Colossians 2:20-23 by Robert Dean
Living the Christian life is based on our position in Christ. Distractions from this truth abound, but it is only being in Christ that offers the daily life impact resulting in God’s promised riches in Christ. We may admit that Christ is the answer to our final destiny, but everyday problems are sometimes given over to man’s solutions. The problems in Colossi are no different than what we encounter today. Man’s solution begins with autonomy from God, which is the foundation for the downward spiral into a maze of humanistic answers that position man farther and farther from the truth. All of life’s problems can be traced back to sin. Christ solved the sin problem and “in Him” we are given all we need for solutions in life through application of His Word. What remains is for us is to engage our volition to learn and apply these solutions against a tide of cultural and political trends that run counter to God’s Truth. Pastor Dean explains in depth what it means to be “in Christ.”

"In Christ" - Not Just a Nice Theological Phrase


It is in this section, from about verse 10, that we learn the real essence, the real core, the center of the Christian life—how to live the Christian life and what that foundation is. In this section we see that it is based on our position "in Christ." That is a phrase that is familiar to many of us. It is a term that is distinctively used by the apostle Paul. The doctrine it represents isn't unique to Paul but the phrase itself is one that is distinctively the apostle Paul's. What this phrase really means is what Paul is un packing in Colossians. His basic point to the Colossians is, don't be distracted away from Christ because it is in Christ where every believer is that we have the riches that God has given us. We are wealthy beyond our imagination.

But most Christians are unfamiliar with what we have in Christ, or if they are familiar with what we have in Christ they are not really making a connection between what we have in Christ and facing day-to-day problems, challenges and issues that we all commonly face. Many people think that "in Christ" is a nice theological phrase, a nice doctrinal term, and understand the doctrine but are not so sure they are clear on the application or the implications of it.

As Christians we look for answers to life—how do we face the issues of life, whatever they may be? At some level we think that Christ is good enough and He answers the problems maybe of where our eternal destiny is, or He answers the question of how to deal with certain spiritual issues that we may face; but when it comes to problems of balancing the budget, balancing our check book, when it comes to problems dealing with personal conflicts with other people, somehow we wonder if that is the solution. That is because our culture is just like in the culture around Colosse where they had come up with alternate solutions which somehow seemed to be more attractive, easier to grab hold of because they had redefined the problems so that they were no longer grounded in ultimately a spiritual definition.   

In the ancient world they had mix—the technical term is syncretism, what happens when you take fruit and protein powder and orange juice, etc., and put it in the blender and turn it on. That is what we have in terms of what most people think about life. It is just a blend of this from that view, that from another view, and little bit of Buddhism, a little bit of Gnosticism, a little bit of Christianity, and a little bit of Judaism. We put that in the blender and mix it all up and somehow because we think that life seems to work on the basis of what we just did it must be true, okay. Yet that is not what the Scripture says. We try to emphasize biblical Christianity as opposed to various forms of ecumenical Christianity that are popular today, and that is not to mention external religions. And in the ancient world there was the blend of different groups—Greek philosophy, certain kinds of asceticism and mysticism, eastern mystical religions coming out of Persia and other areas. That was part of what was referred to as the Colossian heresy.

So they had these various views such as if you follow the right kind of diet, if you observe the right days, the right feast days, have a certain humility (a pseudo humility), imitate the worship of angels, emphasized visions—they believed that the angels were communicating directly to them so that they could access truth apart from going to a specific objective revelation from God. And they were also arrogant. We see all these things mention from 2:16-23 as the apostle Paul interacts with the views that were becoming popular in Colosse. We have a lot of the same ideas today. As Solomon pointed out as the end of Ecclesiastes there is really nothing new under the sun. We just repackage it, give it a new name. These things are modified from century to century, generation to generation, but it is still the same old life that somehow man can find meaning and purpose in life without being dependent one hundred per cent upon God.

That takes us to the broad scope of Colossians which is the sufficiency of Christ which is always related to the authority of God. Because God is true and because He is the sovereign God and creator of the universe He has made us the way we are, revealed Himself to us, defined problems in terms of His creation, and He has provided the solution. So when we reject Christ as being completely sufficient we are also rejecting the authority of God. When we reject the authority of God we are also going to reject the sufficiency of His Word, the sufficiency of grace, the sufficiency of Christ, and we are going to look elsewhere. It is going to be a Bible plus something else, a Christ plus something else, a cross plus something else, in order to find real meaning, happiness and definition.

In the world today we have a number of other assaults that have developed over the last couple of centuries that still are very much with us. And they had these same issues in the ancient world. They just looked a little bit different and some of the details were a little different. Starting with the Enlightenment there was an emphasis on human intellectual autonomy. In other words, man doesn't need any input from God in order to be able to understand and define reality. Well really? How do we know that? Because all of our knowledge is limited, so even to make a knowledge claim that we can come to know things as they are implies that we must have access to complete knowledge in order to be able to say that. That is just an arrogant claim in and of itself. What was the last characteristic of the ancient Colossian heresy? It was arrogance. So we are just as arrogant today, we think that we can come to absolute truth apart from any revelation from God.

Reason is helpful and good, and many things we learn from reason. There are many things that Adam learned in the garden through direct observation, which is akin to the use of rationalism and empiricism today. But there is one thing he could never know on the basis of either his own reason, his own frame of reference, or his own experience, and that is that there was one tree in the garden that of he ate from it it would reverberate through all reality and cut him off from God in what we refer to as spiritual death.

As a result of this shift to human intellectual autonomy it impacted the sciences in a great way. There was the rise of Darwinism, the idea that rather than the earth being relatively young it was billions of years old because you are prejudging your empirical observation on the basis of your own finite reason, and that man evolved and all life forms evolved from inorganic matter to organic matter. How that leap is made from inorganic to organic has never been explained or defined, it is just glossed over. There has been the rise of psychotherapy, redefining man's problems in terms of his soul. The Bible talks about man being comprised of soul and spirit as well as body, so there is a physical as well as an immaterial dimension to man's makeup. Man has a soul but the Bible tells us that there is another immaterial element that enables the soul to properly orient to God and have a relationship with God, and that is what dies and is cut off from God in spiritual death. So man cannot have that relationship with God if he is spiritually dead. There are several manifestations and problems from psychotherapy. One of them that we hear today is that the Bible addresses the spirit but psychotherapy addresses the problems of the soul. They emphasize that because the word "psychology" comes from psuchos [yuxoj], the Greek word for soul, and they make this pseudo or false bifurcation between spirit and soul, and that is not based on the Scripture.  

Drugs and happiness are another influence. In the ancient world they often used drugs to induce some kind of hallucination, some sort of mystical experience so that the gods could speak to the individual. Today we can use emotion and many other tools to do the same thing. Sociology: we study empirically how people relate to each other, starting with sinful people relating in already corrupt ways, and that becomes our norm. There are a lot of good things is sociology in certain areas. We can learn and observe many different things. But when it leaps over into becoming some sort of absolutes affecting the patterns of the church or solving the problems of life then all of a sudden what is being used as a norm is fallen human beings. That is norm the norm that Scripture presents. Then the introduction of socialism, Marxism and statism which always violate the basic establishment laws that God put into the social/government structure of creation. We have government coming along on top of that to redefine other elements within society such individual responsibility, the way they handle criminal codes and penal systems, to redefining marriage, redefining family, redefining the relationship between government and individuals.

All of this is deemed to be the solution to problems. The reason is that when you redefine the problem away from how Scripture defines it then you can easily redefine a solution that looks viable. But the Scripture says that every problem that we face in life ultimately is traced back to that nasty little thing that we all have, that aspect of our makeup that Scripture refers to as the body of sin or the sin nature. And as long as we are basically corrupted and perverted by the fact of sin then we are going to do bad things and experience bad things in life. There are many good things we can experience in life as well but unless we can understand problems in terms of that reality of the fallenness of the world and the world system then we are never quite on the right page. So whatever solutions we have may work in some sense but they do not provide real solutions.

The Bible does. Biblical Christianity teaches salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone, and that relates to every phase of salvation. Everything is predicated upon Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross, not upon human works and human efforts gaining approbation of God.

The problem in Colosse was that there was this blend of Judaistic mysticism that emphasized obedience to certain moral precepts as the way to happiness and meaning. This was blended with the mystery cults in Greek culture which emphasized salvation through some sort of esoteric knowledge which involved angel worship as well as seeing visions and other things of that nature. There was also Greek philosophy which also included aspects of angel worship within Gnosticism, various emphases on asceticism—thinking that if I give up certain things God will then move close to me—and libertinism, which is it doesn't really matter I can do whatever I want to do and God is going to do whatever He wants to do; it is realty related to fatalism. The Colossian heresy sort of blended all of this up and it involved a basic rejection of the sufficiency of Christ.

In the previous section what we read is Paul coming to one conclusion from his explanation of what Christ did on the cross where everything is provided for the believer. In 2:13 we are forgiven all trespasses, in verse 14 they were wiped out at the cross, and this also disarmed principalities and powers. In the spiritual element of the ancient world there was also this fear of the negative spiritual elements of demons and that these were also associated with the basic elements of the world—fire, air, earth and water. Often they were deified or associated with evil spirits. So having established the objective realities of what Christ did on the cross Paul then says, "Because of that don't let anyone judge you, don't let anyone evaluate you or criticise you in terms of how you eat or how you drink or what you observe in terms of special days." Then he points out in verse 17 that these things are a shadow of things to come, i.e. there wasn't a reality in and of those feast days but in all aspects of the Mosaic Law, everything related to the feasts and the weekly patterns in the worship ritual of Israel somehow foreshadowed something in relation to the person or the work of the Messiah.

The second command was, [18] "Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize …" that if we get distracted from a total dependence upon God somehow we will be defrauded, we are gong to lose something significant and tangible because we have wasted time and we try to do things on our own. "… by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on {visions} he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind." The problem was [19] that they didn't hold fast to the head.  The head is the source of guidance, the source of nourishment. If we cut off the head then we cut off our source of nourishment. Paul says that it is from Him, i.e. from Christ who is the head of the church, that the body is nourished and all the bones the sinews are knit together—growth takes place, health takes place because we take in our nourishment via Jesus Christ as the head of the church. When we are cut off from Christ as the sufficient head and we are looking for nourishment elsewhere, that is even worse than eating fast food 24/7. It is not good; it is like eating poison; it is self-destructive. When we don't hold fast to the head it means that we are looking for guidance, direction and sustenance from somewhere other than Christ. We may camouflage it in Christian terms but ultimately what happens is we are looking elsewhere other than Christ. The conclusion is that we can only grow on the basis of God. He is the one who provides growth—individual and in the church.

This is seen in 1 Corinthians 3:5-7 where Paul uses an agricultural analogy and is talking about it not mattering whether it was him or Apollos or some other teacher of the Word—it is always God's Word that does the growth, it is not who the teacher/pastor is. Who the pastor is is ultimately irrelevant; it is the Word, the content that is taught. NASB "What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave {opportunity} to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth."

The problem is seeking help for life's problems apart from God. This results in a spiritual decapitation, cutting us off from the only source of guidance and nourishment. We are cut off from the authority of Christ; we are cut off from any nourishment that comes from Christ, i.e. specifically from His Word. As Paul will say later on in Colossians, we are to let the Word of Christ dwell richly in us. It is His Word that is that source of nourishment, and that alone produces spiritual growth. It provides us with spiritual strength—Philippians 4:13. So the solution as Paul expresses it is, we have to understand our position in Christ.

Colossians 2:10 NASB "and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority." What does it mean that we are complete in Him? Just that, it is that we have already potentially been given everything in Christ. We just have to learn how to use everything that we have been given, not look for something else. We are complete in Him from the moment we trust in Him as savior, because He is the head of all principality and power. He is the authority over the universe and we are in Him. The way we get there is by means of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We need to learn to live in light of its reality. It is a changed reality that occurs once we trust in Christ as savior and we need to develop a mindset that is based on that reality.

Then we have to deal with certain misconceptions and distortions. One misconception that is popular today is that spiritual growth is inevitable to the one who is truly saved: If you are elect you'll grow; if you're not elect you won't grow, and sin in your life means that you weren't really saved. So the only way to know you're saved is to make sure you don't commit certain sins. This is the Lordship position or the theology of the Reformed churches.

Then there is a second distortion which is the idea that you just have to reach sort of a certain spiritual point, a crisis point, a point of decision, and you commit your life at a point in time to Christ. At that point of commitment, dedication, then you get elevated into an upper level of spirituality and it is in that second work of grace that you can experience real victory over sin in your life—there won't be the struggle that is has been before. This is the viewpoint of the higher life school that came out of the 19th century, also known as Keswick theology and part of the holiness and Pentecostal option. In the Pentecostal option the way you know you've reached that point is that you speak in tongues, the sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and you are just not going to sin like you did before.

A third distortion is the idea that if I just do what the Bible says to do, if through just a pure act of my will go and do what the Bible says to do without any reference to the Holy Spirit then I am living the Christian life. That is also prevalent in a lot of the Reformed Calvinistic school because basically in their theology and doctrine they ignore the role of the Holy Spirit—maybe not so much from the 20th century but historically that was not a part of Calvinism.

Another misconception or distortion is the idea that the Holy Spirit communicates directly to me and through me as to what I should do. This is mysticism or asceticism option. Another option that is also prevalent in a number of different schools of theology or doctrine—Keswick, holiness, Pentecostal, some Reformed—is that you have to crucify yourself. What does that mean, to crucify yourself? Jesus said if you want to follow me then you have to crucify yourself daily. We have to tie this to synonyms throughout all of these passages. In this passage we see when we get down into 3:5 Paul says, NASB "Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry," or "Put to death your members…" When something is crucified it is put to death.

We want to look at this as a flyover view because it is important to get what Paul is saying so that we don't get too lost in the weeds and can understand that he really is developing this in a rigidly logical manner. He begins this section in Colossians 2:11, 12 by talking about what we have in Him. In Him you were circumcised. Why is he emphasizing circumcision? Paul says that physical circumcision wasn't the reality of spiritual circumcision, and what he points out in vv. 11, 12 is that this happens when we are buried with Him in baptism. So what verses 11 & 12 are talking about is the spiritual baptism that occurs for every Christian. So these two verses start this section off by laying the groundwork and talking about the baptism by the Holy Spirit. Then after explaining a few things about the cross and the problems in Colosse in verse 20 he says, "If you have died with Christ…" That is spiritual baptism terminology coming right out of Romans 6:3. Then he says in 3:1, "Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ…" That is also part of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Both of these "ifs" are expressed in Greek as a first class condition, the assumption that it is true. Dying with Christ and being raised with Christ are part of the baptism by the Holy Spirit. Then in 3:5 Paul comes back to say, NASB "Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead …" So that now we are to put off all these things. So that terminology is also directed to the terminology uses in Romans chapter six in explaining the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Then in 3:8, 10, 11 he concludes this whole section by saying, NASB "and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—{a renewal} in which there is no {distinction between} Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all." Putting off and putting on the new man is baptism by the Holy Spirit terminology. In Galatians 3:27, 28 Paul touches on the baptism by the Holy Spirit NASB "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." He connects the phrase to "put on Christ" or "clothed yourself with Christ" with what happens when we are baptized by the Holy Spirit. It happened at one instant in time.

The result of that in Colossians 3:10,11, putting on the new man, in this environment there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised … "but Christ is all in all." What does it mean that there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised? Paul was a Jew before he trusted Christ as savior, right? And he is the distinct apostle to the church and the one through whom God gave most of the revelation related to the church and the church age. Is Paul still a Jew? Sure he is. There is a truth in Christ is the end of the Law and that being a Jew is no longer spiritually or soteriologically as significant as it was under the Mosaic Law. However the Abrahamic covenant preceded the Mosaic Law. The Abrahamic covenant is the covenant that had circumcision as a sign for it, and the Abrahamic covenant is still in effect. We still believe that if we bless the descendants of Abraham we will be blessed, and if we curse them we will be cursed. If that is still in effect then the Abrahamic covenant is still in effect and circumcision for the Jews is still in affect as an ethnic Abrahamic covenant-related option, sot sociological or spiritual. It is related to the Abrahamic promise of God calling out a distinct people for Himself. After he is saved he is still Jewish.

By being a member of the church the Jewishness is no longer significant spiritually, like it was under the Mosaic Law. Under the Mosaic Law if you weren't Jewish you couldn't go into the temple. If you weren't a free Jewish male you couldn't worship in the inner part of the temple. If you were a Gentile or a Jewish female you didn't have the same access to God that a free Jewish male had. There were spiritual distinctives under the Mosaic Law. But Christ (Romans 10:4) is the end of the Mosaic Law, and so those distinctives related to access to God are no longer in affect. But that doesn't mean that a person who was a slave, at the instant he trusted in Christ ended up not being a slave, a female quit being a female or that a male quit being a male. Galatians 3:27, 28 NASB "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus who escaped. Later he ran into the apostle Paul in Rome where he heard the gospel and responded and trusted in Jesus as his savior. But Paul said he was a slave and had to go back to Philemon his owner. So being saved didn't negate his status of being a slave. He was still a slave, but spiritually it didn't affect his relationship to God as it would have under the Mosaic Law.

The key word that is being honed in on here is the word "put on" because this is a word that is found toward the conclusion of our section when we look at Colossians 3:8, 9. It is helpful for us to know where Paul is going with this line of argument so that we can understand why he is saying what he is saying at the end of chapter two and the beginning of chapter three. What we understand where he is heading and what his conclusion is going to be then we have a better understanding of why he says what he says in the intervening verses. He uses this terminology of the dressing room: to put off certain things, to remove certain kinds of clothing, and to put on certain kinds of clothing. He uses the same kind of terminology as Galatians 3:27, 28 using the Greek word enduo [e)nduw]. He uses different forms of that by adding different prefixes to it but it is still the same basic idea of either disrobing or putting clothes on. He says if we are baptized into Christ we have put on Christ. This is an aorist indicative indicating it is a past action, and he is just simply referring to it as something that happened in the past at the same time that we were baptized into Christ. That is important to understand. This is an identity change. It is a reality that we put on a new uniform which is a uniform of Christ's righteousness. The imputation of Christ's righteousness is what we put on at the instant of salvation. That is what changes our identity. We put on Christ in terms of our position but now, after salvation, we have to learn how to live in light of the fact that we are wearing a new suit of clothes.   

Colossians 3:8 NASB "But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, {and} abusive speech from your mouth." We are to put off all these things. That is a lifetime process. [9] "Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its {evil} practices." In one verse we have already put off the old man but at the same time we are commanded to put these characteristics off. That is the difference between our position in Christ and the experience. In verse 8 we have the Greek word apotithemi [a)potiqhmi] which means to put off or put something away. It is interesting that this word is also used in a number of passages that relate to confession of sin or cleansing. For example, in 1 Peter 2:1—a precondition to taking in the Word of God, v. 2., the removal of sin. It is confession of sin. So putting off all these things isn't simply confession of sin but that certainly is the starting point. It is also learning to live in fellowship, abiding in Christ, walking by the Spirit in obedience to Him; which is why Paul follows this up with "Don't lie to one another." Why do we do all this? We have already put off the old man, i.e. everything we were before we were saved. That is the reality. Now our experience has to match to match the reality. This is what Paul says in Colossians 2:20 NASB "If you have died with Christ [yes, you did] to the elementary principles of the world…" There is a decisive break that occurred in terms of our identity at the instant of salvation. Then Paul says, "… why, as if you were living in the world…" Why are you still living that way? Then in vv. 21, 22 he refers to those things that were taught in the false system: "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch! (which all {refer} {to} things destined to perish with use)…" This is finite and limited, it has nothing to do with our eternal reality and relationship with God. And then he concludes by saying that these things indeed have an appearance. They only have this superficial appearance of spiritual viability. [23] "These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, {but are} of no value against fleshly indulgence." They really don't impact being able to deal with your own sin nature.

Only learning to live in light of what Christ did for us at the cross and what happened in the baptism by the Holy Spirit gives us any basis for dealing with our own sin nature. This takes us over to the concept that Paul is going to express in Romans 6:3, 4 in terms of our identification with Christ in His death. NASB "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life."