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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Colossians 2



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[4. Special Enforcement of Doctrinal Teaching (Colossians 2:1 to Colossians 3:4).

(1) EXHORTATION TO STAND FAST IN THE FAITH, dictated by special anxiety for them and the sister churches, urging them to seek all wisdom in Christ alone, and to keep to the old simplicity of the gospel (Colossians 2:1-7).

(2) WARNING AGAINST SPECULATIVE ERROR, turning them “to philosophy and vain deceit” from Christ.

(a) For in Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead.

(b) In Him they have the true spiritual circumcision of the New Covenant.

(c) From Him, and from Him alone, can they receive justification from sin, and the new life of grace (Colossians 2:8-15).


(a) In relation to obsolete Jewish ordinances (Colossians 2:16-17).

(b) In worship of angels, sinning against the sole Headship of Christ (Colossians 2:18-19).


(a) As dead with Christ, and so dead to all the vain and carnal ordinances, which have a show of wisdom but no reality (Colossians 2:20-23).

(b) As risen with Christ, and so bound to seek the things above, and have a life hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-4).]

Verse 1

(1) What great conflict.—The word is here repeated from the “striving” of the previous verse, which is, in the original, the cognate verb. It is the same word which is used in Philippians 1:30 (“conflict”), in 1 Thessalonians 2:2 (“contention”), in 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7 (“the good fight of faith”). Evidently it describes the intense earnestness of the whole struggle against evil which he was undergoing for them; but perhaps, looking at Colossians 4:12, we may refer it especially to “striving in prayer” for them. It is probably dwelt upon here to show why, although unknown to them personally, he yet writes so urgently to them.

And for them at Laodicea.—Comp. Colossians 4:13, “For you, and for them that are in Laodicea, and for them in Hierapolis.” These three cities lay near together in the valley of Lycus, a tributary of the Mæander; probably they were converted at one time, and are evidently regarded as forming one Christian community, for which Epaphras, the evangelist of Colossæ, felt himself responsible. Colossæ and Laodicea are actually directed to exchange the apostolic Letters sent to them (see Colossians 4:16, and Note there), and to read both alike in the churches. (See Dr. Lightfoot’s admirable description of “The Churches of the Lycus,” prefixed to his commentary on this Epistle.) Of Laodicea, the greatest and richest of the three cities, we have no further notice in Scripture, except that stern apocalyptic letter (Revelation 3:14-22), which has made its name proverbial for spiritual luke-warmness and presumptuous self-reliance. It has been noticed that in this Letter our Lord is called “the beginning of the creation of God.” (See Colossians 1:15-18 of this Epistle.) Of Colossæ and Hierapolis we read only in this Epistle. It is notable (see Dr. Lightfoot’s Essay) that while Hierapolis and Laodicea play a prominent part in the subsequent history of Christianity in Asia Minor, Colossæ never attains importance, and has left but “few and meagre” remains, compared with the magnificent ruins of the other cities.

As many as have not seen my face.—This description doubtless indicates Hierapolis; but the whole context shows that it also includes Colossæ. If the reading taken in Colossians 1:7 is correct, Epaphras had been commissioned by St. Paul, and thus, indirectly, the Apostle might be held to be the founder of Colossæ. Accordingly this Letter stands, so to speak, midway between the unreserved familiarity of the Epistles to Corinth or Philippi, and the more formal reserve of the Epistle to the Romans.

Verses 1-7

(1-7) In these verses St. Paul declares his deep anxiety for the Colossians and Laodiceans and others who had not seen his face, that they might seek, not the false, but the true knowledge, finding “the mystery of God” in Christ alone. The reason of that anxiety is found in the “beguiling and enticing words” of an incipient Gnosticism. But “though absent in the body” he rejoices in the steadfastness of their faith, and only exhorts them to continue in it, deepening and enlarging it, but never changing its essence.

Verse 2

(2) Comforted—i.e., encouraged, or strengthened, both to stand fast and to advance in the faith.

Knit together.—The word here used has two senses; first, “to bring, or knit, together” (as in Colossians 2:19, and Ephesians 4:16); next,” to carry with us” in argument—i.e., to “instruct,” or “convince” (as in Acts 9:22; Acts 16:10; 1 Corinthians 2:16). Either would give good sense here; but the usage in this and the Ephesian Epistle, and the addition of the words “in love,” are decisive for the former sense.

And unto . . . the full assurance of understanding (or, rather, intelligence, as in Colossians 1:9).—The idea of the passage is precisely that of Philippians 1:9, “I pray that your love may abound (or, overflow) more and more in knowledge, and in all judgment (or, perception).” St. Paul bids them seek the fulness of intelligence which they were taught to crave for, not through the rashness of speculation, but through the insight of love. So in Ephesians 3:17-19 he prays that “being rooted and grounded in love, they may know . . . that which passeth knowledge;” for Christian knowledge is the knowledge of a personal Saviour, and in all personal knowledge he knows best who loves best.

The acknowledgement . . .—This clause—which explains what the “fulness of intelligence” is—is altogether obscured in our version. It should be rendered, to the full knowledge of the mystery of God, which is Christ. Above we read (Colossians 1:27), “this mystery, which is Christ in you.” There Christ, as indwelling in man, is the mystery which alone solves the problem of humanity—what it is, and whither it tends. Here Christ is the “mystery of God”—i.e. (according to the Scriptural meaning of the word “mystery”), He in whom the inscrutable nature of God, rich in the “hidden treasure of wisdom and knowledge,” is revealed to us. The name again leads up to the doctrine of “the Word of God.”

Verse 3

(3) In whom are hid all the treasures.—The order of the original is curious: “in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, as hidden treasures.” The word “hidden” (apocryphi) is an almost technical word for secret teaching given only to the initiated; used originally as a term of honour (as the participle of the kindred verb is used in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8, “the wisdom of God in mystery, even the hidden wisdom . . . which none of the princes of this world knew”), afterwards, from the character of these “apocryphal” books, coming to signify spurious and heretical. St. Paul evidently takes up here a word, used by the pretenders to a special and abstruse knowledge, and applies it to the “heavenly things” which He alone knows “who is in heaven” (John 3:12-13). From our full comprehension they are hidden; if ever we know them, it will not be till “we know even as we are known.” But the previous words show that we can have full practical apprehension of them by our knowledge of Christ, who knows them—a knowledge begun in faith, and perfected chiefly in love.

Wisdom and knowledge.—Comp. Romans 11:33 and 1 Corinthians 12:8 (“the word of wisdom” . . . “the word of knowledge”). On the true sense of “wisdom” and its relation to other less perfect gifts, as “prudence,” “intelligence,” “knowledge,” see Note on Ephesians 1:8. “Knowledge” is clearly the development of wisdom in spiritual perception, as “intelligence” in testing and harmonising such perception, and “prudence” in making them, so tested, the guide of life. The word “knowledge” (gnosis) was the word which, certainly afterwards, probably even then, was the watchword of “Gnosticism”—the unbridled and fantastic spirit of metaphysical and religious speculation then beginning to infest all Christian thought. It can hardly be accidental that St. Paul here, as elsewhere, subordinates it to the higher gift of wisdom.

Verse 4

(4) Beguile you.—“To beguile” here is to reason into error; and “enticing words” are words of persuasion rather than of reason or revelation. Both words are used by St. Paul only in this passage. It would be difficult to describe more accurately the marvellous fabrics of Gnostic speculation, each step claiming to be based on some fancied probability or metaphysical propriety, but the whole as artificial as the cycles and epicycles of the old Ptolemaic astronomy. We know these in all the elaborate monstrosity of full growth; St. Paul doubtless saw them as yet only in embryo.

Verse 5

(5) Absent in the flesh.—Comp. 1 Corinthians 5:3, “I as absent in body and present in spirit.”

Your order, and the stedfastness.—The word “order” is used in 1 Corinthians 14:40; the word “stedfastness,” or solidity, is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, though the verb from which it is derived is found in Acts 3:7; Acts 3:16; Acts 16:5, and the original adjective, from which the verb is derived, in 1 Peter 5:9, “stedfast in the faith.” From the days of the ancient Greek interpreters downwards, it has been noted that both words have military associations—the one being used for discipline generally, and the other for the firm compact solidity of the phalanx; and (as in Ephesians 6:11-17) that the use of them may have been suggested by St. Paul’s captivity under military guard. If both words be referred to their “faith,” the Apostle obviously characterises it as having right “order” (or, harmony) in its various parts, and a strong “solidity” against all trials.

Verse 6

(6) As ye have therefore received.—Comp. the more emphatic language of Colossians 1:5-7; Colossians 1:23. As in the case of the Corinthians and Galatians (2 Corinthians 11:4 and Galatians 1:6), he entreats them not to be turned aside to “another Jesus,” or “another gospel, which is not another.”

Verse 7

(7) Rooted and built up in him.—There is a significant change of tense in the original, having been rooted—i.e. (as in Ephesians 3:17), “rooted and grounded” in Him once for all, and being built up continually on that Foundation. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 3:9-15.) St. Paul bids them seek not only the first basis of their faith, but their continual growth, in Christ alone, by continual “strengthening in the faith” which rests in Him. We may remember that in the Gnostic teaching faith was held good for the beginner or the common herd, “knowledge” was the bright particular jewel of those who went on to perfection.

Abounding (or, overflowing) therein with thanksgiving.—The metaphor is changed. The cup of faith, filled to the full, runs over in that thanksgiving which is the expression both of faith and love.

Verse 8

(8) Spoil you.—Properly, lead you away as a spoil, triumph over you as a captive, and make you a slave. Comp. St. Paul’s language as to the older Judaism at Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:20), “Ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.”

Philosophy and vain deceit—i.e. (like “the knowledge falsely so called” of 1 Timothy 6:20), a philosophy which is inseparably connected with vain deceit. The warning implied here seems to be two-fold:—(1) First, against considering Christianity primarily as a “philosophy,” i.e., a search for and knowledge of speculative truth, even the highest. That it involves philosophy is obvious, for it claims to solve for us the great problem of Being, in Nature, in Man, and in God. St. Paul, while he depreciates the wisdom of this world, dwells emphatically on the gospel as the “wisdom of God.” (See especially 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.) In this Epistle in particular he speaks of “wisdom” again and again (Colossians 1:9; Colossians 1:28; Colossians 2:3; Colossians 3:16; Colossians 4:6) as one great characteristic of Christian life. Nor is it less clear (as the ancient Greek commentators here earnestly remind us) that Christianity finds a place and a blessing for all true philosophy of men, and makes it, as St. Paul made it at Athens, an introduction to the higher wisdom. But Christianity is not a philosophy, but a life—not a knowledge of abstract principles, but a personal knowledge of faith and love of God in Christ. (2) Next, against accepting in philosophy the “vain deceit” of mere speculation and imagination instead of the modest, laborious investigation of facts. This is the “knowledge falsely so called”; of this it may be said (as in 1 Corinthians 8:1) that it “puffs up,” and does not “build up.” In ancient and modern times it has always confused brilliant theory with solid discovery, delighting especially to dissolve the great facts of the gospel into abstractions, which may float in its cloudland of imagination.

After the tradition of men.—This is the keynote of our Lord’s condemnation of the old Pharisaic exclusiveness and formalism (Matthew 15:2-3; Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:8-9); it is equally the condemnation of the later Jewish, or half-Jewish, mysticism which St. Paul attacks here. It is hardly necessary to remark that the Apostle often claims reverence for “traditions” (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; see also 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Peter 2:21), but they are traditions having their starting point in direct revelation of God (Galatians 1:12), and, moreover, traditions freely given to all, as being His. The “traditions of men” here condemned had their origin in human speculation, and were secretly transmitted to the initiated only.

The rudiments of the world.—See Galatians 4:2, and Note there. This marks the chief point of contact with the earlier Judaism, in the stress still laid, perhaps with less consistency, on matters of ritual, law, ascetic observance, and the like. These are “of the world,” i.e., belonging to the visible sphere; and they are “rudiments,” fit only for the elementary education of those who are as children, and intended simply as preparation for a higher teaching.

Verses 8-15

(8-15) The general exhortation of the previous verses is now emphasised by a solemn warning against deadly speculative error. Now, (1) the character of that error in itself is described with apparently intentional vagueness, as “a philosophy of vain deceit,” “after tradition of men,” after “the rudiments of this world.” Even its Judaic origin, which is made clear below (Colossians 2:16-17), is here only hinted at in the significant allusion to Circumcision, and perhaps in the phrase “the rudiments of the world,” which is also used of the Judaism of Galatia (Galatians 4:3; Galatians 4:9). (2) What is brought out vividly and emphatically is the truth which it contradicts or obscures. First, the full indwelling Godhead of Christ and His headship over all created being; and next, as derived from this, our own “spiritual circumcision in Him, i.e., the true “death unto sin and new life unto righteousness” in Him who is the One Atonement for all sin, and the One Conqueror of all the powers of evil. On the relation of the Epistle to Gnosticism see Excursus A.

Verse 9

(9) In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.—Here almost every word is emphatic. First, “All the fulness of the Godhead”—not a mere emanation from the Supreme Being. Next, “dwells” and remains for ever—not descending on Him for a time and leaving Him again. Lastly, “bodily,” i.e., as incarnate in His humanity. The whole is an extension and enforcement of Colossians 1:19, “God was pleased that in Him all the fulness should dwell.” The horror of all that was material, as having in it the seed of evil, induced denial either of the reality of our Lord’s body, or of its inseparable connection with the Godhead in Him. Hence the emphasis here; as also we find (somewhat later) in St. John, “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14); “The spirit which confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh . . . is the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:3).

On the meaning of “fullness” (plerorna), see Colossians 1:10; Ephesians 1:3; Ephesians 3:19; Ephesians 4:13. Here it is only necessary to add, that, as in the later Gnosticism, so probably in its earlier forms, the word was used for the infinite nature of the Supreme Deity, out of which all the emanations (afterwards called Æons) received in various degrees of imperfection, according to their capacity. Probably for that reason St. Paul uses it so emphatically here. In the same spirit, St. John declares (John 1:16), “Out of His (Christ’s) fulness have all we received.” It is not finite, but infinitely perfect; hence we all can draw from it, yet leave it unimpaired.

Verse 9-10

Complete in Christ

For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and in him ye are made full.—Colossians 2:9-10.

In the previous part of this far-reaching letter the Apostle had been exalting the Christ, who, he declared, was the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. He was no mere child of man—no mere hero of the race or wise member of the common family. He was all this, it is true; but He was far more, and the superhuman element of His nature was the differentiating peculiarity of His unique personality. If He had been only the greatest man, there might yet be a greater, before whose throne Christ Himself would require to bow. If He had been an angel—one of the hierarchies of heaven,—there might, in the future, be a greater, to whom the Christ of Paul would require to give place. But the One whom the Apostle set forth was more than man, more than cherubim or seraphim. He could be loved with a perfect love; obeyed with full and constant obedience; worshipped with the whole spirit. Such service rendered to Him would be a reasonable service in harmony with what is right and becoming. From this position the Colossians were not to depart, or allow themselves to be driven, for, says the Apostle, “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily,” adding by way of practical application the important truth, “and ye are complete in him,” or as the Revised Version has it, “in him ye are made full,” that is, completed, made perfect—He is the complement of your being.

The later Jewish theologians had laid much stress upon the delivery of the Sinaitic Law through the agency of angels acting as delegates for the Most High God. The Author of Christianity might be superior to Moses and the prophets, but could He challenge comparison with those pure and mighty spirits compared with whom the greatest of the sons of Israel, as beings of flesh and blood, were insignificant and sinful? The answer is, that if Christ is not the peer of the angels, this is because He is their Lord and Master. The angels are ministers of the Divine will; they are engaged in stated services enjoined on them towards creatures lower than themselves, yet redeemed by Christ. But He, in His glory above the heavens, is invested with attributes to which the highest angel could never pretend. In His crucified but now enthroned Humanity, He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high; He is seated there, as being Heir of all things; the angels themselves are but a portion of His vast inheritance.1 [Note: H. P. Liddon, Bampton Lectures, 321.]


Christ’s Fulness

The word “fulness” means that which is filled, made perfect, made complete. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof,” that is to say, all that the earth contains is the Lord’s. And the meaning of the text is that all the natural, the moral attributes or qualities of the Eternal God are in the person under consideration. If any one attribute or quality were omitted, any one element of His being were left out, it would be impossible for inspiration to say that “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.”2 [Note: D. D. McLaurin.]

The year 1899, which proved so sadly eventful, opened for Berry and his people with some degree of confidence and hope. In a letter written to the Christian World, dated January 3rd, he thanked his friends for countless kindly messages he had received, and “for the light they shed upon many dark hours, and the courage they inspired when pain brought peril and hope was dim.” He had gained strength since his return home, and was able to preach once on each of the five Sundays in January. His second sermon was on “Completeness in Christ,” Colossians 2:10, and dealt with the reality, the closeness, the richness of the believer’s union with Christ. “We are more than followers, learners, friends; we are bound to Him in a more than natural relation, one that is vital, organic, dependent, and derivative, and that ‘more’ is expressed by the phrase ‘In Christ.’ All that is His is ours and ours His. His our sin, our penitence, our fears, our weakness, our hope. Ours His death, His resurrection, His reign, His dominion.”3 [Note: J. S. Drummond, Charles A. Berry, D.D., 203.]

A heresy, a subtle, poisonous, destructive heresy was invading the fold of that little Church. The heresy was this. Matter is essentially and inherently evil. Flesh is inherently and essentially evil. It is the natural home of evil. God is essentially, inherently holy, and between the essentially, inherently holy God and the inherently and essentially evil flesh there can be no communion. That was the beginning of the heresy. Then this question was propounded: How, then, can the essentially holy God come into contact with essentially evil man? And here is what the heresy devised—that out of the holy Deity there emanated a presence with holiness slightly diluted, and out of the second emanation there came a third, with the holiness again further diluted, and so on, from emanation to emanation, in ever-decreasing holiness, with ever-increasing impoverishment of Divinity, until the last emanation you come to is one slightly better than evil man himself, and those two can touch and hold fellowship and communion. That is to say, that between God and essentially evil matter there had been constructed a bridge, with decreasing gradients of Divinity, each one less Divine than the one behind it, until there comes one in the distant chain who is so little better than ourselves that we can touch and have communion and fellowship.

What was the effect of that heresy upon the little Church? That little Church of Colossæ began to think that God was infinitely remote because of His holiness; that between them there was a perfect hierarchy of beings through whom they had to communicate if they wanted to get to Him—first to the one nearest, and through him to the next, and through him to the next, and on in the ascending scale until, in the far, far, almost infinite distance they touched God. That was the heresy invading that little Church and destroying its Christian faith. What was the result? There were two theological results. First, it certainly destroyed the sovereign lordship and ascendancy of Jesus. Whatever else we can say about Jesus, He was the One that touched. He touched the Magdalene, and worse than the Magdalene. He touched Zacchæus, and He touched the leper. He touched; but by this heresy it was the last link in the chain that touched. It was the one whose deity was most diluted. It was the last link. It was the One nearest unto ourselves who came to save. I say that destroys the lordship of Jesus; I say that, if that heresy were true, then between the Lord Jesus and the throne there were a thousand lords and sovereigns higher than He. He was unthroned, and became a little better than you and I. Our Lord Jesus, by this theory, was on the next step of the ladder, and between Him and the highest there was an infinitely remote scale of beings more Divine than He. But it not only destroys the lordship of Jesus, it destroys the supreme mediatorship of Christ. If between us and God there is a long chain of intermediate beings, then His mediatorship is destroyed, and I do not wonder that men began to worship angels. If I thought my Lord was only at the next step of the gradient from me, and beyond there were angels, and principalities and powers, I should want to be at them, and should want to pray to them, and their influence I should seek to discover. A heresy like that dethrones the Son of God. As for the ethical results, they are quite as clear and quite as sure and quite as dangerous. The extraordinary thing is that in this little Christian Church the men who were victimized by its heresy chose two absolutely different ways. One party said: “If flesh is essentially evil, if the evil is native to flesh, then in evil there is no shame; if that is its natural home, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” And so they rushed into licentiousness. There was another party who said: “If flesh is essentially evil, spurn it, maul it, bruise it, spit upon it, refuse it ordinary decencies; decline to wash it, withhold ordinary courtesy, stamp on it.” That was what Paul was facing when he said: “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost.”

What did Paul say of Jesus in the light of that heresy? “In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” Here is no dilution of God, no impoverished remnant. Here is no washed-out Divinity. “In him dwelleth all the fulness.” Does that not play havoc with the heresy?1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, in The British Weekly, April 6, 1911, p. 4.]

1. All the fulness of God is in Christ. Our Lord is not a mere emanation of God; not a mere flash of light, but its very brightness; not a mere tone of the truth, but the veritable Word. “All the fulness of the Godhead,” that is, the whole unbounded powers and attributes of Deity, the term used being the abstract term Godhead, instead of the more usual term 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 2:19), 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 directed to the glorified corporeal humanity of Jesus Christ in His exaltation as the abode, now and ever, 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 but in Him.

It is not simply that in Jesus, the founder of Christianity, there suddenly appeared in Palestine a fuller exhibition than elsewhere in history of qualities which we count in a vague sense Divine—of spiritual insight, of moral purity and philanthropy and love. So much, at least, will every modern thinker grant; but it is that in Him was then, and in Him is now, though now unseen, very God, in actual, vital union with this fallen manhood, rich with the plenitude of infinite grace and power, a fresh, living centre and head of re-creative influence for men, able to make all human things new. This, and no less, is what we believe and teach; this, and no less, is what I venture to think the world wants; for short of this Divine mystery and miracle of the God-Man reuniting man to Godhead by the life of love and righteousness, giving Himself for us and to us, and so from Himself, as the spiritual head and centre of mankind, remaking both manhood and mankind—I say, apart from that and short of that, I know not where to look for a gospel, a veritable “good news” for this stricken earth, a “glad tidings of great joy” to all people.1 [Note: J. Oswald Dykes.]

2. All the fulness of God was incarnate in Christ’s humanity. It dwelt in Him “bodily.” The purity, righteousness, wisdom, compassion, love, of God were gathered up in that human life. He was Immanuel—God with us. False teachers, imagining that matter was essentially evil, could not brook the thought of the Divine Redeemer linking Himself for ever with a human body, and they either denied the reality of His body, or its inseparable connexion with Him for ever. Paul says the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Christ in a bodily way. “The Word was made flesh.” Some have thought to make this fact seem impossible by absurd representations, which go on the assumption that an infinite God cannot enter a finite being without ceasing to be infinite. How He can do so we cannot understand. This is not a subject which admits of being rationalized. But dogmatic objectors may be reminded that it is their teaching which sets a limit to the infinite by proclaiming its inability to enter fully a finite being. Does not the infinity of God involve, not the distribution of innumerable parts through all space, but His presence wholly in every region of the universe? Why, then, cannot He manifest His presence in a peculiar way in one being? Moreover, if God, who is always infinite, can dwell in man at all, that fact is a mystery which seems to foreshadow the greater mystery of His full dwelling in Christ. The humanity of Christ is real and pure and perfect humanity, and God who dwells in Him is still perfect God. This is very different from the metamorphosis of a God into a man that is described in heathen mythologies. It is to be practically learnt from this Christian mystery that God is now very near to us in a brother man; that we can be raised to God and become one with Christ and God through Christ’s oneness with us and God.

The Incarnate Logos is human; for how could He in whom men are constituted be other than human? But He was not and is not a man. He is the constitutor of man, entering into a new relation to that which He had constituted like Himself, in order that, instead of losing its likeness to and vital union with Himself, and thereby its very existence, through sin, it might throw off sin, and resume the character it had borne and re-enter on the development for which it was intended. He could not have discharged this function had He and humanity not been essentially akin; it would have been equally impossible for Him to discharge the function had He been a man. He was the Divine Logos, self-limited; and as such doubly akin to, though not one with or of, humanity—self-limited in order to save that which had its life through, and was, in a very real sense, part of Himself.1 [Note: D. W. Simon, Reconciliation by Incarnation.]

3. All the fulness of God is permanent in Christ. “In him dwelleth.” The word “dwelleth “means more than a temporary sojourn. It means to live as in a house abidingly. To a Christian there is nothing more delightful than the thought that the Son of God, the Eternal, now dwells in the bodily manifestation which He took with Him to glory. We shall see Him, we shall know Him, for He is the God now dwelling in the body.

The most deeply affectionate natures are limited in heart power. Their love will languish under shock and cool in frigid atmospheres. In Christ love’s fulness dwells. His compassions fail not. The drain upon His sympathies in the days of His flesh was continuous and tremendous. The world to Him was as the daughter of the horse-leech crying “Give, give!” Yet it was ever met by a full response. Even that awful frost which descended on Calvary, when the treachery of one disciple and the desertion of others, coupled with the mockings of enemies, drove the temperature about Him down to arctic depths; when even the gates of heaven seemed to close against Him and He was left for one terrible space uncomforted of God, the fountain of His grace stood at the full. It still pulsed on undiminished. No drain could lower it, no frost could seal it. Whilst His enemies mocked His agonies He could pray, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” With the heavens black and seemingly pitiless above Him, He could cry with loving confidence and filial submissiveness, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Under every circumstance we find Him a fountain “full of grace and truth.”1 [Note: J. D. Freeman, Concerning the Christ, 197.]

It is a person, not a dogma, which invites my faith; a person, not a code, which asks for obedience. Jesus stands in the way of every selfishness; He leads in the path of every sacrifice; He is crucified in every act of sin; He is glorified in every act of holiness. St. Stephen, as he suffered for the Gospel, saw the heavens open and Jesus standing to receive him. St. Peter, fleeing in a second panic from Rome, meets Jesus returning to be crucified in his place. Conscience and heart are settled on Jesus, and one feels within one’s soul the tides of His virtue. It is not the doctrines or the ethics of Christianity that are its irresistible attraction. Its doctrines have often been a stumbling-block, and its ethics excel only in degree. The life-blood of Christianity is Christ.2 [Note: John Watson, The Mind of the Master.]


Our Sufficiency

“In him ye are made full.”

1. Apart from Christ we are empty, incomplete.—All men are in themselves imperfect, incomplete, mere fragments as human beings and moral creatures.

Man’s life on earth is incomplete because it contains an explicit contradiction between his conception of what he is and of what he ought to be. His distinctive mark is the possession of an ideal in the light of which he can always condemn his actual condition. The disparity between actual and ideal is never removed on earth, since, however steadily the man advances, his ideal continually recedes before him; and in this he may esteem himself fortunate, since otherwise there would be no more reason for predicating immortality of him than there is for predicating it of the beasts which perish.1 [Note: A. C. Pigou, Browning as a Religious Teacher, 56.]

Man feels capacities within him that ask an eternity for bloom and fruitage. There is in nature something that sends him in yearning search beyond and above nature.

That type of perfect in his mind

In nature can he nowhere find,

He sows himself on every wind.

In the entire universe, as revealed to man by his senses, there is nothing perfect; and the central impulse in all man’s noblest striving is derived from the aspiration of his spirit towards a perfect truth, a perfect beauty, a perfect happiness, which are exemplified nowhere in the world. Art, religion, and the impetuous career of the race towards a higher grade of civilization, depend alike upon the universal imperfection of the material world and the impossibility that a God-related spirit, which man is, should be contented therewith.2 [Note: P. Bayne, Lessons from my Masters, 284.]

The half moon shows a face of plaintive sweetness

Ready and poised to wax or wane;

A fire of pale desire in incompleteness,

Tending to pleasure or to pain:—

Lo, while we gaze, she rolleth on in fleetness

To perfect loss or perfect gain.

Half bitterness we know, we know half sweetness;

This world is all on wax, on wane:

When shall completeness round time’s incompleteness,

Fulfilling joy, fulfilling pain?

Lo, while we ask, life rolleth on in fleetness

To finished loss or finished gain.3 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poems, 198.]

2. Christ’s fulness is sufficient for us.—“In him ye are made full.” He is our reservoir; He is our well-spring; He is our infinite resource. It is a gracious, beautiful, heartening word, this word “fulness.” It is as though our life were all gaps, defects, deficiencies, and the gaps in the shore of human need were as many as human kind, and of multiplex variety, and our Lord were an ocean of tidal fulness flowing up in all His fulness to the shore of human need, till every bay and cove and cranny and crevice is filled. Every man’s gap is filled in Jesus. Wherever there is a crevice or a chink, or a bay in human need, the Lord fills it. Everybody finds his peace in Jesus.

He enters the soul to fill out every lack, and every secret fault, knowing it all through with a most subtle and perfect knowledge. He communicates, inbreathes, sheds abroad Himself, configuring it inwardly to all that is most perfect in Himself. He does it by a working in the nature of inspiration, not putting the will on forming this or that particular trait for itself, but by flooding and floating it on towards this or that, by His own Divine motion, turning its very liberty towards all it wants and needs to receive. These inspirations are to be currents running exactly where it requires to be carried, and it is just as if every ship in the sea were to have a Gulf Stream given specially to it, running the exact course of its voyage, and drifting it on to its port. The inspirations are all perfect, they are adequate, exact and steady, so that no completest issue may be missed.

For fifteen years it has been my glory to proclaim it with increasing conviction and with a deepening and growing experience. I have never yet in all my life found a single spiritual need that I could not find redressed and filled in Christ. I don’t wonder that Hugh Price Hughes said to his wife, “Put on my grave-stone, ‘Thou, O Christ, art all I want.’”1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, in The British Weekly, April 6, 1911, p. 4.]

On New Year’s Day 1905 came the sudden death of Henry Thompson, vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford, and sometime Warden of Radley. He and the Bishop had been brothers-in-law since 1877. To his sister, the Bishop thus wrote from Mortehoe, on January 2: “He is spared suffering, and weariness, and old age; and you, in your great love for him, will think much of this, that he is spared the trial of loneliness; and though it falls on you, you will bear it as for him, since one or other must have borne it. And through it all you will thank God, not only for those hidden purposes of mercy of which our knowledge of His love may make us sure in all things:—but also for those clear fruits of His bounty which cannot ever be missed or forgotten: for the character, the heart, the goodness that His grace, wrought in Henry:—for the wonderful happiness of so many years:—for the helpfulness and dutifulness and promise of all your sons. And as you thank God for all these blessings,—and even when your heart fails,—He will help you in your trial and sorrow and weariness—I am very unworthy to speak at all of His help—but indeed I am very sure of its sufficiency: there is nothing lacking, on His side.1 [Note: Francis Paget, Bishop of Oxford, 220.]

What mortal mind can apprehend the sufficiency of the outgoings of the eternal? Who understands the sufficiency of the sea? Who knows its multitudinous life? How vast and wonderful it is! Who knows the richness of the earth, the mother and nurse of all the seeds, the parent and cradle of all growths? Have you never been astonished at the wonderful richness of the earth? How, year after year, without failure, she yields through her bosom the wonderful growths that delight the world and that feed the world. Who knows the sufficiency of the orbs that make the day and that braid their glory into the robes of night? Who knows the overflowing of the clouds, the springs that never fail, the streams that never run dry, the rivers that flow on in their majestic current century after century, millennium after millennium, carrying forward without cessation or break their mighty tide? Yet these are only a few among the creatures of God, and the creatures that we can apprehend with our capacity. If this, then, be true of these creatures of God, what must we say of the Maker of them all?2 [Note: D. D. McLaurin.]

Just as a river that runs in a full clear current through the heart of a city yields an unfailing supply of water to each of its dwellings, and fills a vessel which a child may dip into its stream, because it gushes from its rocky cleft high up near the mountain peak where the rain-clouds gather and drip, or the perpetual snows distil their ice-cold dews into its basin; so in like manner the grace that is in Christ, the fulness of the Godhead, flows into and fills up all the emptiness of the human soul. Man till he has come to God is an infinite want—Christ is an infinite resource and fulfilment for that want. Man is fallen—Christ lifts him up; he is fettered—Christ sets him free; he is guilty—Christ is righteousness; he is ignorant—Christ is wisdom; he is powerless—Christ is strength. And after he has come to God, his earthly life is full of yearning and striving, of lofty reach and heavenward endeavour, the powers of an immortal nature unfolding within him and seeking their true sphere of exercise, its affections climbing upwards and seeking their true centre of rest. For all upward longings and pure aspirations there is satisfaction in Christ. In him all noble powers find full employment, all holy affections complete repose. Man’s weak, imperfect, sinful nature, conscious of its fall and seeking to rise to God again, finds in Christ all needful resources for raising it up and guiding it onwards to holiness and glory. In the second Adam the whole family of the redeemed stand faultless before God, perfect and entire, wanting nothing. They are “complete in Him.”1 [Note: J. Hamilton Memoir and Remains of the Rev. James D. Burns, M. A., 363.]

He bore the sin!

Alone He bore the load;

For us He drank the cup,—

Jesus, the Son of God.

He bore the sin!

He paid the debt!

He paid it with His blood;

Each claim He satisfied,—

All that we owe to God.

He paid the debt!

He made the peace!

He silences each fear;

He is Himself the peace,

By blood He brings us near.

He made the peace!

He did the work!

The law He magnified;

Our lifetime’s failure He

Hath gloriously supplied.

He did the work!

The foe He fought!

Our foe and His He slew;

He leads us in the war,

Almighty to subdue.

The foe He fought!

He won the life!

Life by His death He won;

That life He giveth us,

The glory and the crown.

He won the life!1 [Note: Horatius Bonar.]

(1) We are made full in Him as the Revealer of Divine truth. This is one aspect of the fulness upon which the sacred writer dwells. The Church at Colossæ was in danger from heretical teaching, and their refuge from that danger was in the fulness of Christ. Their reply to all the wild speculations of the mysticism around them was found here. “We are complete in him.” “In him are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden.” “This I say, that no one may delude you with persuasiveness of speech.” He exhorted them to “take heed lest any one should make spoil of them through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ; for in him dwelleth all the fulness.”

Ancient mariners sailed by the light of the stars; from the stormy bosom of the ocean they looked to the distant heavens for direction; while the firmament was clear they were safe, but when clouds intervened dangers beset their path. So, taking the words of the Lord Jesus for your guidance, you shall cross the sea of life in safety and reach the heavenly shore; but if you allow human philosophy, science, or tradition, if you permit priesthoods, ceremonies, or sacraments to come between your mind and the light of His teaching, your course must be perilous, and your progress uncertain, for He, and He only, is “the way, the truth, and the life.”2 [Note: T. Jones, The Divine Order, 30.]

(2) The chasm between man and God has been bridged over in Him. If we descend at times to the darkest depths, He anticipates us there; He weighs every sigh; He interprets every tear; He helps every desire Godward in its upward flight—and if in our more jubilant and ecstatic moments we cherish bright visions of future bliss and glory, He still anticipates us there, saying, “Come up hither.” The ladder of mediation is complete; there are no gaps left. Every rung is there in our ascent to God. The veil of the Temple has been rent in twain; the way to the Holiest is opened wide for the mitred dignitary and for the most obscure of Christ’s brethren as well. And in our approach to God we are made full in Him.

Pilate, when he set Christ before the crowd which surrounded his palace on that dread day, cried out Ecce Homo, Behold the man! This might be echoed round all the world—“Behold the Man!—the true Man, the One we should ever aim to be like, and whose perfection becomes ours by faith in His holy Name.” He is the Mediator of the New Covenant that stands between God and man. Faith in Him contains the germ of the new life, and the new love required. It is only a germ—a small thing, it is true—but Christ will make it grow till it becomes like His own. When we live in this spirit we shall come to understand the words of the Apostle, “Ye are complete in him.”1 [Note: W. Adamson.]

(3) We are made full in Him as regards our Christian character. Christianity is not the perfect religion in the sense of being revealed as a finished, rounded, symmetrical whole. It is not perfect in the sense of a closed circle, or a plastic form, which can be altered in nothing without being spoiled. It is not a perfection of proportion, of harmony, of symmetry. That is the Greek, pagan idea of perfection; whereas in Christianity we enter the perfect life maimed. The pagan idea of perfection is balance, or harmony of parts with each other. It is self-contained and self-poised. The Christian idea is faith, or harmony of relations with the will of God. It is self-devoted, complete in Him; the perfection not of finish but of faith. It is perfect, not because it presents us with perfection, but because it puts us in a perfect attitude to perfection.

Christian perfection is something which we are put in the perfect way to realize, in the sense that we realize a living, moving ideal of character and life. It is not something with which we are presented; it is not even something we are to believe; but it is something into which we are redeemed. The perfection of Christianity is not even in the ideal of perfection it offers, but in the power of perfection it implants; not in its ideal of a Son of God, but in the power it gives, with the Son of God, to become sons of God by believing in His name.

From every fresh manifestation of our self-incompleteness, we may retreat under cover to this gracious assurance, “Ye are complete in him.” We may sink into Christ when we cannot rise to Him. And thus we shall be made strong and victorious through apparent defeat, as again and again—

The steps of Faith

Fall on the seeming void and find

The rock beneath.1 [Note: A. J. Gordon, In Christ, 118.]

Dear Lord, it is better that I

Should go through the world with one eye,

If Thou, Light and Guide, be but nigh.

It is better, O Saviour divine,

To lose this right hand of mine,

If Thou hold but the other in Thine.

Thou only canst make me complete;

And to limp by Thy side were more sweet,

Than walking alone on both feet.2 [Note: J. A. Torrey.]

3. We must be in vital connexion with Christ, if we are to be filled with His fulness. The Apostle goes on “and in him ye are made full,” which sets forth two things as true in the inward life of 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 we 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 the 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. According to our need it will shape 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 he wished for most.

An aspiration is a joy for ever, a possession as solid as a landed estate, a fortune which we can never exhaust, and which gives us year by year a revenue of pleasurable activity. To have many of these is to be spiritually rich.1 [Note: R. L. Stevenson, El Dorado.]

Oh, Bearer of the key

That shuts and opens with a sound so sweet

Its turning in the wards is melody,

All things we move among are incomplete

And vain until we fashion them in Thee!2 [Note: Dora Greenwell, The Reconciler.]

What religion desires is not a truncated piece of a man, but a whole man, healthy, happy, natural, and free. Religion is not a January thaw of sentimentalism, but a clear, vigorous, frosty morning, which stirs one’s energy and steadies one’s nerves. Religion means not less life but more life, not subtraction of power but multiplication of power, not emptiness but fulness. I remember hearing it said of Phillips Brooks that he seldom preached a sermon without using in it the word “richness,” and it was certainly a word most characteristic of him. Life to that great prophet was ineffably rich, and to realize and share the richness of experience, to accept the rich privilege of life with a chaste body, an alert mind, a sensitive imagination, and a steady will,—that was but to repeat the great promise of this passage, “Ye are complete in him.”3 [Note: F. G. Peabody, Mornings in the College Chapel, 2nd Ser., 159.]

Surely He cometh, and a thousand voices

Call to the saints and to the deaf are dumb;

Surely He cometh, and the earth rejoices

Glad in His coming who hath sworn, I come.

This hath He done, and shall we not adore Him?

This shall He do, and can we still despair?

Come, let us quickly fling ourselves before Him,

Cast at His feet the burthen of our care.

Flash from our eyes the glow of our thanksgiving,

Glad and regretful, confident and calm,

Then thro’ all life and what is after living

Thrill to the tireless music of a psalm.

Yea, thro’ life, death, thro’ sorrow and thro’ sinning

He shall suffice me, for He hath sufficed:

Christ is the end, for Christ was the beginning,

Christ the beginning, for the end is Christ.1 [Note: F. W. H. Myers, Saint Paul.]

Complete in Christ


Burns (J. D.), Memoir and Remains, 363.

Burrell (D. J.), The Unaccountable Man, 302.

Bushnell (H.), Sermons on Living Subjects, 96.

Forsyth (P. T.), Christian Perfection, 51.

Jones (T.), The Divine Order, 29.

Liddon (H. P.), Bampton Lectures, 321.

Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, ii. 157.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, iii. 153.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), vii. (1869), No. 695.

Christian World Pulpit, xv. 284 (Palmer); xxxiii. 344 (Dykes); lii. 359 (Adamson); lxxxi. 132 (Berry).

Expositor, 3rd Ser., iii. 46 (Maclaren).

Verse 10

(10) Ye are complete.—Literally, ye have been filled up in His fulness, as in John 1:16. So St. Paul had prayed for the Ephesians that they might be “filled with (or rather, up to) all the fulness of God,” and “grow into the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 3:19; Ephesians 4:13). To partake of the divine plerorna is not the special privilege of the initiated; it belongs to all who are united to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Principality and power.—See Colossians 1:16. His headship over all angelic natures is dwelt upon (as in Hebrews 1:1-14) with obvious reference to the worshipping of angels. They are our fellowservants under the same Head. (See Revelation 22:8-9.)

Verse 11

(11) The circumcision made without hands.—This abrupt introduction of the idea of circumcision would be difficult to understand, were it not for the knowledge of the enforcement of Jewish observance so strangely mixed with this “philosophy” at Colossæ. (Comp. Ephesians 2:11, “Ye who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision in the flesh made with hands.”) The phrase “made without hands” is so constantly used of heavenly realities (as in Mark 14:58; 2 Corinthians 5:1; Hebrews 9:11; Hebrews 9:24), as opposed to earthly symbols, that it comes to have the positive sense of “spiritual.” It is defined below as “the circumcision of Christ”—that which Christ has given us in Himself—in contradistinction to the old circumcision which is now “nothing.” (On the treatment of this subject in the Epistles of this period, comp. with this passage Ephesians 2:11-12; Philippians 3:2-3, and see Notes there.)

In putting off the body . . .—The words “of the sins” are not found in the best MSS. They are, no doubt, an explanatory gloss to soften the harshness of the phrase “the body of the flesh.” (1) What “the body of the flesh” is we see clearly by Colossians 3:9, “having put off the old man.” It is, like the “body of sin” (in Romans 6:6) and the “body of death” (in Romans 7:24), the body so far as it is, in the bad sense of the word “flesh,” fleshly. The body itself is not “put off:” for it is not evil; it is a part of the true man, and becomes the temple of God. It is only so far as in it the flesh rebels against the spirit, and the “old man is gradually corrupted by the lusts of deceit” (Ephesians 4:22), that it is to be “put off.” (2) But why the “body of the flesh,” and not the “flesh” simply? The answer is, no doubt, that which Chrysostom here gives, that the bodily circumcision was but of one member, in mere symbolism of one form of purity; the spiritual circumcision is the putting away of the whole of the power of the flesh, and that, too, not in symbol, but in reality.

Verse 12

(12) Buried with him in baptism . . .—It is very interesting to compare this passage with Romans 6:4, “Therefore we are buried with Him in baptism unto death, that like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” In the former clause both are identical. In the latter clause this Epistle is stronger. What in the earlier Epistle is the “likeness of His Resurrection” is here the participation of it, “Ye are risen with Him.” Similarly, instead of the simple allusion to “Christ’s being raised from the dead,” we have here “through faith in the operation of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Here, as in the more detailed passage of the Ephesian Epistle (Colossians 1:19-23; Colossians 2:5-7), the “operation,” the energy of “the mighty power of God,” is conceived as actually working both in the Head and in the Body, so that wo through it partake of the resurrection, the ascension, and the glorified majesty of Christ. The comparison shows an instructive development in this Epistle of the consequences of the unity with Christ.

This passage is also notable for the obvious contrast of baptism, as a spiritual reality, with circumcision as a symbolic form. Each is the entrance into a covenant with God; but the one into a covenant of “the letter,” and the other into a covenant of “the spirit.” (See the contrast between the covenants drawn out in 2 Corinthians 3:6-18; Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:28.) In the earlier Epistles circumcision is contrasted with spiritual regeneration (Galatians 6:15), as shown by various signs, such as “faith working by love” (Romans 4:9-12; Galatians 5:6), or “keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). Here this contrast is still as strong as ever; but baptism being (as always) looked upon as the means of such spiritual regeneration, is brought out emphatically as “the circumcision of the Spirit.” As baptised into Christ, “we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit” (Philippians 3:3).

Verse 13

(13) And you . . .—Here, exactly as in Ephesians 2:1-18, there is a remarkable intermixture of the word “we” and the word “you,” the former conveying the universal statement of the gospel message of mercy, the other applying it emphatically to the Gentiles, as Gentiles. The two passages should be read side by side. There is, as always, strong similarity, yet complete independence. Through the passage of the Ephesian Epistle there runs a two-fold idea, the reconcilement of Jew and Gentile to God, and the union of both in one Catholic Church. In this Epistle it is only on the reconcilement to God in Christ that stress is laid. Even the detailed expressions of the two passages illustrate each other at once by likeness and by variety.

Dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh.—See Ephesians 2:1, “You who were dead in trespasses and sins . . . who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision in the flesh.” Here the “deadness” is spoken of, as coming both from the actual power of “sins” (transgressions), and from the alienation from God marked by uncircumcision. In the other passage the uncircumcision is looked upon only as a name of reproach.

Hath he quickened.—It is difficult to determine what is the subject in this sentence. According to all analogy it should be “God,” yet in the latter clauses (as in Colossians 2:14-15) it must surely be “Christ.” Now, when we turn to the fuller parallel passage, we see an overt change of subject. It is said (Ephesians 2:5), “God quickened us together with Christ”; “God in Christ forgave us” (Ephesians 4:32); but “Christ abolished the Law,” “reconciled us to God on the cross.” This suggests a similar change of subject here also, which must be at the words “and took it away,” or (for the tense here is changed) “and He (Christ) hath taken it away.” This, speaking grammatically, introduces an anomaly; but such anomalies are not uncommon in St. Paul, especially in passages of high spiritual teaching.

Having forgiven you . . .—There is no corresponding clause in the parallel passage; but in a different context (corresponding to Colossians 3:13 of this Epistle) we read, “forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Verse 14

(14) Blotting out the handwriting—i.e., cancelling the bond which stood against us in its ordinances. The “handwriting” is the bond, exacting payment or penalty in default. (Comp. Philemon 1:19, “I Paul have written it with mine own hand; I will repay it.”) What this bond is we see by Ephesians 2:15, which speaks of “the law of commandments in ordinances,” there called “the enmity slain by the cross.” On the meaning of “ordinances” see Note on that passage. The metaphor, however, here is different, and especially notable as the first anticipation of those many metaphors of later theology, from Tertullian downwards, in which the idea of a debt to God, paid for us by the blood of Christ, as “a satisfaction,” is brought out. The Law is a bond, “Do this and thou shalt live.” “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” On failure to do our part it “stands against us.” But God for Christ’s sake forgives our transgressions and cancels the bond. It is a striking metaphor, full of graphic expressiveness; it is misleading only when (as in some later theologies) we hold it to be not only the truth, but the whole truth, forgetting that legal and forensic metaphors can but imperfectly represent inner spiritual realities.

And took it.—Properly, and He (Christ) hath taken it away. The change of tense is significant. The act of atonement is over; its effect remains.

Nailing it to his cross.—At this point the idea of atonement comes in. Hitherto we have heard simply of free forgiveness and love of God. Now the bond is viewed, not as cancelled by a simple act of divine mercy, but as absolutely destroyed by Christ, by “nailing it to His cross.” It has been supposed (as by Bishop Pearson) that there is allusion to some custom of cancelling documents by the striking of a nail through them. But the custom is doubtful, and the supposition unnecessary. Our Lord “redeemed us from the curse of the Law,” by His death, “being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). St. Paul boldly speaks of that curse as a penalty standing against us, and as nailed to the cross with Himself, so to be for ever cancelled in the great declaration, “It is finished.” If any more definite allusion is to be sought for, we might be inclined to refer to the “title” on the cross, probably nailed to it. Such title declared the explanation of the sufferer’s death. The cancelled curse of the Law was just such an explanation of the great atoning death, and the title, declaring His mediatorial kingdom, showed the curse cancelled thereby.

Verse 15

(15) Having spoiled principalities and powers . . .—This verse is one of great difficulty. Not, indeed, in the main idea. The cross, as usual, is identified with the triumph over the powers of evil which it won. The very phrase “made a show,” is cognate to the words “put Him to open shame” applied to the Crucifixion (Hebrews 6:6). The apparent triumph of the “power of darkness” over Him was His real and glorious triumph over them. The general idea is familiar to us, telling, as in the noble old hymn Vexilla Regis—

“How of the Cross He made a throne

On which He reigns, a glorious king.”

His forgiveness of the penitent thief was the first act of His all-saving royalty. Accordingly, taking (as in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16) his metaphor from a Roman triumph, St. Paul represents Him as passing in triumphal majesty up the sacred way to the eternal gates, with all the powers of evil bound as captives behind His chariot before the eyes of men and angels. It is to be noted that to this clause, so characteristic of the constant dwelling on the sole glory of Christ in this Epistle, there is nothing to correspond in the parallel passage of the Epistle to the Ephesians, which dwells simply on Christ as “our peace,” and as the head of the Church.

The difficulty lies in the word here translated “having spoiled.” Now this translation (as old as St. Jerome’s Vulgate), makes all simple and easy; but the original word certainly means “having stripped Himself”—as in Colossians 3:9, “having put off (stripped off from ourselves) the old man.” It is a word used by St. Paul alone in the New Testament, and by him only in these two passages, the latter of which makes the sense perfectly clear. Being forced, then, to adopt this translation, we see that the words admit of two renderings. (1) First, “having stripped from Himself the principalities and powers,” that is, having stripped off that condition of the earthly life which gave them a grasp or occasion against Him. But this, though adopted by many old Greek commentators (Chrysostom among the rest), seems singularly harsh in expression and far-fetched in idea, needing too much explanation to make it in any sense clear. (2) Next, “having unclothed Himself, He made a show of principalities and powers.” On the whole this rendering, although not free from difficulty, on account of the apparent want of connection of the phrase “having stripped Himself” with the context, seems the easiest. For we note that a cognate word, strictly analogous, is used thus (without an object following) in 2 Corinthians 5:4, “Not that we desire to unclothe ourselves, but to clothe ourselves over our earthly vesture.” The context shows that the meaning there is “to put off the flesh.” This is suggested still more naturally in the passage before us by the preceding phrase, “in the putting off of the body of the flesh”—a phrase there used of the flesh as evil, but found in Colossians 1:22 of the natural body of Christ. Accordingly many Latin fathers (among others Augustine) rendered “stripping Himself of the flesh,” and there is some trace of this as a reading or a gloss in the Greek of this passage. Perhaps, however, St. Paul purposely omitted the object after the verb, in order to show that it was by “stripping Himself of all” that He conquered by becoming a show in absolute humiliation, He made the powers of evil a show in His triumph.

Verse 16

(16) Let no man therefore judge you.—That is, impose his own laws upon you. See Colossians 2:8. (Comp. Romans 14:3; Romans 14:10, “Why dost thou judge thy brother?” in this same connection.)

In meat, or in drink.—Or rather, in eating and drinking. We see by the context that the immediate reference is to the distinctions of meats under the Jewish law, now done away, because the distinction of those within and without the covenant was also done away (Acts 10:11). (Comp. on this subject the half-ironical description of Hebrews 9:10.) But a study of Romans 14:2; Romans 14:20-21, written before this Epistle, and 1 Timothy 4:3, written after it—to say nothing of the tone of this passage itself, or of the known characteristics of the later Gnosticism of the ascetic type—show that these laws about eating and drinking were not mere matters of law, but formed significant parts of a rigid mystic asceticism. Of such, St. Paul declares indignantly (Romans 14:17), “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”

An holyday (feast), or of the new moon, or of the sabbath.—Comp. Isaiah 1:13-14, “the new moons and sabbaths . . . the new moons and the appointed feasts My soul hateth;” also Ezekiel 45:17; Hosea 2:13. The “feast” would seem to be one of the great festivals; the “new moon” the monthly, and the sabbath the weekly solemnity. With this passage it is natural to compare the similar passage in Galatians 4:10, “Ye observe days and months and times (special seasons) and years.” But there the specially Judaic character is not so expressly marked; and, in fact, the passage has a wider meaning (like Rom. 14:56), showing the different position which even Christian festivals held in Apostolic days. Here it is the Jewish festivals, and they alone, which are noted. It is obvious that St. Paul gives no hint of any succession of the Lord’s Day to be, in any strict sense, a “Christian Sabbath.” We know, indeed, that the Jewish Sabbath itself lingered in the Church, as having a kind of sacredness, kept sometimes as a fast, sometimes as a festival. But its observance was not of obligation. No man was to “judge” others in respect of it.

Verses 16-19

(16-19) To the warning against speculative error succeeds a warning against two practical superstitions. The first is simply the trust in obsolete Jewish ordinances (the mere shadow of Christ) with which we are familiar in the earlier forms of Judaism. But the second presents much strangeness and novelty. It is the “worship of angels” in a “voluntary humility,” inconsistent with the belief in an intimate and direct union with Christ our Head.

Verse 17

(17) Which are a shadow . . . but the body (the substance) is of Christ.—The spirit of the passage is precisely that of the argument which runs through the Epistle to the Hebrews. “The Law had a shadow of good things to come, not the very image (or, substance) of the things” (Hebrews 10:1). When St. Paul deals with the legal and coercive aspect of the Law, he calls it “the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” (See Galatians 3:24, and Note there.) When he turns to its ritual aspect, he describes it as simply foreshadowing or typifying the substance; and therefore useful before the revelation of the substance, useless or (if trusted in) worse than useless, after it. In every way “Christ is the end of the Law” (Romans 10:4).

Verse 18

(18) Beguile you of your reward.—The original is a word used, almost technically, for an unfair judgment in the stadium, robbing the victor of his prize. The prize here (as in 1 Corinthians 9:24; Philippians 3:14) is the heavenly reward of the Christian course. In St. Paul’s exhortation there seems to be a reference back to Colossians 2:16. There he says, “Let no man arrogate judgment over you;” here, “Let no man use that arrogated judgment so as to cheat you of your prize. There is one Judge, who has right and who is righteous; look to Him alone.”

In a voluntary humility and worship.—This rendering seems virtually correct, though other renderings are proposed. The original is, willing in humility and worship, and the phrase “willing in” is often used in the LXX. for “delighting in.” Other translations are here possible, though not without some harshness. But the true sense is shown beyond all doubt to be that given in our version, by the words used below to describe the same process, “will-worship and humility.”

In this passage alone in the New Testament “humility “is spoken of with something of the condemnation accorded to it in heathen morality. The reason of this is obvious and instructive. Humility is a grace, of which the very essence is unconsciousness, and which, being itself negative, cannot live, except by resting on some more positive quality, such as faith or love. Whenever it is consciously cultivated and “delighted in, ”it loses all its grace; it becomes either unreal, “the pride that apes humility,” or it turns to abject slavishness and meanness. Of such depravations Church history is unhappily full.

Worshipping of angels.—This is closely connected with the “voluntary humility” above. The link of connection is supplied by the notice in the ancient interpreters, of the early growth of that unhappy idea, which has always lain at the root of saint-worship and angel-worship in the Church—“that we must be brought near by angels and not by Christ, for that were too high a thing for us” (Chrysostom). With this passage it is obvious to connect the emphasis laid (in Hebrews 1, 2) on the absolute superiority of our Lord to all angels, who are but “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister to them who are heirs of salvation;” and the prohibition of angel-worship in Revelation 22:9, “See thou do it not; for I am thy fellow-servant . . . worship God.”

It might seem strange that on the rigid monotheism of Judaism this incongruous creature-worship should have been engrafted. But here also the link is easily supplied. The worship of the angels of which the Essenic system bore traces, was excused on the ground that the Law had been given through the “ministration of angels” (see Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19), and that the tutelary guardianship of angels had been revealed in the later prophecy. (See Daniel 10:10-21.) For this reason it was held that angels might be worshipped, probably with the same subtle distinctions between this and that kind of worship with which we are familiar in the ordinary pleas for the veneration of saints. It has been noticed that in the Council of Laodicea, held in the fourth century, several canons were passed against Judaising, and that in close connection with these it was forbidden “to leave the Church of God and go away to invoke angels”; and we are told by Theodoret (in the next century) that “oratories to St. Michael (the ‘prince’ of the Jewish people) were still to be seen.” The “angels” in this half-Jewish system held the same intermediate position between the Divine and the human which in the ordinary Gnostic theories was held by the less personal Æons, or supposed emanations from the Godhead.

Intruding into those things which he hath not seen.—(1) There is a remarkable division here, both of MSS. and ancient versions and commentators, as to the insertion or omission of the negative. But the balance of MS. authority is against the negative, and certainly it is easier to suppose it to have been inserted with a view to make an easier sense, than to have been omitted if it had been originally there. (2) The general meaning, however, of the passage is tolerably clear, and, curiously enough, little affected by either alternative. It certainly refers to pretensions to supernatural knowledge by which (just as in 1 Corinthians 8:1) the mind is said to be “puffed up.” We note that, even in true visions of heavenly things, there was danger lest the mind “should be exalted above measure” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Now the knowledge here pretended to is that favourite knowledge, claimed by Jewish and Christian mystics, of the secrets of the heavenly places and especially of the grades and functions of the hierarchy of heaven. St. Paul brands it as belonging to the mind, not of the spirit, but “of the flesh;” for indeed it was really superstitions, resting not on faith, but on supposed visions and supernatural manifestations. It “intruded” (or, according to another rendering, it “took its stand”) upon the secrets of a region which it said that it “had seen,” but which, in truth, it “had not seen.” If we omit the negative, the Apostle is quoting its claims; if we insert it, he is denying their justice.

Verse 19

(19) Not holding the Head.—In this lay the fatal error. All these speculations and superstitions interfered with the direct hold of the soul on the mediation of Christ, as the Head, from whom alone, as being “the image of the invisible God,” come all spiritual life and growth. Therefore they had a practical and spiritual importance.

From which all the body . . .—Comp Ephesians 4:15-16, and see Note there. The agreement is nearly verbal, but the characteristic difference of idea, so often noted, is still traceable. There the body “maketh increase unto the building up of itself in love;” here the increase is simply “the increase of God”—the increase which God gives, and which grows into His likeness. In this passage there is also a greater scientific exactness: the “joints and bands” are the “articulations and ligaments;” the two functions thereof are the diffusion of nourishment and the knitting together of organic unity.

Verse 20

(20) If ye be dead with Christ.—The whole idea of the death with Christ and resurrection with Him is summed up by St. Paul in Romans 6:3-9, in direct connection (as also here, see Colossians 2:12) with the entrance upon Christian life in baptism, “We are buried with Him by baptism unto death . . . we are dead with Christ . . . we are planted together in the likeness of His death . . . that like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we also should walk in newness of life . . . planted together in the likeness of His resurrection . . . alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The death with Christ is a death unto “the life of the flesh.” But this may be (as in Romans 6:1-2; Romans 6:6-7; Romans 6:11) “the life of sin”; or it may be the outward and visible life “of the world.” The latter is the sense to be taken here. This outward life is under “ordinances” (see Colossians 2:1), under the “rudiments of the world” (see Colossians 2:8), or, generally, “under law.” Of such a life St. Paul says (in Galatians 2:19), “I through the Law died to the Law, that I might live unto God.” There (Galatians 4:9), as here, he brands as unspiritual the subjection to the “weak and beggarly elements” of mere ordinances. Of course it is clear that in their place such ordinances have their value, both as means to an end, and as symbols of an inner reality of self-devotion. The true teaching as to these is found in our Lord’s declaration to the Pharisees as to spiritual things and outward ordinances, “These things (the spiritual things) ought ye to have done, and not to leave the others (the outward observances) undone” (Matthew 23:23). In later times St. Paul declared with Judicial calmness, “The Law is good if a man use it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8). But to exalt these things to the first place was a fatal superstition, which, both in its earlier and later phases, he denounces unsparingly.

Verses 20-23

(20-23) In this and the succeeding section, St. Paul, starting from the idea of union with the Head, draws out the practical consequences of partaking of the death of Christ and the resurrection of Christ. In virtue of the former participation, he exhorts them to be dead to the law of outward ordinances; in virtue of the latter, to have a life hid with Christ in God.

Verse 21

(21) Touch not; taste not; handle not.—The first and last of these renderings should be inverted. There is in the commands a climax of strictness. “Handle not” (the unclean thing), “taste it not,” “touch it not” with one of your fingers. It will be noted that all these commands are negative, not positive. They are marked by the ordinary ascetic preference of spiritual restraint to spiritual energy.

Verse 22

(22) Which all are to perish with the using.—It has been doubted whether these words (which are literally, all which things go to corruption, or destruction, in the using) are the continuation of the ascetic ordinance, or the comment of the Apostle. But the last word—which signifies, not only “using,” but “using up”—seems to decide for the latter alternative. The things are things which go to destruction and are used up. What permanent effect can they leave behind? See 1 Corinthians 8:8 (whether the words of St. Paul, or the words of the Corinthians, accepted as true by him), “Meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.” It is but an echo of our Lord’s own teaching as to that which goeth into the mouth (Matthew 15:16-17; Mark 13:18-19).

After the commandments . . .—See Colossians 2:8, and Note there. There seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 29:13, quoted by our Lord (Matthew 15:7-8; Mark 7:6-7) in relation to these ceremonial observances.

Verse 23

(23) Will worship, and humility . . .—It seems difficult to connect these words with the merely ceremonial observances immediately above; and, in fact, they are almost an exact repetition of the description of the superstitious worship of the angels given in Colossians 2:18. “Will worship” is, indeed, nearly what we call superstition—the constant craving for objects to which we may find some excuse for paying reverence. The prefix applies in sense, though not in grammatical form, to the “humility” also; a studied humility being either a pretence or a self-degradation. But in the words “neglecting of the body” (properly, being unsparing of it in hardship, and generally careless of it) we pass to the ceremonial ordinances. It is more than likely that the superstition and false asceticism were connected together—the latter being the condition of the supposed spiritual insight of the former.

Which things . . . flesh.—This passage is difficult. (1) Our version translates literally, and would seem to regard the last words as simply an explanation, from the point of view of the false teachers, of “neglecting of the body,” as “not honouring it for the satisfaction, or surfeiting of the flesh;” and we certainly find that the Jewish ascetics did brand the most necessary satisfaction of appetite as a “surfeiting of the flesh.” But there is a fatal objection to this interpretation—that, in that case, St. Paul would leave the false pretension without a word of contradiction, which is almost incredible. Hence (2) we must regard the “not in any honour” as antithetical to “the show of wisdom.” The ordinances, says St. Paul, have “a show of wisdom,” but “are in no honour,” i.e., are “of no value.” The common use of the word rendered “honour,” for “price,” or “pay” (see Matthew 27:6; Acts 7:16; Acts 19:19; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 7:23; 1 Timothy 5:17), would readily lend itself to this sense. The only doubtful point (3) is the interpretation of the last words, “for the satisfying of the flesh.” There seems little doubt that the phrase is used in a bad sense. Hence we must dismiss all reference to a right honouring of the body by innocent satisfaction of its needs. We have therefore to choose between two interpretations. Some interpret “of no value against the satisfaction of the flesh.” But, though the Greek will bear this sense, it is certainly not the common sense of the preposition used; and its adoption would expose the whole phrase to the charge of ambiguity and obscurity. The other interpretation is “of no real value” (tending) “to the satisfaction of the flesh.” This is abrupt, but suits well the indignant and abrupt terseness of the passage. It gives (quite after St. Paul’s manner) not only a denial of the “neglecting of the body,” but a retort on the false teachers of the very charge they made against their opponents. (Comp. the use of the word “dogs,” in Philippians 3:2.) It conveys a most important truth. That “extremes meet” we know well; and that there is a satisfaction of the fleshly temper (see above, Colossians 2:18) in the attempt over much to curb the flesh, the whole history of asceticism bears witness. Moreover, this interpretation alone gives a completeness of antithesis. To “the show of wisdom” it opposes the “no real value;” to the pretended “neglecting of the body” the real” satisfaction of the flesh.”


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Colossians 2:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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