9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. NRSV
In the previous passage (Colossians 2:6-8), Paul urged the Colossians to avoid captivity to the principles and powers that underlie the human traditions in which the Colossians had been dabbling. Here, in Colossians 2:9-12, Paul begins to tell them why they should do so. The reason is that Christ is the divine head of every power and authority, including those the Colossians have been entertaining. Since these powers and authorities are not really in charge—rather, Christ is—the Colossians should not let themselves be ruled by them.
Colossians 2:9-10 Commentary
In Col. 2:9 Paul tells us that in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Paul can make this enormous theological claim—that Christ is divine—in a brief manner because he has already explained it at length in Col. 1:15-19. Indeed, it seems that Paul’s prior lofty teaching about Christ was setup for this point in the letter, where he uses the teaching in his argument. Paul’s specification that the full divine nature dwells in Christ “bodily” is telling. Again it seems Paul is countering a proto-Gnostic strand in the Colossian heresy that held the material world to be evil. That the thoroughly good divine nature would dwell in Christ bodily—in the material stuff of his human body—puts the lie to the thought that matter is inferior to spirit and wicked. On the contrary, it is worthy of divine inhabitance.
In Col. 2:10 Paul tells the Colossians that they have “come to fullness” in Christ, or that they have been filled in him, or through him (BDAG, p. 828). Whatever fullness the Colossians have been seeking in their dabbling in human traditions—whatever power or quality they wished to take on—Christ has already provided it. Thus, they need not seek it elsewhere. This Christ is the “head” of the powers and authorities underlying human traditions. In other words, he ranks supremely over them in status and power (BDAG, p. 542). Paul’s reference to “every ruler and authority” seems clearly to refer back to the “elemental spirits of the universe” he mentioned in Col. 2:8. Thus, the first reason the Colossians should avoid the teachings and spiritual powers behind mere human traditions is that the divine Christ is supreme over them and anything they were seeking in such teachings and powers is already available to them in the fullness Christ has brought to them. They need look no further.
Colossians 2:11-12 Commentary
Furthermore, in Col. 2:11 Paul begins to explain that the Colossians have mysteriously taken part in Christ’s death and resurrection, which means they are no longer subject to the spiritual powers and authorities. Rather, they participate in Christ’s triumph over them, and so they need not appease them. Paul begins this point with his claim (in Col. 2:11) that in Christ the Colossians “were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision [a circumcision made without hands], by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ.” The word translated “flesh” here (sarkos) is a subtle one with a range of possible meanings. However, in this verse Paul seems to be referring to the physical body as an instrument of sinful activity (BDAG p. 915). Thus, the idea is that in “the circumcision of Christ”—the spiritual circumcision made without hands—the source of the Colossians’ sinful activity was cut away as the foreskin is cut away in circumcision. Paul’s metaphorical use of ‘circumcision’ here suggests that his audience may have thought that the Jewish rite of circumcision was part of what was required to appease the elemental spirits. Part of Paul’s point, then, is that the spiritual “circumcision of Christ” is sufficient for them.
But, what exactly is the “circumcision of Christ”? Paul tells us in Col. 2:12: the “circumcision of Christ” is the Colossians’ participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through baptism. In baptism, the Colossians were “buried” and “raised” as Christ was. The act of being submerged beneath the waters of baptism is a picture of being submerged beneath the ground, as in a grave. Similarly, the act of rising up out of the waters is a picture of bursting forth from the grave in resurrection. Importantly, however, Paul clarifies that while baptism symbolizes this death and resurrection, the real spiritual death and resurrection whereby the Colossians have been liberated from their sinful flesh is a result of their “faith in the power of God.” Thus, while baptism is a powerful symbol, it is not the source of the spiritual work wrought in the Colossians. Rather, it is their faith, and ultimately God’s power, that has liberated them. God’s power is what liberated Christ from death, and so God’s power is what has liberated the Colossians.
Colossians 2:12: Did Paul Write Colossians?
Colossians 2:12 is ground zero of the debate over whether Paul actually wrote Colossians or whether another author in Paul’s theological tradition wrote it in his name after Paul’s death. The controversy turns on the author’s claim in Col. 2:12 and Col. 3:1 that the Colossians were “raised with” Christ. In the two other places that Paul discusses the resurrection of Christians he seems careful to locate that event in the future. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:22-23 he says, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Similarly, in Romans 6:5 Paul writes, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In both of these passages, Paul claims that Christians will be resurrected in the future. As Achtemeier et al. (p. 419) state, “The compound verb ‘crucified with’ occurs in the undisputed letters (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20), as does the compound verb ‘buried with’ (Rom. 6:4), but the compound verb ‘raised with’ does not.” Given the theological importance of the resurrection in Paul’s thought, the different way it is presented in Colossians has led many scholars to deny that Paul wrote the letter.
However, this argument fails to see that the author of Colossians qualifies the idea that Christians have already been raised with Christ. First, he says that the Colossians have been raised with Christ “through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” In other words, the author’s claim is not that Christians have been raised bodily in the way that Christ was. Rather, they have been raised in some other (spiritual?) sense brought on by their faith in God’s power. Second, when the author again claims that the Colossians have been “raised with Christ” in Col. 3:1, he says shortly thereafter that their lives remain “hidden with Christ in God,” and that this life in Christ will only be revealed in the future, when Christ himself is revealed. Thus, in both verses it seems clear that Paul is talking about a non-bodily resurrection that anticipates the bodily resurrection of the saints but does not constitute it. This is obviously different from the context of 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 6, where Paul is talking about the bodily resurrection of the saints.
Moreover, the argument that Paul did not author Colossians misses the fact that Paul would have had very good reason for shifting his language in Colossians to talk of Christians being “raised with Christ,” despite not using this phrase elsewhere. As noted, the central problem in Colossae seemed to be that the Colossians were thinking of Christ as just another one of the elemental spirits of the world that one had to appease if one was to do well in life. Paul’s burden was to show them that Christ, as God, was supreme over these spirits in authority and power—indeed, that Christ made them. In this context, Paul seems to have used the somewhat uncharacteristic language suggesting that Christians have already “risen with Christ” since he wanted to emphasize that, like Christ and because of Christ, Christians now need not be concerned with the power of the elemental spirits; they have risen above them, and thus should put their minds on things above.
This context is very different from the context of 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 6. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul was contending with a church that doubted resurrection altogether. Thus, his burden there was to emphasize that Christ had, in fact, been raised bodily from the dead, thereby disproving their doubts. In Romans 6 Paul’s burden was to show that Christians have died to sin, and thus his emphasis is on the parallel between Christ’s death and the Christians’ symbolic death to sin in baptism. In neither 1 Cor. 15 nor Rom. 6 does Paul have the same aim as the author in Col. 2. Thus, Paul had reasons to use this new language in Col. 2 that he would not have had in 1 Cor. 15 or Rom. 6. Thus, I see no good reason to doubt that Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians.
Colossians 2:9-12: Lessons
What can we learn from this passage? First, as Christians many of us struggle to view Christ as the one in whom we have come to fullness. The spirits and powers of our age tempt us to seek fullness elsewhere, whether in our work, our family, our romantic life, our friends, drugs and alcohol, money, or power. Indeed, this is just another way of describing idolatry: seeking fullness apart from Christ, the second person of the divine trinity. The trick is to cultivate practices that keep Christ and the fullness he brings ever before us. This is why we study and meditate on scripture, and why we pray, fast, and worship together: that we may know in the deepest parts of ourselves that Christ is our sufficiency, no matter what the cultural idols around us might say. These spiritual disciplines help us to live—both inwardly and outwardly—the truth of the fullness to which Christ has brought us.
Second, Paul’s parallel between circumcision and baptism, here, is one doctrinal source of the practice of infant baptism. Circumcision was (and continues to be) a Jewish practice performed on babies. On the eighth day of life, male babies are circumcised in a public ceremony known as a “bris” or “brit milah”. This act of circumcision is a kind of welcoming of the baby into Abraham’s covenant and the Jewish religious community. But, if Paul is drawing a parallel between circumcision and baptism, why not think baptism, too, should be practiced on infants born to Christian parents as a way of welcoming them to the Christian religious community? This, at least, is part of the rationale of those Christian denominations that practice infant baptism. Such a practice does not, of course, do away with the idea that each person must eventually have a personal faith in Christ. In communities that practice infant baptism, the practice of confirmation typically plays this role. There are, of course, arguments that may be put in favor of “believer’s baptism,” the practice of baptizing only after someone has come to a conscious faith of their own. Nevertheless, those advocating such a believer’s baptism often dismiss infant baptism as having no scriptural grounding when, in fact, that is false, as Colossians 2:11-12 suggests.
A third lesson derives from Paul’s claim that the Colossians have, in a sense, been liberated from the spiritual powers and authorities. Although this is true—given what Christ has done and their participation in that act through faith—there is also a sense in which it is not true. Indeed, there would have been no need for Paul’s letter instructing the Colossians to avoid entanglement with such powers and authorities if, through Christ, they were completely free of them. Thus, Paul’s claim that the Colossians have been liberated from the powers and authorities is nevertheless a standard toward which the Colossians must strive. They must do their part in making this fact a complete reality. Christ’s work—in death and resurrection—has made this complete liberation possible, and now it is up to the Colossians to live it out, empowered by Christ.
The same holds for us as contemporary followers of Christ. This reality can be quite difficult to navigate. In a sense we are already liberated, but in another we are not yet liberated. This struggle is a large part of the Christian life. Sometimes we are captive to the idols of this age, and other times we walk free of them. Christ’s promise to us is that we will walk with ever greater freedom from them as we follow and obey him, and that one day we will be completely free. Come Lord Jesus; may it be.