Out of the Shadows and into the Son
Colossians 2:16–23 – Colossians: Made Alive in Christ
7th Sunday after Pentecost – July 8, 2018 (am)
Our Father in heaven, we pray it often, because we are ever in need of it: Open our eyes to behold wonderful things from your Word. Incline our hearts to receive and respond to it with gladness. And unite our hearts together in this place to fear your name, we pray, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning’s sermon text is Col 2:16–23. You can turn there now as we begin by reading and hearing the Word. It’s on page 984 of the pew Bibles. Chapter 2 of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, verses 16–23. This is what God says in his word:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. | The Word of God.
The church in the city of Colossae was small and relatively obscure in the broader early Christian mission.[i] It was a church which the Apostle Paul had never personally visited.[ii] Yet it’s one of the few churches to which Paul sent a biblical letter. He took the time to write to them because he had gotten wind of some great difficulties posed by false teaching at Colossae.[iii] Today’s passage is where Paul tackles this false teaching head on. To speak of “Colossian difficulties” as I do in the bulletin outline is to tip us off to the fact that these paragraphs are the primary place to turn when trying to get a sense of what the Colossian church was facing.
There are difficulties facing the church which Paul directly addresses in our text for the morning. But “Colossian difficulties” has, at the same time, a second sense in view. This passage may very well be the most difficult passage in the whole letter to interpret and understand. Colossians 2:16–23 is not only about difficulties facing the church of God; it also presents the church trying to understand it with many difficulties in interpretation.
The difficulty of the passage is manifested in the widely varying translations in English versions. Compare a few major English versions, and you’ll find each reads quite differently. For example, in v. 18, the ESV speaks of a false teacher who is “insisting on asceticism”; the NASB has “delighting in self-abasement”; the old 1984 NIV, “delighting in false humility,” and the new 2011 update of the NIV changes it to “insisting on pious self-denial.” This is just one of about a dozen places in this text where we find pretty widely varying English translations. When a passage has such a great variety of translations in the versions—when even a single version, such as the NIV, differs from one edition to the next—that’s a tell-tale sign that we have a hard-to-understand passage, about which there is a lot of disagreement.
Some of the difficulty stems from the fact that Paul uses some rare and unique words in the passage. In v. 22, what the ESV translates as “self-made religion” is a word that isn’t used anywhere else in the Bible; in all likelihood Paul coined the term.[iv] Paul’s syntax is sometimes complex and convoluted. For example, vv. 21–23 are extremely dense and syntactically unclear in the original; it’s no surprise that translations vary widely in these verses.[v] Sometimes Paul uses ambiguous terms. In vv. 18 and 23, the word translated as “asceticism”—or “false humility” or something similar—is translated every other time Paul uses it simply as “humility.”[vi] The word usually refers to the commendable Christian virtue of humility. In this context, Paul is clearly using the word in a negative light. But the precise negative connotation is hard to pin down, and the differing translations are offering their best go at it.[vii]
I think that part of what accounts for the difficult, ambiguous language here in Col 2 is the nature of the false teaching that Paul is addressing. It centers on deception. Paul warns the Colossian church of “empty deceit” up in 2:8. Deception operates not by telling obvious lies and untruth, not by acting in openly shameful ways, but by speaking half-truths, by wielding pious jargon, by quoting Scripture abundantly (but selectively), by behaving in respectable ways (but aiming at ends other than God). Deception looks and feels right. But that’s precisely its great danger, because it’s not right; it leads ultimately to disorder, despair, and death. By having what Paul calls in v. 23 “an appearance of wisdom,”[viii] deception charms us onto the way of foolishness that leads to death while we assume all along that we are right and pious and safe on the path of life. The Colossian church faced that kind of deceptive false teaching. So we find that Paul, as he addresses such a danger head on, has to use language that on its own is ambiguous, that might appear good and wise, when in fact what is being taught is anything but good and wise.[ix]
That helps a bit to explain why Paul’s language in this passage is so difficult to interpret, why it’s filled with rare and ambiguous terms and phrases. But that doesn’t help us know what those terms and phrases mean. We’re still left with a lot of uncertainty as to what precisely Paul is confronting.[x] It’s sort of like hearing one side of a phone conversation, in which strange and complex language is used, and from that one side alone hypothesizing about what’s being said on the other end of the line. It’s no easy task, and ambiguities and uncertainties abound.
This isn’t the time or place to survey all the interpretative options. Rather, my plan is to spell out what seems to me to be the focus and essence of the false teaching that Paul has in view here. Along the way, I’ll try clarify a few of the ambiguities and difficulties in the passage, as I understand them, in hopes that you will continue to wrestle with the text and try on what I say for size to see if it “fits” what Paul says here and further illuminates the overall letter of Colossians. It’ll be easy to get lost in the details of just the few things we’ll focus on, and we’ll just be scratching the surface of all the problematic things in the text. But I hope to give enough of a sense of what Paul is doing to help us hear aright the remarkable invitation in the passage. For I believe there is a crucial invitation in this passage for us here this morning.
But first things first. What’s going on at Colossae that stirs Paul to write? What kind of deception did the Colossians need to be on guard against? What did the false teaching focus on? The clearest and most important clue comes right away in vv. 16–17. Apparently some wanted to “judge” the Colossian Christians—to consider them unfit or unspiritual or second class citizens—over matters of “food and drink.”[xi] That could refer to all sorts of things: perhaps to the eating and drinking requirements of the OT Law;[xii] or to the plethora of ascetic practices and rituals of the many pagan religions of the day;[xiii] or to some obscure, localized blend of the two backgrounds.[xiv] In itself, the reference to “food and drink” is ambiguous.
But Paul immediately connects these matters of “food and drink” to the matter of “a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” By my lights, that can only refer to one reality: the requirements and rituals of the Mosaic Covenant, the OT Law.[xv] The Jewish people were, for all intents and purposes, the only people who were concerned about Sabbath observance in the ancient world. The Mosaic Law required it. And the combined language of “festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths” appears in several places in the OT to speak of the calendar observances called for in the Mosaic Law.[xvi] The false teaching at Colossae was centered on the OT Law.
This is confirmed in what follows.[xvii] Verse 17 identifies these things from v. 16 as a “shadow” of things coming. The book of Hebrews expressly calls the Law of God a “shadow” of what was to come in Christ.[xviii] Paul is saying the same thing. The “shadow” things in this text are the requirements and rituals of the OT Law which point ahead to some reality. Paul addresses the function of the OT Law because the Colossian false teaching focused on the Law. Right away at the outset, we’re given the proper coordinates for locating the rest of the ambiguities in the passage on the larger map of Paul’s dispute with the false teachers.[xix]
The food and drink concerns are about the Mosaic dietary laws. The asceticism and bodily severity is rooted in an attempt to maintain the Law’s ritual purity. Paul sarcastically captures the false teachers’ motto in v. 21: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” They preach this because that’s what they think the OT commandments and codes for cleanness mean.[xx] Whatever other specifics are in play in the false teaching,[xxi] I think we can be confident that the general issue has to do with their handling of the Law. In Colossians, Paul’s conflict is less directly with foul paganism and more with false piety. It’s not that God and his Word are being ignored; rather, the Bible is being deceptively distorted.[xxii] The false teachers are cherry-picking, proof-texting, citing the Law but only highlighting what serves their interests without any concern for the Law’s overall message and purpose. While claiming to be “biblical” because they care about the Law, they ignore and obscure God’s goal in giving the Law.
Eventually, we’ll have to address why God gave the Law in the first place, which the false teachers at Colossae are ignoring or rejecting in favor of their own self-determined intentions. But first it might be helpful to address why the false teachers were attracted to submitting to the Law, and what appeal their teaching might have had for the Colossian church. Paul is concerned that the church might be wooed away to the path of foolishness. What appeal lay in turning to the rules and regulations of the OT Law and the teaching of the false teachers?
In a word, life. We could call it, in today’s parlance, the good life. Or to use language that Paul strategically emphasizes in Colossians, fullness of life. In Col 1:19, Paul declares that “all the fullness” dwells in Christ. In 2:9–10, just prior to our passage, Paul repeats that “the whole fullness of deity dwells” in Christ Jesus, and in Christ we “have been filled” or made full. In Christ there is fullness and we can be filled and enjoy fullness in Christ alone.[xxiii] Paul repeatedly emphasizes that. Why? Because the false teachers claim that there’s another way to get fullness of life, to be filled and full, to enter the good life. It’s the way of submission to the OT Law. You want fullness of life? Well, we have the key: just 613 simple steps to the good life.
It might have been a run-of-the-mill legalism: you must earn your way to God and the life he has to give by obeying his Law. But I don’t get the sense that the temptation at Colossae was ever quite so simplistic and superficial as that. More likely, the temptation went something like this: there are all sorts of threats to your life and good. You know it in your bones. We live in a world that seems out of our control, with forces and powers that are beyond us, and many of them are harmful. For the Colossian Christians, the power of the rulers and principalities in the heavenly places was an everyday concern. Paul repeatedly makes reference to these forces in Colossians. The church struggled with fear of the principalities. The false teachers were preying on that fear. “Protect yourselves,” they were saying, “by heeding God’s Law.” Perhaps it was thought of as a way of staying in God’s good graces so that God would protect them. Maybe they thought of the Law as providing something like magic incantations and rituals that would ward off evil spirits. Or maybe they just fancied that if so many other people were following the Law, then it must be of some practical value for self-protection. Whatever the case may be, adherence to the OT Law as interpreted by the false teachers would have been appealing in the face of threats to life and peace posed by spiritual forces.
We might assume that those are superstitions of a primitive age, nothing enlightened moderns like us are tempted with. But I suspect that we, too, fear principalities and powers that can cut us off from fullness of life. We just call them by different names—not evil spirits and demons, but “big government” that robs us of our political rights and freedoms (which for many is what fullness of life is all about). So we turn to rituals of lobbying and legislation and national lore to deliver the good life. Maybe we fear disapproval from the big, dark god called “the public eye,” worried always about our image and what others think of us, knowing that as our approval rating goes down, so too does our joy. But if we buy the right clothes, talk the right talk, make the right posts online about the right kinds of “issues,” self-brand with the right hashtags—if we follow these rules and rituals, then the “public eye” will approve of us and allow us to enjoy fullness of life. Maybe what we fear as most threatening to our life and good are the invisible “gods” we call germs and diseases and anything less than a clean bill of health. But we have methods of preventing such things (so we think): medical incantations, special dietary rites, ritual service at the altar of the health club. That’s the way to “quality of life.” That’s how to lay hold of fullness of life. Are we really so terribly different from the first century? It takes just a little effort of imagination to understand (and to sympathize with) the Colossians in their temptation to turn to the Law in the face of threats to the good life.
The false teaching would, I think, have been appealing as a means to the good life in a second way, having to do with one of the strangest things Paul says in our passage. In v. 18, Paul mentions “the worship of angels” and “visions.” “The worship of angels” might at first sound like the false teachers are idolizing angels, exalting them as gods. But there’s another, and I think better, way to understand “the worship of angels” in this context. Think of the phrase “the worship of the church.”[xxiv] When you hear that, do you think of someone bowing down to worship the church? Most likely, when we hear “the worship of the church,” we think of the church’s own worship of God. In the same way, I think it’s best to read the phrase “the worship of angels” in Col 2:18 as a reference to the angels’ worship of God.[xxv] The false teachers aren’t directly worshiping angels; rather, they’re preoccupied with how the angels of heaven are worshiping God, and they yearn to join in on that spectacle. The Colossian false teachers were deeply interested in “visions,” as Paul says in v. 18. And, like much Jewish and early Christian literature of Paul’s day,[xxvi] their visions likely had to do with the heavenly throne-room and of the ranks and processes of the angelic worship taking place there.
The false teachers reveled in their access to the eternal mysteries, the spectacular angelic worship of the heavens. And they were saying, “You, too, can get in on this! How? By submitting to the Mosaic Law.” There was a common belief among early Christians that the angels were instrumental in giving and administering the Law. Stephen in Acts 7, Paul himself in Gal 3, the author of Hebrews in Heb 2—each refers to the role of angels in the giving and mediation of the OT Law.[xxvii] With that in view, I think it’s plausible to imagine the false teachers saying, in effect, “The Law was given through the hand of angels. So if we want to enter into the worship being offered by the angels in the heavenly places, we better heed the Law which was given through them, with its regulations for eating and for fasting and for overcoming the power of the impure flesh. That’s the doorway to truly spectacular experiences.”[xxviii]
Again, if we’re willing to cultivate a bit of sympathy for the Colossians, we can understand why this false teaching was tempting to follow. Who doesn’t want to experience the spectacular? Who doesn’t want to escape their boring, mundane, seemingly insignificant lives? Who hears the phrase “fullness of life” and thinks, “Yep, that describes my life to a T”? We were made for meaning and significance. We were made for experiencing and enjoying glory. But my little old life falls far short of the spectacular and glorious. It’s certainly not as glamorous and significant as other people’s beautiful lives posted on Instagram. I may get my ten minutes of fame on YouTube (or I’ll try my darnedest to get it, or at least I’ll mimic what I see there), but I know in the end that my life is still relatively unimportant and not worth noticing.[xxix] So if someone were to come along and claim, “I know the way to the mysteries, to the spectacular, to attention-grabbing glory and significance, and it is nothing other than the very way God himself has told us to go!,” that word would have tremendous appeal.
I think the deception at Colossae went something along those lines. With a little effort, we can sympathize with why such false teaching might be appealing, why it might seem wise at first glance. But, Paul says, it only has an appearance of wisdom. It’s not actually wise to submit to the Mosaic Law in the present age, because it doesn’t actually lead to the good life but to anguish, bondage, chaos, and death. That’s not because submission to the Mosaic Law is inherently bad[xxx]—any more than activities like lobbying for legislation changes, buying this or that piece of clothing, making use of medicine or watching our diets is inherently bad. In and of themselves, and at their proper times, such things may be, and are, good. They only become bad when we wield them in ways that are contrary to what God intends and pursues.[xxxi] When we treat such things as if they were saviors that could by their own power deliver the good life, we use them contrary to God’s meaning and ends. When we submit to the Law in the present age as the deliverer of fullness of life, we are ignore and deny God’s purposes in giving the Law.
What are God’s purposes in giving the Law? Paul highlights one crucial purpose in v. 17: the Law was given as a shadow of the things that were to come. The point of the Law, God’s meaning and purpose in giving it, was not to deliver fullness of life, but to foreshadow and prepare us for the coming of fullness of life and the One who would deliver it.[xxxii]
The Law with its regulations, rituals, and practices was always meant to be a shadow, an echo, a preparation, a type; but, as the end of v. 17 says, “the substance belongs to Christ.” Or as the KJV of v. 17 more appropriately reads, “the body is of Christ.”[xxxiii] The shadowy Law points forward to and prepares for the body of Christ. That’s what I think Paul is saying here. The Law of God was getting us ready for the life of the church: it helps us understand the meaning and shape and dynamics of the church’s life, of true fullness of life.[xxxiv] The problem with the Colossian false teaching is that it forsook the Head, who alone gives life, and whose life flows in and to his body. The body of Christ is the place where, as v. 19 says, we can truly grow. In the church, we grow together into the maturity and fullness that God alone can provide and for which we were created. Christ has won life, the truest and fullest life, for us. And his redemptive work and life is increasingly applied to our lives in the context of Christ’s body.
Importantly, the life of the body of Christ is every bit as public, embodied, corporate, and cultural as the life of the Old Covenant Law.[xxxv] The move from Old to New Covenant isn’t a move from merely external rites and rituals to the real stuff of inner thoughts and feelings.[xxxvi] That’s a sensibility that these verses from Colossians are sometimes used to support.[xxxvii] But it’s not what Paul says or means. It’s not the case that we no longer have any practices and rituals and habits and corporate, cultural life now that we’re in the New Covenant and out of the Old. We just have different practices and rituals, a different culture, than the Old Covenant provided; and they tend to be simpler and more accessible for all ethnicities and for both sexes.
The Old Covenant life was marked by rites like circumcision, and practices like animal sacrifices, and ritual bathings, and annual feasts. In the New Covenant, the church’s life is also marked by practices—for example, the practice of making sacrifices of praise, which is every bit as embodied and material as the animal sacrifices of old. At least they’re equally embodied and material when our sacrifices of praise are belted out loud with our vocal chords, as Paul expects them to be given his express exhortation in ch. 3 to a life of singing together. Life under the Law involved marking and naming the passage of time with certain feasts; in the life of the church, we, too, mark time by regularly gathering on the same day every week, the Lord’s Day (which gathering Paul alludes to in 4:16, and clearly refers to elsewhere in his letters). There were rituals of bathing and eating in the Law; these point forward to the life of the church in which we have a water ritual—baptism (which Paul highlights in ch. 2[xxxviii]); and we have a ritual of food and drink—the Lord’s Supper, which we’ll soon share together. As with the Old Covenant, so also in the New Covenant life of the church, we have embodied, corporate practices and expectations and culture—stuff like the practical biting of our tongue from Col 3:8, and the enacted “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” that Paul calls for in Col 3:12, and the obedience of children to parents and the gentleness of fathers with children that is called for in Col 3:20–21, and the devotion to prayer from Col 4:2.
But whereas the Old Covenant rituals and regulations divided the world up into clean and unclean, priest and laity, Jew and Gentile, New Covenant life and ritual and practice marks out all God’s people as priests in Christ, proclaims that all the people of God are clean in the one true Head, and demonstrates that the old divisions of the world have come to end. For in Christ, as Paul goes on to proclaim in ch. 3, there is no longer “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all in all.”
Paul writes Colossians to instruct us about this, the embodied, practical life and culture of the body of Christ. For this is the life we exist to enjoy, the life the Law was getting us ready for, the life that is life indeed—or at least, the life of the church is where we can finally get beginning foretastes of it. Because of Christ, and in the power of the Spirit, true life, fullness of life, is beginning to be experienced and enjoyed in the church. The simple, everyday practices of loving and serving and honoring and forgiving and bearing with one another, the faithful week-in-and-week-out proclamation of the Word of God, the consistent habit of joining our voices together in song and in thanksgiving, the purposeful marking of the passage of time by gathering every Lord’s Day, the unassuming rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—it is in these rather modest things that fullness of life is beginning and can be truly enjoyed.
We might be tempted to think to ourselves, “Surely true life, a life worth living, is more than such mundane, insignificant little gestures! Surely the glory of God isn’t so ordinary. It must be more spectacular than the lowly, humble stuff of church. Fullness of life can’t reside in such dusty jars of clay.” I’d be tempted to agree … were it not for the empty tomb and the Word of God. But Christ is risen. The wind of the Spirit is blowing. And God promises in his word that life, true life, has come and is breaking out, even where we, with our worldly sensibilities, might least expect to find it. In the great hymn of ch. 1 which opens this letter to the Colossians, Paul declares that the new age, the new creation, has begun with the resurrection of Christ the firstborn of the dead. The old has passed, the new has come. It’s time to step out of the shadows and into the light of the Son of God.[xxxix] We have been transferred out of the realm of darkness, out of the old age and the old world, and into the new creation, into the kingdom of God’s well-beloved Son, into the fullness of life in the age to come available to experience in the life of the body of Christ.[xl] It might not seem like it at first; it might not appear that way to the eyes of our flesh. But God is always true to his word. Trust in God’s promise not in mere common sense. In Christ we are forgiven and filled with the Spirit and incorporated into his body. And in that body we will—perhaps slowly, perhaps haltingly, but truly and increasingly—grow into fullness of life in fulfillment of God’s good Law and God’s good purposes. Trust in the promises of God. And in that trust, jump head first into the life of body in just the ways that Paul invites to in this book of Colossians.
Father God, we praise you for your majesty and might and glory and goodness, and for your kindness in so working to surprise us with your goodness in our lives. Thank you for the finished work of Christ on our behalf, winning for us life and light. Thank you for the Spirit whom you’ve poured out on us that the life of Christ might be break our in our lives. Thank you for our identity as your people, Christ’s body and bride, and for the sure hope we have. Help us to live in that hope, to labor in love, and to hold fast to our faith in Christ our head, for it’s in his name that we pray. Amen.
[i] The eminent J. B. Lightfoot once commented, “Without doubt Colossae was the least important church to which any epistle of St. Paul was addressed” (St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (1875; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 16.
[ii] See Col 2:1.
[iii] Some have, however, questioned whether false teaching was a live challenge in Colossae at the time of Paul’s writing. See, e.g., Morna D. Hooker, “Were There False Teachers in Colossae?,” in Christ and the Spirit in the New Testament: In Honour of Charles Francis Digby Moule, ed. B. Lindars and S. S. Smalley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 315–31; cf. N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, TNTC 12 (Leicester: Inter-Varsity; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 26–27.
[iv] In fact, I’m not convinced that “self-made religion” is the best translation of the word ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ. On the one hand, the word refers to something that Paul clearly describes as having “an appearance of wisdom.” As Doug Moo notes, the sense of ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ in v. 23 must be basically positive, “or it would hardly have ‘an appearance of wisdom’ ” (The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, PiNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 240). But the translation “self-made religion” gives the impression that the false teachers are teaching something they just imagined and came up with on their own, which hardly anyone (at least in our circles, and likely also in Paul’s day) would find attractive. There would be very little appearance of wisdom in someone crying out, “Come try out this way of worshiping God that I came up with all on my own!” The translation of ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ as “self-made religion” misleads in that direction, and misses the mark of Paul’s criticism. On the other hand, we have contextual help in determining what the term means. It is surely no accident that the neologism repeats roots Paul has already used in the passage: θέλω and θρησκεία in v. 18 (cf. Marianne Meye Thompson, Colossians and Philemon, THNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005], 65; also Moo, Colossians and Philemon, 240, who notes more generally that v. 23 sums up all the main strands of the false teaching that Paul has touched upon in the section, with the exception of observance of days and emphasis on visions, though perhaps these last two concerns could fit under the banner of “worship”). The sense of θέλω in v. 18 is itself disputed, but it is likely a Semiticism equivalent to חפץ בְּ/חֵפֶץ לְ: Paul refers to those who delight in (θέλω) humility and the worship (θρησκεία) of angels. The sense of ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ, then, may be seen as “worship delighted in” (so James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, NIGTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996], 195) or possibly “worship freely chosen” (cf. NIV, KJV). Though we will not go into it here, it may be worth pursuing in another context the fact that the false teachers are apparently very sincere and earnest and heart-felt in their chosen means of approaching and being recognized by God. This, too, contributes to giving their teaching the ring of authenticity and wisdom. It’s worship freely chosen and purposefully willed. It’s worship that is emotionally engaged rather than a mere going through the motions. They are incredibly earnest and sincere in their approach to and service of God. It’s a worship that looks right because it feels right to the individual. But what matters at the end of the day is not our sovereign choices, not what our immature and unrefined tastes take delight in, not how sincere and well-meaning we are about something. What matters is if it is true, if what we do and believe truthfully acknowledges who God truly is, who we truly are, who Christ truly is.
[v] For discussion of “postitive” readings of the final clause of v. 23, both ultimately rejected, see Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 206–8.
[vi] See ταπεινοφροσύνη in Col 3:12; also Eph 4:2; Phil 2:3; outside of the Pauline letters, see Acts 20:19 (the “Lukan” Paul) and 1 Pet 5:5.
[vii] It seems evident that the term is used for its associations to ascetic practices (e.g., fasting), especially given its pairing with “severe treatment of the body” in v. 23 (καί is omitted in v. 23 in some early and strong mss [e.g., 𝔓46 B 1749]; if not original, then ἀφειδίᾳ can be read as an instrumental dative modifying ταπεινοφροσύνῃ; cf. Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 206, who links ἀφειδίᾳ to λόγον ἔχοντα σοφίας). Thus, “asceticism” is not a bad translation, though a translation such as “humiliation” or even “bodily humiliation” would also be appropriate and perhaps preferable (see Thompson, Colossians and Philemon, 64–65).
[viii] On the idiomatic sense of the phrase λόγον ἔχοντα σοφίας, see Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 205–6.
[ix] Marianne Meye Thompson comments similarly, “One of the striking features of this entire passage is the way in which Paul plays on multiple meanings of certain words in order to portray the false teaching as a counterfeit religion” (Colossians and Philemon, 64).
[x] The frustrating irony is that this is so despite the fact that this passage is the most direct access we have to what the false teachers at Colossae were promoting; see similarly Moo, Colossians and to Philemon, 217.
[xi] James Dunn thinks it likely that singular in vv. 16 (τις) and 18 (μηδείς) has in view a specific teacher that both Paul and his readers would have been well-aware of (The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 171). This is possible, though I am unpersuaded. In either case, it is not crucial to assume for the overall interpretation.
[xii] See ibid., 172–73.
[xiii] See Jerry L. Sumney, Colossians: A Commentary, NTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 150, who speaks in particular of ascetic rites as preparation “for mystical and visionary experiences.”
[xiv] Even this third possibility itself is an over-simplification, for each of the preceding two categories could be divided up into many subcategories. For example, when we speak of a Jewish background (as I will press for in what follows), do we mean a background in Jewish apocalyptic thought, or Jewish Merkabah mysticism, or a sectarian Jewish impulse such as we find at Qumran, or “official” temple Judaism, etc.? Is it a blend? Is it a blend, which is also additionally blended with pagan religious impulses (and, again, which ones of those pagan influences)? The plausibility of a syncretistic form of false teaching, whereby Jewish influences melded with various pagan influences, is undeniable. But the epistemological certainty we can have about any precise mixture that the Colossian false teaching offered is nil—especially when considering the possibility that what was being taught at Colossae may have been just as much a local variety as it was a kind of teaching that might be reflected in the extant texts we have from elsewhere. Indeed, as Thompson comments, “The ‘Colossian heresy’ may be an inadvertent blend of Jewish laws with similar religious practices familiar to the Colossians from their pagan past. The result would be not a well-articulated ‘false teaching’ or a deliberate syncretism, but a hodge-podge of practices based on an inadequate understanding of the gospel of Christ” (Colossians and Philemon, 64). In terms of ecclesial interpretation, we can, I believe, (1) be quite certain, based on Col 2:16–17, that there was at least and at root a problematic use and view of the OT Law. Furthermore, we have (2) a clear broader canonical trajectory in which the Law can be understood and which interfaces well with what Paul says in the text of Colossians. Thus, on the principles of handling what is clear and of reading the biblical text in its broader canonical context, we are justified in focusing in what follows on the “Jewishness,” or the Torah-based essence, of the false teaching.
[xv] Wright is blunt and to the point: “the regulations referred to in 2:16 fit the Jewish law and nothing else” (Colossians and Philemon, 26; see 27 for a similar point about the reference to circumcision in 2:11; see more generally 23–30, for an outline of the “false teaching” at Colossae with which I am in basic agreement).
[xvi] See, e.g., 1 Chr 23:31; 2 Chr 2:4; 31:3; Ezek 45:17; Hos 2:11 for the almost formulaic repetition of the three terms used by Paul in Col 2:16, which apparently function “as an exhaustive enumeration of the sacred times among the Jews” (Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 193). Lightfoot thinks Paul’s progression “festival, new moon, Sabbath” is incremental: annual, monthly, weekly observances/festal days (ibid., 194).
[xvii] It is also confirmed in the preceding paragraphs. Paul brings up the issue of circumcision in 2:11, again a quintessentially Jewish concern and a requirement of the Mosaic Law. The most plausible explanation for why Paul addresses circumcision is that the false teachers were somehow distorting the biblical portrait of it.
[xviii] Heb 8:5; 10:1.
[xix] There are further factors that incline me in this direction. For example, Moo points to the similar language used in the discussion of Rom 14–15, which also likely concerns the observance or ignoring of OT ritual law (Colossians and Philemon, 219–20; cf. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 173–74). And the likelihood that Paul alludes in v. 22 to Jesus’ teaching (or possibly to Isaiah) concerning the “traditions of men” which twist the Mosaic purity laws also contributes to the conclusion that at issue in Colossians is the interpretation and use of the Law. Most recognize the allusion to Matt 15:9/Mark 7:7 at Col 2:22 (see, e.g., Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 204–5; Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 126–27; Moo, Colossians and Philemon, 237–38). G. K. Beale focuses on the Isa 29 background, underlining that the issue in Isaiah (as in Colossians) is idolatry: “in the inaugurated age of fulfillment it is idolatry to substitute the ‘shadows’ for Christ, who is their eschatological substance” (see G. K. Beale, Colossians, in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 860–62, quotation at 861; for a much fuller treatment, see Christopher A. Beetham, Echoes of Scripture in the Letter of Paul to the Colossians, BIS 96 [Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008], 193–218). Beale notes, furthermore, that Paul alludes to Isa 29:13 in another place in his writings—in Titus 1:14, where he links “commandments of men” directly to “Jewish myths” (Colossians, 862). In speaking of the controversy as being about the Law and as rooted in a Jewish/Jewish-Christian background, I do not intend to deny the possibility of some kind of syncretism at work in the Colossian false teaching. On that matter, I remain agnostic (see discussion in n. 14 above). It seems sufficient to say that the broad umbrella matter (or, to use a different metaphor, the root matter) is the interpretation and function of the Law.
[xx] Here in the realm of legal interpretation, as Jonathan Pennington astutely notices, we find a prime example of the disappearing line between “meaning” and “application.” It is not that one first determines the “meaning” of the biblical text, and then tries to “apply” it at a second stage. With the Law (as with all biblical texts), application is meaning and meaning is application. See Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 131–36.
[xxi] For example, in all likelihood, the false teachers also tried to improve on God’s Law and really ensure their purity and worth by adding extra requirements. Lightfoot thinks it likely that the prohibitions of the Colossians false teachers went (far) beyond what can be found in the Mosiac Law itself. For example, there is little in the Law itself, observes Lightfoot, that addresses “drinking” (Colossians and Philemon, 193); but note Lev 10:9; 11:34–36; Num 6:1–3. Wright includes later Mishnaic and Rabbinic traditions under the umbrella of what Paul is warning against (Colossians and Philemon, 119).
[xxii] One of the main problems (but not the only problem!) with understanding the false teaching at Colossae to be centered on the continued enforcement of the Law of God is this: Paul blatantly calls what the false teachers are promoting “human precepts and teachings” in v. 22, and “self-made religion” in v. 23. Can we really reasonably imagine that Paul would call the Law given by God himself merely “human precepts” and “self-made religion”? As a help to resolve of this perceived tension, it’s important to recognize that Paul isn’t really criticizing the Law directly here or anywhere else in Colossians or his other letters; rather, he criticizes the false teachers’ interpretation and use of the Law. We can understand “human precepts and teachings” to be the instructions and regulations of the Law as misinterpreted and misused by sinful, fallible humans, or teachings and requirements added as so many extra layers on top of the Law. Similarly, what makes the religion that the false teachers delight in “self-made” (if that’s even the best translation in v. 23; see n. 4 above) doesn’t need to be that it’s something entirely and altogether different from God’s revealed religion; rather, it is self-made in the sense that it twists and distorts the revealed religion of God in such a way that what God intended with his Law is rejected for whatever we want to make of it. They don’t ignore the Law that God gave, so much as they pervert God’s Law, disorder God’s word, are inattentive to the proper ends for which God speaks and reveals it. Indeed, it may be significant that Paul nowhere expressly mentions the Law in Colossians (which is another of the criticisms against the line of interpretation taken here; though the reference to Sabbath in 2:16 seems tantamount to a reference to the Law). Perhaps Paul strategically refrains from any direct mention of the Law, so as to avoid giving the impression that the problem is the Law itself; rather, the problem is a false interpretation of the Law and/or a false appeal to its abiding covenantal authority in the New Covenant age (cf. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 25–26).
[xxiii] See further the use of πληρόω and cognates at 1:9, 24–25; 2:2; 4:12, 17 (an ironic use of the root may appear in our passage at 2:25). See also the significant related uses of the adjective τέλειος at 1:28; 4:2.
[xxiv] The example phrase “worship of the church” comes from Sumney, Colossians, 11. The basic point here is that word “of” in itself is incredibly flexible. My New Oxford American Dictionary offers no less than nine functions for the word “of.” Only its use in context can specify what function it is playing. In Col 2:18, we have, of course, to do with the Greek genitive case, which is just as (if not more) flexible than the English “of.”
[xxv] In the terms of Greek syntax, the genitive could be either objective (worshiping angels; so NCV), or subjective (angels’ worship). Clinton Arnold’s study The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae, WUNT 2/77 (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1995; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), has exerted tremendous influence on contemporary interpretation of Colossians, including interpretation of the phrase “worship of angels.” Arnold finds no clear evidence that θρησκεία ever is modified by a subjective genitive (ibid., 90–92). But we could point, within the canonical scriptures themselves, to James 1:26 (cf. 4 Macc 5:13), as an obvious example of θρησκεία followed by a subjective genitive. In an influential essay that moves in a different direction than Arnold, Fred O. Francis cites 4 Macc 5:7 and Josephus, Antiquities 12.253 as other examples of θρησκεία modified by a subjective genitive (see “Humility and Angelic Worship in Col 2:18,” in Conflict at Colossae: A Problem in the Interpretation of Early Christianity Illustrated by Selected Modern Studies, rev. ed.; ed. F. O. Francis and W. A. Meeks; SBS 4 [Missoula: Scholars Press, 1975], 163–95, at 180). Furthermore, when we consider near synonyms, it is evident that terms connoting worship/worshipful practice can be modified by subjective genitives (see, e.g., λατρεία in Rom 12:1; 1 Macc 2:19, 22). Arnold acknowledges these “exceptions” to the rule he establishes—that θρησκεία is always modified by an objective genitive (though he does not address semantic equivalents to θρησκεία)—but he gets around the problem by adding a condition: when θρησκεία is modified by a genitive noun referring to a divine being, the being is always the object of the worship (The Colossian Syncretism, 91–92). But this sets up a problematic category distinction (are angels appropriate conceived of as divine beings; could, in a Jewish context, they ever have been properly conceived of as the expected object of θρησκεία denoted by genitive construction; for a better set of inquiries and categories, see Richard Bauckham, God Crucified : Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999]). More generally, it seems to cook the books in advance—it seems to unduly restrict “what counts” for interpretation so that only Arnold’s reading is possible. Wright tries to split the difference: the reality which Paul is criticizing may very well be preoccupation with the heavenly mysteries and worshipful activities of angels in the divine court, but the form of criticism that Paul gives is an ironic naming of this preoccupation as a functionally idolatrous angel worship (Colossians and Philemon, 121–22; see also 24–25). There may be some merit to this. In this respect, Carol Newsom’s reflections on the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice from Qumran are noteworthy. In this liturgical text which describes the angelic offering of worship in the heavenly sanctuary, “the effect,” comments Newsom, “is to direct attention to the angels who praise rather than the God who is praised” (Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition, HSS 27 [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985], 16).
[xxvi] For ancient sources and discussion, see esp. the influential essay by Francis, “Humility and Angelic Worship in Col 2:18,” 163–95; see also, following Francis, Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 180–82. Another factor that may bear on the interpretation of “the worship of angels” is the overall nature of the false teaching as a deception. It is a stretch, to say the least, that those promoting the legal requirements and rituals of the Mosaic Law would also be actively and forthrightly promoting the worship of anything other than Yahweh.
[xxvii] See Acts 7:38, 53; Gal 3:19; Heb 2:2. Note also Deut 33:2 (ἄγγελοι are expressly mentioned in the LXX).
[xxviii] Cf. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 150, 181. Theodoret of Cyrus, too, connected the “worship of angels” in Col 2 to the angels’ role in the giving/mediation of the Law, and saw in Paul’s reference a criticism of continued Torah observance (see Peter Gorday, Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, vol. 9 in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000], 9:39; hereafter ACCS).
[xxix] This last bit about not being worth noticing is significant. The lust for spectacle and the spectacular is, I suspect, tightly bound to the desire for recognition and self-promotion. As I have put it in another context, we want to live “life to the full,” but less to enjoy fullness of life itself and more so that we’ll be noticed by others. That this was so in Colossae is indicated by Paul’s express mention in our passage of being “puffed up” with one’s delight in the worship of angels and visions (2:18). Indeed, it’s noteworthy that all the things the false teachers promote are things that isolate and serve and exalt the individual alone: “Private visions isolate individuals; dietary laws isolated the Jewish nation from the rest of the world; but in God’s plan all belong together in mutual interdependence” (Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 124). Ironically, in the end, the observance of the Law in an effort to be pure enough to join the worship of the heavenly court is powerless to quell the indulgence of the sinful, impure, self-exalting flesh (2:23).
[xxx] This is an important point. The shadow function of the Law indicates that it must have some “positive value” and is not worthless and harmful in itself (Moo, Colossians and Philemon, 223). As Wright suggests, Paul’s careful restraint in never naming the Law directly in the letter may be precisely to help protect the affirmation (that Paul expressly makes elsewhere) that the Law itself is holy, just, and good (Colossians and Philemon, 25–26).
[xxxi] Similarly, concern about and inquiry after and visions of the worship of the heavenlies (the “worship of angels”) is not necessarily or inherently problematic. Paul experienced visions (though he did not “boast” in them; see 2 Cor 12:1–10); John goes into great detail about his “vision” in Revelation, a vision that is crucial for the church to attend to; Hebrews purposefully orders the church’s worship after the “patterns” of the heavenly worship; God himself instructs Moses to do the same (Exod 25:9). The problem is less in the objects of interest themselves, and more in the ways those objects were wielded, or, we might say, in the overall drama in which they were situated (cf. Sumney, Colossians, 149–50).
[xxxii] On the biblical theological notion of “shadow” and typology more generally, which is surely the force behind Paul’s assertion in Col 2:17, see Beale, Colossians, 862–63.
[xxxiii] See also the NASB footnote; and note the comments of Ambrose, On the Death of His Brother Satyrus 2.108 (quoted in ACCS, 9:38). This point is controverted. In general, it seems to me that the Platonic and Hellenistic contrasting of “shadows” and “substances” (or “forms”) has been far too influential on the translation and interpretation of Col 2:17. In fact, as Sumney has pointed out, the contrasting of σκιά (“shadow”) with σῶμα (typically translated as “substance” in Col 2:17) is relatively rare in extrabiblical literature; σκιά is typically paired with εἶδος (Sumney, Colossians, 152). More immediately relevant is Paul’s usage of the term σῶμα. In each of the seven other times Paul uses this word in Colossians, it is translated as “body.” It stands to reason that Col 2:17 is not an exception. Paul’s point can be made even clearer with another translational decision. Invariably translators and interpreters assume that a verb is to be supplied to fill out the phrase τὸ δὲ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ (“belongs” in the ESV; “is” in the KJV). Sumney, with whose interpretation I am largely in agreement (Sumney also cites Jean-Noël Aletti’s commentary in support), also supplies what he takes to be the assumed verbal idea (“the body of Christ [already] exists” (Colossians, 149; see further 151–53). But it may be that δέ functions not as a conjunction but as an epexegetical particle (see Rom 3:22; 9:30; Phil 2:8). I suggest that Paul is saying, “these are a shadow of the things coming—namely, the body of Christ.” Rather than the predicate of an assumed copulative verb, the genitive τοῦ Χριστοῦ is better understood as directly modifying τὸ σῶμα. Paul gives a rather straightforward reference to the church. In fact, this is what the phrase τὸ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ invariably means every other time it is used by Paul (Rom 7:4; 1 Cor 10:16; Eph 4:12; cf. 1 Cor 12:27 without the articles; also, outside of Pauline literature, Heb 10:10). The return to the language of σῶμα, now connected to reference to the “head,” in v. 19, makes it especially likely that Paul is thinking of the body of Christ already in v. 17. The “things coming” are immediately identified as “the body of Christ.” (We might also note that the plural “things coming” that the Law is a shadow of [τῶν μελλόντων] in v. 17 would lead us to expect some plural reality as a fulfillment; “the body of Christ” satisfies this expectation, when that “body” is understood as the whole cultural, corporate, institutional life of the church.) Thus, we need not appeal to some double entendre whereby Paul is thinking of both the physical body of Jesus and the church (though note the way in which Sumney conceives of a double entendre here [Colossians, 152]). Moo’s skepticism that a double entendre is present leads him to prefer reading σῶμα as the platonic complement to “shadows” from v. 16 (Colossians and Philemon, 224) Thompson, however, clearly does not agree, pressing not simply for a double entendre, but a double entendre nested within a double entendre: σῶμα in v. 16 indicates both the “reality” which casts the shadow and the “body” of Christ, and the “body” of Christ is both Jesus’ physical body and the church (Colossians and Philemon, 65; cf. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 119–21; Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 177). If we think of the “Christ” in v. 17 in terms of the classical theological category of the totus Christus (which the term “Christ,” in Paul’s usage, might incline us toward [see, e.g., 1 Cor 12:12]), then we can achieve what Thompson wants by theological rather than rhetorical means.
[xxxiv] As a side note, this is the scandal of the gospel—that the particular, culture-bound, historical happenings of a little old collection of middle eastern tribes from several millennia ago have anything to do with not just your life and my life, but everyone’s life and the meaning of life itself. They do. The particular history, rituals, and culture of ancient Israel, and the fulfillment of these things in the Jew Jesus of Nazareth, is of cosmic, universal significance. It literally transforms the cosmos. So while we no longer live under the Law of Moses, nevertheless we do well to read and seek to understand it.
[xxxv] Wright comments, “just as he [Paul] never says that Christianity has nothing to do with Judaism, so he never says that it has nothing to do with material things, even with outward forms of worship and ritual” (Colossians and Philemon, 119–20).
[xxxvi] Incidentally, this conviction about the Old-New contrast doesn’t work in either direction. Not only does the New very much include concern about and engagement of “external” forms and rituals and offers no “inner reality is all that really matters” sensibility, but also the Old was anything but an “external forms is all that matters” sensibility without any concern for “inner realities.” At least, we must come to this conclusion if Mic 6:8 has anything to say about the matter (to pick just one of a plethora of passages that come to mind).
[xxxvii] Even Lightfoot inclines in this direction. He generalizes/spiritualizes the point, by shifting from Paul’s language of feasts/new moons/Sabbaths (all specific observances proscribed by the Mosaic Law) to the language of “the observance of sacred times” in general (i.e., a universal). It is such generic “observance” that “was an integral part of the old dispensation,” but “under the new they [apparently sacred times in general] have ceased to have any value, except as a means to an end” (Colossians and Philemon, 194; cf. 202, where he pits “mundane life” against “the region of the eternal”).
[xxxviii] See further Thompson, Colossians and Philemon, 62.
[xxxix] We could make a similar point by pressing on the role of the moon in the Old Covenant (note Paul’s reference to “new moons” in our passage). James Jordan observes that daily life under the Old Covenant “was governed by … creational clocks”—namely, the heavenly bodies which served for signs to mark seasons. Furthermore, “It was particularly the moon, regulator of months, that governed Israel’s calendar.” That is to say, feasts and other special observances were consistently to begin on the first or the fifteenth of the month (see, e.g., Lev 23:5–6, 34; Num 28:11–14; cf. more generally 2 Chr 8:13; Ps 81:3), both days marked by the phase of the moon. The Old Covenant was governed by the moon, the heavenly body that rules the night, for the Old Covenant was, in a manner of speaking, the era of night. The New Covenant is the era of day, for the New Covenant is launched with “the rising of the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2)” with the result that “the ‘day’ of the Lord is at hand (Malachi 4:1)” (James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World [Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988], 54). In God’s way of doing things, history begins with a time of evening/night, and the moon, the lesser light, was meant to govern it. But the night with its shadows was always meant to give way to the rising of the true “Sun” and the true day. Indeed, as the opening chapter of the biblical story makes clear, there was evening and there was morning—the evening always was meant as a forerunner giving way to the light of day.
[xl] In fact, I think the new creational context of the letter as a whole tips us off to what Paul means in yet another strange and hard-to-understand comment Paul makes in our passage, in v. 20. Paul speaks of dying to “the elemental spirits of the world,” as it reads in the ESV; or to the “elementary principles of the world” as the NASB has it. What on earth are the “elemental spirts” or “elementary principles” of the world? For a brief survey of the range of meaning for the term στοιχεῖα and the three main proposed interpretations (astral spirits, elementary principles, cosmic elements), see Moo, Colossians and Philemon, 187–93; for a more detailed survey of the history of interpretation, see A. J. Bandstra, The Law and the Elements of the World: An Exegetical Study in Aspects of Paul’s Teaching (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1964), 5–30. Moo is probably right to assume that the sense of the rare expression in Colossians is basically the same as it is in Galatians; he is also right to suggest that the term is Paul’s coinage (rather than the Colossian false teachers’ own jargon), particularly since Paul uses the phrase also to describe what is being promoted by the (different) false teachers in Galatians (Colossians and Philemon, 188). Probably the majority interpretation is that Paul is referring here to spiritual forces that were considered to govern the cosmos and were linked (but not necessarily equated) with cosmic elements or (perhaps more commonly) astral bodies. The problem here is that such usage for the term στοιχεῖα, while possible, is evidenced only in literature that postdates the NT. The word that Paul uses here is most often used in broader Greek literature of his day and prior to it to refer to the basic elements of the cosmos: water, wind, earth, and fire (see the surveys in Bandstra, The Law and the Elements of the World, 31–46; and Peter J. Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2016], 29–36). The term was also used at times to refer to “elementary principles” or something like “ABCs,” but the cosmic elements sense is far more common. Common usage, coupled with the fact that the term is in Col 2:8 and 20 connected with the genitive modifier τοῦ κόσμου, would superficially seem to tip the scales in favor of the metaphysical/cosmic elements reading. Yet the majority of interpreters have not followed this trail, opting instead for a “spiritual forces” reading. In this light, the question Moo raises is exactly the right question and all the more underlined, though it seems to me that Moo’s proposed interpretation doesn’t actually answer it. He asks why, if Paul is referring to spiritual beings, he “would abandon the vocabulary he usually uses to describe spiritual beings (see 1:16, 20; 2:10, 15) and substitute this unusual, and perhaps unprecedented one” (Colossians and Philemon, 192). Indeed, as Thomspon notes, “Paul never equates the stoicheia with any other beings mentioned in this letter, including angels, principalities, and powers, nor does he refer to any of these beings as ‘demons,’ false deities, or evil spirits” (Colossians and Philemon, 53, emphasis original). Moo’s answer to the problem amounts to this: the word could easily have been associated with spiritual beings, since ancients tended to “spiritualize” or “divinize” material elements. But this doesn’t really answer the initial question—even if it is understandable to imagine that the term στοιχεῖα might be associated with spiritual beings, or even if such associations with spiritual beings grew so strong that by way of metonymy the term could actually refer to spiritual beings (though this is evidenced only in later literature), it doesn’t explain why Paul moves away from his normal way of referring to spiritual beings to this “unusual” expression in 2:8 and 20. Moo’s answer basically restates the question as an assertion. I think there may be an easier answer to hand, which both corresponds with the trajectory of interpretation that I have laid out in this message, and also fits into the larger new creational context which the hymn of Col 1 establishes for the letter as a whole. Paul is saying this: the “elements” that made up the old world, the old creation, have come to an end. What are the “elements” of the old world? It’s not water, wind, earth, and fire that divide reality up into material zones. Paul goes on immediately in vv. 21–22 to name the “elements” that he has in view—they are the regulations, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch,” of the Old Covenant (this is also exactly what Paul does in Gal 4:9–10). (Incidentally, the “elementary principles” reading of Col 2:8, 20, often identifies the “principles” or basics in view as the rites of the Mosaic Law; this seems to me to be identifying the right referent of the term but misunderstanding, or altogether misinterpreting, the significance of the vehicle and portrayal; see, e.g., Bandstra, The Law and the Elements of the World, 68–72; Thompson, Colossians and Philemon, 53.) The “elements” are ritualistic and cultural, and the “world” in view is a socio-politico-cultural/theological/covenantal world. The Mosaic “elements,” the Mosaic regulations and rituals, divided up the old creation into pure and impure, priest and non-priest, Jew and Gentile. In Christ, with Christ’s resurrection as the firstborn from the dead, a new world, a new cosmos, a new creation, made up of new “elements” has begun. As a result, in Christ, the true “cosmos” is no longer marked by the division of “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman but Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11). With the beginning of the new world, new life (true life, fullness of life) is now possible. And it comes in Christ alone. This is, admittedly, a minority report, but the reading of Bandstra, The Law and the Elements of the World, 68–72, while taking the “principial” view, aligns closely with the upshot of my reading. Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World, 25–42, has forcefully argued for a position that is very close to what I am proposing (though he argues more from a broad NT theological standpoint than a specifically exegetical standpoint focused on Colossians).