as the Colossians first affirmed that Christ is Lord over them, so they should continue to live their lives in a way that reflects Christ’s Lordship over them. This, it seems, is part of what Paul means by telling them to walk “in him.”

However, Paul has more to say about what it means to walk in Christ. It is to be “rooted and built up in him,” to be “established in the faith,” and to abound in thanksgiving (Col. 2:7). The verbs “rooted,” “built up,” and “established” are all passive verbs, suggesting that rooting, building up, and establishing are not activities that the Colossians themselves can accomplish directly. Perhaps Paul’s idea is that Christ does the rooting, building up, and establishing. Nevertheless, the Colossians can do something to put themselves in a position to be rooted, built up, and established in the faith. First, they should abound in thanksgiving, expressing thanks for all they have been given in Christ, such as their rescue from the powers of darkness (Col. 1:13), their forgiveness (Col. 1:14), and their reconciliation with God (Col. 1:21-22).

Colossians 2:8 Commentary

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, BDAG
Second, they can avoid empty deceptive philosophies that conform to “human tradition” and the dark powers of the universe (Col. 2:8). According to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, the Greek word translated by the NRSV as “elemental spirits” seems to have a dual meaning in this passage. First, it refers to “transcendent powers that are in control over events in this world…elemental spirits.” Second, it seems to refer to “things that constitute the foundation of learning,” i.e., “fundamental principles” (the NASB translation privileges this second meaning). The intriguing implication is that, in Paul’s view, there is a close link between elemental spirits and fundamental principles, between spiritual forces and basic teachings. It seems that the elemental spirits exercised their control over events in the world, in part, by way of certain fundamental principles. A contemporary scientific analogy might be the link between matter and the physical laws that govern it. Paul’s idea, then, is that the elemental spirits have been holding certain of the Colossians captive by way of false principles at the root of the “human traditions” they were following. They had returned to the captivity from which Christ had liberated them (Col. 1:13-14), and thus had submitted to powers and principles contrary to Christ. Paul’s admonition is that they should allow no one—no teacher, no principles, no spirits—to take them captive in this way. Rather, Christ alone is their Lord, and so it is his teachings alone to which they should submit.

What can we learn from this passage? Paul’s central teaching that the Colossians should continue to live their lives in Christ seems crucial for us today. For Christians that emphasize evangelism or mission, the focus (especially in church gatherings) can be so much on receiving Christ that it is sometimes easy to overlook the importance and practicalities of living life “in Christ” each day. As Paul suggests here, part of living in Christ is being grateful for all we have received—both spiritual and physical blessings. If we make it a daily discipline to express gratitude to God and people, this can have a truly transformative effect on our attitude. If we are grateful, we are no longer fearful, anxious, or discontent. Rather, we meet the world with a sense that we are taken care of, and that we have enough. In this way, gratitude can bring a peaceful contentment that no pile of material treasure could ever produce.

The second provocative lesson we can learn is that whenever we follow teachings contrary to Christ’s, we have slipped out from under the lordship of Christ and are being led by dark spiritual powers. I have discussed this idea at more length in a previous post.


Colossians 2:1-5 Commentary: Countering Deception

2:1 For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face. 2 I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments. 5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ. NRSV

In the previous passage Paul recounted his general calling or commission “to make the word of God fully known” (Col. 1:25). In Colossians 2:1-5 he states his specific desires for the Colossians and the specific aim of his letter. He is concerned that the Colossians avoid a certain deception that threatens the church and his letter is designed to further this end.

Colossians 2:1-3 Commentary

In Col. 2:1 Paul connects the general struggle and toil of his commission to his special struggle on behalf of the Colossians and the church near them in Laodicea. He is working hard and suffering for them in particular. We are reminded here (as in Colossians 1:3-8) that Paul has never met the Colossians or the Laodicean church face to face. Rather, Paul has only heard about them from Epaphras, who, it seems, was the one who founded the churches (see Col. 1:7-8). Paul’s desire for these followers of Jesus, then, is that their hearts “be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3).

Paul’s idea, here, is interesting and quite counter-intuitive. His suggestion is that the encouragement and unity of the community in love is a means to understanding and knowledge of Christ. The implication is that, as individuals disconnected from the community—lacking in love and unity—they will be unable to realize the riches of understanding and knowledge of Christ. Such knowledge is only (or at least primarily) available to a community of encouraged, united, and loving followers of Christ.

The list of goods that Paul says is available to such a community is decidedly cognitive: “assured understanding,” “knowledge of God’s mystery,” “wisdom and knowledge.” As I suggested in my comments on Colossians 1:27, it seems these are at least some of the “riches” of Christ’s glory that are available to his followers. While the riches of Christ’s glory are surely not restricted to such cognitive goods, it may be that Paul emphasizes these goods due to the proto-Gnostic nature of the heresy troubling the Colossians. If the Colossians have been duped into seeking secret knowledge (“gnosis,” transliterated from Greek) by false teachers, Paul’s counter-argument seems to be that any knowledge they might want or need is to be found in Christ.

Thus, these cognitive riches have a very different role in Paul’s story than they do in the proto-Gnostic story. For the proto-Gnostics, special knowledge was the means to liberation from an evil material world. For Paul, a kind of knowledge and wisdom—namely, knowledge of Christ and wisdom about how to live this earthly life—are the end result of proper communal attachment to Christ. Thus, Paul directs the Colossians not to mere knowledge, but to Christ and his community as a means to knowledge and wisdom. He also suggests that in Christ our understanding is “assured” in a way that it is not otherwise (Col. 2:2).

Colossians 2:4-5 Commentary

In Col. 2:4 Paul states that his purpose in reminding the Colossians of the true route to understanding, knowledge, and wisdom—Christ himself—is that “no one may deceive” them with “plausible arguments.” Here we have the first hint in the letter that certain false teachers have been tempting the Colossians with plausible but deceptive arguments. Since Paul’s teaching in Col. 2:2-3 is meant to counter this deception (“I say this so that no one may deceive you…”), it seems that the deceptive arguments pushed the Colossians toward a rugged individualism and disunity contrary to the loving unity Paul urges on them, and toward a kind of knowledge apart from Christ that left them unsure of themselves, contrary to the assured understanding and knowledge that Paul says is to be found in Christ.

Finally, in Col. 2:5 Paul reminds them that although he is not physically with them, he is with them “in spirit.” This phrase seems to suggest that Paul views himself as connected with the Colossians by God’s in-dwelling Holy Spirit—“Christ in you” (Col. 1:27)—and that the Colossians are on his mind and in his heart despite his physical absence. Moreover, Paul’s joyful hope is that they would have firm faith in Christ, and that they would have strong morale. The word translated “morale” here suggests a state of good order or discipline, akin to military discipline. Thus, Paul’s hope seems to be that they would be firm not only in their faith in Christ, but also in their disciplined resistance to the false teachings.

What can we learn from this passage? Paul’s idea that wisdom and knowledge of Christ are goods to be attained communally is an important corrective for the prevalent contemporary individualism that tends to accept Jesus but reject his church. Here Paul suggests that you really cannot have assured understanding, knowledge of Christ, and wisdom apart from a loving union with Christ’s people—the church. Indeed, Paul suggests that it is deception to think that one could go it alone—“Just me and Jesus”—and have the kind of firm, living faith in Christ that is able to resist heresy. If we are to maintain a firm hold on the truth, we must gather together in our pursuit of Jesus. Alone, we are all too vulnerable to discouragement and plausible but deceptive arguments.