Paul contrasts what the believer has in the gospel with what the false teachers say the Colossians need for true salvation. The follower of Christ has died, been buried, and has risen again with Christ. The wages of sin have been satisfied and are no longer a threat, so the power of sin is no more. And the debt the believer owed to God because of the Law and his sin is now paid because of what Christ did on the cross. Christ triumphed completely over the forces of evil in this world and through Him the believer does also. There is nothing outside of the gospel, therefore, that is required to have spiritual victory over evil and live obediently before God.
Verse 11 is a continuation of the sentence started in verse 9 and is the third in Him that Paul celebrates. In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form and in Him the believer has been made complete. Now he says that in Him the follower of Christ has been circumcised with a circumcision made without hands.
That he brings up circumcision to a Gentile audience may mean that the false teachers are recommending the Colossians be circumcised. It also may be, however, that since the Gentiles know circumcision is the ultimate mark of the people of God Paul wants to make clear that they are marked as well – just not physically.
The first part of the verse is fairly straightforward. God spoke about spiritual circumcision as far back as Moses – Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live (Deut 30:6). It is not enough for the follower of God to have the physical sign of circumcision. His heart must be marked for God also.
The rest of the verse is harder to understand. The believer is circumcised spiritually in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ. The metaphor is not entirely clear. What does he mean by the body of the flesh, and does circumcision of Christ mean that Christ circumcised His followers or that Christ Himself was circumcised? And does the word circumcision refer to the death of Christ or to what God does when someone comes to Christ?
Most commentators seem to equate body of the flesh with the sin nature. God circumcises His followers such that they are no longer under the power of sin. This goes along with Paul’s earlier words that God delivers us from the domain of darkness and transfers us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (1:13). It also is similar to what Paul wrote the Galatians – Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). He will later say in this letter, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry” (3:5). And in Romans he writes, “…knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6). All these seem to back the thought that he refers to the power of sin in our lives that is cut away by Christ.
Now this is harder to understand because the ideas are more foreign to us. Paul compares the saving work of God in us with the practice of circumcision. He says it’s like that, only this is a circumcision made “without hands”: it’s a spiritual thing he is talking about, not a physical one. And he says that what is being cut away is not the male foreskin, but the “body of the flesh.” In Paul’s language that’s probably a reference to sin-dominated, ego-dominated use of the body. What is cut away in this spiritual circumcision “without hands” is the old unbelieving, blind, rebellious self and its use of the body for sin. And that way, Paul is saying, God makes a person his very own. (John Piper, Buried and Raised in Baptism Through Faith – Sermon on Colossians 2:8-15; May 11, 1997.)
The New Living Translation captures this in its translation of this verse – When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. It was a spiritual procedure – the cutting away of your sinful nature.
Another explanation is that body of the flesh refers to Christ’s body that was stripped away on the cross and circumcision of Christ refers to Christ’s death. If this is right, then believers are circumcised in Christ by sharing in His death. This actually flows as it would refer to Christ’s death in this verse and then His burial and resurrection in verse 12. All three events are shared by the believer in Him. The emphasis in this metaphor is more on death than the cutting away of the sin nature. The end result, though, is roughly the same as the power of sin over the believer is gone just as in the first explanation.
Since the subject of the verse appears to be the believer, it seems to make more sense to read body of the flesh as the sinful nature that is destroyed when the believer comes to faith. The sin nature that overpowers the heart is cut away when we believe.
One final note on the metaphor. Remember what circumcision is – it is a sign of the covenant. It was what God commanded Abraham to do to signify that he belonged to God. Every Israelite male was/is circumcised to mark him as belonging to God’s chosen people. Therefore the one whose heart has been spiritually circumcised has been marked as God’s. His heart – his entire essence – does not belong to him but to God.
Verse 12 continues the thought (still the same sentence). We were circumcised by Him because we have been buried with Him. Note the tense – this is something that occurred in the past. When we were baptized (and there is disagreement over whether this refers to actual baptism or spiritual baptism), we shared in Christ’s death and burial. This means the ultimate power of sin over us no longer exists. We died and were buried (burial signifies the death was real) and thus rendered the wages of sin moot. The wages of sin have been paid so the ultimate threat of sin is gone. Sin can no longer destroy us. And if sin cannot destroy us its power over us is gone. Sin cannot threaten us ultimately so it cannot dominate us presently.
In baptism we were also raised up with Him. This shows that not only does sin lack any power over us, but death itself is defeated also. Note again the past tense. This does not refer to our resurrection to a glorified body that will happen in the future. This refers to what has already taken place. We WERE raised with Him. The new life of power over sin and ultimate power over death is ours now. We are new creatures empowered through the Spirit to live in obedience to our Savior. Ultimate glorification and the absence of sin are in the future, but the new life is NOW.
Notice that the actor in all of this is God. Our hearts were circumcised by God. We were buried by God. We were raised up by God. The end of verse 12 reinforces this – we were raised through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. We did not do anything – God did it all.
Paul writes about many of these same ideas in Romans 6:1-11: 1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Paul again explains justification (1:21-23). When the Colossians were dead in their transgressions and outside of the covenant by virtue of being Gentiles (uncircumcision of your flesh), God made them alive together with Jesus and forgave them all their sins. God canceled out the certificate of debt owed to Him by virtue of sins against the Law. The certificate of debt consisted of decrees against us (decrees such as were put on the cross of condemned criminals outlining why they were executed) that were hostile to us. God nailed the certificate to the cross and thus canceled it. The debt has been paid on our behalf so we can no longer be condemned. This all took place when we were dead in our transgressions – we did nothing to accomplish it.
These two verses elaborate on what our death, burial and resurrection in Him mean. We are no longer under the death sentence of sin. Our union with Christ enables us to live as free men rather than as criminals on death row. Every day does not bring us closer to our eternal capital punishment. Every day is a celebration of our freedom in Christ. We are free from ultimate judgment. And if free from that then we are free from the shackles of sin. If we are not condemned then we cannot be enslaved.
On the cross Jesus not only defeated sin and death, He defeated the powers of evil also. He defeated the spiritual beings that propagate sin on the earth. He defeated Satan and his minions. He disarmed them by dying and rising from the dead. He died to pay the price of sin and enable those who believe in Him to be forgiven. He rose from the dead to show the ultimate threat of sin – death – is no longer an issue. Thus he defeated the rulers and authorities of this world.
He also made a public display of them. What this means is not entirely clear. The metaphor refers to the practice of the Romans of parading their defeated enemies before the people of Rome. The victorious general returns from war and parades the soldiers and commanders of the armies he defeated through the streets of Rome as the people celebrate his victory. God did the same thing with the evil forces He conquered through Christ. He publicly showed their defeated state.
This public display may refer to all of the events at the end of Jesus’ physical ministry on earth – the cross, the resurrection and the ascension. Jesus died for all to see, He appeared to hundreds after He rose again, and He ascended back to the Father in front of His disciples. In these three ways God showed that Satan and his followers are now very obviously defeated. It is as if God said, “I have paid the wages of sin, I have satisfied cosmic justice and I have made a mockery of death; what do you have now?”
This, of course, does not mean that the spiritual forces of evil are powerless and inactive. They are very much alive and working in this world. Paul even says in another letter that we will struggle against the spiritual forces of wickedness (Eph 6:12) throughout our lives. Their power over us, however, was removed at the cross. And their defeat is both current and ultimate. They do not have power over the disciple of Jesus and they ultimately cannot affect his eternity.
This is a wonderful passage full of encouragement for the believer. There is no way Paul could be more emphatic – Sin and death have been defeated and the believer is no longer under their power. We are free in Christ because of our identification with Him. We have died with Him and were raised with Him and so no longer fear death and are not under the dominion of sin. All incredibly encouraging truths in the gospel.
But what does this say to the believer who continually struggles with the same besetting sins and feels totally enslaved to what does not seem to go away no matter how hard he tries? How do we reconcile the truth that we are not under the dominion of sin with the experience of sin totally dominating us? What does it mean when we fall and fall and fall to the same sins and yet read that we are dead to sin and free in Christ?
First, it pays to remember Paul’s words about his own life: For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of good is not. For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of Sin (Rom 7:18-25). In this life we will never be free from sin. We are guaranteed ultimate victory over sin, but this side of eternity we will never be perfect. We will struggle daily with doing what we ultimately do not want to do because of the presence of sin in us.
Second, however, we have to remember that all of scripture is true. What Paul says in Romans 7 does not contradict what he says in Colossians 2. We will never be perfect in this life, but we never HAVE to sin. We are not slaves regardless of what our experience has been. The body of the flesh has been circumcised. Our old self was crucified with Christ. God made a public display of the spiritual forces He defeated at the cross.
Third – so if number 2 is correct then the power to overcome any sin is available to us. ANY SIN. Sin does not have authority over us. Satan does not have authority over us. And the Holy Spirit indwells us. Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (I Jn 4:4b). Negatively, that means that our apparent enslavement to sin is self-inflicted. Positively, however, it means there is a way out. WE NEVER HAVE TO LIVE DEFEATED LIVES.
Fourth – since that is true, then what do we do? [Not an exhaustive list]
- Fall in love with our Creator. The more we love God the more we will walk with Him and see His beauty and be satisfied in Him – and the more we will love Him. The more we are satisfied in Him the less attractive sin will be. If we do not fill ourselves with God then we are fighting sin at half-strength. We cannot defeat habitual sin merely by trying to overcome it. We have to find something better that makes it look lousy by comparison. How do we do this? That’s another list – but the short form is prayer, study of His word, and fellowship with others who are falling in love with Him also.
- Preach the gospel to ourselves daily. Living in light of the gospel changes our perspective on circumstances, people and temptation. If we live with gospel vision we will see the world and what it offers differently. The temporary satisfaction that sin promises will look ridiculous when compared to all we have in the gospel.
- Live in the power of the Spirit. Paul said that if we walk by the Spirit we WILL NOT carry out the desire of the flesh (Gal 5:16). We stand absolutely no chance against habitual sin apart from the Spirit’s strength. Jesus said, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). We must ask every day and perhaps every hour of every day for the Spirit’s power in our lives. We cannot trust ourselves at all in the daily battle.
- Remember eternity. There will come a day on the new earth where the thought that we were tempted by the rewards of this world will be incomprehensible. We will someday live for all eternity in paradise being satisfied completely by our Savior. Live with that perspective in the front of our mind. Do not believe that this is as good as it gets – it is not even close. We have something far greater waiting for us – why seek satisfaction from what is entirely opposed to that now?
- Live with a grateful heart. The habitually thankful man is not a habitually sinning man. Said another way, the habitual sinner is habitually ungrateful. No one sins while he is sincerely thanking God. And everyone who sins forgets all he has to be thankful for. Living in light of the gospel means living with a constant perspective of thankfulness.
- Go to church. Habitual sin leads to times of silence in prayer and a heart that does not want to sing and praise. It makes fellowshipping with others seem less attractive. Consequently, it keeps us from church. That is dangerous as we need others to spur us to good works and we need preaching/teaching/worship to renew our minds. The worst thing we can do in times of failure is isolate ourselves and stew in our self-absorption. Church changes our perspective and reminds us of the beauty of what is ours in the gospel and of what truly brings us joy.
- Do not believe the lies of the devil. Remember, he is defeated but not inactive. He will tell us that we are alone in what we are doing (I Pet 5:8-9). He will tell us that we cannot pray because we have fallen. He will tell us to keep our sins hidden because the worst that could happen is that someone else might find out how corrupt we are.
- Shine some light on our darkness. Habitual sin is a terrible taskmaster but it is exponentially worse when it gets us alone. Hidden sins are the hardest to defeat. Satan loves to isolate us. Some sins can only be shaken corporately (sometimes it really does take a village). There is a reason James tells us to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). We should also confess our temptations. Oftentimes just telling someone when we are tempted is enough to change our perspective and see the temptation differently in the light. One man fighting a battle is not nearly as effective as many. And darkness is the biggest enabler for sin. Men love darkness (Jn 3:19) and hidden sins are sweet (Prov 9:17), but light brings freedom and a clear conscience.
- Remember what is at stake. All sin is against God (Ps 51:4, I Thess 4:8). When we willfully sin and assume God will forgive us we demean the cross and what Christ did (I Pet 1:17-19). Someone who takes the approach that he will engage in sin and then come back on his own terms runs the risk of not coming back at all (Heb 10:26-31). And long-term habitual sin deadens the soul and takes away the ability to appreciate the beauty of God.
- Confess sin constantly. Do not stop confessing. Do not wait for an appropriate cooling off period after sin before we confess. Confess and confess some more. And if we find we have gone awhile without confessing or that we cannot think of anything to confess, pray and confess the sin of blindness and pride that would lead us to think that way.
- Pray, pray, pray, and pray some more. Pray for an eternal perspective. Pray for the strength of the Spirit. Pray for the ability to love God more and more. Pray to confess, pray to praise, pray to thank. Pray for a heart that chooses God instead of sin. Pray for the ability to see this life the way God sees it. Pray that the Spirit will prompt us to pray. Pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17). The more time spent praying the less time there is for temptation and sin.
The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways, but a good man will be satisfied with his. Prov 14:14