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Bible Commentaries
Colossians 2

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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The apostle proceeded to exhort his readers to persevere in the truth. He then clarified the true doctrine of Christ and contrasted it with the false doctrines of men. His aim was to establish them in the truth about Christ.

"The believer who masters this chapter is not likely to be led astray by some alluring and enticing ’new-and-improved brand of Christianity.’" [Note: Wiersbe, 2:105.]

Verse 1

Paul used an athletic metaphor to describe his anxieties and deep concerns for his readers and their neighbor Christians. His strivings (Colossians 1:29) included specific struggles and conflicts for them. Laodicea was about 11 miles west of Colosse, also in the Lycus Valley. Another town nearby was Hierapolis. Evidently the false teachers were promoting their views in that entire region. Paul felt concern for all the Christians under this influence including the Colossian and Laodicean believers. He may have meant that he was struggling in prayer for them. [Note: Vaughan, p. 194.]

"The Lycus Valley was not evangelized by Paul himself; it is plain from Colossians 2:1 that he was not personally acquainted with the churches there." [Note: Bruce, 561:8.]

Verses 1-5

1. Paul’s concern 2:1-5

Verses 1-7

A. Exhortations to persevere in the truth 2:1-7

Paul exhorted his readers to continue to believe and practice the truth of God’s revelation. He did this to prevent them from accepting the erroneous instruction of the false teachers who were seeking to turn them away from God’s will.

Verses 2-3

The "heart" includes everything in the inner man including the mind (cf. Proverbs 23:7). The Christian’s wealth is his or her thorough understanding of God’s truth. The essence of God’s revelation is Christ (cf. Colossians 1:27). The better a Christian understands God’s true revelation concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ the better he or she will be able to recognize and refute false doctrine.

"Only a love which penetrates to the heart and wells up from the heart can sustain the sort of unity that Paul sought (see also . . . Colossians 1:4)." [Note: Dunn, p. 130.]

God has revealed in Christ all that a person needs to know to establish a relationship with God. Thinking that the source of true spiritual wisdom is somewhere other than in Christ can produce terrible disorder in the Christian life. "Knowledge" is genuine understanding and "wisdom" genuine truth (cf. Colossians 1:9).

"Knowledge is the apprehension of truth; wisdom is its application to life. Knowledge is prudent judgment and wisdom is prudent action. Both are found in Christ (cf. Romans 11:33; 1 Corinthians 12:8)." [Note: Geisler, p. 676.]

"The word apokruphoi (AV [and NASB], ’hidden’) is emphatic by position, and in the light of this it is just possible that Paul may have in mind something similar to the mystery religions. In them the initiate, after a long period of training and instruction, was allowed to be present at a performance similar to a passion play. By means of the performance the initiate was to have an experience of identification with his god. The instruction given previously enabled the initiate to understand the play. To outsiders the ritual would have been a mystery." [Note: Johnson, 475:236.]

Verses 4-5

Paul’s description of the Colossian church pictures a company of well-disciplined soldiers standing at attention in straight lines. The Greek word stereoma occurs only here in the New Testament and means "stability."

It ". . . points out that feature in the faith of the Colossians which specially commended it to the notice and eulogy of the apostle, to wit, its unyielding nature, or the stiffness of its adherence to its one object-Christ." [Note: Eadie, p. 123.]

So far the believers were holding their position against the false teachers, but Paul feared that this condition might change. He did not want the false teachers to talk them into believing something false by deceptive arguments.

"The implication that Paul can actually see the state of affairs at Colossae (’rejoicing and seeing your good order . . .’) is, of course, intended more as an expression of what he would hope to see were it possible." [Note: Dunn, p. 134.]

"This final recall to faith forms an inclusio with Colossians 1:4 and thus brackets the whole of the intervening thanksgiving and personal statement as an exposition of that faith . . ." [Note: Ibid., p. 135.]

Verse 6

In particular, Paul encouraged his readers to continue following Christ in harmony with the sound teaching that had resulted in their conversion. [Note: See H. Wayne House, "The Christian Life according to Colossians," Bibliotheca Sacra 151:604 (October-December 1994):440-54.] His point was not that as the Colossians had become Christians by faith in Christ they should continue to walk by faith. This is clear from Paul’s word translated "received." It usually refers to the reception of truth through transmission (cf. Colossians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 11:23; 1 Corinthians 15:1; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 1:9; Galatians 1:12). It is also clear from the expression "as you were instructed" (Colossians 2:7) and the context (Colossians 2:4-5; Colossians 2:8).

"Christ Jesus the Lord," a phrase that Paul used nowhere else, counteracts three false conceptions of the Savior. These are His deity ("Christ") that Judaism denied, His humanity ("Jesus") that Docetists denied, and His sovereignty ("Lord") that many varieties of false teaching denied.

". . . Paul here meets the two forms of Gnostic heresy about the Person of Christ (the recognition of the historical Jesus in his actual humanity against the Docetic Gnostics, the identity of the Christ or Messiah with this historical Jesus against the Cerinthian Gnostics, and the acknowledgment of him as Lord)." [Note: A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 4:489.]

"Since the basic sense of kurios ["lord"] is that of superior to inferior (master to slave; king to subject; god to worshiper), with formally acknowledged rights of the former to command or dispose of the latter (see also Colossians 3:22 and Colossians 4:1), all would have recognized that acceptance of Christ Jesus as Lord included within it submission of the believer to this Christ and unconditional readiness to act in obedience to him." [Note: Dunn, p. 140. ]

Advocates of "lordship salvation" get into trouble when they go beyond this statement. Their position is that unless a person consistently obeys-they never specify how consistent one must be-he or she never truly accepted Christ.

Verses 6-7

2. Paul’s exhortation 2:6-7

"Verses 6 and 7 occupy a pivotal position in the letter. They serve as the basis of Paul’s interaction with the Colossian heresy (Colossians 2:8-23) having summarized much of what has already been written in the epistle." [Note: O’Brien, Colossians . . ., p. 108. For further discussion of the Colossian heresy, see Barclay, pp. 115-18.]

Verse 7

Four characteristics describe the healthy Christian in this verse. First, he or she stands firmly rooted as a tree, "born again." Second, he or she is being built up as a building (cf. 1 Peter 2:2). Third, he or she is becoming increasingly stable in the faith. Fourth, he or she demonstrates the fruit of thankfulness constantly. Four participles in the Greek text describe these characteristics. The first is in the perfect tense indicating the initial reception of new life. The last three are in the present tense revealing the ways in which new life should continually express itself.

"The present passage may imply that those who lack a deep sense of thankfulness to God are especially vulnerable to doubt and spiritual delusion." [Note: Vaughan, p. 196.]

"A thankful spirit is a mark of Christian maturity. When a believer is abounding in thanksgiving, he is really making progress!" [Note: Wiersbe, 2:125.]

"As in Romans 1:16-17 and Galatians 1:11-12, these two verses provide a brief summary sentence of the main point to be made in the body of the letter, to serve as a heading to what follows . . ." [Note: Dunn, p. 138.]

Verse 8

"Philosophy"-this is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament-here does not refer to the study of basic questions concerning God, man, and the meaning of life. It refers to the speculations and ideas of false teachers not rooted in divine revelation. These ideas had come down by merely human tradition.

"Much depends on our semantics at this point. If by philosophy we mean the search for clarity and understanding regarding the whole of reality, then the Christian must in a sense philosophize. He must think clearly, and he must strive for a self-consistent view of life. In his quest, however, he must always submit to the guidance, limitation, and criticism of the light of divine revelation. On the other hand, if by philosophy we mean human speculation regarding man’s basic questions without due respect for the revelation of God, then the Christian, no doubt, will accord this philosophy a greatly diminished relevance to his life and calling. . . .

"I seriously question the view that Paul, as Tertullian after him, is to be understood as condemning all study of philosophy [cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-58; Acts 17:22-30]. . . .

"I take the word, then, to be limited by the context; the Colossian philosophy is in mind, as well as any other, of course, which is not in harmony with divine revelation." [Note: Johnson, 476:302-03, 307. See David L. Mosher, "St. Paul and Philosophy," Crux 8:1 (November 1970):3-9.]

"Empty deception" describes "philosophy." This is clear from the fact that the two nouns are the objects of one preposition, "through" (Gr. dia), and there is no article before "empty deception." The idea is that the particular philosophy Paul had been warning his readers about was empty deception ("vain deceit," AV). These are not two separate dangers. This had come down to his readers as pagan tradition.

"Although the context of Colossians 2:8 probably has reference to a proto-gnostic type of philosophy at Colosse that had a disastrous mix of legalism, asceticism, and mysticism with Christianity, the implications of Paul’s exhortation to ’beware of philosophy’ are appropriately applied to other alien systems of thought that have invaded Christianity down through the centuries since then." [Note: Norman L. Geisler, "Beware of Philosophy: A Warning to Biblical Scholars," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42:1 (March 1999):3.]

". . . We cannot properly beware of philosophy unless we be aware of philosophy." [Note: Ibid., p. 18.]

The "elementary principles (Gr. stoicheia) of the world" probably refer to the religious practices the false teachers were promoting that were simply external and physical (Colossians 2:20; cf. Galatians 4:3; Galatians 4:9). The view of many commentators is that this false religious system of worship had the elemental spirits as its subject matter (cf. Colossians 2:18). [Note: See O’Brien, Colossians . . ., pp. 129-32, for further discussion.] These practices probably involved observance of the Law of Moses. Christ was neither the source nor the content of these teachings.

"The context makes it clear that these prohibitions refer to things that are ethically neutral, not to things that are inherently sinful. . . . Voluntary self-denial in matters of food can be a helpful spiritual exercise, and may on occasion be recommended by considerations of Christian charity; but what is deprecated here is a form of asceticism for asceticism’s sake, cultivated as a religious obligation. . . .

"As has been said, the Colossian heresy was basically Jewish. Yet the straightforward Judaizing legalism of Galatians was not envisaged in Colossians. Instead it was a form of mysticism which tempted its adepts to look on themselves as a spiritual elite. . . .

"To look to movements within Judaism for the source of the Colossian heresy is a wiser procedure than to postulate direct influences from Iranian [Mesopotamian] or Greek culture." [Note: Bruce, 563:196-97, 200-1.]

"It is best to recognize that both Jewish and Gentile elements were present in the Colossian heresy, many of which were generally shared by the populace in the highly charged world of the first century, especially in the syncretistic and Hellenistic mood of Achaia and western Asia Minor. Many of the elements developed into the Gnosticism of the second century but with far more elaborate philosophical-religious views than are found in Colossians. The most one can say of the error in Colossians is that it was a syncretism of Jewish, Gentile, and Christian features that diminished the all-sufficiency of Christ’s salvation and His personal preeminence." [Note: House, "Heresies in . . .," p. 59.]

Verses 8-15

B. The true doctrine of Christ 2:8-15

Paul revealed what his readers enjoyed in Christ in this pericope to encourage them to remain faithful to the true revelation they had received and believed.

"The apostle now makes his most direct attack against ’the Colossian heresy.’ The entire passage bristles with exegetical difficulties, and calls for closer attention to its wording and argument than any other part of the Epistle." [Note: Vaughan, p. 197.]

"Colossians 2:8 functions as a heading and initial statement of the section’s theme, in chiastic form:

Colossians 2:8 a polemical denunciation 16-23

Colossians 2:8 b in accordance with Christ 9-15" [Note: Dunn, p. 144.]

"The one thing that is clear is that the false teachers wished the Colossians to accept what can only be called additions to Christ." [Note: Barclay, p. 161.]

Verses 9-10

"For" introduces another reason for abandoning the false teaching. What his readers had in Christ was completely adequate. He is the very essence of deity in whom this "fullness" permanently resides (cf. Colossians 1:19). The Greek word translated deity (theotetos) refers to the unique essence of God (cf. John 1:1). Divinity (theiotes, Romans 1:20; Acts 17:25), on the other hand, refers to the divine quality of God, which other beings may share (cf. John 1:14).

"Paul here disposes of the Docetic theory that Jesus had no human body as well as the Cerinthian separation between the man Jesus and the aeon Christ. He asserts plainly the deity and the humanity of Jesus Christ in corporeal form." [Note: Robertson, 4:491.]

This fullness was present in Christ’s bodily form during His earthly ministry. He did not give up His deity when He became a man. It continues in His resurrected bodily form. [Note: See Johnson, 476:309-10.] As those in Christ we, too, partake of His fullness. We have no essential need that He does not supply.

"This statement crowns Paul’s argument. Because Christ is fully God and really man, believers, in union with him, ’are made full’ (ASV), that is, share in his fullness." [Note: Vaughan, p. 199.]

"In the mystery cults which flourished in the apostolic age the great promise which was held out was salvation through enlightenment." [Note: Carson, p. 17.]

Verses 10-12

Christ is the head over all spirit beings ("rule and authority"). Christ’s sufficiency is evident in three things that God has done for us in Him: spiritually circumcised us (Colossians 2:11-12), forgiven our sins (Colossians 2:13-14), and given us victory over the forces of evil (Colossians 2:15).

Our spiritual circumcision (Colossians 2:11) took place when God regenerated us (cf. Galatians 5:24). It involved Christ cutting off the domination of our sinful nature (flesh), which slavery characterizes the unregenerate person (cf. Romans 7:24-25). "Baptism" (Colossians 2:12) is Spirit baptism.

"Paul turned [in Colossians 2:11] from the theological errors of the false teachers to their practical errors-from ’Gnosticism’ to legalism." [Note: Geisler, "Colossians," p. 677.]

Verses 13-14

Unbelievers are sinners by nature ("uncircumcision of your flesh," i.e., sinful nature), and practice ("transgressions," i.e., violations of God’s standards). Nevertheless, God has forgiven believers. He has cancelled our bill of debt. This is true if as Jews we violated the Law of Moses (special revelation). [Note: See Hal Harless, "The Cessation of the Mosaic Covenant," Bibliotheca Sacra 160:639 (July-September 2003):349-66.] And it is also true if as Gentiles we violated the law of God written on our hearts (general revelation, Romans 2:14-15).

The Greek term translated "cancelled out" (Colossians 2:14, exaleipsas) suggests the smearing of letters written on wax. [Note: C. F. D. Moule, The Epistles . . ., p. 98. Cf. Barclay, pp. 170-71.] Our certificate of debt was hostile to us in that it hounded us through a guilty conscience and scriptural warnings. Christ erased the debt and removed the certificate. God crucified this certificate with Christ on the cross. The final phrase in Colossians 2:14 may be an allusion to the superscription above Jesus’ cross.

"What the metaphor says is that Jesus took the damning indictment and nailed it to His cross-presumably as an act of triumphant defiance in the face of those blackmailing powers that were holding it over men and women as a means of commanding their allegiance. If there is an analogy here, it may lie in the fact that Jesus’ own accusation was fixed to His cross. Just as His own indictment was fastened there, says Paul, so he takes the indictment drawn up against his people and nails it to His cross. His victorious passion sets them free from their bankruptcy and bondage." [Note: Bruce, 564:296. Cf. O’Brien, Colossians . . ., p. 124.]

Christ really died as our substitute under the charge of the broken Mosaic Law, not under the supposed charge that He falsely claimed to be the King of the Jews. [Note: F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians in Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians by E. K. Simpson and F. F. Bruce, pp. 238-39.]

Verse 15

The disarming of the angelic rulers probably refers to Christ’s defeat of the evil angelic powers by His death and resurrection. [Note: Lightfoot, pp. 187-89.] This seems better than His retiring a mediatorial function of the good angels such as their giving the Law. [Note: Homer Kent Jr., Treasures of Wisdom, pp. 88-89.]

"Christ divested Himself at the cross of the evil powers which had struggled with Him so strongly throughout His ministry in attempts to force Him to abandon the pathway of the cross (cf. Luke 4:1-13; Matthew 16:22-23; Luke 22:53, etc.)." [Note: Johnson, 477:20.]

The public display probably refers to Jesus’ disgracing the powers of evil when He died on the cross by bearing the sin that was their claim and hold on human beings. Christ triumphed over Satan’s hosts at the cross (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:14). "It" seems better than "Him."

"It is more natural to view the principalities and powers here as the defeated foes, driven in front of the triumphal chariot as involuntary and impotent witnesses to their conqueror’s superior might." [Note: Bruce, "Colossians Problems," 563:298-99. For a brief explanation and evaluation of the three major theories of the atonement of Christ, see Johnson, 477:21-22.]

"The picture, quite familiar in the Roman world, is that of a triumphant general leading a parade of victory. . . . To the casual observer the cross appears to be only an instrument of death, the symbol of Christ’s defeat; Paul represents it as Christ’s chariot of victory." [Note: Vaughan, p. 202.]

This passage is another (cf. Colossians 1:15-20) that emphasizes the supremacy of Jesus Christ and accounts for the strong Christological flavor of this epistle.

Verses 16-17

The false teachers were encouraging the Colossians to place their Christian freedom under their control. They wanted to limit it by prohibiting certain perfectly legitimate activities. The five items mentioned in Colossians 2:16 were all part of Judaism. Therefore it is very probable that the legalistic false teachers were to some extent Jewish (i.e., advocating obedience to the Law of Moses for justification and sanctification).

"The believing Gentiles in Colossae never were under the Law of Moses since that Law was given only to Israel (Romans 9:4). It seems strange that, now that they were Christians, they would want to submit themselves to Jewish legalism!" [Note: Ibid., 2:128-29.]

The dietary and festival observances were like shadows of Christ.

They were ". . . a dim outline, a sketch of an object in contrast with the object itself. . . . The offerings were reflections of the one genuine saving offering at the cross, the priesthood was a foreshadowing of the priestly ministry of Christ, and the kings of Israel faintly suggested the coming King of kings and Lord of lords. The new age, then, is not the extension of Judaism; rather, Judaism was a mere shadow of the present age projected into the past." [Note: Johnson, 478:112. Cf. Hebrews 10:1.]

When Christ came, He explained that the Mosaic Law was no longer binding (e.g., Mark 7:18-19; Luke 16:16; cf. John 1:17; Acts 10:12; Romans 7:6; Romans 10:4; Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 8:8; 2 Corinthians 3:6-11; Galatians 3:19; Galatians 3:23; Galatians 4:9-11; Galatians 5:1; Hebrews 7:12; Hebrews 9:10). This failure of the false teachers really amounted to a failure to appreciate Christ.

"The new religion [Christianity] is too free and exuberant to be trained down to ’times and seasons’ like its tame and rudimental predecessor [Judaism]. Its feast is daily, for every day is holy; its moon never wanes, and its serene tranquillity is an unbroken Sabbath." [Note: Eadie, p. 177.]

Verses 16-23

C. The false doctrines of men 2:16-23

Having revealed what believers have in Christ, Paul next pointed out the errors of the false teachers more specifically to help his readers identify and reject their instruction.

"Sad to say, there are many Christians who actually believe that some person, religious system, or discipline can add something to their spiritual experience. But they already have everything they ever will need in the person and work of Jesus Christ." [Note: Wiersbe, 2:105.]

Verses 18-19

A second error was mysticism. Whereas Colossian legalism (Colossians 2:16-17) was primarily Jewish in origin, Colossian mysticism (Colossians 2:18-19) seems to have been mainly Gnostic and pagan. Paul’s readers were in danger of becoming diverted as they ran the Christian race and not staying on the track. Thus they could lose the prize that God will give those who run the race well (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7-8). "Self-abasement" is the practice of denying oneself with the idea that this will gain merit with God. Specifically fasting is in view.

The false teachers also advocated the worship of angels probably with the idea that they were the proper mediators of prayer and worship to God. Similarly many Roman Catholics so regard dead Christians, some of whom they have labeled "saints." The basis of such claims was personal experience, not revelation from God.

Some translators added "visions" (Colossians 2:18) to give the idea of some superior experience. However the contrast intended is between humanly generated ideas and divine revelation. Such ideas gave those who had them a false sense of pride. Rather Christians should get our direction from Christ by divine revelation and enjoy growth that He brings to pass rather than growth that is not genuine. The "joints and ligaments" probably refer to believers in Christ’s body of which He is the Head (cf. Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 4:7-16). [Note: See Michael P. V. Barrett, "Complete in Christ," Biblical Viewpoint 13:1 (April 1979):27-32.]

"Precedent for this approach to spirituality in Judaism [that Paul was countering in this epistle] is seen in a movement that came to be known as ’Merkabah mysticism.’ The Merkabah refers to Ezekiel 1 and the throne chariot of God that Ezekiel saw. This teaching spoke of days of fasting to prepare for a journey to the heavens to see God and have a vision of Him and His angelic host in worship (Philo, Die Somniis 1.33-37; De Vita Mosis 2.67-70; 1QH 6:13; 1 Enoch 14:8-25; 2 Baruch 21:7-10; Apocalypse of Abraham 9:1-10; 19:1-9; Ascension of Isaiah 7:37; 8:17; 9:28, 31, 33). One could withdraw and eventually go directly into God’s presence. Thus this false teaching emphasized the humility of ascetic practice, visions, the rigors of devotion, treating the body harshly, and rules about what should not be eaten or what days should be observed (Colossians 2:16-23). All this activity was aimed to help prepare individuals for the experience that took them beyond what Jesus had already provided, so they could see God and His angels in heaven." [Note: Darrell L. Bock, "A Theology of Paul’s Prison Epistles," in A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, p. 305.]

Verses 20-23

In these verses Paul developed the third error he already alluded to, namely, asceticism. The ascetic practices ("elementary principles," stoicheai, Colossians 2:8) he referred to seem to have been extensions of Mosaic Law. "If" (Colossians 2:20) could read "Since." It is a first class condition in Greek that in this case is a condition true to reality. Christians "died" to merely human ordinances of Judaism and Gnosticism at conversion (cf. Romans 6:1-4; Romans 7:1-6; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Galatians 2:19). Nevertheless it is possible to put oneself under these and live like unbelievers in the world. The false teachers were in effect forcing the Colossians to live by the world system by placing ascetic requirements on them. The specific decrees cited as examples (Colossians 2:21) have to do with food, but these are only representative of many such laws. These laws are inadequate for three reasons. The things prohibited perish through normal usage, the laws are of human origin, and they do not solve the real problem, namely, the desires of the flesh.

"There is only one thing that will put the collar on the neck of the animal within us, and that is the power of the indwelling Christ." [Note: Alexander Maclaren, "The Epistles of St. Paul to the Colossians and Philemon," in The Expositor’s Bible, p. 255.]

The emphases of these false teachers are still with us today. The first is "higher" knowledge (Gnosticism). The second is the observance of laws to win God’s love (legalism). The third is the belief that beings other than Christ must mediate between people and God (mysticism). The fourth is the practice of abstaining from things to earn merit with God (asceticism).

"When we make Jesus Christ and the Christian revelation only part of a total religious system or philosophy, we cease to give Him the preeminence. When we strive for ’spiritual perfection’ or ’spiritual fullness’ by means of formulas, disciplines, or rituals, we go backward instead of forward. Christian believers must beware of mixing their Christian faith with such alluring things as yoga, transcendental meditation, Oriental mysticism, and the like. We must also beware of ’deeper life’ teachers who offer a system for victory and fullness that bypasses devotion to Jesus Christ. In all things, He must have the preeminence!" [Note: Wiersbe, 2:104.]

Reformed theology has historically taught that a true Christian will never renounce faith in Christ. The fact that Paul wrote this epistle to Christians who were in danger of doing precisely that should prove that this teaching is wrong. Nowhere in the epistle did he make a distinction between professing Christians, who were supposedly the objects of his warnings, and true Christians. Rather he appealed to the Colossians as genuine Christians to watch out for this real danger. Genuine Christians can be deceived by false teaching, even teaching concerning Christ.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Colossians 2". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/colossians-2.html. 2012.
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