Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world…
I. FALSE PHILOSOPHY. "Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit." It was a real danger (as the expression bears) against which the apostle warns the Colossians. He refers indefinitely to the teachers (any one), but he strikingly describes what their work would be. The work of the Christian teachers on them in their heathen state, as described in Colossians 1:13, 14, had been a deliverance, a redemption; the work of those teachers on them in their Christian state would be a leading them into captivity, a making a booty of them. He does not define what this teaching was, but he characterizes the substance of it (as distinguished from the form, which is characterized in the fourth verse) as a philosophy which was a vain deceit. This is not a characterization of all philosophy, but only of the philosophy with which these teachers would have made spoil of the Colossians. A philosopher is literally a lover of wisdom, and in that sense a Christian is a philosopher. The origin of the name, as given by Cicero, is as follows: Pythagoras once upon a time, having come to Phlius, a city of Peloponnesus, displayed in a conversation which he had with Leon, who then governed that city, a range of knowledge so extensive that the prince, admiring his eloquence and ability, inquired to what art he had principally devoted himself. Pythagoras answered that he professed no art and was simply a philosopher. Leon, struck by the novelty of the name, again inquired who were the philosophers, and in what they differed from other men. Pythagoras replied that human life seemed to resemble the great fair held on occasion of those solemn games which all Greece met to celebrate. For some, exercised in athletic contests, resorted thither in quest of glory and the crown of victory; while a greater number flocked to them in order to buy and sell, attracted by the love of gain. There were a few, however - and they were those distinguished by their liberality and intelligence - who came from no motive of glory or of gain, but simply to look about them, and to take note of what was done and in what manner. "So, likewise," continued Pythagoras, "we men all make our entrance into this life on our departure from another. Some are here occupied in the pursuit of honours, others in the search of riches; a few there are who, indifferent to all else, devote themselves to an inquiry into the nature of things. These, then, are they whom I call students of wisdom, for such is meant by philosopher." The philosophy in question in Colossae was no humble endeavour to ascertain the nature of things, but a pretentious system without any basis in observed facts, or in reason applied to them (certainly without any basis in revelation), and therefore only vain. It had two marks of a false system.
1. It was purely traditional. "After the tradition of men." Our sacred books have been handed down to us, but we do not rest their authority on mere tradition. There is evidence (to which we make our appeal) that they do not owe their origin to men, that they are a Divine revelation, that they have been first handed to men by God. Tradition has been a frequent device in connection with systems that have imposed on the human mind. The answer to questionings has been that it was so handed down from remote antiquity (occultly, for the traditional and occult generally go together). A remarkable instance was a later development named cabbala, or tradition. The mystic elements in this were not essentially different from those which were operating around the Colossian Church. The primary substance, the Cabbalists said, is an ocean of light. There was a primitive emanation, named Adam tadmon, from which proceed decreasing stages of emanations, named Sephiroth. Matter is nothing but the obscuration of the Divine rays when arrived at the last stage of emanation. This (and much besides) was to be received on the ground that it had been secretly handed down from Moses. But it is no sufficient evidence of a system being true that it has been handed down; we must submit it to farther examination, and such examination the philosophy at Colossae could not stand.
2. It was purely mundane. "After the rudiments of the world." What was handed down had no high genesis. Very crude were the first attempts to solve the riddle of the universe. Empedocles taught that all things were formed out of the four elements, fire, air, earth, and water, by a process of mingling and of separation, set in motion by the two principles of love and hate. The postulation of intermediate agents in a descending series down to one who could create matter was very rudimentary. The apostle was sorry that such meagre and earth born philosophizings should be palmed upon men as all that was needed to make them perfect. The standard of condemnation. "And not after Christ." What is tradition when we have Christ to give form to our thoughts? What are the rudiments of the world (all that earth can produce of a philosophy) when we have the perfect revelation from heaven?
II. THE TRUE PHILOSOPHY. There are two cardinal points.
(1) The fulness of God in Christ. "For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." By the pleroma of the Godhead we are to understand the totality of the Divine attributes, the sum of the Divine perfections. We are to think of the pleroma as residing first in God and then in Christ (just as we think first of Father and then of Son, first of original and then of copy). The pleroma resides in the Second Person necessarily and eternally, but nineteen hundred years ago (such is our creed) it began to reside in him bodily wise, that is to say, a connection was mysteriously formed between the pleroma in him and (what was far removed) a human body. In the body he took to himself he tabernacled on earth, and not only so, but in it now glorified he permanently resides (such is the force of the Greek word), that is to say, the time will never come when there will be a separation of the pleroma in him from our humanity. Such is the apostolic teaching, but on it reverence forbids that we should dwell.
(2) The fulness of Christ in us. "And in him ye are made full." It is an advantage in the Revised translation that "full" is carried forward from the preceding thought (not "fulness" and then "complete," when the word is the same). The pleroma in Christ is communicated to us. Out of his pleroma have all we received. Christians collectively are called the pleroma of Christ. This is no mere refinement of thought. The comfort of it is that Christ in his redemptive work, in the fulness of his atoning merits, has made it possible for us to have more than mere beginnings or husks. There must be allowance for difference of essence, but, allowance being made for that, then all that is in Christ can be communicated to us. We can think out the Divine thought. We can be under the impulse of the Divine love. We can have strength to perform the Divine purpose. We can come out into the Divine liberty. It is only Christ actually working in us that can remove all moral impediments, and educe to the full the God-given tendencies of our being. And, therefore, the truest philosophy is to preserve a state of openness towards him. This philosophy is all sufficient.
1. It enables us to dispense with what intermediate agents may be supposed to do for us. "Who is the Head of all principality and power." Christ is not only placed over all that can be called principality and power, but he is the Source of all the vital force that belongs to them. What of the pleroma may be dispersed, fragmentary in them, is undispersed, unbroken in him. There is no need, therefore, of supplementing what he can supply.
2. It enables us to dispense with circumcision. It would seem that in the false philosophy with which the Church at Colossae was threatened, there was a Judaistic as well as a mystic element. The combination of the two was called Essenism.
(1) Circumcised with Christ in his circumcision. "In whom ye were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, 'n the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ." They had no need of the circumcision made with hands (the material circumcision); they had been circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands (a spiritual circumcision). They had got the inward reality corresponding to the outward rite. This is presented here as the putting off of the body of the flesh. There was the putting off as of a garment. The word in the original, being intensive, points to a complete putting off. The putting off applied to the body as a whole. The body of the flesh points to our old impure condition (in which the flesh is the dominating principle). It could only be ideally that we were thus circumcised, for there is still actual impurity in our condition that needs to be put off. When in the past are we to understand this circumcision as timed? The general opinion is that we are to take the time from the baptism referred to in the next verse. It seems more natural to interpret the circumcision of Christ as the circumcision undergone by Christ, and to take the time from that event. It is not unnatural to pass from the spiritual circumcision described to the circumcision of Christ so understood, unless its spiritual significance is left out. That event was more than a mere honouring of the Mosaic rite, it pointed to (though it did not actually effect) its fulfilment. Did it not point to Christ putting off in his death the body with which our sin was associated? It could be said then that when Christ was circumcised we were spiritually circumcised in his circumcision. A cogitate thought is added for the purpose of further elucidation.
(2) Baptized with Christ in his baptism. As we interpret the circumcision of Christ of the circumcision undergone by Christ, so we interpret baptism here of the baptism undergone by Christ (not their baptism). It could be said that when he was baptized we were baptized in his baptism. There are two sides of baptism.
(a) A going down into the water. "Having been buried with him in baptism." There is similar language employed in Romans 6:4. We were buried with him through baptism into death. The language is evidently taken from immersion. It is said of Jesus that he came up out of the water, so we are to understand that he went down into the water. There was, as it were, a burial under the waves. And as the coming up out of the water is connected in what follows with the resurrection of Christ, so we are to understand that the burial in baptism is connected with the burial of Christ. In baptism we are represented as burying what Christ may be said to have put away in his grave - the old state of sin. The language employed here tells in favour of immersion as a scriptural mode. There is every reason to believe that it was the mode followed in Palestine in our Lord's day. It has an advantage over sprinkling in pointing so strikingly to the burial of the old nature as in the grave of Christ. The only reason that can be urged against it is that it is not suitable in a cold climate. The use of water being all that is essential, the mode may be accommodated to altered conditions. On the other hand, there is an identification of baptism with circumcision. What is the putting off and laying aside of the body of the flesh in the one, is the burial in the other: And thus the language of the apostle seems to tell in favour of infant baptism.
(b) A coming up out of the water. "Wherein ye were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead." The language is taken from the coming up out of the water which is associated with our Lord's baptism, but none the less truly does it point to the fact of Christ's resurrection, which is clearly referred to. Christ went down into the grave, but came up again. So the believer disappears under the waters of baptism, but comes up to sight again. This is a side that is not presented in circumcision. In baptism there is an impressive exhibition of the fact that we are regenerated. This new life we get in union with Christ. The working of God was signally displayed in raising Christ from the dead. But that was more than a display of omnipotence. It is to be taken in connection with the removal of the cause that operated in Christ's death and burial, viz. sin. Christ rose from the dead the possessor of a new and endless life. And if we take as the object of our faith the working which raised Christ from the dead, we shall become sharers with him in the same new and endless life.
3. Parenthetical application of the being raised with Christ to the Colossians and to the Gentiles generally. "And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he quicken together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses." There is a difficulty started here regarding the subject of the remainder of the paragraph. Meyer, Alford, and Eadie make God the subject; Eilicott makes it Christ. Lightfoot makes it a case of a sudden change of, subject. It can be said in favour of Christ being "subject," that he has been prominent in the apostle's thought in the context as in the Epistle as a whole. It can also be said that the putting off from himself the principalities and powers is language which can only be applied to Christ. On the other hand, it is unnatural, with Ellicott, to pass from the thought of Christ being raised by God to the thought of Christ quickening himself. Nor is it satisfactory simply to say that there is a sudden change of subject. The most natural solution of the difficulty seems to be to regard this verse as parenthetical. The apostle applies the thought of being raised with Christ, and, having done so, he proceeds with Christ as the subject as though the application had not been interjected, The Colossians had been in a state of deadness. Their deadness was caused by their trespasses. There is nothing of the pantheistic element here that was so prevalent in the East. They had committed personal trespass against a personal Lawgiver, and thus were thrown into a state of deadness. Their deadness through trespasses is associated with the uncircumcision of their flesh. They had not the sign of circumcision on them. And so they had that deadness which in circumcision is represented as being put away. Being dead, God quickened them together with Christ, gave them the reality of circumcision or the reality corresponding to the coming up out of the waters of baptism. This presupposed the exercise of forgiveness toward them. They (and not only they) had been forgiven their trespasses. And thus, the cause of deadness being removed, they could be quickened.
(1) How circumcision can be dispensed with. "Having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross." Our obligation to keep the Law of God (so we are constituted) is compared to a bond. It is as though we had subscribed it with our own hand. The word is handwriting. In the case of the Jews it was in the form of well-known ordinances (of which circumcision was one). In the case of the Gentiles the public sense of right also found expression in ordinances. The bond was against us in this sense, that it contained obligation which had to be met by us. It was not only against us in that sense (which it was from its very nature), but in its actual incidence on us in our fallen condition it was contrary to us. It could, as it were, be brought into a court of law to effect our conviction. There it was with our autograph. We had not met our obligation and had no manner of meeting it. What Christ did with the bond was to cancel it. His pen, as it were, was drawn through it. Or the writing was erased that it could never again be brought as evidence against us. To make it more emphatic, it is added that he took it out of the way (so that it could never again be found). "He took it out of the midst," it is literally, so that it could never be produced between us and God. And to make it still more emphatic, it is added that he nailed it to his cross. It was so affixed to the cross that when he was crucified it was treated similarly and completely made an end of. His crucifixion was a meeting the bond, discharging all our obligations to the broken Law. There is thus, therefore, no bond that can be produced for our conviction, but there is a discharged bond which can be produced for our justification.
(2) How the help of intermediate agents can be dispensed with. "Having put off from himself the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it." The principalities and powers were those that sought to thwart Christ in his great undertaking, to prevent the salvation of men. They began to gather around him at his temptation. Especially at the close did they obtain power. These evil principalities and powers clung to him like a garment. It was only by his thus allowing them to come into close contact with him that they could forver be put off from men. It is said, regarding Hercules, the most celebrated of all heroes of mythology, that he came by his end by putting on a robe that had been steeped in the blood of Nessus, whom he himself had shot with a poisoned arrow. When it became warm round him the poison penetrated into his system. He attempted to wrench it off, but it tore away his flesh. And he hastened his end by placing himself on a burning pile. It was sin that made the principalities and the powers like a poisoned clinging robe. But he put them off from himself. So complete was his victory that he held them up publicly to view as spoils. This triumph he obtained on the cross. It was there that the principalities and the powers had him at a terrible disadvantage. They had, as it were, power given them against him. But he, trusting in God, threw them off. And thus the symbol of weakness became the symbol of triumph. - R.F.
Parallel VersesKJV: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.