Commentary on Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]
With Colossians 2:6-7 the letter turns in a new direction. Up to this point, the writer has narrated four intersecting stories: the story of Christ, the story of creation, the story of the Colossian believers, and the story of their imprisoned apostle Paul. It is in the gospel that these four stories converge—the gospel of Christ, proclaimed by Paul, announcing reconciliation to the church and to all creation.
Now in chapter 2 the writer invites the Colossian believers to inhabit their part in this story. They are to live or “walk” (peripateite) in Christ (2:6), which means, in part, rejecting rival narratives that compete for their imaginations (2:8).
This point is expressed vividly in two adjacent metaphors, one botanical and one architectural: believers are to be “rooted in” and “built upon” Christ (2:7). Each metaphor offers a different vision of the texture of faith, which may at times be experienced as a sure and solid foundation, and at others as a rhizomatic network, its strength not in any single footing but in the breadth of its reach.
Free from the rulers and authorities
Colossians 2:8-15 begins and ends with language that recalls a sight all too common in the ancient world—the humiliating march of prisoners captured in battle. In Colossians 2:8, believers are warned not to be “taken captive” by enslaving visions of reality. In Colossians 2:15, these false claims on believers’ loyalty are themselves led in triumph by Christ, stripped of their seeming power.
The phrase “elements (stoicheia) of the universe (kosmos)” in Colossians 2:8 has puzzled many modern readers.1 The term stoicheia referred generally to the basic elements or building blocks from which something was composed: the stoicheia of writing were individual letters; the stoicheia of math, numbers. The stoicheia of the cosmos, then, were the basic elements that constituted reality. These were the “first things” (archai). What is more, as the first-century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria reports, “some people attribute deity to the four elements (archas), earth and water and air and fire” (On the Decalogue 53). The idea, then, was that these basic elements, sometimes personified as gods, governed the very structure of the universe.
With this context in mind, recall the vision of the Christ-shaped cosmos laid out in Colossians 1. It is in Christ, the writer had insisted, that all reality holds together (1:17). Christ is the firstborn of all creation (1:15), the one through whom all things came into being (1:16). Christ is “the beginning” (archē), the first principle of reality (1:18).
So although the elements of the universe may posture as independent powers—as “rulers (archai) and authorities” (2:15)—in fact, Colossians insists these too lie under the authority of Christ.
Perhaps few modern readers find themselves looking at the periodic table and pondering these elements’ mystical power to structure reality. Few now would attribute divinity to natural law or strive to align themselves with its patterns and rhythms (see also 2:16). But there are other “rulers and authorities” that compete for our imaginations, asserting their primacy as the principles on which our world rests.
Our imaginations often fall captive, for example, to the logic of “the economy,” as though the world were governed not by Christ but by the market’s invisible hand. And so we live in servitude, as though our having enough depended not on the abundant generosity of God in creation but rather on our obedient devotion to economic forces, whose logic we must not doubt.
Or we may fall captive to the principles of law and order, convinced that to sustain our wellbeing and security we must be firm in our devotion to a code of laws and punishments. If transgressions were to go unpunished, we worry, what would hold us back from chaos? And so we live in servitude, afraid to violate the logic of retribution, as though the paying of eye for eye were basic to the order of the cosmos.
Indeed, we sometimes read the story of Christ’s cross as though it too were governed by this logic of inexorable punishment. Christ, it is sometimes said, had to die in order to satisfy the legal penalty for human sin—as though God too was subject to this higher law, and the basic structure of the universe would be disrupted if God chose simply to forgive.2
Notice, then, that Colossians 2 says nothing about Christ’s death satisfying the demands of the law. Here God rather overthrows them, expunging our criminal record and nailing it to the cross (2:13-14). It is by overturning the logic of law and punishment, not by following it, that God disarmed the powers that hold us captive (2:15, 20).
And this brings us to a challenging question: In our era of overcrowded prisons, what would it mean for the church to truly embrace Christ’s victory over the enslaving power of the law?
The circumcision of Christ
For those familiar with Paul’s harsh words regarding circumcision in Galatians and Philippians, the positive emphasis on circumcision in Colossians 2:11-13 may come as something of a surprise. Recalling the prophetic vision of a “circumcised heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4), the image of a “spiritual circumcision”—literally, a “circumcision not made by hands”—depicts the “putting off” of the believer’s “fleshly body” in the “circumcision of Christ.” In this context, the circumcision of Christ appears to be equated with baptism, where believers share in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (2:12).
The circumcision of Christ, then, is a shedding of deathly life for resurrection life. As we will see in Colossians 3, despite the contrast established in the passage between “spiritual” and “fleshly,” this does not mean believers somehow abstract themselves from the physical realm or devalue bodily life. They are rather to incarnate anew the image of God (3:10).
- For an accessible summary of the issue, see Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 67–77.
- For a careful critique of “penal substitution” models of the atonement, see Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 166–91.