Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1) EXHORTATION TO STAND FAST IN THE FAITH, dictated by special anxiety for them and the sister churches, urging them to seek all wisdom in Christ alone, and to keep to the old simplicity of the gospel (Colossians 2:1-7).
(2) WARNING AGAINST SPECULATIVE ERROR, turning them “to philosophy and vain deceit” from Christ.
(a)For in Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead.
(b)In Him they have the true spiritual circumcision of the New Covenant.
(c)From Him, and from Him alone, can they receive justification from sin, and the new life of grace (Colossians 2:8-15).
(3) WARNING AGAINST PRACTICAL SUPERSTITION.
(a)In relation to obsolete Jewish ordinances (Colossians 2:16-17).
(b)In worship of angels, sinning against the sole Headship of Christ (Colossians 2:18-19).
(4) DECLARATION OF THE TRUE CHRISTIAN STATE.
(a)As dead with Christ, and so dead to all the vain and carnal ordinances, which have a show of wisdom but no reality (Colossians 2:20-23).
(b)As risen with Christ, and so bound to seek the things above, and have a life hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-4).]
For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh;(1-7) In these verses St. Paul declares his deep anxiety for the Colossians and Laodiceans and others who had not seen his face, that they might seek, not the false, but the true knowledge, finding “the mystery of God” in Christ alone. The reason of that anxiety is found in the “beguiling and enticing words” of an incipient Gnosticism. But “though absent in the body” he rejoices in the steadfastness of their faith, and only exhorts them to continue in it, deepening and enlarging it, but never changing its essence.
(1) What great conflict.—The word is here repeated from the “striving” of the previous verse, which is, in the original, the cognate verb. It is the same word which is used in Philippians 1:30 (“conflict”), in 1Thessalonians 2:2 (“contention”), in 1Timothy 6:12, 2Timothy 4:7 (“the good fight of faith”). Evidently it describes the intense earnestness of the whole struggle against evil which he was undergoing for them; but perhaps, looking at Colossians 4:12, we may refer it especially to “striving in prayer” for them. It is probably dwelt upon here to show why, although unknown to them personally, he yet writes so urgently to them.
And for them at Laodicea.—Comp. Colossians 4:13, “For you, and for them that are in Laodicea, and for them in Hierapolis.” These three cities lay near together in the valley of Lycus, a tributary of the Mæander; probably they were converted at one time, and are evidently regarded as forming one Christian community, for which Epaphras, the evangelist of Colossæ, felt himself responsible. Colossæ and Laodicea are actually directed to exchange the apostolic Letters sent to them (see Colossians 4:16, and Note there), and to read both alike in the churches. (See Dr. Lightfoot’s admirable description of “The Churches of the Lycus,” prefixed to his commentary on this Epistle.) Of Laodicea, the greatest and richest of the three cities, we have no further notice in Scripture, except that stern apocalyptic letter (Revelation 3:14-22), which has made its name proverbial for spiritual luke-warmness and presumptuous self-reliance. It has been noticed that in this Letter our Lord is called “the beginning of the creation of God.” (See Colossians 1:15-18 of this Epistle.) Of Colossæ and Hierapolis we read only in this Epistle. It is notable (see Dr. Lightfoot’s Essay) that while Hierapolis and Laodicea play a prominent part in the subsequent history of Christianity in Asia Minor, Colossæ never attains importance, and has left but “few and meagre” remains, compared with the magnificent ruins of the other cities.
As many as have not seen my face.—This description doubtless indicates Hierapolis; but the whole context shows that it also includes Colossæ. If the reading taken in Colossians 1:7 is correct, Epaphras had been commissioned by St. Paul, and thus, indirectly, the Apostle might be held to be the founder of Colossæ. Accordingly this Letter stands, so to speak, midway between the unreserved familiarity of the Epistles to Corinth or Philippi, and the more formal reserve of the Epistle to the Romans.
That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ;(2) Comforted—i.e., encouraged, or strengthened, both to stand fast and to advance in the faith.
Knit together.—The word here used has two senses; first, “to bring, or knit, together” (as in Colossians 2:19, and Ephesians 4:16); next,” to carry with us” in argument—i.e., to “instruct,” or “convince” (as in Acts 9:22; Acts 16:10; 1Corinthians 2:16). Either would give good sense here; but the usage in this and the Ephesian Epistle, and the addition of the words “in love,” are decisive for the former sense.
And unto . . . the full assurance of understanding (or, rather, intelligence, as in Colossians 1:9).—The idea of the passage is precisely that of Philippians 1:9, “I pray that your love may abound (or, overflow) more and more in knowledge, and in all judgment (or, perception).” St. Paul bids them seek the fulness of intelligence which they were taught to crave for, not through the rashness of speculation, but through the insight of love. So in Ephesians 3:17-19 he prays that “being rooted and grounded in love, they may know . . . that which passeth knowledge;” for Christian knowledge is the knowledge of a personal Saviour, and in all personal knowledge he knows best who loves best.
The acknowledgement . . .—This clause—which explains what the “fulness of intelligence” is—is altogether obscured in our version. It should be rendered, to the full knowledge of the mystery of God, which is Christ. Above we read (Colossians 1:27), “this mystery, which is Christ in you.” There Christ, as indwelling in man, is the mystery which alone solves the problem of humanity—what it is, and whither it tends. Here Christ is the “mystery of God”—i.e. (according to the Scriptural meaning of the word “mystery”), He in whom the inscrutable nature of God, rich in the “hidden treasure of wisdom and knowledge,” is revealed to us. The name again leads up to the doctrine of “the Word of God.”
In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.(3) In whom are hid all the treasures.—The order of the original is curious: “in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, as hidden treasures.” The word “hidden” (apocryphi) is an almost technical word for secret teaching given only to the initiated; used originally as a term of honour (as the participle of the kindred verb is used in 1Corinthians 2:7-8, “the wisdom of God in mystery, even the hidden wisdom . . . which none of the princes of this world knew”), afterwards, from the character of these “apocryphal” books, coming to signify spurious and heretical. St. Paul evidently takes up here a word, used by the pretenders to a special and abstruse knowledge, and applies it to the “heavenly things” which He alone knows “who is in heaven” (John 3:12-13). From our full comprehension they are hidden; if ever we know them, it will not be till “we know even as we are known.” But the previous words show that we can have full practical apprehension of them by our knowledge of Christ, who knows them—a knowledge begun in faith, and perfected chiefly in love.
Wisdom and knowledge.—Comp. Romans 11:33 and 1Corinthians 12:8 (“the word of wisdom” . . . “the word of knowledge”). On the true sense of “wisdom” and its relation to other less perfect gifts, as “prudence,” “intelligence,” “knowledge,” see Note on Ephesians 1:8. “Knowledge” is clearly the development of wisdom in spiritual perception, as “intelligence” in testing and harmonising such perception, and “prudence” in making them, so tested, the guide of life. The word “knowledge” (gnosis) was the word which, certainly afterwards, probably even then, was the watchword of “Gnosticism”—the unbridled and fantastic spirit of metaphysical and religious speculation then beginning to infest all Christian thought. It can hardly be accidental that St. Paul here, as elsewhere, subordinates it to the higher gift of wisdom.
And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words.(4) Beguile you.—“To beguile” here is to reason into error; and “enticing words” are words of persuasion rather than of reason or revelation. Both words are used by St. Paul only in this passage. It would be difficult to describe more accurately the marvellous fabrics of Gnostic speculation, each step claiming to be based on some fancied probability or metaphysical propriety, but the whole as artificial as the cycles and epicycles of the old Ptolemaic astronomy. We know these in all the elaborate monstrosity of full growth; St. Paul doubtless saw them as yet only in embryo.
For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ.(5) Absent in the flesh.—Comp. 1Corinthians 5:3, “I as absent in body and present in spirit.”
Your order, and the stedfastness.—The word “order” is used in 1Corinthians 14:40; the word “stedfastness,” or solidity, is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, though the verb from which it is derived is found in Acts 3:7; Acts 3:16; Acts 16:5, and the original adjective, from which the verb is derived, in 1Peter 5:9, “stedfast in the faith.” From the days of the ancient Greek interpreters downwards, it has been noted that both words have military associations—the one being used for discipline generally, and the other for the firm compact solidity of the phalanx; and (as in Ephesians 6:11-17) that the use of them may have been suggested by St. Paul’s captivity under military guard. If both words be referred to their “faith,” the Apostle obviously characterises it as having right “order” (or, harmony) in its various parts, and a strong “solidity” against all trials.
As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:(6) As ye have therefore received.—Comp. the more emphatic language of Colossians 1:5-7; Colossians 1:23. As in the case of the Corinthians and Galatians (2Corinthians 11:4 and Galatians 1:6), he entreats them not to be turned aside to “another Jesus,” or “another gospel, which is not another.”
Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.(7) Rooted and built up in him.—There is a significant change of tense in the original, having been rooted—i.e. (as in Ephesians 3:17), “rooted and grounded” in Him once for all, and being built up continually on that Foundation. (Comp. 1Corinthians 3:9-15.) St. Paul bids them seek not only the first basis of their faith, but their continual growth, in Christ alone, by continual “strengthening in the faith” which rests in Him. We may remember that in the Gnostic teaching faith was held good for the beginner or the common herd, “knowledge” was the bright particular jewel of those who went on to perfection.
Abounding (or, overflowing) therein with thanksgiving.—The metaphor is changed. The cup of faith, filled to the full, runs over in that thanksgiving which is the expression both of faith and love.
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.(8-15) The general exhortation of the previous verses is now emphasised by a solemn warning against deadly speculative error. Now, (1) the character of that error in itself is described with apparently intentional vagueness, as “a philosophy of vain deceit,” “after tradition of men,” after “the rudiments of this world.” Even its Judaic origin, which is made clear below (Colossians 2:16-17), is here only hinted at in the significant allusion to Circumcision, and perhaps in the phrase “the rudiments of the world,” which is also used of the Judaism of Galatia (Galatians 4:3; Galatians 4:9). (2) What is brought out vividly and emphatically is the truth which it contradicts or obscures. First, the full indwelling Godhead of Christ and His headship over all created being; and next, as derived from this, our own “spiritual circumcision in Him, i.e., the true “death unto sin and new life unto righteousness” in Him who is the One Atonement for all sin, and the One Conqueror of all the powers of evil. On the relation of the Epistle to Gnosticism see Excursus A.
(8) Spoil you.—Properly, lead you away as a spoil, triumph over you as a captive, and make you a slave. Comp. St. Paul’s language as to the older Judaism at Corinth (2Corinthians 11:20), “Ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.”
Philosophy and vain deceit—i.e. (like “the knowledge falsely so called” of 1Timothy 6:20), a philosophy which is inseparably connected with vain deceit. The warning implied here seems to be two-fold:—(1) First, against considering Christianity primarily as a “philosophy,” i.e., a search for and knowledge of speculative truth, even the highest. That it involves philosophy is obvious, for it claims to solve for us the great problem of Being, in Nature, in Man, and in God. St. Paul, while he depreciates the wisdom of this world, dwells emphatically on the gospel as the “wisdom of God.” (See especially 1Corinthians 2:6-16.) In this Epistle in particular he speaks of “wisdom” again and again (Colossians 1:9; Colossians 1:28; Colossians 2:3; Colossians 3:16; Colossians 4:6) as one great characteristic of Christian life. Nor is it less clear (as the ancient Greek commentators here earnestly remind us) that Christianity finds a place and a blessing for all true philosophy of men, and makes it, as St. Paul made it at Athens, an introduction to the higher wisdom. But Christianity is not a philosophy, but a life—not a knowledge of abstract principles, but a personal knowledge of faith and love of God in Christ. (2) Next, against accepting in philosophy the “vain deceit” of mere speculation and imagination instead of the modest, laborious investigation of facts. This is the “knowledge falsely so called”; of this it may be said (as in 1Corinthians 8:1) that it “puffs up,” and does not “build up.” In ancient and modern times it has always confused brilliant theory with solid discovery, delighting especially to dissolve the great facts of the gospel into abstractions, which may float in its cloudland of imagination.
After the tradition of men.—This is the keynote of our Lord’s condemnation of the old Pharisaic exclusiveness and formalism (Matthew 15:2-3; Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:8-9); it is equally the condemnation of the later Jewish, or half-Jewish, mysticism which St. Paul attacks here. It is hardly necessary to remark that the Apostle often claims reverence for “traditions” (1Corinthians 11:2; 2Thessalonians 2:15; 2Thessalonians 3:6; see also 1Corinthians 15:3; 2Peter 2:21), but they are traditions having their starting point in direct revelation of God (Galatians 1:12), and, moreover, traditions freely given to all, as being His. The “traditions of men” here condemned had their origin in human speculation, and were secretly transmitted to the initiated only.
The rudiments of the world.—See Galatians 4:2, and Note there. This marks the chief point of contact with the earlier Judaism, in the stress still laid, perhaps with less consistency, on matters of ritual, law, ascetic observance, and the like. These are “of the world,” i.e., belonging to the visible sphere; and they are “rudiments,” fit only for the elementary education of those who are as children, and intended simply as preparation for a higher teaching.
For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.(9) In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.—Here almost every word is emphatic. First, “All the fulness of the Godhead”—not a mere emanation from the Supreme Being. Next, “dwells” and remains for ever—not descending on Him for a time and leaving Him again. Lastly, “bodily,” i.e., as incarnate in His humanity. The whole is an extension and enforcement of Colossians 1:19, “God was pleased that in Him all the fulness should dwell.” The horror of all that was material, as having in it the seed of evil, induced denial either of the reality of our Lord’s body, or of its inseparable connection with the Godhead in Him. Hence the emphasis here; as also we find (somewhat later) in St. John, “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14); “The spirit which confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh . . . is the spirit of antichrist” (1John 4:3).
On the meaning of “fullness” (plerorna), see Colossians 1:10; Ephesians 1:3; Ephesians 3:19; Ephesians 4:13. Here it is only necessary to add, that, as in the later Gnosticism, so probably in its earlier forms, the word was used for the infinite nature of the Supreme Deity, out of which all the emanations (afterwards called Æons) received in various degrees of imperfection, according to their capacity. Probably for that reason St. Paul uses it so emphatically here. In the same spirit, St. John declares (John 1:16), “Out of His (Christ’s) fulness have all we received.” It is not finite, but infinitely perfect; hence we all can draw from it, yet leave it unimpaired.
And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:(10) Ye are complete.—Literally, ye have been filled up in His fulness, as in John 1:16. So St. Paul had prayed for the Ephesians that they might be “filled with (or rather, up to) all the fulness of God,” and “grow into the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 3:19; Ephesians 4:13). To partake of the divine plerorna is not the special privilege of the initiated; it belongs to all who are united to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Principality and power.—See Colossians 1:16. His headship over all angelic natures is dwelt upon (as in Hebrews 1:1-14) with obvious reference to the worshipping of angels. They are our fellowservants under the same Head. (See Revelation 22:8-9.)
In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:(11) The circumcision made without hands.—This abrupt introduction of the idea of circumcision would be difficult to understand, were it not for the knowledge of the enforcement of Jewish observance so strangely mixed with this “philosophy” at Colossæ. (Comp. Ephesians 2:11, “Ye who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision in the flesh made with hands.”) The phrase “made without hands” is so constantly used of heavenly realities (as in Mark 14:58; 2Corinthians 5:1; Hebrews 9:11; Hebrews 9:24), as opposed to earthly symbols, that it comes to have the positive sense of “spiritual.” It is defined below as “the circumcision of Christ”—that which Christ has given us in Himself—in contradistinction to the old circumcision which is now “nothing.” (On the treatment of this subject in the Epistles of this period, comp. with this passage Ephesians 2:11-12; Philippians 3:2-3, and see Notes there.)
In putting off the body . . .—The words “of the sins” are not found in the best MSS. They are, no doubt, an explanatory gloss to soften the harshness of the phrase “the body of the flesh.” (1) What “the body of the flesh” is we see clearly by Colossians 3:9, “having put off the old man.” It is, like the “body of sin” (in Romans 6:6) and the “body of death” (in Romans 7:24), the body so far as it is, in the bad sense of the word “flesh,” fleshly. The body itself is not “put off:” for it is not evil; it is a part of the true man, and becomes the temple of God. It is only so far as in it the flesh rebels against the spirit, and the “old man is gradually corrupted by the lusts of deceit” (Ephesians 4:22), that it is to be “put off.” (2) But why the “body of the flesh,” and not the “flesh” simply? The answer is, no doubt, that which Chrysostom here gives, that the bodily circumcision was but of one member, in mere symbolism of one form of purity; the spiritual circumcision is the putting away of the whole of the power of the flesh, and that, too, not in symbol, but in reality.
Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.(12) Buried with him in baptism . . .—It is very interesting to compare this passage with Romans 6:4, “Therefore we are buried with Him in baptism unto death, that like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” In the former clause both are identical. In the latter clause this Epistle is stronger. What in the earlier Epistle is the “likeness of His Resurrection” is here the participation of it, “Ye are risen with Him.” Similarly, instead of the simple allusion to “Christ’s being raised from the dead,” we have here “through faith in the operation of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Here, as in the more detailed passage of the Ephesian Epistle (Colossians 1:19-23; Colossians 2:5-7), the “operation,” the energy of “the mighty power of God,” is conceived as actually working both in the Head and in the Body, so that wo through it partake of the resurrection, the ascension, and the glorified majesty of Christ. The comparison shows an instructive development in this Epistle of the consequences of the unity with Christ.
This passage is also notable for the obvious contrast of baptism, as a spiritual reality, with circumcision as a symbolic form. Each is the entrance into a covenant with God; but the one into a covenant of “the letter,” and the other into a covenant of “the spirit.” (See the contrast between the covenants drawn out in 2Corinthians 3:6-18; Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:28.) In the earlier Epistles circumcision is contrasted with spiritual regeneration (Galatians 6:15), as shown by various signs, such as “faith working by love” (Romans 4:9-12; Galatians 5:6), or “keeping the commandments of God” (1Corinthians 7:19). Here this contrast is still as strong as ever; but baptism being (as always) looked upon as the means of such spiritual regeneration, is brought out emphatically as “the circumcision of the Spirit.” As baptised into Christ, “we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit” (Philippians 3:3).
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;(13) And you . . .—Here, exactly as in Ephesians 2:1-18, there is a remarkable intermixture of the word “we” and the word “you,” the former conveying the universal statement of the gospel message of mercy, the other applying it emphatically to the Gentiles, as Gentiles. The two passages should be read side by side. There is, as always, strong similarity, yet complete independence. Through the passage of the Ephesian Epistle there runs a two-fold idea, the reconcilement of Jew and Gentile to God, and the union of both in one Catholic Church. In this Epistle it is only on the reconcilement to God in Christ that stress is laid. Even the detailed expressions of the two passages illustrate each other at once by likeness and by variety.
Dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh.—See Ephesians 2:1, “You who were dead in trespasses and sins . . . who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision in the flesh.” Here the “deadness” is spoken of, as coming both from the actual power of “sins” (transgressions), and from the alienation from God marked by uncircumcision. In the other passage the uncircumcision is looked upon only as a name of reproach.
Hath he quickened.—It is difficult to determine what is the subject in this sentence. According to all analogy it should be “God,” yet in the latter clauses (as in Colossians 2:14-15) it must surely be “Christ.” Now, when we turn to the fuller parallel passage, we see an overt change of subject. It is said (Ephesians 2:5), “God quickened us together with Christ”; “God in Christ forgave us” (Ephesians 4:32); but “Christ abolished the Law,” “reconciled us to God on the cross.” This suggests a similar change of subject here also, which must be at the words “and took it away,” or (for the tense here is changed) “and He (Christ) hath taken it away.” This, speaking grammatically, introduces an anomaly; but such anomalies are not uncommon in St. Paul, especially in passages of high spiritual teaching.
Having forgiven you . . .—There is no corresponding clause in the parallel passage; but in a different context (corresponding to Colossians 3:13 of this Epistle) we read, “forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;(14) Blotting out the handwriting—i.e., cancelling the bond which stood against us in its ordinances. The “handwriting” is the bond, exacting payment or penalty in default. (Comp. Philemon 1:19, “I Paul have written it with mine own hand; I will repay it.”) What this bond is we see by Ephesians 2:15, which speaks of “the law of commandments in ordinances,” there called “the enmity slain by the cross.” On the meaning of “ordinances” see Note on that passage. The metaphor, however, here is different, and especially notable as the first anticipation of those many metaphors of later theology, from Tertullian downwards, in which the idea of a debt to God, paid for us by the blood of Christ, as “a satisfaction,” is brought out. The Law is a bond, “Do this and thou shalt live.” “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” On failure to do our part it “stands against us.” But God for Christ’s sake forgives our transgressions and cancels the bond. It is a striking metaphor, full of graphic expressiveness; it is misleading only when (as in some later theologies) we hold it to be not only the truth, but the whole truth, forgetting that legal and forensic metaphors can but imperfectly represent inner spiritual realities.
And took it.—Properly, and He (Christ) hath taken it away. The change of tense is significant. The act of atonement is over; its effect remains.
Nailing it to his cross.—At this point the idea of atonement comes in. Hitherto we have heard simply of free forgiveness and love of God. Now the bond is viewed, not as cancelled by a simple act of divine mercy, but as absolutely destroyed by Christ, by “nailing it to His cross.” It has been supposed (as by Bishop Pearson) that there is allusion to some custom of cancelling documents by the striking of a nail through them. But the custom is doubtful, and the supposition unnecessary. Our Lord “redeemed us from the curse of the Law,” by His death, “being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). St. Paul boldly speaks of that curse as a penalty standing against us, and as nailed to the cross with Himself, so to be for ever cancelled in the great declaration, “It is finished.” If any more definite allusion is to be sought for, we might be inclined to refer to the “title” on the cross, probably nailed to it. Such title declared the explanation of the sufferer’s death. The cancelled curse of the Law was just such an explanation of the great atoning death, and the title, declaring His mediatorial kingdom, showed the curse cancelled thereby.
And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.(15) Having spoiled principalities and powers . . .—This verse is one of great difficulty. Not, indeed, in the main idea. The cross, as usual, is identified with the triumph over the powers of evil which it won. The very phrase “made a show,” is cognate to the words “put Him to open shame” applied to the Crucifixion (Hebrews 6:6). The apparent triumph of the “power of darkness” over Him was His real and glorious triumph over them. The general idea is familiar to us, telling, as in the noble old hymn Vexilla Regis—
“How of the Cross He made a throne
On which He reigns, a glorious king.”
His forgiveness of the penitent thief was the first act of His all-saving royalty. Accordingly, taking (as in 2Corinthians 2:14-16) his metaphor from a Roman triumph, St. Paul represents Him as passing in triumphal majesty up the sacred way to the eternal gates, with all the powers of evil bound as captives behind His chariot before the eyes of men and angels. It is to be noted that to this clause, so characteristic of the constant dwelling on the sole glory of Christ in this Epistle, there is nothing to correspond in the parallel passage of the Epistle to the Ephesians, which dwells simply on Christ as “our peace,” and as the head of the Church.
The difficulty lies in the word here translated “having spoiled.” Now this translation (as old as St. Jerome’s Vulgate), makes all simple and easy; but the original word certainly means “having stripped Himself”—as in Colossians 3:9, “having put off (stripped off from ourselves) the old man.” It is a word used by St. Paul alone in the New Testament, and by him only in these two passages, the latter of which makes the sense perfectly clear. Being forced, then, to adopt this translation, we see that the words admit of two renderings. (1) First, “having stripped from Himself the principalities and powers,” that is, having stripped off that condition of the earthly life which gave them a grasp or occasion against Him. But this, though adopted by many old Greek commentators (Chrysostom among the rest), seems singularly harsh in expression and far-fetched in idea, needing too much explanation to make it in any sense clear. (2) Next, “having unclothed Himself, He made a show of principalities and powers.” On the whole this rendering, although not free from difficulty, on account of the apparent want of connection of the phrase “having stripped Himself” with the context, seems the easiest. For we note that a cognate word, strictly analogous, is used thus (without an object following) in 2Corinthians 5:4, “Not that we desire to unclothe ourselves, but to clothe ourselves over our earthly vesture.” The context shows that the meaning there is “to put off the flesh.” This is suggested still more naturally in the passage before us by the preceding phrase, “in the putting off of the body of the flesh”—a phrase there used of the flesh as evil, but found in Colossians 1:22 of the natural body of Christ. Accordingly many Latin fathers (among others Augustine) rendered “stripping Himself of the flesh,” and there is some trace of this as a reading or a gloss in the Greek of this passage. Perhaps, however, St. Paul purposely omitted the object after the verb, in order to show that it was by “stripping Himself of all” that He conquered by becoming a show in absolute humiliation, He made the powers of evil a show in His triumph.
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:(16-19) To the warning against speculative error succeeds a warning against two practical superstitions. The first is simply the trust in obsolete Jewish ordinances (the mere shadow of Christ) with which we are familiar in the earlier forms of Judaism. But the second presents much strangeness and novelty. It is the “worship of angels” in a “voluntary humility,” inconsistent with the belief in an intimate and direct union with Christ our Head.
In meat, or in drink.—Or rather, in eating and drinking. We see by the context that the immediate reference is to the distinctions of meats under the Jewish law, now done away, because the distinction of those within and without the covenant was also done away (Acts 10:11). (Comp. on this subject the half-ironical description of Hebrews 9:10.) But a study of Romans 14:2; Romans 14:20-21, written before this Epistle, and 1Timothy 4:3, written after it—to say nothing of the tone of this passage itself, or of the known characteristics of the later Gnosticism of the ascetic type—show that these laws about eating and drinking were not mere matters of law, but formed significant parts of a rigid mystic asceticism. Of such, St. Paul declares indignantly (Romans 14:17), “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
An holyday (feast), or of the new moon, or of the sabbath.—Comp. Isaiah 1:13-14, “the new moons and sabbaths . . . the new moons and the appointed feasts My soul hateth;” also Ezekiel 45:17; Hosea 2:13. The “feast” would seem to be one of the great festivals; the “new moon” the monthly, and the sabbath the weekly solemnity. With this passage it is natural to compare the similar passage in Galatians 4:10, “Ye observe days and months and times (special seasons) and years.” But there the specially Judaic character is not so expressly marked; and, in fact, the passage has a wider meaning (like Rom. 14:56), showing the different position which even Christian festivals held in Apostolic days. Here it is the Jewish festivals, and they alone, which are noted. It is obvious that St. Paul gives no hint of any succession of the Lord’s Day to be, in any strict sense, a “Christian Sabbath.” We know, indeed, that the Jewish Sabbath itself lingered in the Church, as having a kind of sacredness, kept sometimes as a fast, sometimes as a festival. But its observance was not of obligation. No man was to “judge” others in respect of it.
Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.(17) Which are a shadow . . . but the body (the substance) is of Christ.—The spirit of the passage is precisely that of the argument which runs through the Epistle to the Hebrews. “The Law had a shadow of good things to come, not the very image (or, substance) of the things” (Hebrews 10:1). When St. Paul deals with the legal and coercive aspect of the Law, he calls it “the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” (See Galatians 3:24, and Note there.) When he turns to its ritual aspect, he describes it as simply foreshadowing or typifying the substance; and therefore useful before the revelation of the substance, useless or (if trusted in) worse than useless, after it. In every way “Christ is the end of the Law” (Romans 10:4).
Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,(18) Beguile you of your reward.—The original is a word used, almost technically, for an unfair judgment in the stadium, robbing the victor of his prize. The prize here (as in 1Corinthians 9:24; Philippians 3:14) is the heavenly reward of the Christian course. In St. Paul’s exhortation there seems to be a reference back to Colossians 2:16. There he says, “Let no man arrogate judgment over you;” here, “Let no man use that arrogated judgment so as to cheat you of your prize. There is one Judge, who has right and who is righteous; look to Him alone.”
In a voluntary humility and worship.—This rendering seems virtually correct, though other renderings are proposed. The original is, willing in humility and worship, and the phrase “willing in” is often used in the LXX. for “delighting in.” Other translations are here possible, though not without some harshness. But the true sense is shown beyond all doubt to be that given in our version, by the words used below to describe the same process, “will-worship and humility.”
In this passage alone in the New Testament “humility “is spoken of with something of the condemnation accorded to it in heathen morality. The reason of this is obvious and instructive. Humility is a grace, of which the very essence is unconsciousness, and which, being itself negative, cannot live, except by resting on some more positive quality, such as faith or love. Whenever it is consciously cultivated and “delighted in, ”it loses all its grace; it becomes either unreal, “the pride that apes humility,” or it turns to abject slavishness and meanness. Of such depravations Church history is unhappily full.
Worshipping of angels.—This is closely connected with the “voluntary humility” above. The link of connection is supplied by the notice in the ancient interpreters, of the early growth of that unhappy idea, which has always lain at the root of saint-worship and angel-worship in the Church—“that we must be brought near by angels and not by Christ, for that were too high a thing for us” (Chrysostom). With this passage it is obvious to connect the emphasis laid (in Hebrews 1, 2) on the absolute superiority of our Lord to all angels, who are but “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister to them who are heirs of salvation;” and the prohibition of angel-worship in Revelation 22:9, “See thou do it not; for I am thy fellow-servant . . . worship God.”
It might seem strange that on the rigid monotheism of Judaism this incongruous creature-worship should have been engrafted. But here also the link is easily supplied. The worship of the angels of which the Essenic system bore traces, was excused on the ground that the Law had been given through the “ministration of angels” (see Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19), and that the tutelary guardianship of angels had been revealed in the later prophecy. (See Daniel 10:10-21.) For this reason it was held that angels might be worshipped, probably with the same subtle distinctions between this and that kind of worship with which we are familiar in the ordinary pleas for the veneration of saints. It has been noticed that in the Council of Laodicea, held in the fourth century, several canons were passed against Judaising, and that in close connection with these it was forbidden “to leave the Church of God and go away to invoke angels”; and we are told by Theodoret (in the next century) that “oratories to St. Michael (the ‘prince’ of the Jewish people) were still to be seen.” The “angels” in this half-Jewish system held the same intermediate position between the Divine and the human which in the ordinary Gnostic theories was held by the less personal Æons, or supposed emanations from the Godhead.
Intruding into those things which he hath not seen.—(1) There is a remarkable division here, both of MSS. and ancient versions and commentators, as to the insertion or omission of the negative. But the balance of MS. authority is against the negative, and certainly it is easier to suppose it to have been inserted with a view to make an easier sense, than to have been omitted if it had been originally there. (2) The general meaning, however, of the passage is tolerably clear, and, curiously enough, little affected by either alternative. It certainly refers to pretensions to supernatural knowledge by which (just as in 1Corinthians 8:1) the mind is said to be “puffed up.” We note that, even in true visions of heavenly things, there was danger lest the mind “should be exalted above measure” (2Corinthians 12:7). Now the knowledge here pretended to is that favourite knowledge, claimed by Jewish and Christian mystics, of the secrets of the heavenly places and especially of the grades and functions of the hierarchy of heaven. St. Paul brands it as belonging to the mind, not of the spirit, but “of the flesh;” for indeed it was really superstitions, resting not on faith, but on supposed visions and supernatural manifestations. It “intruded” (or, according to another rendering, it “took its stand”) upon the secrets of a region which it said that it “had seen,” but which, in truth, it “had not seen.” If we omit the negative, the Apostle is quoting its claims; if we insert it, he is denying their justice.
And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.(19) Not holding the Head.—In this lay the fatal error. All these speculations and superstitions interfered with the direct hold of the soul on the mediation of Christ, as the Head, from whom alone, as being “the image of the invisible God,” come all spiritual life and growth. Therefore they had a practical and spiritual importance.
From which all the body . . .—Comp Ephesians 4:15-16, and see Note there. The agreement is nearly verbal, but the characteristic difference of idea, so often noted, is still traceable. There the body “maketh increase unto the building up of itself in love;” here the increase is simply “the increase of God”—the increase which God gives, and which grows into His likeness. In this passage there is also a greater scientific exactness: the “joints and bands” are the “articulations and ligaments;” the two functions thereof are the diffusion of nourishment and the knitting together of organic unity.
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,(20-23) In this and the succeeding section, St. Paul, starting from the idea of union with the Head, draws out the practical consequences of partaking of the death of Christ and the resurrection of Christ. In virtue of the former participation, he exhorts them to be dead to the law of outward ordinances; in virtue of the latter, to have a life hid with Christ in God.
(20) If ye be dead with Christ.—The whole idea of the death with Christ and resurrection with Him is summed up by St. Paul in Romans 6:3-9, in direct connection (as also here, see Colossians 2:12) with the entrance upon Christian life in baptism, “We are buried with Him by baptism unto death . . . we are dead with Christ . . . we are planted together in the likeness of His death . . . that like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we also should walk in newness of life . . . planted together in the likeness of His resurrection . . . alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The death with Christ is a death unto “the life of the flesh.” But this may be (as in Romans 6:1-2; Romans 6:6-7; Romans 6:11) “the life of sin”; or it may be the outward and visible life “of the world.” The latter is the sense to be taken here. This outward life is under “ordinances” (see Colossians 2:1), under the “rudiments of the world” (see Colossians 2:8), or, generally, “under law.” Of such a life St. Paul says (in Galatians 2:19), “I through the Law died to the Law, that I might live unto God.” There (Galatians 4:9), as here, he brands as unspiritual the subjection to the “weak and beggarly elements” of mere ordinances. Of course it is clear that in their place such ordinances have their value, both as means to an end, and as symbols of an inner reality of self-devotion. The true teaching as to these is found in our Lord’s declaration to the Pharisees as to spiritual things and outward ordinances, “These things (the spiritual things) ought ye to have done, and not to leave the others (the outward observances) undone” (Matthew 23:23). In later times St. Paul declared with Judicial calmness, “The Law is good if a man use it lawfully” (1Timothy 1:8). But to exalt these things to the first place was a fatal superstition, which, both in its earlier and later phases, he denounces unsparingly.
(Touch not; taste not; handle not;(21) Touch not; taste not; handle not.—The first and last of these renderings should be inverted. There is in the commands a climax of strictness. “Handle not” (the unclean thing), “taste it not,” “touch it not” with one of your fingers. It will be noted that all these commands are negative, not positive. They are marked by the ordinary ascetic preference of spiritual restraint to spiritual energy.
Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?(22) Which all are to perish with the using.—It has been doubted whether these words (which are literally, all which things go to corruption, or destruction, in the using) are the continuation of the ascetic ordinance, or the comment of the Apostle. But the last word—which signifies, not only “using,” but “using up”—seems to decide for the latter alternative. The things are things which go to destruction and are used up. What permanent effect can they leave behind? See 1Corinthians 8:8 (whether the words of St. Paul, or the words of the Corinthians, accepted as true by him), “Meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.” It is but an echo of our Lord’s own teaching as to that which goeth into the mouth (Matthew 15:16-17; Mark 13:18-19).
After the commandments . . .—See Colossians 2:8, and Note there. There seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 29:13, quoted by our Lord (Matthew 15:7-8; Mark 7:6-7) in relation to these ceremonial observances.
Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.(23) Will worship, and humility . . .—It seems difficult to connect these words with the merely ceremonial observances immediately above; and, in fact, they are almost an exact repetition of the description of the superstitious worship of the angels given in Colossians 2:18. “Will worship” is, indeed, nearly what we call superstition—the constant craving for objects to which we may find some excuse for paying reverence. The prefix applies in sense, though not in grammatical form, to the “humility” also; a studied humility being either a pretence or a self-degradation. But in the words “neglecting of the body” (properly, being unsparing of it in hardship, and generally careless of it) we pass to the ceremonial ordinances. It is more than likely that the superstition and false asceticism were connected together—the latter being the condition of the supposed spiritual insight of the former.
Which things . . . flesh.—This passage is difficult. (1) Our version translates literally, and would seem to regard the last words as simply an explanation, from the point of view of the false teachers, of “neglecting of the body,” as “not honouring it for the satisfaction, or surfeiting of the flesh;” and we certainly find that the Jewish ascetics did brand the most necessary satisfaction of appetite as a “surfeiting of the flesh.” But there is a fatal objection to this interpretation—that, in that case, St. Paul would leave the false pretension without a word of contradiction, which is almost incredible. Hence (2) we must regard the “not in any honour” as antithetical to “the show of wisdom.” The ordinances, says St. Paul, have “a show of wisdom,” but “are in no honour,” i.e., are “of no value.” The common use of the word rendered “honour,” for “price,” or “pay” (see Matthew 27:6; Acts 7:16; Acts 19:19; 1Corinthians 6:20; 1Corinthians 7:23; 1Timothy 5:17), would readily lend itself to this sense. The only doubtful point (3) is the interpretation of the last words, “for the satisfying of the flesh.” There seems little doubt that the phrase is used in a bad sense. Hence we must dismiss all reference to a right honouring of the body by innocent satisfaction of its needs. We have therefore to choose between two interpretations. Some interpret “of no value against the satisfaction of the flesh.” But, though the Greek will bear this sense, it is certainly not the common sense of the preposition used; and its adoption would expose the whole phrase to the charge of ambiguity and obscurity. The other interpretation is “of no real value” (tending) “to the satisfaction of the flesh.” This is abrupt, but suits well the indignant and abrupt terseness of the passage. It gives (quite after St. Paul’s manner) not only a denial of the “neglecting of the body,” but a retort on the false teachers of the very charge they made against their opponents. (Comp. the use of the word “dogs,” in Philippians 3:2.) It conveys a most important truth. That “extremes meet” we know well; and that there is a satisfaction of the fleshly temper (see above, Colossians 2:18) in the attempt over much to curb the flesh, the whole history of asceticism bears witness. Moreover, this interpretation alone gives a completeness of antithesis. To “the show of wisdom” it opposes the “no real value;” to the pretended “neglecting of the body” the real” satisfaction of the flesh.”