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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Colossians 2

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-3

Chapter 2

PAUL’S STRIVING FOR THE COLOSSIANS

Colossians 2:1-3 (R.V.)

We have seen that the closing portion of the previous chapter is almost exclusively personal. In this context the same strain is continued, and two things are dwelt on: the Apostle’s agony of anxiety for the Colossian Church, and the joy with which, from his prison, he travelled in spirit across mountain and sea, and saw them in their quiet valley, cleaving to the Lord. The former of these feelings is expressed in the words now before us; the latter, in the following verses.

All this long outpouring of self-revelation is so natural and characteristic of Paul that we need scarcely look for any purpose in it, and yet we may note with what consummate art he thereby prepares the way for the warnings which follow. The unveiling of his own throbbing heart was sure to work on the affections of his readers and to incline them to listen. His profound emotion in thinking of the preciousness of his message would help to make them feel how much was at stake, and his unfaltering faith would give firmness to their less tenacious grasp of the truth which, as they saw, he gripped with such force. Many truths may be taught coolly, and some must be. But in religious matters, arguments wrought in frost are powerless, and earnestness approaching to passion is the all-conquering force. A teacher who is afraid to show his feelings, or who has no feelings to show, will never gather many disciples.

So this revelation of the Apostle’s heart is relevant to the great purposes of the whole letter-the warning against error, and the exhortation to steadfastness. In the verses which we are now considering, we have the conflict which Paul was waging set forth in three aspects: first, in itself; second, in regard to the persons for whom it was waged; and, finally and principally, in regard to the object or purpose in view therein. The first and second of these points may be dealt with briefly. The third will require further consideration.

I. There is first the conflict, which he earnestly desired that the Colossian Christians might know to be "great." The word rendered in the Authorised Version "conflict," belongs to the same root as that which occurs in the last verse of the previous chapter, and is there rendered "striving." The Revised Version rightly indicates this connection by its translation, but fails to give the construction as accurately as the older translation does. "What great strife I have" would be nearer the Greek, and more forcible than the somewhat feeble "how greatly I strive," which the Revisers have adopted. The conflict referred to is, of course, that of the arena, as so often in Paul’s writings.

But how could he, in Rome, wage conflict on behalf of the Church at Colossae? No external conflict can be meant. He could strike no blows on their behalf. What he could do in that way he did, and he was now taking part in their battle by this letter. If he could not fight by their side, he could send them ammunition, as he does in this great Epistle, which was, no doubt, to the eager combatants for the truth at Colossae, what it has been ever since, a magazine and arsenal in all their warfare. But the real struggle was in his own heart. It meant anxiety, sympathy, an agony of solicitude, a passion of intercession. What he says of Epaphras in this very Epistle was true of himself. He was "always striving in prayer for them." And by these wrestlings of spirit he took his place among the combatants, though they were far away, and though in outward seeming his life was untouched by any of the difficulties and dangers which hemmed them in. In that lonely prison cell, remote from their conflict, and with burdens enough of his own to carry, with his life in peril, his heart yet turned to them and, like some soldier left behind to guard the base while his comrades had gone forward to the fight, his ears listened for the sound of battle, and his thoughts were in the field. His prison cell was like the focus of some reverberating gallery in which every whisper spoken all round the circumference was heard, and the heart that was held captive there was set vibrating in all its chords by every sound from any of the Churches.

Let us learn the lesson, that, for all Christian people, sympathy in the battle for God, which is being waged all over the world, is plain duty. For all Christian teachers of every sort, an eager sympathy in the difficulties and struggles of those whom they would try to teach is indispensable. We can never deal wisely with any mind until we have entered into its peculiarities. We can never help a soul fighting with errors and questionings until we have ourselves felt the pinch of the problems, and have shown that soul that we know what it is to grope and stumble. No man is ever able to lift a burden from another’s shoulders except on condition of bearing the burden himself. If I stretch out my hand to some poor brother struggling in "the miry clay," he will not grasp it, and my well meant efforts will be vain, unless he can see that I too have felt with him the horror of great darkness, and desire him to share with me the benedictions of the light. Wheresoever our prison or our workshop may be, howsoever Providence or circumstances- which is but a heathenish word for the same thing-may separate us from active participation in any battle for God, we are bound to take an eager share in it by sympathy, by interest, by such help as we can render, and by that intercession which may sway the fortunes of the field, though the uplifted hands grasp no weapons, and the spot where we pray be far from the fight. It is not only the men who bear the brunt of the battle in the high places of the field who are the combatants. In many a quiet home, where their wives and mothers sit, with wistful faces waiting for the news from the front, are an agony of anxiety, and as true a share in the struggle as amidst the battery smoke and the gleaming bayonets. It was a law in Israel, "As his Dart is that goeth down to the battle, so shall his part be that abideth by the stuff. They shall part alike." They were alike in recompense, because they were rightly regarded as alike in service. So all Christians who have in heart and sympathy taken part in the great battle shall be counted as combatants and crowned as victors, though they themselves have struck no blows. "He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward."

II. We notice the persons for whom this conflict was endured. They are the Christians of Colossae, and their neighbours of Laodicea, and "as many as have not seen my face in the flesh." It may be a question whether the Colossians and Laodiceans belong to those who have not seen his face in the flesh, but the most natural view of the words is that the last clause "introduces the whole class to which the persons previously enumerated belong," and this conclusion is confirmed by the silence of the Acts of the Apostles as to any visit of Paul’s to these Churches, and by the language of the Epistle itself, which, in several places, refers to his knowledge of the Colossian Church as derived from hearing of them, and never alludes to personal intercourse. That being so, one can understand that its members might easily think that he cared less for them than he did for the more fortunate communities which he had himself planted or watered, and might have suspected that the difficulties of the Church at Ephesus, for instance, lay nearer his heart than theirs in their remote upland valley. No doubt, too, their feelings to him were less warm than to Epaphras and to other teachers whom they had heard. They had never felt the magnetism of his personal presence, and were at a disadvantage in their struggle with the errors which were beginning to lift their snaky heads among them, from not having had the inspiration and direction of his teaching.

It is beautiful to see how, here, Paul lays hold of that very fact which seemed to put some film of separation between them, in order to make it the foundation of his especial keenness of interest in them. Precisely because he had never looked them in the eyes, they had a warmer place in his heart, and his solicitude for them was more tender. He was not so enslaved by sense that his love could not travel beyond the limits of his eyesight. He was the more anxious about them because they had not the recollections of his teaching and of his presence to fall back upon.

III. But the most important part of this section is the Apostle’s statement of the great subject of his solicitude, that which he anxiously longed that the Colossians might attain. It is a prophecy, as well as a desire. It is a statement of the deepest purpose of his letter to them, and being so, it is likewise a statement of the Divine desire concerning each of us, and of the Divine design of the gospel. Here is set forth what God would have all Christians to be, and, in Jesus Christ, has given them ample means of being.

(1) The first element in the Apostle’s desire for them is "that their hearts may be comforted." Of course the Biblical use of the word "heart" is much wider than the modern popular use of it. We mean by it, when we use it in ordinary talk, the hypothetical seat of the emotions, and chiefly, the organ and throne of love; but Scripture means by the word, the whole inward personality, including thought and will as well as emotion. So we read of the "thoughts and intents of the heart," and the whole inward nature is called "the hidden man of the heart."

And what does he desire for this inward man? That it may be "comforted." That word again has a wider signification in Biblical than in nineteenth-century English. It is much more than consolation in trouble. The cloud that hung over the Colossian Church was not about to break in sorrows which they would need consolation to bear, but in doctrinal and practical errors which they would need strength to resist. They were called to fight rather than to endure, and what they needed most was courageous confidence. So Paul desires for them that their hearts should be encouraged or strengthened, that they might not quail before the enemy, but go into the fight with buoyancy, and be of good cheer.

Is there any greater blessing in view both of the conflict which Christianity has to wage today, and of the difficulties and warfare of our own lives, than that brave spirit which plunges into the struggle with the serene assurance that victory sits on our helms and waits upon our swords, and knows that anything is possible rather than defeat? That is the condition of overcoming - even our faith. "The sad heart tires in a mile," but the strong hopeful heart carries in its very strength the prophecy of triumph.

Such a disposition is not altogether a matter of temperament, but may be cultivated, and though, it may come easier to some of us than to others, it certainly ought to belong to all who have God to trust to, and believe that the gospel is His truth. They may well be strong who have Divine power ready to flood their hearts, who know that everything works for their good, who can see, above the whirl of time and change, one strong loving Hand which moves the wheels. What have we to do with fear for ourselves, or wherefore should our "hearts tremble for the ark of God," seeing that One fights by our sides who will teach our hands to war and cover our heads in the day of battle? "Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen thine heart."

(2) The way to secure such joyous confidence and strength is taught us here, for we have next, Union in love, as part of the means for obtaining it-"They being knit together in love." The persons, not the hearts, are tobe thus united. Love is the true bond which unites men-the bond of perfectness, as it is elsewhere called. That unity in love would, of course, add to the strength of each. The old fable teaches us that little fagots bound together are strong, and the tighter the rope is pulled, the stronger they are. A solitary heart is timid and weak, but many weaknesses brought together make strength, as slimly built houses in a row hold each other up, or dying embers raked closer burst into flame. Loose grains of sand are light and moved by a breath; compacted they are a rock against which the Atlantic beats in vain. So, a Church, of which the members are bound together by that love which is the only real bond of Church life, presents a front to threatening evils through which they cannot break. A real moral defence against even intellectual error will be found in such a close compaction in mutual Christian love. A community so interlocked will throw off many evils, as a Roman legion with linked shields roofed itself over against missiles from the wall of a besieged city, or the imbricated scales on a fish keep it dry in the heart of the sea.

But we must go deeper than this in interpreting these words. The love which is to knit Christian men together is not merely love to one another but is common love to Jesus Christ. Such common love to Him is the true bond of union, and the true strengthener of men’s hearts.

(3) This compaction in love will lead to a wealth of certitude in the possession of the truth. Paul is so eagerly desirous for the Colossians union in love to each other and all to God, because He knows that such union will materially contribute to their assured and joyful possession of the truth. It tends, he thinks, unto "all riches of the full assurance of understanding," by which he means the wealth which consists in the entire, unwavering certitude which takes possession of the understanding, the confidence that it has the truth and the life in Jesus Christ. Such a joyful steadfastness of conviction that I have grasped the truth is opposed to hesitating half belief. It is attainable, as this context shows, by paths of moral discipline, and amongst them, by seeking to realise our unity with our brethren, and not proudly rejecting the "common faith" because it is common. Possessing that assurance, we shall be rich and heart whole. Walking amid certainties we shall walk in paths of peace, and reecho the triumphant assurance of the Apostle, to whom love had given the key of knowledge:-"we know that we are of God, and we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true."

In all times of religious unsettlement, when an active propaganda of denial is going on, Christian men are tempted to lower their own tone, and to say, "It is so," with somewhat less of certainty because so many are saying, "It is not so." Little Rhoda needs some courage to affirm constantly that "it was even so," when apostles and her masters keep assuring her that she has only seen a vision. In this day, many professing Christians falter in the clear assured profession of their faith, and it does not need a keen ear to catch an undertone of doubt making their voices tremulous. Some even are so afraid of being thought "narrow," that they seek for the reputation of liberality by talking as if there were a film of doubt over even the truths which used to be "most surely believed." Much of the so-called faith of this day is all honeycombed With secret misgivings, which have in many instances no other intellectual basis than the consciousness of prevalent unbelief and a secondhand acquaintance with its teachings. Few things are more needed among us now than this full assurance and satisfaction of the understanding with the truth as it is in Jesus. Nothing is more wretched than the slow paralysis creeping over faith, the fading of what had been stars into darkness A tragedy is being wrought in many minds which have had to exchange Christ’s "Verily, verily," for a miserable "perhaps," and can no longer say "I know," but only, "I would fain believe," or at the best, "I incline to think still." On the other hand, the "full assurance of the understanding" brings wealth. It breathes peace over the soul, and gives endless riches in the truths which through it are made living and real.

This wealth of conviction is attained by living in the love of God. Of course, there is an intellectual discipline which is also needed. But no intellectual process will lead to an assured grasp of spiritual truth, unless it be accompanied by love. As soon may we lay hold of truth with our hands, as of God in Christ with our understandings alone. This is the constant teaching of Scripture-that, if we would know God and have assurance of Him, we must love Him. "In order to love human things, it is necessary to know them. In order to know Divine things, it is necessary to love them." When we are rooted and grounded in love, we shall be able to know- for what we have most need to know and what the gospel has mainly tot each us is the love, and "unless the eye with which we look is love, how shall we know love?" If we love, we shall possess an experience which verifies the truth for us, will give us an irrefragable demonstration which will bring certitude to ourselves, however little it may avail to convince others. Rich in the possession of this confirmation of the gospel by the blessings which have come to us from it, and which witness of their source, as the stream that dots some barren plain with a line of green along its course is revealed thereby, we shall have the right to oppose to many a doubt the full assurance born of love, and while others are disputing whether there be any God, or any living Christ, or any forgiveness of sins, or any guiding providence, we shall know that they are, and are ours, because we have felt the power and wealth which they have brought into our lives.

(4) This unity of love will lead to full knowledge of the mystery of God. Such seems to be the connection of the next words, which may be literally read "unto the full knowledge of the mystery of God," and may be best regarded as a coordinate clause with the preceding, depending like it on "being knit together in love." So taken, there is set forth a double issue of that compaction in love to God and one another, namely, the calm assurance in the grasp of truth already possessed, and the more mature and deeper insight into the deep things of God. The word for knowledge here is the same as in Colossians 1:9, and here as there means a full knowledge. The Colossians had known Christ at first, but the Apostle’s desire is that they may come to a fuller knowledge, for the object to be known is infinite, and endless degrees in the perception and possession of His power and grace are possible. In that fuller knowledge they will not leave behind what they knew at first, but will find in it deeper meaning, a larger wisdom, and a fuller truth.

Among the large number of readings of the following words, that adopted by the Revised Version is to be preferred, and the translation which it gives is the most natural and is in accordance with the previous thought in Colossians 1:27, where also "the mystery" is explained to be "Christ in you." A slight variation in the conception is presented here. The "mystery" is Christ, not "in you," but "in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." The great truth long hidden, now revealed, is that the whole wealth of spiritual insight (knowledge), and of reasoning on the truths thus apprehended so as to gain an ordered system of belief and a coherent law of conduct (wisdom), is stored for us in Christ.

Such being in brief the connection and outline meaning of these great words, we may touch upon the various principles embodied in them. We have seen, in commenting upon a former part of the Epistle, the force of the great thought that Christ in His relations to us is the mystery of God, and need not repeat what was then said. But we may pause for a moment on the fact that the knowledge of that mystery has its stages. The revelation of the mystery is complete. No further stages are possible in that. But while the revelation is, in Paul’s estimate, finished, and the long concealed truth now stands in full sunshine, our apprehension of it may grow, and there is a mature knowledge possible. Some poor ignorant soul catches through the gloom a glimpse of God manifested in the flesh, and bearing his sins. That soul will never outgrow that knowledge, but as the years pass, life and reflection and experience will help to explain and deepen it. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son-there is nothing beyond that truth. Grasped however imperfectly, it brings light and peace. But as it is loved and lived by, it unfolds undreamed of depths, and flashes with growing brightness. Suppose that a man could set out from the great planet that moves on the outermost rim of our system, and could travel slowly inwards towards the central sun, how the disc would grow, and the light and warmth increase with each million of miles that he crossed, till what had seemed a point filled the whole sky! Christian growth is into, not away from, Christ, a penetrating deeper into the centre, and a drawing out into distinct consciousness as a coherent system, all that was wrapped, as the leaves in their brown sheath, in that first glimpse of Him which saves the soul.

These stages are infinite, because in Him are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. These four words, treasures, wisdom, knowledge, hidden, are all familiar on the lips of the latter Gnostics, and were so, no doubt, in the mouths of the false teachers at Colossae. The Apostle would assert for his gospel all which they falsely claimed for their dreams. As in several other places of this Epistle, he avails himself of his antagonists’ special vocabulary, transferring its terms, from the illusory phantoms which a false knowledge adorned with them, to the truth which he had to preach. He puts special emphasis on the predicate "hidden" by throwing it to the end of the sentence-a peculiarity which is reproduced with advantage in the Revised Version.

All wisdom and knowledge are in Christ. He is the Light of men, and all thought and truth of every sort come from. Him Who is the Eternal Word, the Incarnate Wisdom. That Incarnate Word is the perfect Revelation of God, and by His one completed life and death has declared the whole name of God to His brethren, of which all other media of revelation have but uttered broken syllables. That ascended Christ breathes wisdom and knowledge into all who love Him, and still pursues, by giving us the Spirit of wisdom, His great work of revealing God to men, according to His own word, which at once asserted the completeness of the revelation made by His earthly life and promised the perpetual continuance of the revelation from His heavenly seat: "I have declared Thy name unto My brethren, and will declare it."

In Christ, as in a great storehouse, lie all the riches of spiritual wisdom, the massive ingots of solid gold which, when coined into creeds and doctrines, are the wealth of the Church. All which we can know concerning God and man, concerning sin and righteousness and duty, concerning another life, is in Him Who is the home and deep mine where truth is stored.

In Christ these treasures are "hidden," but not, as the heretics’ mysteries were hidden, in order that they might be out of reach of the vulgar crowd. This mystery is hidden indeed, but it is revealed. It is hidden only from the. eyes that will not see it. It is hidden that seeking souls may have the joy of seeking and the rest of finding. The very act of revealing is a hiding, as our Lord has said in His great thanksgiving because these things are (by one and the same act) "hid from the wise and prudent, and revealed to babes." They are hid, as men store provisions in the Arctic regions, in order that the bears may not find them and the shipwrecked sailors may.

Such thoughts have a special message for times of agitation such as the Colossian Church was passing through, and such as we have to face. We too are surrounded by eager confident voices, proclaiming profounder truths and a deeper wisdom than the gospel gives us. In joyful antagonism to these, Christian men have to hold fast by the confidence that all Divine wisdom is laid up in their Lord. We need not go to others to learn new truth. The new problems of each generation to the end of time will find their answers in Christ, and new issues of that old message which we have heard from the beginning will continually be discerned. Let us not wonder if the lessons which the earlier ages of the Church drew from that infinite storehouse fail at many points to meet the eager questionings of today. Nor let us suppose that the stars are quenched because the old books of astronomy are in some respects out of date. We need not cast aside the truths that we learned at our mother’s knees. The central fact of the universe and the perfect encyclopedia of all moral and spiritual truth is Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Lamb slain, the ascended King. If we keep true to Him and strive to widen our minds to the breadth of that great message, it will grow as we gaze, even as the nightly heavens expand to the eye which steadfastly looks into them, and reveal violet abysses sown with sparkling points, each of which is a sun. "Lord to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."

The ordinary type of Christian life is contented with a superficial acquaintance with Christ. Many understand no more of Him and of His gospel than they did when first they learned to love Him. So completely has the very idea of a progressive knowledge of Jesus Christ faded from the horizon of the average Christian that "edification," which ought to mean the progressive building up of the character course by course, in new knowledge and grace, has come to mean little more than the sense of comfort derived from the reiteration of old and familiar words which fall on the ear with a pleasant murmur. There is sadly too little first hand and growing knowledge of their Lord, among Christian people, too little belief that fresh treasures may be found hidden in that field which, to each soul and each new generation struggling with its own special forms of the burdens and problems that press upon humanity, would be cheaply bought by selling all, but may be won at the easier rate of earnest desire to possess them, and faithful adherence to Him in whom they are stored for the world. The condition of growth for the branch is abiding in the vine. If our hearts are knit together with Christ’s heart in that love which is the parent of communion, both as delighted contemplation and as glad obedience, then we shall daily dig deeper into the mine of wealth which is hid in Him that it may be found, and draw forth an unfailing supply of things new and old.


Verses 4-7

Chapter 2

CONCILIATORY AND HORTATORY TRANSITION TO POLEMICS

Colossians 2:4-7 (R.V.)

NOTHING needs more delicacy of hand and gentleness of heart than the administration of warning or reproof, especially when directed against errors of religious opinion. It is sure to do harm unless the person reproved is made to feel that it comes from true kindly interest in him., and does full justice to his honesty. Warning so easily passes into scolding, and sounds to the warned so like it even when the speaker does not mean it so, that there is special need to modulate the voice very carefully.

So in this context, the Apostle has said much about his deep interest in the Colossian Church, and has dwelt on the passionate earnestness of his solicitude for them, his conflict of intercession and sympathy, and the large sweep, of his desires for their good. But he does not feel that he can venture to begin his warnings till he has said something more, so as to conciliate them still further, and to remove from their minds other thoughts unfavourable to the sympathetic reception of his words. One can fancy some Colossians saying, "What need is there for all this anxiety? Why should Paul be in such a taking about us? He is exaggerating our danger, and doing scant justice to our Christian character." Nothing stops the ear to the voice of warning more surely than a feeling that it is pitched in too solemn a key, and fails to recognise the good.

So before he goes further, he gathers up his motives in giving the following admonitions, and gives his estimate of the condition of the Colossians, in the first two of the verses now under consideration. All that he has been saying has been said not so much because he thinks that they have gone wrong, but because he knows that there are heretical teachers at work, who may lead them astray with plausible lessons. He is not combating errors which have already swept away the faith of the Colossian Christians, but putting them on their guard against such as threaten them. He is not trying to pump the water out of a water-logged vessel, but to stop a little leak which is in danger of gaping wider. And, in his solicitude, he has much confidence and is encouraged to speak because, absent from them as he is, he has a vivid assurance, which gladdens him, of the solidity and firmness of their faith.

So with this distinct definition of the precise danger which he feared, and this soothing assurance of his glad confidence in their steadfast order, the Apostle at last opens his batteries. The 6th and 7th verses (Colossians 2:6-7) are the first shot fired, the beginning of the monitions so long and carefully prepared for. They contain a general exhortation, which may be taken as the keynote for the polemical portion of the Epistle, which occupies the rest of the chapter.

I. We have then, first, the purpose of the Apostle’s previous self-revelation. "This I say"-this, namely, which is contained in the preceding verses, the expression of his solicitude, and perhaps even more emphatically, the declaration of Christ as the revealed secret of God, the inexhaustible storehouse of all wisdom and knowledge. The purpose of the Apostle, then, in his foregoing words has been to guard the Colossians against the danger to which they were exposed, of being deceived and led astray by "persuasiveness of speech." That expression is not necessarily used in a bad sense, but here it evidently has a tinge of censure, and implies some doubt both of the honesty of the speakers and of the truthfulness of their words. Here we have an important piece of evidence as to the then condition of the Colossian Church. There were false teachers busy amongst them who belonged in some sense to the Christian community. But probably these were not Colossians, but wandering emissaries of a Judaising Gnosticism, while certainly the great mass of the Church was untouched by their speculations. They were in danger of getting bewildered, and being deceived, that is to say, of being induced to accept certain teaching because of its speciousness, without seeing all its bearings, or even knowing its real meaning. So error ever creeps into the Church. Men are caught by something fascinating in some popular teaching, and follow it without knowing where it will lead them. By slow degrees its tendencies are disclosed, and at last the followers of the heresiarch wake to find that everything which they once believed and prized has dropped from their creed.

We may learn here, too, the true safeguard against specious errors. Paul thinks that he can best fortify these simple-minded disciples against all harmful teaching by exalting his Master and urging the inexhaustible significance of His person and message. To learn the full meaning and preciousness of Christ is to be armed against error. The positive truth concerning Him, by preoccupying mind and heart, guards beforehand against the most specious teachings. If you fill the coffer with gold, nobody will want, and there will be no room for, pinchbeck. A living grasp of Christ will keep us from being swept away by the current of prevailing popular opinion, which is always much more likely to be wrong than right, and is sure to be exaggerated and one-sided at the best. A personal consciousness of His power and sweetness will give an instinctive repugnance to teaching that would lower His dignity and debase His work. If He be the centre and anchorage of all our thoughts, we shall not be tempted to go elsewhere in search of the "treasures of wisdom and knowledge" which "are hid in Him." He who has found the one pearl of great price, needs no more to go seeking goodly pearls, but only day by day more completely to lose self, and give up all else, that he may win more and more of Christ his All. If we keep our hearts and minds in communion with our Lord, and have experience of His preciousness, that will preserve us from many a snare, will give us a wisdom, beyond much logic, will solve for us many of the questions most hotly debated today, and will show us that many more are unimportant and uninteresting to us. And even if we should be led to wrong conclusions on some matters, "if we drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt us."

II. We see here the joy which blended with the anxiety of the solitary prisoner, and encourage him to warn the Colossians against impending dangers to their faith. We need not follow the grammatical commentators in their discussion of how Paul comes to invert the natural order here, and to say "joying and beholding," instead of "beholding and rejoicing," as we should expect. No one doubts that what he saw in spirit was the cause of his joy. The old man in his prison, loaded with many cares, compelled to be inactive in the cause which was more to him. than life, is yet full of spirit and buoyancy. His prison letters all partake of that "rejoicing in the Lord," which is the keynote of one of them. Old age and apparent failure, and the exhaustion of long labours, and the disappointments and sorrows which almost always gather like evening clouds round a life as it sinks in the west, had not power to quench his fiery energy or to blunt his keen interest in all the Churches. His cell was like the centre of a telephonic system. Voices spoke from all sides. Every Church was connected with it, and messages were perpetually being brought. Think of him sitting there, eagerly listening, and thrilling with sympathy at each word, so self-oblivious was he, so swallowed up were all personal ends in the care for the Churches, and in the swift, deep fellow feeling with them! Love and interest quickened his insight, and though he was far away, he had them so vividly before him that he was as if a spectator. The joy which he had in the thought of them made him dwell on the thought-so the apparently inverted order of the words may be the natural one and he may have looked all the more fixedly because it gladdened him to look.

What did he see? "Your order." That is unquestionably a military metaphor, drawn probably from his experiences of the Praetorians, while in captivity. He had plenty of opportunities of studying both the equipment of the single legionary, who, in the 6th chapter of Ephesians, sat for his portrait to the prisoner to whom he was chained, and also the perfection of discipline in the whole which made the legion so formidable. It was not a multitude, but a unit, "moving altogether if it move at all," as if animated by one will. Paul rejoices to know that the Colossian Church was thus welded into a solid unity.

Further, he beholds "the steadfastness of your faith in Christ." This may be a continuation of the military metaphor, and may mean "the solid front, the close phalanx" which your faith presents. But whether we suppose the figure to be carried on or drooped, we must, I think, recognise that this second point refers rather to the inward condition than to the outward discipline of the Colossians.

Here then is set forth a lofty ideal of the Church, in two respects. First there is, outwardly, an ordered disciplined array; and secondly there is a steadfast faith.

As to the first, Paul was no martinet, anxious about the pedantry of the parade ground, but he knew the need of organisation and drill. Any body of men united in order to carry out a specific purpose have to be organised. That means a place for every man, and every man in his place. It means cooperation to one common end, and therefore division of function and subordination. Order does not merely mean obedience to authority. There may be equal "‘order" under widely different forms of polity. The legionaries were drawn up in close ranks, the light-armed skirmishers more loosely. In the one case the phalanx was more and the individual less; in the other there was more play given to the single man, and less importance to corporate action; but the difference between them was not that of order and disorder, but that of two systems, each organised but on somewhat different principles and for different purposes. A loosely linked chain is as truly a chain as a rigid one. The main requirement for such "order" as gladdened the Apostle is conjoint action to one end, with variety of office and unity of spirit.

Some Churches give more weight to the principle of authority; others to that of individuality. They may criticise each other’s polity, but the former has no right to reproach the latter as being necessarily defective in "order." Some Churches are all drill, and their favourite idea of discipline is, Obey them that have the rule over you. The Churches of looser organisation, on the other hand, are no doubt in danger of making too little of organisation. But both need that all their members should be more penetrated by the sense of unity, and should fill each his place in the work of the body. It was far easier to secure the true order-a place and a task for every man and every man in his place and at his task in the small homogeneous communities of apostolic times than it is now, when men of such different social position, education, and ways of thinking are found in the same Christian community. The proportion of idlers in all Churches is a scandal and a weakness. However highly organised and officered a Church may be, no joy would fill an apostle’s heart in beholding it, if the mass of its members had no share in its activities. Every society of professing Christians should be like a man of war’s crew, each of whom knows the exact inch where he has to stand when the whistle sounds, and the precise thing he has to do in the gun drill.

But the perfection of discipline is not enough. That may stiffen into routine if there be not something deeper. We want life even more than order. The description of the soldiers who set David on the throne should describe Christ’s army-"men that could keep rank, they were not of double heart." They had discipline and had learned to accommodate their stride to the length of their comrades’ step; but they had whole-hearted enthusiasm, which was better. Both are needed. If there be not courage and devotion there is nothing worth disciplining. The Church that has the most. complete order and not also steadfastness of faith will be like the German armies, all pipe clay and drill, which ran like hares before the ragged shoeless levies whom the first French Revolution flung across the border with a fierce enthusiasm blazing in their hearts. So the Apostle beholds with joy the steadfastness of the Colossians’ faith toward Christ.

If the rendering "steadfastness" be adopted as in the Revised Version, the phrase will be equivalent to the "firmness which characterises or belongs to your faith." But some of the best commentators deny that this meaning of the word is ever found, and propose "foundation" (that which is made steadfast). The meaning then will either be "the firm foundation (for your lives) which consists of your faith," or, more probably, "the firm foundation which your faith has." He rejoices, seeing that their faith towards Jesus Christ has a basis unshaken by assaults. Such a rock foundation, and consequent steadfastness, must faith have, if it is to be worthy of the name and to manifest its true power. A tremulous faith may, thank God! be a true: faith, but the very idea of faith implies solid assurance and fixed confidence. Our faith should be able to resist pressure and to keep its. ground against assaults and gainsaying. It should not be like a child’s card castle, that the light breath of a scornful laugh will throw down, but

"a tower of strength That stands foursquare to all the winds that blow."

We should seek to make it so, nor let the fluctuations of our own hearts cause it to fluctuate. We should try so to control the ebb and flow of religious emotion that it may always be near high water with our faith, a tideless but not stagnant sea. We should oppose a settled conviction and unalterable confidence to the noisy voices which would draw us away.

And that we may do so we must keep up a true and close communion with Jesus Christ. The faith which is ever going out "towards"’ Him, as the sunflower turns sunwards, will ever draw from Him such blessed gifts that doubt or distrust will be impossible. If we keep near our Lord and wait expectant on Him, He will increase our faith and make our "hearts fixed, trusting in the Lord." So a greater than Paul may speak even to us, as He walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks, words which from His lips will be praise indeed: "Though I am absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order and the steadfastness of your faith in Me."

III. We have here the exhortation which comprehends all duty and covers the whole ground of Christian belief and practice.

"Therefore"-the following exhortation is based upon the warning and commendation of the preceding verses. There is first a wide general injunction. "As ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him," i.e., let your active life be in accord with what you learned and obtained when you first became Christians.

Then this exhortation is defined or broken up into four particulars in the following clauses, which explain in detail how it is to be kept.

The general exhortation is to a true Christian walk. The main force lies upon the "as." The command is to order all life in accordance with the early lessons and acquisitions. The phrase "ye received Christ Jesus the Lord" presents several points requiring notice. It is obviously parallel with "as ye were taught" in the next verse; so that it was from their first teachers, and probably from Epaphras [Colossians 1:7] that they had "received Christ." So, then, what we receive, when, from human lips, we hear the gospel and accept it, is not merely the word about the Saviour, but the Saviour Himself. This expression of our text is no mere loose or rhetorical mode of speech, but a literal and blessed truth. Christ is the sum of all Christian teaching and, where the message of His love is welcomed, He Himself comes in spiritual and real presence, and dwells in the spirit. The solemnity of the full name of our Saviour in this connection is most significant. Paul reminds the Colossians, in view of the teaching which degraded the person and curtailed the work of Christ, that they had received the man Jesus, the promised Christ, the universal Lord. As if he had said, Remember whom you received in your conversion-Christ, the Messiah, anointed, that is, fitted by the unmeasured possession of the Divine Spirit, to fulfil all prophecy and to be the world’s deliverer. Remember Jesus, the man, our brother; -therefore listen to no misty speculations nor look to whispered mysteries nor to angel hierarchies for knowledge of God or for help in conflict. Our gospel is not theory spun out of men’s brains, but is, first and foremost, the history of a brother’s life and death. You received Jesus, so you are delivered from the tyranny of these unsubstantial and portentous systems, and relegated to the facts of a human life for your knowledge of God. You received Jesus Christ as Lord. He was proclaimed as Lord of men, angels, and the universe, Lord and Creator of the spiritual and material worlds, Lord of history and providence. Therefore you need not give heed to those teachers who would fill ‘the gulf between men and God with a crowd of powers and rulers. You have all that your mind or heart or will can need in the human Divine Jesus, who is the Christ and the Lord for you and all men. You have received Him in the all-sufficiency of His revealed nature and offices. You have Him for your very own. Hold fast that which you have, and let no man take this your crown and treasure. The same exhortation has emphatic application to the conflicts of today. The Church has had Jesus set forth as Christ and Lord. His manhood, the historical reality of His Incarnation with all its blessed issues, His Messiahship as the fulfiller of prophecy and symbol, designated and fitted by the fulness of the Spirit, to be man’s deliverer, His rule and authority over all creatures and events have been taught, and the tumults of present unsettlement make it hard and needful to keep true to that threefold belief, and to let nothing rob us of any of the demerits of the full gospel which lies in the august name, Christ Jesus the Lord.

To that gospel, to that Lord, the walk, the active life, is to be conformed, and the manner thereof is more fully explained in the following clauses.

"Rooted and built up in Him." Here again we have the profound "in Him," which appears so frequently in this and in the companion Epistle to the Ephesians, and which must be allowed its proper force, as expressing a most real indwelling of the believer in Christ, if the depth of the meaning is to be sounded.

Paul drives his fiery chariot through rhetorical proprieties, and never shrinks from "mixed metaphors" if they more vigorously express his thought. Here we have three incongruous ones close on each other’s heels. The Christian is to walk, to be rooted like a tree, to be built up like a house. What does the incongruity matter to Paul as the stream of thought and feeling hurries him along?

The tenses of the verbs, too, are studiously and significantly varied. Fully rendered they would be "having been rooted and being builded up." The one is a past act done once for all, the effects of which are permanent; the other is a continuous resulting process which is going on now. The Christian has been rooted in Jesus Christ at the beginning of his Christian course. His faith has brought him into living contact with the Saviour, who has become as the fruitful soil into which the believer sends his roots, and both feeds and anchors there. The familiar image of the first Psalm may have been in the writer’s mind, and naturally recurs to ours. If we draw nourishment and stability from Christ, round whom the roots of our being twine and cling, we shall flourish and grow and bear fruit. No man can do without some person beyond himself on whom to repose, nor can any of us find in ourselves or on earth the sufficient soil for our growth. We are like seedlings dropped on some great rock, which send their rootlets down the hard stone and are stunted till they reach the rich leaf mould at its base. We blindly feel through all the barrenness of the world for something into which our roots may plunge that we may be nourished and firm. In Christ we may be "like a tree planted by the river of water"; out of Him we are "as the chaff," rootless, lifeless, profitless, and swept at last by the wind from the threshing floor. The choice is before every man-either to be rooted in Christ by faith, or to be rootless.

"Being built up in Him." The gradual continuous building up of the structure of a Christian character is doubly expressed in this word by the present tense which points to a process and by the prefixed preposition represented by "up," which points to the successive laying Of course of masonry upon course. We are the architects of our own characters. If our lives are based on Jesus Christ as their foundation, and every deed is in vital connection with Him, as at once its motive, its pattern, its power, its aim, and its reward, then we shall build holy and fair lives, which will be temples. Men do not merely grow as a leaf which "grows green and broad, and takes no care." The other metaphor of a building needs to be taken into account, to complete the former. Effort, patient continuous labour must be put forth. More than "forty and six years is this temple in building." A stone at a time is fitted into its place, and so after much toil and many years, as in the case of some mediaeval cathedral unfinished for centuries, the topstone is brought forth at last. This choice, too, is before all men-to build on Christ and so to build for eternity, or on sand and so to be crushed below the ruins of their fallen houses.

"Stablished in your faith, even as ye were taught." This is apparently simply a more definite way of putting substantially the same thoughts as in the former clauses. Possibly the meaning is "stablished by faith," the Colossians’ faith being the instrument of their establishment. But the Revised Version is probably right in its rendering, "stablished in," or as to, "your faith." Their faith, as Paul had just been saying, was steadfast, but it needed yet increased firmness. And this exhortation, as it were, translates the previous ones into more homely language, that if any man stumbled at the mysticism of the thoughts there, he might grasp the plain practicalness here. If we are established and confirmed in our faith, we shall be rooted and built up in Jesus, for it is faith which joins us to Him, and its increase measures our growth in and into Him.

There then is a very plain practical issue of these deep thoughts of union with Jesus. A progressive increase of our faith is the condition of all Christian progress. The faith which is already the firmest, and by its firmness may gladden an Apostle, is still capable of and needs strengthening. Its range can be enlarged, its tenacity increased, its power over heart and life reinforced. The eye of faith is never so keen but that it may become more longsighted; its grasp never so close but that it may be tightened; its realisation never so solid but that it may be more substantial; its authority never so great but that it may be made more absolute. This continual strengthening of faith is the most essential form of a Christian’s effort at self-improvement. Strengthen faith and you strengthen all graces; for it measures our reception of Divine help. And the furthest development which faith can attain should ever be sedulously kept in harmony with the initial teaching-"even as ye were taught." Progress does not consist in dropping the early truths of Jesus Christ the Lord for newer wisdom and more speculative religion, but in discovering ever deeper lessons and larger powers in these rudiments which are likewise the last and highest lessons which men can learn.

Further, as the daily effort of the believing soul ought to be to strengthen the quality of its faith, so it should be to increase its amount-"abounding in it with thanksgiving." Or if we adopt the reading of the Revised Version, we shall omit the "in it," and find here only an exhortation to thanksgiving. That is in any case the main idea of the clause, which adds to the former the thought that thanksgiving is an inseparable accompaniment of vigorous Christian life. It is to be called forth, of course, mainly by the great gift of Christ, in whom we are rooted and builded, and, in Paul’s judgment, it is the very spring of Christian progress.

That constant temper of gratitude implies a habitual presence to the mind of God’s great mercy in His unspeakable gift, a continual glow of heart as we gaze, a continual appropriation of that gift for our very own, and a continual outflow of our heart’s love to the Incarnate and Immortal Love. Such thankfulness will bind us to glad obedience, and will give swiftness to the foot and eagerness to the will, to run in the way of God’s commandments. It is like genial sunshine, all flowers breathe perfume and fruits ripen under its influence. It is the fire which kindles the sacrifice of life and makes it go up in fragrant incense clouds, acceptable to God. The highest nobleness of which man is capable is reached when, moved by the mercies of God, we yield ourselves living sacrifices, thank offerings to Him Who yielded Himself the sin offering for us. The life which is an influenced by thanksgiving will be pure, strong, happy, in its continual counting of its gifts, and in its thoughts of the Giver, and not least happy and beautiful in its glad surrender of itself to Him who has given Himself for and to it. The noblest offering that we can bring, the only recompense which Christ asks, is that our hearts and our lives should say, We thank thee, O Lord. "By Him, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually," and the continual thanksgiving will ensure continuous growth in our Christian character, and a constant increase in the strength and depth of our faith.


Verses 8-10

Chapter 2

THE BANE AND THE ANTIDOTE

Colossians 2:8-10 (R.V.)

WE come now to the first plain reference to the errors which were threatening the peace of the Colossian community. Here Paul crosses swords with the foe. This is the point to which all his previous words have been steadily converging. The immediately preceding context contained the positive exhortation to continue in the Christ Whom they had received, having been rooted in Him as the tree in a fertile place "by the rivers of water," and being continually builded up in Him, with ever-growing completeness of holy character. The same exhortation in substance is contained in the verses which we have now to consider, with the difference that it is here presented negatively, as warning and dehortation, with distinct statement of the danger which would uproot the tree and throw down the building, and drag the Colossians away from union with Christ.

In these words the Bane and Antidote are both before us. Let us consider each.

I. The Poison against which Paul warns the Colossians is plainly described in our first verse, the terms of which may require a brief comment.

"Take heed lest there shall be." The construction implies that it is a real and not a hypothetical danger which he sees threatening. He is not crying "wolf" before there is need. "Anyone"- perhaps the tone of the warning would be better conveyed if we read the more familiar "somebody"; as if he had said-"I name no names-it is not the persons, but the principles that I fight against-but you know whom I mean well enough. Let him be anonymous, you understand who it is." Perhaps there was even a single "somebody" who was the centre of the mischief. "That maketh spoil of you." Such is the full meaning of the word-and not "injure" or "rob," which the translation in the Authorised Version suggests to an English reader. Paul sees the converts in Colossae taken prisoners and led away with a cord round their necks, like the long strings of captives on the Assyrian monuments. He had spoken in the previous chapter (Colossians 1:13) of the merciful conqueror who had "translated" them from the realm of darkness into a kingdom of light, and now he fears lest a robber horde, making a raid upon the peaceful colonists in their happy new homes, may sweep them away again into bondage. The instrument which the man stealer uses, or perhaps we may say, the cord, whose fatal noose will be tightened round them, if they do not take care, is "philosophy and vain deceit." If Paul, had been writing in English, he would have put "philosophy" in inverted commas, to show that he was quoting the heretical teachers’ own name for their system, if system it may be called, which was really a chaos. For the true love of wisdom, for any honest, humble attempt to seek after her as hid treasure; neither Paul nor Paul’s Master has anything but praise and sympathy and help. Where he met real, however imperfect, searchers after truth, he strove to find points of contact between them and his message, and to present the gospel as the answer to their questionings, the declaration of that which they were groping to find. The thing spoken of here has no resemblance but in name to what the Greeks in their better days first called philosophy, and nothing but that mere verbal coincidence warrants the representation-often made both by narrow-minded Christians, and by unbelieving thinkers-that Christianity takes up a position of antagonism or suspicion to it. The form of the expression in the original shows clearly that "vain deceit," or more literally "empty deceit," describes the "philosophy" which Paul is bidding them beware of. They are not two things, but one. It is like a blown bladder, full of wind, and nothing else. In its lofty pretensions, and if we take its own account of itself, it is a love of and search after wisdom; but if we look at it more closely, it is a swollen nothing, empty and a fraud. This is what he is condemning. The genuine thing he has nothing to say about here. He goes on to describe more closely this impostor, masquerading in the philosopher’s cloak. It is "after the traditions of men." We have seen in a former chapter what a strange heterogeneous conglomerate of Jewish ceremonial and Oriental dreams the false teachers in Colossae were preaching. Probably both these elements are included here. It is significant that the very expression, "the traditions of men," is a word of Christ’s, applied to the Pharisees, whom He charges with "leaving the commandment of God, and holding fast the tradition of men". [Mark 7:8] The portentous undergrowth of such "traditions" which, like the riotous fertility of creepers in a tropical forest, smother and kill the trees round which they twine, is preserved for our wonder and warning in the Talmud, where for thousands and thousands of pages, we get nothing but Rabbi So and So said this, but Rabbi So and So said that; until we feel stifled, and long for one Divine Word to still all the babble.

The Oriental element in the heresy, on the other hand, prided itself on a hidden teaching which was too sacred to be entrusted to books, and was passed from lip to lip in some close conclave of muttering teachers and listening adepts. The fact that all this, be it Jewish, be it Oriental teaching, had no higher source than men’s imaginings and refinings, seems to Paul the condemnation Of the whole system. His theory is that in Jesus Christ every Christian man has the full truth concerning God and man, in their mutual relations, -the authoritative Divine declaration of all that can be known, the perfect exemplar of all that ought to be done, the sun clear illumination and proof of all that dare be hoped. What an absurd descent, then, from the highest of our prerogatives, to "turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven," in order to listen to poor human voices, speaking men’s thoughts!

The lesson is as needful today as ever. The special forms of men’s traditions in question here have long since fallen silent, and trouble no man any more. But the tendency to give heed to human teachers and to suffer them to come between us and Christ is deep in us all. There is at one extreme the man who believes. in no revelation from God, and, smiling at us Christians who accept Christ’s words as final and Himself as the Incarnate truth, often pays to his chosen human teacher a deference as absolute as that which he regards as superstition, when we render it to our Lord. At the other extremity are the Christians who will not let Christ and the Scripture speak to the soul, unless the Church be present at the interview, like a jailor, with a bunch of man-made creeds jingling at its belt. But it is not only at the two ends of the line, but all along its length, that men are listening to "traditions" of men and neglecting "the commandment of God." We have all the same tendency in us. Every man carries a rationalist and a traditionalist under his skin. Every Church in Christendom, whether it has a formal creed or no, is ruled as to its belief and practice, to a sad extent, by the "traditions of the elders." The "freest" of the Nonconformist Churches, untrammelled by any formal confession, may be bound with as tight fetters, and be as much dominated by men’s opinions, as if it had the straitest of creeds. The mass of our religious beliefs and practices has ever to be verified, corrected, and remodelled, by harking back from creeds, written or unwritten, to the one Teacher, the endless significance of Whose person and work is but expressed in fragments by the purest and widest thoughts even of those who have lived nearest to Him, and seen most of His beauty. Let us get away from men, from the Babel of opinions and the strife of tongues, that we may "hear the words of His mouth"! Let us take heed of the empty fraud which lays the absurd snare for our feet, that we can learn to know God by any means but by listening to His own speech in His Eternal Word, lest it lead us away captive out of the Kingdom of the Light! Let us go up to the pure spring on the mountain top, and not try to slake our thirst at the muddy pools at its base! "Ye are Christ’s, be not the slaves of men." "This is My beloved Son, hear ye Him."

Another mark of this empty pretence of wisdom which threatens to captivate the Colossians is, that it is "after the rudiments of the world." ‘The word rendered "rudiments" means the letters of the alphabet, and hence comes naturally to acquire the meaning of "elements," or "first principles," just as we speak of the A B C of a science. The application of such a designation to the false teaching is, like the appropriation of the term "mystery" to the gospel, an instance of turning the tables and giving back the teachers their own words. They boasted of mysterious doctrines reserved for the initiated, of which the plain truths that Paul preached were but the elements, and they looked down contemptuously on his message as "milk for babes." Paul retorts on them, asserting that the true mystery, the profound truth long hidden and revealed, is the word which he preached, and that the poverty-stricken elements, fit only for infants, are in that swelling inanity which called itself wisdom and was not. Not only does he brand it as "rudiments," but as "rudiments of the world," which is worse-that is to say, as belonging to the sphere of the outward and material, and not to the higher region of the spiritual, where Christian thought ought to dwell. So two weaknesses are charged against the system: it is the mere alphabet of truth, and therefore unfit for grown men. It moves, for all its lofty pretensions, in the region of the visible and mundane things, and is therefore unfit for spiritual men. What features of the system are referred to in this phrase? Its use in the Epistle to the Galatians, [Galatians 4:3] as a synonym for the whole system of ritual observances and ceremonial precepts of Judaism, and the present context, which passes on immediately to speak of circumcision, point to a similar meaning here, though we may include also the ceremonial and ritual of the Gentile religions, in so far as they contributed to the outward forms which the Colossian heresy sought to impose on the Church. This then is Paul’s opinion about a system which laid stress on ceremonial and busied itself with forms. He regards it as a deliberate retrogression to an earlier stage. A religion of rites had come first, and was needed for the spiritual infancy of the race-but in Christ we ought to have outgrown the alphabet of revelation, and, being men, to have put away childish things. He regards it further as a pitiable descent into a lower sphere, a fall from the spiritual realm to the material, and therefore unbecoming for those who have been enfranchised from dependence upon outward helps and symbols, and taught the spirituality and inwardness of Christian worship.

We need the lesson in this day no less than did these Christians in the little community in that remote valley of Phrygia. The forms which were urged on them are long since antiquated, but the tendency to turn Christianity into a religion of ceremonial is running with an unusually powerful current today. We are all more interested in art, and think we know more about it than our fathers did. The eye and the ear are more educated than they used to be, and a society as "aesthetic" and "musical" as much cultured English society is becoming, will like an ornate ritual. So, apart altogether from doctrinal grounds, much in the conditions of today works towards ritual religion. Nonconformist services are less plain; some go from their ranks because they dislike the "bald" worship in the chapel, and prefer the more elaborate forms of the Anglican Church, which in its turn is for the same reason left by others who find their tastes gratified by the complete thing, as it is to be enjoyed full blown in the Roman Catholic communion. We may freely admit that the Puritan reaction was possibly too severe, and that a little more colour and form might with advantage have been retained. But enlisting the senses as the allies of the spirit in worship is risky work. They are very apt to fight for their own hand when they once begin, and the history of all symbolic and ceremonial worship shows that the experiment is much more likely to end in sensualising religion than in spiritualising sense. The theory that such aids make a ladder by which the soul may ascend to God is perilously apt to be confuted by experience, which finds that the soul is quite as likely to go down the ladder as up it. The gratification of taste, and the excitation of aesthetic sensibility, which are the results of such aids to worship, are not worship, however they may be mistaken for such. All ceremonial is in danger of becoming opaque instead of transparent, as it was meant to be, and of detaining mind and eye instead of letting them pass on and up to God. Stained glass is lovely, and white windows are "barnlike," and "starved," and "bare"; but perhaps, if the object is to get light and to see the sun, these solemn purples and glowing yellows are rather in the way. I for my part believe that of the two extremes, a Quaker meeting is nearer the ideal of Christian worship than High Mass, and so far as my feeble voice can reach, I would urge, as eminently a lesson for the day, Paul’s great principle here, that a Christianity making much of forms and ceremonies is a distinct retrogression and descent. You are men in Christ, do not go back to the picture book A B C of symbol and ceremony, which was fit for babes. You have been brought in to the inner sanctuary of worship in spirit; do not decline to the beggarly elements of outward form.

Paul sums up his indictment in one damning clause, the result of the two preceding. If the heresy, have no higher source than men’s traditions, and no more solid contents than ceremonial observances, it cannot be "after Christ." He is neither its origin, nor its substance, nor its rule and standard. There is a fundamental discord between every such system, however it may call itself Christian, and Christ. The opposition may be concealed by its teachers. They and their victims may not be aware of it. They may not themselves be conscious that by adopting it they have slipped off the foundation; but they have done so, and though in their own hearts they be loyal to Him, they have brought an incurable discord into their creeds which will weaken their lives, if it do not do worse. Paul cared very little for the dreams of these teachers, except in so far as they carried them and others away from his Master. The Colossians might have as many ceremonies as they liked, and welcome; but when these interfered with the sole reliance to be placed on Christ’s work, then they must have no quarter. It is not merely because the teaching was "after the traditions of men, after the rudiments of the world," but because, being so, it was "not after Christ," that Paul will have none of it. He that touches his Master touches the apple of his eye, and shades of opinion, and things indifferent in practice, and otherwise unimportant forms of worship, have to be fought to the death if they obscure one corner of the perfect and solitary work of the One Lord, who is at once the source, the substance, and the standard of all Christian teaching.

II. The Antidote.-"For in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and in Him ye are made full, who is the head of all principality and power."

These words may be a reason for the warning-"Take heed, for"; or they may be a reason for the implied exclusion of any teaching which is not after Christ. The statement of its characteristics carries in itself its condemnation. Anything "not after Christ" is ipso facto wrong, and to be avoided-"for," etc. "In Him" is placed with emphasis at the beginning, and implies "and nowhere else." "Dwelleth," that is, has its permanent abode; where the tense is to be noticed also, as pointing to the ascended Christ. "All the fulness of the Godhead," that is, the whole unbounded powers and attributes of Deity, where is to be noted the use of the abstract term. Godhead, instead of the more usual God, in order to express with the utmost force the thought of the indwelling in Christ of the whole essence and nature of God. "Bodily," that points to the Incarnation, and so is an advance upon the passage in the former chapter (Colossians 1:19), which speaks of "the fulness" dwelling in the Eternal Word; whereas this speaks of the Eternal Word in whom the fulness dwelt becoming flesh. So we are pointed to the glorified corporeal humanity of Jesus Christ in His exaltation as the abode, now and forever, of all the fulness of the Divine nature, which is thereby brought very near to us. This grand truth seems to Paul to shiver to pieces all the dreams of these teachers about angel mediators, and to brand as folly every attempt to learn truth and God anywhere else but in Him.

If He be the one sole temple of Deity in whom all Divine glories are stored, why go anywhere else in order to see or to possess God? It is folly; for not only are all these glories stored in Him, but they are so stored on purpose to be reached by us. Therefore the Apostle goes on, "and in Him ye are made full"; which sets forth two things as true in the inward life of all Christians, namely, their living incorporation in and union with Christ, and their consequent participation in His fulness. Every one of us may enter into that most real and close union with Jesus Christ by the power of continuous faith in Him. So may we be grafted into the Vine, and builded into the Rock. If thus we keep our hearts in contact with His heart and let Him lay His lip on our lips, He will breathe into us the breath of His own life, and ye shall live because He lives, and in our measure, as He lives. All the fulness of God is in Him, that from Him it may pass into us. We might start back from such bold words if we did not remember that the same apostle who here tells us that that fulness dwells in Jesus, crowns his wonderful prayer for the Ephesian Christians with that daring petition, "that ye may be filled with all the fulness of God." The treasure was lodged in the earthen vessel of Christ’s manhood that it might be within our reach. He brings the fiery blessing of a Divine life from Heaven to earth enclosed in the feeble reed of His manhood, that it may kindle kindred fire in many a heart. Freely the water of life flows into all cisterns from the ever fresh stream, into which the infinite depth of that unfathomable sea of good pours itself. Every kind of spiritual blessing is given therein. That stream, like a river of molten lava, holds many precious things in its flaming current, and will cool into many shapes and deposit many rare and rich gifts. According to our need it will vary itself, being to each what the moment most requires, -wisdom, or strength, or beauty, or courage, or patience. Out of it will come whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, as Rabbinical legends tell us that the manna tasted to each man like the food for which he wished most.

This process of receiving of all the Divine fulness is a continuous one. We can but be approximating to the possession of the infinite treasure which is ours in Christ; and since the treasure is infinite, and we can indefinitely grow in capacity of receiving God, there must be an eternal continuance of the filling and an eternal increase of the measure of what fills us. Our natures are elastic, and in love and knowledge, as well as in purity and capacity for blessedness, there are no bounds to be set to their possible expansion. They will be widened by bliss into a greater capacity for bliss. The indwelling Christ will "enlarge the place of His habitation," and as the walls stretch and the roofs soar, He will fill the greater house with the light of His presence and the fragrance of His name. The condition of this continuous reception of the abundant gift of a Divine life is abiding in Jesus. It is "in Him" that we are "being filled full"-and it is only so long as we continue in Him that we continue full. We cannot bear away our supplies, as one might a full bucket from a well, and keep it full. All the grace will trickle out and disappear unless we live in constant union with our Lord, whose Spirit passes into our deadness only so long as we are joined to Him.

From all such thoughts Paul would have us draw the conclusion-how foolish, then, it must be to go to any other source for the supply of our needs! Christ is "the head of all principality and power," he adds, with a reference to the doctrine of angel mediators, which evidently played a great part in the heretical teaching. If He is sovereign head of all dignity and power on earth and heaven, why go to the ministers, when we have access to the King; or have recourse to erring human teachers, when we have the Eternal Word to enlighten us; or flee to creatures to replenish our emptiness, when we may draw from the depths of God in Christ? Why should we go on a weary search after goodly pearls when the richest of all is by us, if we will have it? Do we seek to know God? Let us behold Christ, and let men talk as they list. Do we crave a stay for our spirit, guidance and impulse for our lives? Let us cleave to Christ, and we shall be no more lonely and bewildered. Do we need a quieting balm to be laid on conscience, and the sense of guilt to be lifted from our hearts? Let us lay our hands on Christ, the one sacrifice, and leave all other altars and priests and ceremonies. Do we look longingly for some light on the future? Let us steadfastly gaze on Christ as He rises to heaven bearing a human body into the glory of God.

Though all the earth were covered with helpers and lovers of my soul, "as the sand by the sea shore innumerable," and all the heavens were sown with faces of angels who cared for me and succoured me, thick as the stars in the Milky Way-all could not do for me what I need. Yea, though all these were gathered into one mighty and loving creature, even he were no sufficient stay for one soul of man. We want more than creature help. We need the whole fulness of the Godhead to draw from. It is all there in Christ, for each of us. Whosoever will, let him draw freely. Why should we leave the fountain of living waters to hew out for ourselves, with infinite pains, broken cisterns that can hold no water? All we need is in Christ. Let us lift our eyes from the low earth and all creatures, and behold "no man any more," as Lord and Helper, "save Jesus only," "that we may be filled with all the fulness of God."


Verses 11-13

Chapter 2

THE TRUE CIRCUMCISION

Colossians 2:11-13 (R.V.)

THERE are two opposite tendencies ever at work in human nature to corrupt religion. One is of the intellect; the other of the senses. The one is the temptation of the cultured few; the other, that of the vulgar many. The one turns religion into theological speculation; the other, into a theatrical spectacle. But, opposite as these tendencies usually are, they were united in that strange chaos of erroneous opinion and practice which Paul had to front at Colossae. From right and from left he was assailed, and his batteries had to face both ways. Here he is mainly engaged with the error which insisted on imposing circumcision on these Gentile converts.

I. To this teaching of the necessity of circumcision, he first opposes the position that all Christian men, by virtue of their union with Christ, have received the true circumcision, of which the outward rite was a shadow and a prophecy, and that therefore the rite is antiquated and obsolete. His language is emphatic and remarkable. It points to a definite past time-no doubt the time when they became Christians-when, because they were in Christ, a change, passed on them which is fitly paralleled with circumcision. This Christian circumcision is described in three particulars: as "not made with hands"; as consisting in "putting off the body of the flesh"; and as being "of Christ."

It is "not made with hands," that is, it is not a rite, but a reality; not transacted in flesh, but in spirit. It is not the removal of ceremonial impurity, but the cleansing of the heart. This idea of ethical circumcision, of which the bodily rite is the type, is common in the Old Testament, as, for instance, "The Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart". [Deuteronomy 30:6] This is the true Christian circumcision.

It consists in the "putting off the body of the flesh"-for "the sins of" is an interpolation. Of course a man does not shuffle off this mortal coil when he becomes a Christian, so that we have to look for some other meaning of the strong words. They are very strong, for the word "putting off" is intensified so as to express a complete stripping off from oneself, as of clothes which are laid aside, and is evidently intended to contrast the partial outward circumcision as the removal of a small part of the body, with the entire removal effected by union with Christ. If that removal of "the body of the flesh" is "not made with hands," then it can only be in the sphere of the spiritual life, that is to say, it must consist in a change in the relation of the two constituents of a man’s being, and that of such a kind that, for the future, the Christian shall not live after the flesh, though he live in the flesh. "Ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit," says Paul, and again he uses an expression as strong as, if not stronger than that of our text, when he speaks of "the body" as "being destroyed," and explains himself by adding "that henceforth we should not serve sin." It is not the body considered simply as material and fleshly that we put off, but the body considered as the seat of corrupt and sinful affections and passions. A new principle of life comes into men’s hearts which delivers them from the dominion of these, and makes it possible that they should live in the flesh, not "according to the lusts of the flesh, but according to the will of God." True, the text regards this divesting as complete, whereas, as all Christian men know only too sadly, it is very partial, and realised only by slow degrees. The ideal is represented here, -what we receive "in Him," rather than what we actually possess and incorporate into our experience. On the Divine side the change is complete. Christ gives complete emancipation from the dominion of sense, and if we are not in reality completely emancipated, it is because we have not taken the things that are freely given to us, and are not completely "in Him." So far as we are, we have put off "the flesh." The change has passed on us if we are Christians. We have to work it out day by day. The foe may keep up a guerilla warfare after he is substantially defeated, but his entire subjugation is certain if we keep hold of the strength of Christ.

Finally, this circumcision is described as "of Christ," by which is not meant that He submitted to it, but that He instituted it.

Such being the force of this statement, what is its bearing on the Apostle’s purpose? He desires to destroy the teaching that the rite of circumcision was binding on the Christian converts, and he does so by asserting that the gospel has brought the reality, of which the rite was but a picture and a prophecy. The underlying principle is that when we have the thing signified by any Jewish rites, which were all prophetic as well as symbolic, the rite may-must go. Its retention is an anachronism, "as if a flower should shut, and be a bud again." That is a wise and pregnant principle, but as it comes to the surface again immediately hereafter, and is applied to a whole series of subjects, we may defer the consideration of it, and rather dwell briefly on other matters suggested by this verse.

We notice, then, the intense moral earnestness which leads the Apostle here to put the true centre of gravity of Christianity in moral transformation, and to set all outward rites and ceremonies in a very subordinate place. What had Jesus Christ come from heaven for, and for what had He borne His bitter passion? To what end were the Colossians knit to Him by a tie so strong, tender, and strange? Had they been carried into that inmost depth of union with Him, and were they still to be laying stress on ceremonies? Had Christ’s work, then, no higher issue than to leave religion bound in the cords of outward observances? Surely Jesus Christ, who gives men a new life by union with Himself, which union is brought about through faith alone, has delivered men from that "yoke of bondage," if He has done anything at all. Surely they who are joined to Him should have a profounder apprehension of the means and the end of their relation to their Lord than to suppose that it is either brought about by any outward rite, or has any reality unless it makes them pure and good. From that height all questions of external observances dwindle into insignificance, and all question of sacramental efficacy drops away of itself. The vital centre lies in our being joined to Jesus Christ-the condition of which is faith in Him, and the outcome of it a new life which delivers us from the dominion of the flesh. How far away from such conceptions of Christianity are those which busy themselves on either side with matters of detail, with punctilios of observance, and pedantries of form? The hatred of forms may be as completely a form as the most elaborate ritual-and we all need to have our eyes turned away from these to the far higher thing, the worship and service offered by a transformed nature.

We notice, again, that the conquest of the animal nature and the material body is the certain outcome of true union with Christ, and of that alone.

Paul did not regard matter as necessarily evil, as these teachers at Colossae did, nor did he think of the body as the source of all sin. But he knew that the fiercest and most fiery temptations came from it, and that the foulest and most indelible stains on conscience were splashed from the mud which it threw. We all know that too. It is a matter of life and death for each of us to find some means of taming and holding in the animal that is in us all. We all know of wrecked lives, which have been driven on the rocks by the wild passions belonging to the flesh. Fortune, reputation, health, everything are sacrificed by hundreds of men, especially young men, at the sting of this imperious lust. The budding promise of youth, innocence, hope, and all which makes life desirable and a nature fair, are trodden down by the hoofs of the brute. There is no need to speak of that. And when we come to add to this the weaknesses of the flesh, and the needs of the flesh, and the limitations of the flesh, and to remember how often high purposes are frustrated by its shrinking from toil, and how often mists born from its undrained swamps darken the vision that else might gaze on truth and God, we cannot but feel that we do not need to be Eastern Gnostics to believe that goodness requires the flesh to be subdued. Everyone who has sought for self-improvement recognises the necessity. But no asceticisms and no resolves will do what we want.

Much repression may be effected by sheer force of will, but it is like a man holding a wolf by the jaws. The arms begin to ache and the grip to grow slack, and he feels his strength ebbing, and knows that, as soon as he lets go, the brute will fly at his throat. Repression is not taming. Nothing tames the wild beast in us but the power of Christ. He binds it in a silken lash, and that gentle constraint is strong, because the fierceness is gone. "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and a little child shall lead them." The power of union with Christ, and that alone, will enable us to put off the body of the flesh. And such union will certainly lead to such crucifying of the animal nature. Christianity would be easy if it were a round of observances; it would be comparatively easy if it were a series of outward asceticisms. Anybody can fast or wear a hair shirt, if he have motive sufficient; but the "putting off the body of the flesh" which is "not made with hands," is a different and harder thing. Nothing else avails. High flown religious emotion, or clear theological definitions, or elaborate ceremonial worship, may all have their value; but a religion which includes them all, and leaves out the plain moralities of subduing the flesh, and keeping our heel well pressed down on the serpent’s head, is worthless. If we are in Christ, we shall not live in the flesh.

II. The Apostle meets the false teaching of the need for circumcision, by a second consideration; namely, a reference to Christian Baptism, as being the Christian sign of that inward change. Ye were circumcised, says he-being buried with Him in baptism. The form of expression in the Greek implies that the two things are contemporaneous. As if he had said-Do you want any further rite to express that mighty change which passed on you when you came to be "in Christ"? You have been baptised; does not that express all the meaning that circumcision ever had, and much more? What can you want with the less significant rite when you have the more significant? This reference to baptism is quite consistent with what has been said as to the subordinate importance of ritual. Some forms we must have, if there is to be any outward visible Church, and Christ has yielded to the necessity, and given us two, of which the one symbolises the initial spiritual act of the Christian life, and the other the constantly repeated process of Christian nourishment. They are symbols and outward representations, nothing more. They convey grace, in so far as they help us to realise more clearly and to feel more deeply the facts on which our spiritual life is fed, but they are not channels of grace in any other way than any other outward acts of worship may be.

We see that the form of baptism, here presupposed is by immersion, and that the form is regarded as significant. All but entire unanimity prevails among commentators on this point. The burial and the resurrection spoken of point unmistakably to the primitive mode of baptism, as Bishop Lightfoot, the latest and best English expositor of this book, puts it in his paraphrase: "Ye were buried with Christ to your old selves beneath the baptismal waters, and were raised with Him from these same waters, to a new and better life."

If so, two questions deserve consideration-first, is it right to alter a form which has a meaning that is lost by the change? second, can we alter a significant form without destroying it? Is the new thing rightly called by the old name? If baptism be immersion, and immersion express a substantial part of its meaning, can sprinkling or pouring be baptism?

Again, baptism is associated in time with the inward change, which is the true circumcision. There are but two theories on which these two things are contemporaneous. The one is the theory that baptism effects the change; the other is the theory that baptism goes with the change as its sign. The association is justified if men are "circumcised," that is, changed when they are baptised, or if men are baptised when they have been "circumcised." No other theory gives full weight to these words.

The former theory elevates baptism into more than the importance of which Paul sought to deprive circumcision, it confuses the distinction between the Church and the world, it lulls men into a false security, it obscures the very central truth of Christianity-namely that faith in Christ, working by love, makes a Christian-it gives the basis for a portentous reproduction of sacerdotalism, and it is shivered to pieces against the plain facts of daily life. But it may be worth while to notice in a sentence, that it is conclusively disposed of by the language before us-it is "through faith in the operation of God" that we are raised again in baptism. Not the rite, then, but faith is the means of this participation with Christ in burial and resurrection. What remains but that baptism is associated with that spiritual change by which we are delivered from the body of the flesh, because in the Divine order it is meant to be the outward symbol of that change which is effected by no rite or sacrament, but by faith alone, uniting us to the transforming Christ? We observe the solemnity and the thoroughness of the change thus symbolised. It is more than circumcision. It is burial and a resurrection, an entire dying of the old self by Union with Christ, a real and present rising again by participation in His risen life. This and nothing less makes a Christian. We partake of His death, inasmuch as we ally ourselves to it by our faith, as the sacrifice for our sins, and make it the ground of all our hope. But that is not all. We partake of His death, inasmuch as, by the power of His cross, we are drawn to sever ourselves from the selfish life, and to slay our own old nature; dying for His dear sake to the habits, tastes, desires, and purposes in which we lived. Self-crucifixion for the love of Christ is the law for us all. His cross is the pattern for our conduct, as well as the pledge and means of our acceptance. We must die to sin that we may live to righteousness. We must die to self, that we may live to God and our brethren. We have no right to trust in Christ for us, except as we have Christ in us. His cross is not saving us from our guilt unless it is moulding our lives to some faint likeness of Him who died that we may live, and might live a real life by dying daily to the world, sin, and self.

If we are thus made conformable to His death, we shall know the power of His resurrection, in all its aspects. It will be to us the guarantee of our own, and we shall know its power as a prophecy for our future. It will be to us the seal of His perfect work on the cross, and we shall know its power as God’s token of acceptance of His sacrifice in the past. It will be to us the type of our spiritual resurrection now, and we shall know its power as the pattern and source of our supernatural life in the present. Thus we must die in and with Christ that we may live in and with Him, and that twofold process is the very heart of personal religion. No lofty participation in the immortal hopes which spring from the empty grave of Jesus is warranted, unless we have His quickening power raising us today by a better resurrection; and no participation in the present power of His heavenly life is possible, unless we have such a share in His death, as that by it the world is crucified to us, and we unto the world.

III. The Apostle adds another phase of this great contrast of life and death, which brings home still more closely to his hearers the deep and radical change which passes upon all Christians. He has been speaking of a death and burial followed by a resurrection. But there is another death from which Christ raises us, by that same risen life imparted to us through faith - a darker and grimmer thing than the self-abnegation before described.

"And you, being dead through your trespasses, and the uncircumcision of your flesh." The separate acts of transgression of which they had been guilty, and the unchastened, unpurified, carnal nature from which these had flowed, were the reasons of a very real and awful death; or, as the parallel passage in Ephesians [Ephesians 2:2] puts it with a slight variation, they made the condition or sphere in which that death inhered. That solemn thought, so pregnant in its dread emphasis in Scripture, is not to be put aside as a mere metaphor. All life stands in union with God. The physical universe exists by reason of its perpetual contact with His sustaining hand, in the hollow of which all Being lies, and it is, because He touches it. "In Him we live." So also the life of mind is sustained by His perpetual inbreathing, and in the deepest sense "we see light" in His light. So, lastly, the highest life of the spirit stands in union in still higher manner with Him, and to be separated from Him is death to it. Sin breaks that union, and therefore sin is death, in the very inmost centre of man’s being. The awful warning, "In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die," was fulfilled. That separation by sin, in which the soul is wrenched from God, is the real death, and the thing that men call by the name is only an outward symbol of a far sadder fact-the shadow of that which is the awful substance, and as much less terrible than it as painted fires are less than the burning reality.

So men may live in the body, and toil and think and feel, and be dead. The world is full of "sheeted dead," that "squeak and gibber" in "our streets," for every soul that lives to self and has rent itself away from God, so far as a creature can, is "dead while he liveth." The other death, of which the previous verse spoke, is therefore but the putting off of a death. We lose nothing of real life in putting off self, but only that which keeps us in a separation from God, and slays our true and highest being. To die to self is but "the death of death."

The same life of which the previous verse spoke as coming from the risen Lord is here set forth as able to raise us from that death of sin. "He hath quickened you together with Him." Union with Christ floods our dead souls with His own vitality, as water will pour from a reservoir through a tube inserted in it. There is the actual communication of a new life when we touch Christ by faith. The prophet of old laid himself upon the dead child, the warm lip on the pallid mouth, the throbbing heart on the still one, and the contact rekindled the extinguished spark. So Christ lays His full life on our deadness, and does more than recall a departed glow of vitality. He communicates a new life kindred with His own. That life makes us free here and now from the law of sin and death, and it shall be perfected hereafter when the working of His mighty power shall change the body of our humiliation into the likeness of the body of His glory, and the leaven of His new life shall leaven the three measures in which it is hidden, body, soul, and spirit, with its own transforming energy. Then, in yet higher sense, death shall die, and life shall be victor by His victory.

But to all this one preliminary is needful-"having forgiven us all trespasses." Paul’s eagerness to associate himself with his brethren, and to claim his share in the forgiveness, as well as to unite in the acknowledgment of sin, makes him change his word from "you" to "us." So the best manuscripts give the text, and the reading is obviously full of interest and suggestiveness. There must be a removal of the cause of deadness before there can be a quickening to new life. That cause was sin, which cannot be cancelled as guilt by any self-denial however great, nor even by the impartation of a new life from God for the future. A gospel which only enjoined dying to self would be as inadequate as a gospel which only provided for a higher life in the future. The stained and faultful past must be cared for. Christ must bring pardon for it, as well as a new spirit for the future. So the condition prior to our being quickened together with Him is God’s forgiveness, free and universal, covering all our sins, and given to us without anything on our part. That condition is satisfied. Christ’s death brings to us God’s pardon, and when the great barrier of unforgiven sin is cleared away, Christ’s life pours into our hearts, and "everything lives whithersoever the river cometh."

Here then we have the deepest ground of Paul’s intense hatred of every attempt to make anything but faith in Christ and moral purity essential to the perfect Christian life. Circumcision and baptism and all other rites or sacraments of Judaism or Christianity are equally powerless to quicken dead souls. For that, the first thing needed is the forgiveness of sins, and that is ours through simple faith in Christ’s death. We are quickened by Christ’s own life in us, and He "dwells in our hearts by faith."

All ordinances may be administered to us a hundred times, and without faith they leave us as they found us-dead. If we have hold of Christ by faith we live, whether we have received the ordinances or not. So all full-blown or budding sacramentarianism is to be fought against to the uttermost, because it tends to block the road to the City of Refuge for a poor sinful soul, and the most pressing of all necessities is that that way of life should be kept clear and unimpeded. We need the profound truth which lies in the threefold form which Paul gives to one of his great watchwords: "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God." And how, says my despairing conscience, shall I keep the commandments? The answer lies in the second form of the saying-"In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature." And how, replies my saddened heart, can I become a new creature? The answer lies in the final form of the saying -"In Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh." Faith brings the life which makes us new men, and then we can keep the commandments. If we have faith, and are new men and do God’s will, we need no rites but as helps. If we have not faith, all rites are nothing.


Verse 14-15

Chapter 2

THE CROSS THE DEATH OF LAW AND THE TRIUMPH OVER EVIL POWERS

Colossians 2:14-15 (R.V.)

The same double reference to the two characteristic errors of the Colossians which we have already met so frequently, presents itself here. This whole section vibrates continually between warnings against the Judaising enforcement of the Mosaic law on Gentile Christians, and against the Oriental figments about a crowd of angelic beings filling the space betwixt man and God, betwixt pure spirit and gross matter. One great fact is here opposed to these strangely associated errors. The cross of Christ is the abrogation of the Law; the cross of Christ is the victory over principalities and powers. If we hold fast by it, we are under no subjection to the former, and have neither to fear nor reverence the latter.

I. The Cross of Christ is the death of Law. The law is a written document. It has an antagonistic aspect to us all, Gentiles as well as Jews. Christ has blotted it out. More than that, He has taken it out of the way, as if it were an obstacle lying right in the middle of our path. More than that, it is "nailed to the cross." That phrase has been explained by an alleged custom of repealing laws and cancelling bonds by driving a nail into them, and fixing them up in public, but proof of the practice is said to be wanting. The thought seems to be deeper than that. This antagonistic "law" is conceived of as being, like "the world," crucified in the crucifixion of our Lord. The nails which fastened Him to the cross fastened it, and in His death it was done to death. We are free from it, "that being dead in which we were held."

We have first, then, to consider the "handwriting," or, as some would render the word, "the bond." Of course, by law here is primarily meant the Mosaic ceremonial law, which was being pressed upon the Colossians. It is so completely antiquated for us, that we have difficulty in realising what a fight for life and death raged round the question of its observance by the primitive Church. It is always harder to change customs than creeds, and religious observances live on, as every maypole on a village green tells us, long after the beliefs which animated them are forgotten. So there was a strong body among the early believers to whom it was flat blasphemy to speak of allowing the Gentile Christian to come into the Church, except through the old doorway of circumcision, and to whom the outward ceremonial of Judaism was the only visible religion. That is the point directly at issue between Paul and these teachers.

But the modern distinction between moral and ceremonial law had no existence in Paul’s mind, any more than it has in the Old Testament, where precepts of the highest morality and regulations of the merest ceremonial are interstratified in a way most surprising to us moderns. To him the law was a homogeneous whole, however diverse its commands, because it was all the revelation of the will of God for the guidance of man. It is the law as a whole, in all its aspects and parts, that is here spoken of, whether as enjoining morality, or external observances, or as an accuser fastening guilt on the conscience, or as a stern prophet of retribution and punishment.

Further, we must give a still wider extension to the thought. The principles laid down are true not only in regard to "the law," but about all law, whether it be written on the tables of stone, or on "the fleshly tables of the heart" or conscience, or in the systems of ethics, or in the customs of society. Law, as such, howsoever enacted and whatever the bases of its rule, is dealt with by Christianity in precisely the same way as the venerable and God given code of the Old Testament. When we recognise that fact, these discussions in Paul’s Epistles flash up into startling vitality and interest. It has long since been settled that Jewish ritual is nothing to us. But it ever remains a burning question for each of us, What Christianity does for us in relation to the solemn law of duty under which we are all placed, and which we have all broken?

The antagonism of law is the next point presented by these words. Twice, to add to the emphasis, Paul tells us that the law is against us. It stands opposite us fronting us and frowning at us, and barring our road. Is "law" then become our "enemy because it tells us the truth"? Surely this conception of law is a strange contrast to and descent from the rapturous delight of psalmists and prophets in the "law of the Lord." Surely God’s greatest gift to man is the knowledge of His will, and law is beneficent, a light and a guide to men, and even its strokes are merciful. Paul believed all that too. But nevertheless the antagonism is very real. As with God, so with law, if we be against Him, He cannot but be against us. We may make Him our dearest friend or our foe. "They rebelled therefore He was turned to be their enemy and fought against them." The revelation of duty to which we are not inclined is ever unwelcome. Law is against us, because it comes like a taskmaster, bidding us do, but neither putting the inclination into our hearts, nor the power into our hands. And law is against us, because the revelation of unfulfilled duty is the accusation of the defaulter and a revelation to him of his guilt. And law is: against us, because it comes with threatenings and foretastes of penalty and pain. Thus as standard, accuser, and avenger, it is-sad perversion of its nature and function though such an attitude be-against us.

We all know that. Strange and tragic it is, but alas! it is true, that God’s law presents itself before us as an enemy. Each of us has seen that apparition, severe in beauty, like the sword-bearing angel that Balaam saw "standing in the way" between the vineyards, blocking our path when we wanted to "go frowardly in the way of our heart." Each of us knows what it is to see our sentence in the stern face. The law of the Lord should be to us "sweeter than honey and the honeycomb," but the corruption of the best is the worst, and we can make it poison. Obeyed, it is as the chariot of fire to bear us heavenward. Disobeyed, it is an iron car that goes crashing on its way, crushing all who set themselves against it. To know what we ought to be and to love and try to be it, is blessedness, but to know it and to refuse to be it, is misery. In herself she "wears the Godhead’s most benignant grace," but if we turn against her, Law, the "daughter of the voice of God," gathers frowns upon her face and her beauty becomes stern and threatening.

But the great principle here asserted is the destruction of law in the cross of Christ. The cross ends the law’s power of punishment. Paul believed that the burden and penalty of sin had been laid on Jesus Christ and borne by Him on His cross. In deep, mysterious, but most real identification of Himself with the whole race of man, He not only Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses, by the might of His sympathy and the reality of His manhood, but "the Lord made to meet upon Him the iniquity of us all"; and He, the Lamb of God, willingly accepted the load, and bare away our sins by bearing their penalty.

To philosophise on that teaching of Scripture is not my business here. It is my business to assert it. We can never penetrate to a full understanding of the rationale of Christ’s bearing the world’s sins, but that has nothing to do with the earnestness of our belief in the fact. Enough for us that in His person He willingly made experience of all the bitterness of sin: that when He agonised in the dark on the cross, and when from out of the darkness came that awful cry, so strangely compact of wistful confidence and utter isolation, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" it was something deeper than physical pain or shrinking from physical death that found utterance- even the sin-laden consciousness of Him who in that awful hour gathered into His own breast the spear points of a world’s punishment. The cross of Christ is the endurance of the penalty of sin, and therefore is the unloosing of the grip of the law upon us, in so far as threatening and punishment are concerned. It is not enough that we should only intellectually recognise that as a principle-it is the very heart of the gospel, the very life of our souls. Trusting ourselves to that great sacrifice, the dread of punishment will fade from our hearts, and the thunder clouds melt out of the sky, and the sense of guilt will not be a sting, but an occasion for lowly thankfulness, and the law will have to draw the bolts of her prison house and let our captive souls go free.

Christ’s cross is the end of law as ceremonial. The whole elaborate ritual of the Jew had sacrifice for its vital centre, and the prediction of the Great Sacrifice for its highest purpose. Without the admission of these principles, Paul’s position is unintelligible, for he holds, as in this context, that Christ’s coming puts the whole system out of date, because it fulfils it all. When the fruit has set, there is no more need for petals; or, as the Apostle himself puts it, "when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part is done away." We have the reality, and do not need the shadow. There is but one temple for the Christian soul-the "temple of His body." Local sanctity is at an end, for it was never more than an external picture of that spiritual fact which is realised in the Incarnation. Christ is the dwelling place of Deity, the meeting place of God and man, the place of sacrifice; and, builded on Him, we in Him become a spiritual house. There are none other temples than these. Christ is the great priest, and in His presence all human priesthood loses its consecration, for it could offer only external sacrifice, and secure a local approach to a "worldly sanctuary." He is the real Aaron, and we in Him become a royal priesthood. There are none other priests than these. Christ is the true sacrifice. His death is the real propitiation for sin, and we in Him become thank offerings, moved by His mercies to present ourselves living sacrifices. There are none other offerings than these. So the law as a code of ceremonial worship is done to death in the cross, and, like the temple veil, is torn in two from the top to the bottom.

Christ’s cross is the end of law as moral rule. Nothing in Paul’s writings warrants the restriction to the ceremonial law of the strong assertion in the text, and its many parallels. Of course, such words do not mean that Christian men are freed from the obligations of morality, but they do mean that we are not bound to do the "things contained in the law" because they are there. Duty is duty now because we see the pattern of conduct and character in Christ. Conscience is not our standard, nor is the Old Testament conception of the perfect ideal of manhood. We have neither to read law in the fleshy tables of the heart, nor in the tables graven by God’s own finger, nor in men’s parchments and prescriptions. Our law is the perfect life and death of Christ, who is at once the ideal of humanity and the reality of, Deity.

The weakness of all law is that it merely commands, but has no power to get its commandments obeyed. Like a discrowned king, it posts its proclamations, but has no army at its back to execute them. But Christ puts His own power within us, and His love in our hearts; and so we pass from under the dominion of an external commandment into the liberty of an inward spirit. He is to His followers both "law and impulse." He gives not the "law of a carnal commandment, but the power of an endless life." The long schism between inclination and duty is at an end, in so far as we are under the influence of Christ’s cross. The great promise is fulfilled, "I will put My law into their minds and write it in their hearts"; and so, glad obedience with the whole power of the new life, for the sake of the love of the dear Lord who has bought us by His dearth, supersedes the constrained submission to outward precept. A higher morality ought to characterise the partakers of the life of Christ, who have His example for their code, and His love for their motive. The tender voice that says, "If ye love Me, keep My commandments," wins us to purer and more self-sacrificing goodness than the stern accents that can only say, "Thou shalt-or else!" can ever enforce. He came "not to destroy, but to fulfil." The fulfilment was destruction in order to reconstruction in higher form. Law died with Christ on the cross in order that it might rise and reign with Him in our inmost hearts.

II. The Cross is the triumph over all the powers of evil.

There are considerable difficulties in the interpretation of Colossians 2:15; the main question being the meaning of the word rendered in the Authorised Version "spoiled," and in the R.V, "having put off from Himself." It is the same word as is used in Colossians 3:9, and is there rendered "have put off"; while a cognate noun is found in verse 11 of this chapter (Colossians 2:11), and is there translated "the putting off." The form here must either mean "having put off from oneself," or "having stripped (others) for oneself." The former meaning is adopted by many commentators, as well as by the R.V, and is explained to mean that Christ, having assumed our humanity, was, as it were, wrapped about and invested with Satanic temptations, which He finally flung from Him forever in His death, which was His triumph over the powers of evil. The figure seems far-fetched and obscure, and the rendering necessitates the supposition of a change in the person spoken of, which must be God in the earlier part of the period, and Christ in the latter.

But if we adopt the other meaning, which has equal warrant in the Greek form, "having stripped for Himself," we get the thought that in the cross God has, for His greater glory, stripped principalities and powers. Taking this meaning, we avoid the necessity of supposing with Bishop Lightfoot that there is a change of subject from God to Christ at some point in the period including Colossians 2:13 -an expedient which is made necessary by the impossibility of supposing that God "divested Himself of principalities or powers"-and also avoid the other necessity of referring the whole period to Christ, which is another way out of that impossibility. We thereby obtain a more satisfactory meaning than that Christ in assuming humanity was assailed by temptations from the powers of evil which were, as it were, a poisoned garment clinging to Him, and which He stripped off from Himself in His death. Further, such a meaning as that which we adopt makes the whole verse a consistent metaphor in three stages, whereas the other introduces an utterly incongruous and irrelevant figure. What connection has the figure of stripping off a garment with that of a conqueror in his triumphal procession? But if we read "spoiled for Himself principalities and powers," we see the whole process before our eyes-the victor stripping his foes of arms and ornaments and dress, then parading them as his captives, and then dragging them at the wheels of his triumphal car.

The words point us into dim regions of which we know nothing more than Scripture tells us. These dreamers at Colossae had much to say about a crowd of beings, bad and good, which linked men and matter with spirit and God. We have heard already the emphasis with which Paul has claimed for his Master the sovereign authority of Creator over all orders of being, the headship over all principality and power. He has declared, too, that from Christ’s cross a magnetic influence streams out upwards as well as earthwards, binding all things together in the great reconciliation-and now he tells us that from that same cross shoot downwards darts of conquering power which subdue and despoil reluctant foes of other realms and regions than ours, in so far as they work among men.

That there are such seems plainly enough asserted in Christ’s own words. However much discredit has been brought on the thought by monastic and Puritan exaggerations, it is clearly the teaching of Scripture; and however it may be ridiculed or set aside, it can never be disproved. But the position which Christianity takes in reference to the whole matter is to maintain that Christ has conquered the banded kingdom of evil, and that no man owes it fear or obedience, if he will only hold fast by his Lord. In the cross is the judgment of this world, and by it is the prince of this world cast out. He has taken away the power of these Powers who were so mighty amongst men. They held men captive by temptations too strong to be overcome, but He has conquered the lesser temptations of the wilderness and the sorer of the cross, and therein has made us more than conquerors. They held men captive by ignorance of God, and the cross reveals Him; by the lie that sin was a trifle, but the cross teaches us its gravity and power; by the opposite lie that sin was unforgivable, but the cross brings pardon for every transgression and cleansing for every stain. By the cross the world is a redeemed world, and, as our Lord said in words which may have suggested the figure of our text, the strong man is bound, and his house spoiled of all his armour wherein he trusted. The prey is taken from the mighty and men are delivered from the dominion of evil. So that dark kingdom is robbed of its subjects and its rulers impoverished and restrained. The devout imagination of the monk painter drew on the wall of the cell in his convent the conquering Christ with white banner bearing a blood-red cross, before whose glad coming the heavy doors of the prison house fell from their hinges, crushing beneath their weight the demon jailor, while the long file of eager captives, from Adam onwards through ages of patriarchs and psalmists and prophets, hurried forward with outstretched hands to meet the Deliverer, who came bearing His own atmosphere of radiance and joy. Christ has conquered. His cross is His victory; and in that victory God has conquered. As the long files of the triumphal procession swept upwards to the temple with incense and music, before the gazing eyes of a gathered glad nation, while the conquered trooped chained behind the chariot, that all men might see their fierce eyes gleaming beneath their matted hair, and breathe more freely for the chains on their hostile wrists, so in the worldwide issues of the work of Christ, God triumphs before the universe, and enhances His glory in that He has rent the prey from the mighty and won men back to Himself.

So we learn to think of evil as conquered, and for ourselves in our own conflicts with the world, the flesh, and the devil, as well as for the whole race of man, to be of good cheer. True, the victory is but slowly being realised in all its consequences, and often it seems as if no territory had been won. But the main position has been carried, and though the struggle is still obstinate, it can end only in one way. The brute dies hard, but the naked heel of our Christ has bruised his head, and though still the dragon

"Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail,"

his death will come sooner or later. The regenerating power is lodged in the heart of humanity, and the centre from which it flows is the cross. The history of the world thenceforward is but the history of its more or less rapid assimilation of that power, and of its consequent deliverance from the bondage in which it has been held. The end can only be the entire and universal manifestation of the victory which was won when He bowed His head and died. Christ’s cross is God’s throne of triumph.

Let us see that we have our own personal part in that victory. Holding to Christ, and drawing from Him by faith a share in His new life, we shall no longer be under the yoke of law, but enfranchised into the obedience of love, which is liberty. We shall no longer be slaves of evil, but sons and servants of our conquering God, who wooes and wins us by showing us all His love in Christ, and by giving us His own Son on the Cross, our peace offering. If we let Him overcome, His victory will be life, not death. He will strip us of nothing but rags, and clothe us in garments of purity; He will so breathe beauty into us that He will show us openly to the universe as examples of His transforming power, and He will bind us glad captives to His chariot wheels, partakers of His victory as well as trophies of His all-conquering love. "Now thanks be unto God, which always triumphs over us in Jesus Christ."


Verses 16-19

Chapter 2

WARNINGS AGAINST TWIN CHIEF ERRORS, BASED UPON PREVIOUS POSITIVE TEACHING

Colossians 2:16-19 (R.V.)

"Let no man therefore judge you." That "therefore" sends us back to what the Apostle has been saying in the previous verses, in order to find there the ground of these earnest warnings. That ground is the whole of the foregoing exposition of the Christian relation to Christ as far back as Colossians 2:9, but especially the great truths contained in the immediately preceding verses, that the cross of Christ is the death of law, and God’s triumph over all the powers of evil. Because it is so, the Colossian Christians are exhorted to claim and use their emancipation from both. Thus we have here the very heart and centre of the practical counsels of the Epistle-the double blasts of the trumpet warning against the two most pressing dangers besetting the Church. They are the same two which we have often met already-on the one hand, a narrow Judaising enforcement of ceremonial and punctilios of outward observance; on the other hand, a dreamy Oriental absorption in imaginations of a crowd of angelic mediators obscuring the one gracious presence of Christ our Intercessor.

I. Here then we have first, the claim for Christian liberty, with the great truth on which it is built. The points in regard to which that liberty is to be exercised are specified. They are no doubt those, in addition to circumcision, which were principally in question then and there. "Meat and drink" refers to restrictions in diet, such as the prohibition of "unclean" things in the Mosaic law, and the question of the lawfulness of eating meat offered to idols; perhaps also, such as the Nazarite vow. There were few regulations as to "drink" in the Old Testament, so that probably other ascetic practices besides the Mosaic regulations were in question, but these must have been unimportant, else Paul could not have spoken of the whole as being a "shadow of things to come"; The second point in regard to which liberty is here claimed is that of the sacred seasons of Judaism: the annual festivals, the monthly feast of the new moon, the weekly Sabbath.

The relation of the Gentile converts to these Jewish practices was an all-important question for the early Church. It was really the question whether Christianity was to be more than a Jewish sect-and the main force which, under God, settled the contest, was the vehemence and logic of the Apostle Paul.

Here he lays down the ground on which that whole question about diet and days, and all such matters, is to be settled. They "are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ." "Coming events cast their shadows before." That great work of Divine love, the mission of Christ, Whose "goings forth have been from everlasting," may be thought of as having set out from the Throne as soon as time was, travelling in the greatness of its strength, like the beams of some far off star that have not yet reached a dark world. The light from the Throne is behind Him as He advances across the centuries, and the shadow is thrown far in front.

Now that involves two thoughts about the Mosaic law and whole system. First, the purely prophetic and symbolic character of the Old Testament order, and especially of the Old Testament ritual. The absurd extravagance of many attempts to "spiritualise" the latter should not blind us to the truth which they caricature. Nor, on the other hand, should we be so taken with new attempts to reconstruct our notions of Jewish history and the dates of Old Testament books, as to forget that, though the New Testament is committed to no theory on these points, it is committed to the Divine origin and prophetic purpose of the Mosaic law and Levitical worship. We should thankfully accept all teaching which free criticism and scholarship can give us as to the process by which, and the time when, that great symbolic system of acted prophecy was built up; but we shall be further away than ever from understanding the Old Testament if we have gained critical knowledge of its genesis, and have lost the belief that its symbols were given by God to prophesy of His Son. That is the key to both Testaments; and I cannot but believe that the uncritical reader who reads his book of the law and the prophets with that conviction, has got nearer the very marrow of the book than the critic, if he have parted with it, can ever come. Sacrifice, altar, priest, temple spake of Him. The distinctions of meats were meant, among other purposes, to familiarise men with the conceptions of purity and impurity, and so, by stimulating conscience, to wake the sense of need of a Purifier. The yearly feasts set forth various aspects of the great work of Christ, and the sabbath showed in outward form the rest into which He leads those who cease from their own works and wear His yoke. All these observances, and the whole system, to which they belong, are like out riders who precede a prince on his progress, and as they gallop through sleeping villages, rouse them with the cry, "The king is coming!"

And when the king has come, where are the heralds? and when the reality has come, who wants symbols? and if that which threw the shadow forward through the ages has arrived, how shall the shadow be visible too? Therefore the second principle here laid down, namely the cessation of all these observances, and their like, is really involved in the first, namely their prophetic character. The practical conclusion drawn is very noteworthy, because it seems much narrower than the premises warrant. Paul does not say-therefore let no man observe any of these any more; but takes up the much more modest ground-let no man judge you about them. He claims a wide liberty of variation, and all that he repels is the right of anybody to dragoon Christian men into ceremonial observances on the ground that they are necessary. He does not quarrel with the rites, but with men insisting on the necessity of the rites.

In his own practice he gave the best commentary on his meaning. When they said to him, "You must circumcise Titus," he said, "Then I will not." When nobody tried to compel him, he took Timothy, and of his own accord circumcised him to avoid scandals. When it was needful as a protest, he rode right over all the prescriptions of the law, and "did eat with Gentiles." When it was advisable as a demonstration that he himself "walked orderly and kept the law," he performed the rites of purification and united in the temple worship.

In times of transition wise supporters of the new will not be in a hurry to break with the old. "I will lead on softly, according as the flock and the children be able to endure," said Jacob, and so says every good shepherd.

The brown sheaths remain on the twig after the tender green leaf has burst from within them, but there is no need to pull them off, for they will drop presently. "I will wear three surplices if they like," said Luther once. "Neither if we eat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse," said Paul. Such is the spirit of the words here. It is a plea for Christian liberty. If not insisted on as necessary, the outward observances may be allowed. If they are regarded as helps, or as seemly adjuncts or the like, there is plenty of room for difference of opinion and for variety of practice, according to temperament and taste and usage. There are principles which should regulate even these diversities of practice, and Paul has set these forth, in the great chapter about meats in the Epistle to the Romans. But it is a different thing altogether when any external observances are insisted on as essential, either from the old Jewish or from the modern sacramentarian point of view. If a man comes saying, "Except ye be circumcised, ye cannot be saved," the only right answer is, Then I will not be circumcised, and if you are, because you believe that you cannot be saved without it, "Christ is become of none effect to you." Nothing is necessary but union to Him, and that comes through no outward observance, but through the faith which worketh by love. Therefore, let no man judge you, but repel all such attempts at thrusting any ceremonial ritual observances on you, on the plea of necessity, with the emancipating truth that the cross of Christ is the death of law.

A few words may be said here on the bearing of the principles laid down in these verses on the religious observance of Sunday. The obligation of the Jewish sabbath has passed away as much as sacrifices and circumcision. That seems unmistakably the teaching here. But the institution of a weekly day of rest is distinctly put in Scripture as independent of, and prior to, the special form and meaning given to the institution in the Mosaic law. That is the natural conclusion from the narrative of the creative rest in Genesis, and from our Lord’s emphatic declaration that the sabbath was made for "man"-that is to say, for the race. Many traces of the pre-Mosaic sabbath have been adduced, and among others we may recall the fact that recent researches show it to have been observed by the Accadians, the early inhabitants of Assyria. It is a physical and moral necessity, and that is a sadly mistaken benevolence which, on the plea of culture or amusement for the many, compels the labour of the few, and breaks down the distinction between the Sunday and the rest of the week.

The religious observance of the first day of the week rests on no recorded command, but has a higher origin, inasmuch as it is the out come of a felt want. The early disciples naturally gathered together for worship on the day which had become so sacred to them. At first, no doubt, they observed the Jewish sabbath, and only gradually came to the practice which we almost see growing before our eyes in the Acts of the Apostles, in the mention of the disciples at Troas coming together on the first day of the week to break bread, and which we gather, from the Apostle’s instructions as to weekly setting apart money for charitable purposes, to have existed in the Church at Corinth; as we know, that even in his lonely island prison far away from the company of his brethren, the Apostle John was in a condition of high religious contemplation on the Lord’s day, ere yet he heard the solemn voice and saw "the things which are."

This gradual growing up of the practice is in accordance with the whole spirit of the New Covenant, which has next to nothing to say about the externals of worship, and leaves the new life to shape itself. Judaism gave prescriptions and minute regulations; Christianity, the religion of the spirit, gives principles. The necessity, for the nourishment of the Divine life, of the religious observance of the day of rest is certainly not less now than at first. In the hurry and drive of our modern life, with the world forcing itself on us at every moment, we cannot keep up the warmth of devotion unless we use this day, not merely for physical rest and family enjoyment, but for worship. They who know their own slothfulness of spirit, and are in earnest in seeking after a deeper, fuller Christian life, will thankfully own, "the week were dark but for its light." I distrust the spirituality which professes that all life is a sabbath, and therefore holds itself absolved from special seasons of worship. If the stream of devout communion is to flow through all our days, there must be frequent reservoirs along the road, or it will be lost in the sand, like the rivers of higher Asia. It is a poor thing to say, keep the day as a day of worship because it is a commandment. Better to think of it as a great gift for the highest purposes; and not let it be merely a day of rest for jaded bodies, but make it one of refreshment for cumbered spirits, and rekindle the smouldering flame of devotion, by drawing near to Christ in public and in private. So shall we gather stores that may help us to go in the strength of that meat for some more marches on the dusty road of life.

II. The Apostle passes on to his second peal of warning, -that against the teaching about angel mediators, which would rob the Colossian Christians of their prize, -and draws a rapid portrait of the teachers of whom they are to beware.

"Let no man rob you of your prize." The metaphor is the familiar one of the race or the wrestling ground; the umpire or judge is Christ; the reward is that incorruptible crown of glory, of righteousness, woven not of fading bay leaves, but of sprays from the "tree of life," which dower with undying blessedness the brows round which they are wreathed. Certain people are trying to rob them of their prize-not consciously, for that would be inconceivable, but such is the tendency of their teaching. No names will be mentioned, but he draws a portrait of the robber with swift firm hand, as if he had said, If you want to know whom I mean, here he is. Four clauses, like four rapid strokes of the pencil, do it, and are marked in the Greek by four participles, the first of which is obscured in the Authorised Version. "Delighting in humility and the worshipping of angels." So probably the first clause should be rendered. The first words are almost contradictory, and are meant to suggest that the humility has not the genuine ring about it. Self-conscious humility in which a man takes delight is not the real thing. A man who knows that he is humble, and is self-complacent about it, glancing out of the corners of his downcast eyes at any mirror where he can see himself, is not humble at all. "The devil’s darling vice is the pride which apes humility."

So very humble were these people that they would not venture to pray to God! There was humility indeed. So far beneath did they feel themselves that the utmost they could do was to lay hold of the lowest link of a long chain of angel mediators, in hope that the vibration might run upwards through all the links, and perhaps reach the throne at last. Such fantastic abasement which would not take God at His word, nor draw near to Him in His Son, was really the very height of pride.

Then follows a second descriptive clause, of which no altogether satisfactory interpretation has yet been given. Possibly, as has been suggested, we have here an early error in the text, which has affected all the manuscripts, and cannot now be corrected. Perhaps, on the whole, the translation adopted by the Revised Version presents the least difficulty-"dwelling in the things which he hath seen." In that case the seeing would be not by the senses, but by visions and pretended revelations, and the charge against the false teachers would be that they "walked in a vain show" of unreal imaginations and visionary hallucinations, whose many-coloured misleading lights they followed rather than the plain sunshine of revealed facts in Jesus Christ.

"Vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind" is the next feature in the portrait. The self-conscious humility was only skin-deep, and covered the utmost intellectual arrogance. The heretic teacher, like a blown bladder, was swollen with what after all was only wind; he was dropsical from conceit of "mind," or, as we should say, "intellectual ability," which after all was only the instrument and organ of the "flesh," the sinful self. And, of course, being all these things, he would have no firm grip of Christ, from whom such tempers and views were sure to detach him. Therefore the damning last clause of the indictment is "not holding the Head." How could he do so? And the slackness of his grasp of the Lord Jesus would make all these errors and faults ten times worse.

Now the special forms of these errors which are here dealt with are all gone past recall. But the tendencies which underlay these special forms are as rampant as ever, and work unceasingly to loosen our hold of our dear Lord. The worship of angels is dead, but we are still often tempted to think that we are too lowly and sinful to claim our portion of the faithful promises of God. The spurious humility is by no means out of date, which knows better than God does whether He can forgive us our sins, and bend over us in love. We do not slip in angel mediators between ourselves and Him, but the tendency to put the sole work of Jesus Christ "into commission," is not dead. We are all tempted to grasp at others as well as at Him, for our love, and trust, and obedience, and we all need the reminder that to lay hold of any other props is to lose hold of Him, and that he who does not cleave to Christ alone does not cleave to Christ at all.

We do not see visions and dream dreams any more, except here and there some one led astray by a so-called "spiritualism," but plenty of us attach more importance to our own subjective fancies or speculations about the obscurer parts of Christianity than to the clear revelation of God in Christ. The "unseen world" has for many minds an unwholesome attraction. The Gnostic spirit is still in full force among us, which despises the foundation facts and truths of the gospel as "milk for babes," and values its own baseless artificial speculations about subordinate matters, which are unrevealed because they are subordinate, and fascinating to some minds because unrevealed, far above the truths which are clear because they are vital, and insipid to such minds because they are clear. We need to be reminded that Christianity is not for speculation, but to make us good, and that "He who has fashioned their hearts alike," has made us all to live by the same air, to be nourished by the same bread from heaven, to be saved and purified by the same truth. That is the gospel which the little child can understand, of which the outcast and the barbarian can get some kind of hold, which the failing spirit groping in the darkness of death can dimly see as its light in the valley-that is the all-important part of the gospel. What needs special training and capacity to understand is no essential portion of the truth that is meant for the world.

And a swollen self-conceit is of all things the most certain to keep a man away from Christ. We must feel our utter helplessness and need, before we shall lay hold on Him, and if ever that wholesome lowly sense of our own emptiness is clouded over, that moment will our fingers relax their tension, and that moment will the flow of life into our deadness run slow and pause. Whatever slackens our hold of Christ tends to rob us of the final prize, that crown of life which He gives.

Hence the solemn earnestness of these warnings. It was not only a doctrine more or less that was at stake, but it was their eternal life. Certain truths believed would increase the firmness of their hold on their Lord, and thereby would secure the prize. Disbelieved, the disbelief would slacken their grasp of Him, and thereby would deprive them of it. We are often told that the gospel gives heaven for right belief, and that that is unjust. But if a man does not believe a thing, he cannot have in his character or feelings the influence which the belief of it would produce. If he does not believe that Christ died for his sins, and that all his hopes are built on that great Saviour, he will not cleave to Him in love and dependence. If he does not so cleave to Him he will not draw from Him the life which would mould his character and stir him to run the race. If he do not run the race he will never win nor wear the crown. That crown is the reward and issue of character and conduct, made possible by the communication of strength and new nature from Jesus, which again is made possible through our faith laying hold of Him as revealed in certain truths, and of these truths as revealing Him. Therefore, intellectual error may loose our hold on Christ, and if we slacken that, we shall forfeit the prize. Mere speculative interest about the less plainly revealed corners of Christian truth may, and often do, act in paralysing the limbs of the Christian athlete. "Ye did run well, what hath hindered you?" has to be asked of many whom a spirit akin to this described in our text has made languid in the race. To us all, knowing in some measure how the whole sum of influences around us work to detach us from our Lord, and so to rob us of the prize which is inseparable from His presence, the solemn exhortation which He speaks from heaven may well come, "Hold fast that thou hast; let no man take thy crown."

III. The source and manner of all true growth are next set forth, in order to enforce the warning, and to emphasise the need of holding the Head.

Christ is not merely represented supreme and sovereign, when He is called "the head." The metaphor goes much deeper, and points to Him as the source of a real spiritual life, from Him communicated to all the members of the true Church, and constituting it an organic whole. We have found the same expression twice already in the Epistle; once as applied to His relation to "the body, the Church," [Colossians 1:18] and once in reference to the "principalities and powers." The errors in the Colossian Church derogated from Christ’s sole sovereign place as fountain of all life natural and spiritual for all orders of beings, and hence the emphasis of the Apostle’s proclamation of the counter truth. That life which flows from the head is diffused through the whole body by the various and harmonious action of all the parts. The body is "supplied and knit together," or in other words, the functions of nutrition and compaction into a whole are performed by the "joints and bands," in which last word are included muscles, nerves, tendons, and any of the "connecting bands which strap the body together." Their action is the condition of growth; but the Head is the source of all which the action of the members transmits to the body. Christ is the source of all nourishment. From Him flows the life blood which feeds the whole, and by which every form of supply is ministered whereby the body grows. Christ is the source of all unity. Churches have been bound together by other bonds, such as creeds, polity, or even nationality; but that external bond is only like a rope round a bundle of fagots, while the true, inward unity springing from common possession of the life of Christ is as the unity of some great tree, through which the same sap circulates from massive bole to the tiniest leaf that dances at the tip of the farthest branch.

These blessed results of supply and unity are effected through the action of the various parts. If each organ is in healthy action, the body grows. There is diversity in offices; the same life is light in the eyes, beauty in the cheek, strength in the hand, thought in the brain. The more you rise in the scale of life the more the body is differentiated, from the simple sac that can be turned inside out and has no division of parts or offices, up to man. So in the Church. The effect of Christianity is to heighten individuality, and to give each man his own proper "gift from God," and therefore each man his office, "one after this manner and another after that." Therefore is there need for the freest possible unfolding of each man’s idiosyncrasy, heightened and hallowed by an indwelling Christ, lest the body should be the poorer if any member’s activity be suppressed, or any one man be warped from his own work wherein he is strong, to become a feeble copy of another’s. The perfect light is the blending of all colours.

A community where each member thus holds firmly by the Head, and each ministers in his degree to the nourishment and compaction of the members, will, says Paul, increase with the increase of God. The increase will come from Him, will be pleasing to Him, will be essentially the growth of His own life in the body. There is an increase not of God. These heretical teachers were swollen with dropsical self-conceit; but this is wholesome, solid growth. For individuals and communities of professing Christians the lesson is always seasonable, that it is very easy to get an increase of the other kind. The individual may increase in apparent knowledge, in volubility, in visions and speculations, in so-called Christian work; the Church may increase in members, in wealth, in culture, in influence in the world, in apparent activities, in subscription lists, and the like-and it may all be not sound growth, but proud flesh, which needs the knife. One way only there is by which we may increase with the increase of God, and that is that we keep fast hold of Jesus Christ, and "let Him not go, for He is our life." The one exhortation which includes all that is needful, and which being obeyed, all ceremonies and all speculations will drop into their right place, and become helps, not snares, is the exhortation which Barnabas gave to the new Gentile converts at Antioch-that "with purpose of heart they should cleave unto the Lord."


Verses 20-23

Chapter 2

TWO FINAL TESTS OF THE FALSE TEACHING

Colossians 2:20-23 (R.V.)

The polemical part of the Epistle is now coming to an end. We pass in the next chapter, after a transitional paragraph, to simple moral precepts which, with personal details, fill up the remainder of the letter. The antagonist errors appear for the last time in the words which we have now to consider. In these the Apostle seems to gather up all his strength to strike two straight, crashing, final blows, which pulverise and annihilate the theoretical positions and practical precepts of the heretical teachers. First, he puts in the form of an unanswerable demand for the reason for their teachings, their radical inconsistency with the Christian’s death with Christ, which is the very secret of his life. Then, by a contemptuous concession of their apparent value to people who will not look an inch below the surface, he makes more emphatic their final condemnation as worthless-less than nothing and vanity-for the suppression of "the flesh"- the only aim of all moral and religious discipline. So we have here two great tests by their conformity to which we may try all teachings which assume to regulate life, and all Christian teaching about the place and necessity for ritual and outward prescriptions of conduct. "Ye are dead with Christ." All must fit in with that great fact. The restraint and conquest of "the flesh" is the purpose of all religion and of all moral teaching-our systems must do that or they are naught, however fascinating they may be.

I. We have then to consider the great fact of the Christian’s death with Christ, and to apply it as a touchstone.

The language of the Apostle points to a definite time when the Colossian Christians "died" with Christ. That carries us back to former words in the chapter, where, as we found, the period of their baptism, considered as the symbol and profession of their conversion, was regarded as the time of their burial. They died with Christ when they clave with penitent trust to the truth that Christ died for them. When a man unites himself by faith to the dying Christ as his Peace, Pardon, and Saviour, then he too in a very real sense dies with Jesus.

That thought that every Christian is dead with Christ runs through the whole of Paul’s teaching. It is no mere piece of mysticism on his tips, though it has often become so, when divorced from morality, as it has been by some Christian teachers. It is no mere piece of rhetoric, though it has often become so, when men have lost the true thought of what Christ’s death is for the world. But to Paul the cross of Christ was, first and foremost, the altar of sacrifice on which the oblation had been offered that took away all his guilt and sin; and then, because it was that, it became the law of his own life, and the power that assimilated him to his Lord.

The plain English of it all is, that when a man becomes a Christian by putting his trust in Christ Who died, as the ground of his acceptance and salvation, such a change takes place upon his whole nature and relationship to externals as is fairly comparable to a death.

The same illustration is frequent in ordinary speech. What do we mean when we talk of an old man being dead to youthful passions or follies or ambitions? We mean that they have ceased to interest him, that he is separated from them and insensible to them. Death is the separator. What an awful gulf there is between that fixed white face beneath the sheet and all the things about which the man was so eager an hour ago! How impossible for any cries of love to pass the chasm! "His sons come to honour, and he knoweth it not." The "business" which filled his thoughts crumbles to pieces, and he cares not. Nothing reaches him or interests him any more. So, if we have got hold of Christ as our Saviour, and have found in His cross the anchor of souls, that experience will deaden us to all which was our life, and the measure in which we are joined to Jesus by our faith in His great sacrifice, will be the measure in which we are detached from our former selves, and from old objects of interest and pursuit. The change may either be called dying with Christ, or rising with Him. The one phrase takes hold of it at an earlier stage than the other; the one puts stress on our ceasing, to be what we were, the other on our beginning to be what we were not. So our text is followed by a paragraph corresponding in form and substance, and beginning, "If ye then be risen with Christ," as this begins, "If ye died with Christ!"

Such detachment from externals and separation from a former self is not unknown in ordinary life. Strong emotion of any kind makes us insensible to things around, and even to physical pain. Many a man with the excitement of the battlefield boiling in his brain, "receives but recks not of a wound." Absorption of thought and interest leads to what is called "absence of mind," where the surroundings are entirely unfelt, as in the case of the saint who rode all day on the banks of the Swiss lake, plunged in theological converse, and at evening asked where the lake was, though its waves had been rippling for twenty miles at his mule’s feet. Higher tastes drive out lower ones. as some great stream turned into a new channel will sweep it clear of mud and rubbish. So, if we are joined to Christ, He will fill our souls with strong emotions and interests which will deaden our sensitiveness to things around us, and will inspire new loves, tastes, and desires, which will make us indifferent to much that we used to be eager about, and hostile to much that we once cherished.

To what shall we die if we are Christians? The Apostle answers that question in various ways, which we may profitably group together. "Reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin". [Romans 6:11] "He died for all, that they which live should no longer live unto themselves". [2 Corinthians 5:14-15] "Ye are become dead to the law." [Romans 7:6] By the cross of Christ, "the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world." So then, to the whole mass of outward material things, all this present order which surrounds us, to the unrenounced self which has ruled us so long, and to the sin which results from the appeals of outward things to that evil self-to these, and to the mere outward letter of a commandment which is impotent to enforce its own behests or deliver self from the snares of the world and the burden of sin, we cease to belong in the measure in which we are Christ’s. The separation is not complete; but, if we are Christians at all, it is begun, and henceforward our life is to be a "dying daily." It must either be a dying life or a living death. We shall still belong in our outward being-and, alas! far too much in heart also-to the world and self and sin-but, if we are Christians at all, there will be a real separation from these in the inmost heart of our hearts, and the germ of entire deliverance from them all will be in us.

This day needs that truth to be strongly urged. The whole meaning of the death of Christ is not reached when it is regarded as the great propitiation for our sins. Is it the pattern for our lives? Has it drawn us away from our love of the world, from our sinful self, from the temptations to sin, from cowering before duties which we hate but dare not neglect? Has it changed the current of our lives, and lifted us into a new region where we find new interests, loves, and aims, before which the twinkling lights, which once were stars to us, pale their ineffectual fires? If so, then, just in as much as it is so, and not one hair’s breadth the more, may we call ourselves Christians. If not, it is of no use for us to talk about looking to the cross as the source of our salvation. Such a look, if it be true and genuine, will certainly change all a man’s tastes, habits, aspirations, and relationships. If we know nothing of dying with Christ, it is to be feared we know as little of Christ’s dying for us.

This great fact of the Christian’s death with Christ comes into view here mainly as pointing the contradiction between the Christian’s position, and his subjection to the prescriptions and prohibitions of a religion which consists chiefly in petty rules about conduct. We are "dead," says Paul, "to the rudiments of the world,"-a phrase which we have already heard in verse 8 [Colossians 2:8] of this chapter, where we found its meaning to be "precepts of an elementary character, fit for babes, not for men in Christ, and moving principally in the region of the material." It implies a condemnation of all such regulation religion on the two grounds, that it is an anachronism, seeking to perpetuate an earlier stage which has been left behind, and that it has to do with the outsides of things, with the material and visible only. To such rudiments we are dead with Christ. Then, queries Paul, with irresistible triumphant question-why, in the name of consistency, "do you subject yourself to ordinances" (of which we have already heard in Colossians 2:14) such as "handle not, nor taste, nor touch"? These three prohibitions are not Paul’s, but are quoted by him as specimens of the kind of rules and regulations which he is protesting against. The ascetic teachers kept on vehemently reiterating their prohibitions, and as the correct rendering of the words shows, with a constantly increasing in tolerance. "Handle not" is a less rigid prohibition than "touch not." The first says, Do not lay hold of the last, Do not even touch with the tip of your finger. So asceticism, like many another tendency and habit, grows by indulgence, and demands abstinence ever more rigid and separation ever more complete. And the whole thing is out of date, and a misapprehension of the genius of Christianity. Man’s work in religion is ever to confine it to the surface, to throw it outward and make it a mere round of things done and things abstained from. Christ’s work in religion is to drive it inwards, and to focus all its energy on "the hidden man of the heart," knowing that if that be right, the visible will come right. It is waste labour to try to stick figs on the prickles of a thorn bush-as it the tree, so will be the fruit. There are plenty of pedants and martinets in religion as well as on the parade ground. There must be so many buttons on the uniform, and the shoulder belts must be pipe clayed, and the rifles on the shoulders sloped at just such an angle - and then all will be right. Perhaps so. Disciplined courage is better than courage undisciplined. But there is much danger of all the attention being given to drill, and then, when the parade ground is exchanged for the battlefield, disaster comes because there is plenty of etiquette and no dash.

Men’s lives are pestered out of them by a religion which tries to tie them down with as many tiny threads as those with which the Liliputians fastened down Gulliver. But Christianity in its true and highest forms is not a religion of prescriptions, but of principles. It does not keep perpetually dinning a set of petty commandments and prohibitions into our ears. Its language is not a continual "Do this, forbear from that,"-but "Love, and thou fulfillest the law." It works from the centre outwards to the circumference; first making clean the inside of the platter, and so ensuring that the outside shall be clean also. The error with which Paul fought, and which perpetually crops up anew, having its roots deep in human nature, begins with the circumference and wastes effort in burnishing the outside.

The parenthesis which follows in the text, "all which things are to perish with the using," contains an incidental remark intended to show the mistake of attaching such importance to regulations about diet and the like, from the consideration of the perishableness of these meats and drinks about which so much was said by the false teachers. "They are all destined for corruption, for physical decomposition-in the very act of consumption." You cannot use them without using them up. They are destroyed in the very moment of being used. Is it fitting for men who have died with Christ to this fleeting world, to make so much of its perishable things?

May we not widen this thought beyond its specific application here, and say that death with Christ to the world should deliver us from the temptation of making much of the things which perish with the using, whether that temptation is presented in the form of attaching exaggerated religious importance to ascetic abstinence from them or in that of exaggerated regard and unbridled use of them? Asceticism and Sybaritic luxury have in common an overestimate of the importance of the material things. The one is the other turned inside out. Dives in his purple and fine linen, and the ascetic in his hair shirt, both make too much of "what they shall put on." The one with his feasts and the other with his fasts both think too much of what they shall eat and drink. A man who lives on high with his Lord puts all these things in their right place. There are things which do not perish with the using, but grow with use, like the five loaves in Christ’s hands. Truth, love, holiness, all Christlike graces and virtues increase with exercise, and the more we feed on the bread which comes down from heaven, the more shall we have for our own nourishment and for our brother’s need. There is a treasure which faileth not, bags which wax not old, the durable riches and undecaying possessions of the soul that lives on Christ and grows like Him. These let us seek after; for if our religion be worth anything at all, it should carry us past all the fleeting wealth of earth straight into the heart of things, and give us for our portion that God whom we can never exhaust, nor outgrow, but possess the more as we use His sweetness for the solace, and His all-sufficient Being for the good, of our souls.

The final inconsistency between the Christian position and the practical errors in question is glanced at in the words "after the commandments and doctrines of men," which refer, of course, to the ordinances of which Paul is speaking. The expression is a quotation from Isaiah’s denunciation [Isaiah 29:13] of the Pharisees of his day, and as used here seems to suggest that our Lord’s great discourse on the worthlessness of the Jewish punctilios about meats and drinks was in the Apostle’s mind, since the same words of Isaiah occur there in a similar connection. It is not fitting that we, who are withdrawn from dependence on the outward visible order of things by our union with Christ in His death, should be under the authority of men. Here is the true democracy of the Christian society. "Ye were redeemed with a price. Be not the servants of men." Our union to Jesus Christ is a union of absolute authority and utter submission. We all have access to the one source of illumination, and we are bound to take our orders from the one Master. The protest against the imposition of human authority on the Christian soul is made not in the interests of self-will, but from reverence to the only voice that has the right to give autocratic commands and to receive unquestioning obedience. We are free in proportion as we are dead to the world with Christ. We are free from men not that we may please ourselves, but that we may please Him.

"Hold your peace, I want to hear what my Master has to command me," is the language of the Christian freedman, who is free that he may serve, and because he serves.

II. We have to consider one great purpose of all teaching and external worship, by its power in attaining which any system is to be tried.

"Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and severity to the body, but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh." Here is the conclusion of the whole matter, the parting summary of the indictment against the whole irritating tangle of restrictions and prescriptions. From a moral point of view it is worthless, as having no coercive power over "the flesh." Therein lies its conclusive condemnation, for if religious observances do not help a man to subdue his sinful self, what, in the name of common sense, is the use of them? The Apostle knows very well that the system which he was opposing had much which commended it to people, especially to those who did not look very deep. It had a "show of wisdom" very fascinating on a superficial glance, and that in three points, all of which caught the vulgar eye, and all of which turned into the opposite on closer examination.

It had the look of being exceeding devotion and zealous worship. These teachers with their abundant forms impose upon the popular imagination, as if they were altogether given up to devout contemplation and prayer. But if one looks a little more closely at them, one sees that their devotion is the indulgence of their own will and not surrender to God’s. They are not worshipping Him as He has appointed, but as they have themselves chosen, and as they are rendering services which He has not required, they are in a very true sense worshipping their own wills, and not God at all. By "will worship" seems to be meant self-imposed forms of religious service which are the outcome not of obedience, nor of the instincts of a devout heart, but of a man’s own will. And the Apostle implies that such supererogatory and volunteered worship is no worship. Whether offered in a cathedral or a barn, whether the worshipper wear a cope or a fustian jacket, such service is not accepted. A prayer which is but the expression of the worshipper’s own will, instead of being "not my will but Thine be done," reaches no higher than the lips that utter it. If we are subtly and half unconsciously obeying self even while we seem to be bowing before God; if we are seeming to pray, and are all the while burning incense to ourselves instead of being drawn out of ourselves by the beauty and the glory of the God towards whom our spirits yearn, then our devotion is a mask, and our prayers will be dispersed in empty air.

The deceptive appearance of wisdom in these teachers and their doctrines is further manifest in the humility which felt so profoundly the gulf between man and God that it was fain to fill the void with its fantastic creations of angel mediators. Humility is a good thing, and it looked very humble to say, We cannot suppose that such insignificant flesh-encompassed creatures as we can come into contact and fellowship with God; but it was a great deal more humble to take God at His word, and to let Him lay down the possibilities and conditions of intercourse, and to tread the way of approach to Him which He has appointed. If a great king were to say to all the beggars and ragged losels of his capital, Come to the palace tomorrow; which would be the humbler, he who went, rags and leprosy and all, or he who hung back because he was so keenly conscious of his squalor? God says to men, "Come to My arms through My Son. Never mind the dirt, come." Which is the humbler: he who takes God at His word, and runs to hide his face on his Father’s breast, having access to Him through Christ the Way, or he who will not venture near till he has found some other mediators besides Christ? A humility so profound that it cannot think God’s promise and Christ’s mediation enough for it, has gone so far West that it has reached the East, and from humility has become pride.

Further, this system has a show of wisdom in "severity to the body." Any asceticism, is a great deal more to men’s taste than abandoning self. They will rather stick hooks in their backs and do the "swinging poojah," than give up their sins or yield up their wills. It is easier to travel the whole distance from Cape Comorin to the shrine of Juggernaut, measuring every foot of it by the body laid prostrate in the dust, than to surrender the heart to the love of God. In the same manner the milder forms of putting oneself to pain, hair shirts, scourgings, abstinence from pleasant things with the notion that thereby merit is acquired, or sin atoned for, have a deep root in human nature, and hence "a show of wisdom." It is strange, and yet not strange, that people should think that, somehow or other, they recommend themselves to God by making themselves uncomfortable, but so it is that religion presents itself to many minds mainly as a system of restrictions and injunctions which forbids the agreeable and commands the unpleasant. So does our poor human nature vulgarise and travesty Christ’s solemn command to deny ourselves and take up our cross after Him.

The conclusive condemnation of all the crowd of punctilious restrictions of which the Apostle has been speaking lies in the fact that, however they may correspond to men’s mistaken notions, and so seem to be the dictate of wisdom, they "are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh." This is one great end of all moral and spiritual discipline, and if practical regulations do not tend to secure it, they are worthless.

Of course by "flesh" here we are to understand, as usually in the Pauline Epistles, not merely the body, but the whole unregenerate personality, the entire unrenewed self that thinks and feels and wills and desires apart from God. To indulge and satisfy it is to die, to slay and suppress it is to live. All these "ordinances" with which the heretical teachers were pestering the Colossians have no power, Paul thinks, to keep that self down, and therefore they seem to him so much rubbish. He thus lifts the whole question up to a higher level and implies a standard for judging much formal outward Christianity which would make very short work of it.

A man may be keeping the whole round of them and seven devils may be in his heart. They distinctly tend to foster some of the "works of the flesh," such as self-righteousness, uncharitableness, censoriousness, and they as distinctly altogether fail to subdue any of them. A man may stand on a pillar like Simeon Stylites for years, and be none the better. Historically the ascetic tendency has not been associated with the highest types of real saintliness except by accident, and has never been their productive cause. The bones rot as surely inside the sepulchre though the whitewash on its dome be ever so thick.

So the world and the flesh are very willing that Christianity should shrivel into a religion of prohibitions and ceremonials, because all manner of vices and meannesses may thrive and breed under these, like scorpions under stones. 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. The evil that is in us all is too strong for every other fetter. Its cry to all these "commandments and ordinances of men" is, "Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are ye?" Not in obedience to such, but in the reception into our spirits of His own life, is our power of victory over self. "This I say, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Colossians 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/colossians-2.html.

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Thursday, December 5th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
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