And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (2:13–14)
Paul here approaches the same truth he discussed in 2:11–12 from a different perspective. In 2:11–12 he emphasized that salvation is complete apart from any religious ritual. In these verses he emphasizes that forgiveness is complete apart from any human work. Forgiveness is perhaps the most exciting and comforting doctrine in all of Scripture, because it is what guilty sinners need to be made right with God.
Like all of sinful mankind, the Colossians were dead in their transgressions before their salvation (cf. Eph. 2:1). The Greek construction is a locative of sphere. Unbelievers exist in the sphere or realm of spiritual death. To be spiritually dead means to be devoid of any sense, unable to respond to spiritual stimuli, just as to be physically dead means to be unable to respond to physical stimuli. It is to be so locked in sin’s grasp that one is unable to respond to God. The Bible and spiritual truth make no sense to one in such a state. Those who are spiritually dead are dominated by the world, the flesh, and Satan and possess no spiritual, eternal life.
Paul describes the Colossians in their prior unsaved state as being dead not only in their sins, but also in the uncircumcision of their flesh. That phrase designates Gentiles, whose condition of uncircumcision demonstrated that they were outside the covenant. Paul wrote about them in Ephesians 2:11–12: “Remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision,’ which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” The Gentiles were therefore in a much worse state than the unbelieving Jews, who at least were a part of the covenant community that possessed the law of God. It is no wonder, then, that Paul describes them as “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Fortunately, the story did not end there. Because God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4), He made us alive together with Him. Paul again stresses the believer’s union with Christ (cf. 2:10, “in Him”; 2:11, “in Him”; 2:12, “with Him”). Those who were hopelessly dead in sin received new life through that union. God initiates the salvation process, because spiritually dead people cannot make themselves alive.
As a result of being made alive with Christ, believers have been forgiven of all their transgressions. The knowledge that all our sins have been forgiven brings great joy. “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” (Ps. 32:1).
That God forgives the sins of those who trust in Him and includes them in His eternal kingdom and glory is the most important truth of Scripture. The psalmist wrote, “If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared” (Ps. 130:3–4). In Isaiah 1:18 we read, “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.” Isaiah says in Isaiah 55:7, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” “Who is a God like Thee,” exclaimed the prophet Micah, “who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?” (Mic. 7:18).
God’s forgiveness is also a prominent theme in the New Testament. Our Lord told His disciples at the Last Supper, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Peter told those assembled in Cornelius’s house that “through [Jesus’] name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43). In Acts 13:38–39 Paul said, “Let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” To the Ephesians Paul wrote, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7). In Hebrews 8:12 the Lord says, “I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
What are the characteristics of God’s forgiveness? First, it is gracious. It is not earned, but is a free gift. Romans 3:24 says people are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Paul echoes that thought in Titus 3:4–7: “When the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Second, God’s forgiveness is complete. Forgiveness, Ephesians 1:7 tells us, is “according to the riches of His grace.” God’s grace will always be greater than sin, because “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). The apostle John flatly states, “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake” (1 John 2:12).
Third, God’s forgiveness is eager. “ ‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?’ ” (Ezek. 18:23; cf. 33:11). “Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon Thee” (Ps. 86:5). Far from begrudging His forgiveness, God is anxious to give it.
Fourth, God’s forgiveness is certain. In Acts 26:18 Paul says that God sent him to the Gentiles “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in [Jesus].” Forgiveness is certain because it is based on God’s promise.
Fifth, God’s forgiveness is unequalled. The prophet Micah said, “Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?” (Mic. 7:18). The answer to his question is that there is none. None of the gods of false religion offers such forgiveness.
Sixth, God’s forgiveness is motivating. Ephesians 4:32 commands us to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” God has forgiven us the huge, unpayable debt we owed Him. How can we do any less than forgive others the trivial debts they owe us (cf. Matt. 18:23–35)? That verse is further confirmation of God’s complete forgiveness. How could He command us to forgive others if He has not forgiven us?
Paul then illustrates God’s forgiveness. When God forgave us, He canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Certificate of debt translates cheirographos, which literally means “something written with the hand,” or “an autograph.” It was used to refer to a certificate of indebtedness handwritten by the debtor in acknowledgment of his debt. Paul describes that certificate as consisting of decrees against us. Dogmasin (decrees) refers to the Mosaic law (cf. Eph. 2:15). All peoples (including Gentiles, cf. Rom. 2:14–15) owe God a debt because they have violated His law. The certificate was hostile to us, that is, it was enough to condemn us to judgment and hell, because “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them” (Gal. 3:10). Exaleiphō (canceled out) means “to wipe off,” like erasing a blackboard. Ancient documents were commonly written either on papyrus, a paper-like material made from the bulrush plant, or vellum, which was made from an animal’s hide. The ink used then had no acid in it and did not soak into the writing material. Since the ink remained on the surface, it could be wiped off if the scribe wanted to reuse the material. Paul says here that God has wiped off our certificate of debt, having nailed it to the cross. Not a trace of it remains to be held against us. Our forgiveness is complete.
13 Even as Christ was physically dead, so also the Colossians were spiritually dead (cf. Eph 2:1, 5). Though the believers in Colossae were made alive in Christ (2:12), they were formerly dead in (en taken as a locative) or because of (en construed as causal) their sins (transgressions or trespasses), for “the wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). Additionally, picking up the metaphor of circumcision from 2:12, Paul, a Jew, depicts the Gentile Colossians prior to their conversion as dead in “the uncircumcision of [their] flesh” (NASB). Not having been “cut around,” they were “cut off” from God. They were “sinners” (Gal 2:15) and “foreigners” (Eph 2:12).
But that was a former day; a new day had dawned in Christ. The Colossians (reading hymas, “you,” as opposed to hēmas, “us”) had been made alive, presumably by God (as inferred by the NIV, though the subject is unexpressed [so, rightly, NASB]), with Christ. How so? What had God done through Christ to vivify the Colossians? Through the vehicle of participial phrases, Paul indicates in vv. 13c–15 three acts of God in Christ. First, God brought the Colossians to life with Christ by forgiving them of all their sins. These former Gentiles did not have to die in their transgressions, because God extended forgiveness to Jew and Gentile alike (reading hēmin, “us,” as do the NIV and NASB). God grants forgiveness to believers for all of their sins through the One in whom all the fullness of the Deity dwells (1:19; 2:9) and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (2:3).
13 Yes, the apostle insists, this is what has happened to you. You were spiritually and morally dead in your earlier pagan days. But now you have been brought to life again—brought to life in Christ, who was himself dead and came to life again.86 Your new life, indeed, is a sharing in the new life which Christ received when God raised him from the dead. And in giving you this new life with Christ, God has broken you clean away from your past. He has freely forgiven all your sins—and not yours only, but ours too.88 Paul insisted that Jews, who had received the divine law by revelation, and pagans, who had not received it—not in the same form, at least—were alike morally bankrupt before God and equally in need of his pardoning grace. Jews had disobeyed his will in the form in which they knew it (the law); pagans had disobeyed it in the form in which they knew it (the inner voice of conscience). But, like the creditor in the parable faced with his two debtors, “when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both” (Luke 7:42).
The Rearticulation of Circumcision in Baptism (2:13a)
13a Paul backs up now to rearticulate his points, backing up directly to 2:11 to the Colossians’ spiritual circumcision and to their co-death in 2:12. He now redescribes the whole process of redemption, this time in terms of life from among the dead: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.” He refers to the Gentile past as a time of the “uncircumcision of your flesh.” Campbell calls this description “distorted, Adamic ontology.”116 Sin and death in v. 13a correspond to the unspiritual circumcision of vv. 11–12. If we add Paul’s description of the Colossians’ pre-Christian past (1:21–23) to their noncircumcision (2:11–12) and to their sin and death (2:13a), we discover Paul’s pre-in-Christ anthropology. Here is the summary of Dunn:
In sum, humankind in the world is not just weak and corruptible. There is an inescapable dimension of sin, of failure and transgression, also involved. Humans were created for relationship with God, a relationship which is the essence of human life, a relationship which gives humankind fulfillment of being, as creature (in relation to God) and as human (in relation to the rest of the world). But humankind has made the mistake of thinking it could achieve a more satisfying relation with the world if it freed itself from its relation with God. It has turned from God and focused attention exclusively on the world, revolting against its role as creature and thinking to stand as creator in its own right. In consequence humankind has fallen when it thought to rise, has become foolish not wise, baser not superior. It has denied its likeness to God and preferred the likeness of beasts and things. It has lost its share in the majesty of divinity, and now falls far short of what it might have become. Instead of sharing eternal life, it has become dominated by death, a “sucker” for sin. It shares in a pervasive out-of-joint-ness, frustration, and futility with the rest of creation.
Paul’s argument in v. 13a is progressive: he identifies who they are (the dead), he specifies two elements of that death (in sins, in uncircumcision), and then he reveals the solution to that death: resurrection with Christ. While forgiveness of sins is the most popular benefit of the gospel, making sins the fundamental problem, often enough in the New Testament the fundamental problem is death, and the solution therefore life. One need not be forced to choose between the two, but neither should one overdo one at the expense of the other. Death, then, is the Adamic destiny (Rom 5:12–8:2).
Two elements (sins, uncircumcision of the flesh) now appear in the death condition, but are these two elements the cause of death or the metaphoric location of the Adamic death-existence? The term “sins” (NIV) or “things you had done wrong” (CEB), which in Greek is paraptōma, refers to deeds done that violate a standard. Paul also calls wrongdoing the “uncircumcision of your flesh.” In summary, he sees the previous condition of these Gentiles as excluded from the one family of God, Israel, and as one marked by sins.
But death is more than resolved by the overwhelming power of the resurrection: “God made you alive with Christ.” The verb is causative: God caused them to come back to life from a condition of death, and undoubtedly the Holy Spirit’s regenerative power is in view. Paul says nearly the same thing at Ephesians 2:5, where he adds that it was by the grace of God. “The God who gives life to the dead” is a conversion expression in Judaism, but one’s theological or ecclesial setting influences which conversion event Paul has in mind: personal faith or the sacrament of baptism. The latter, on the basis of 2:12, has substantive support here, without it eliminating the need for faith (also 2:12).
- The Solution of Victory in Christ (2:13b–15)
13b–15 There is a subtle shift in v. 13b to the subject of Christology, but it moves from the dead-in-sins condition (v. 13a) to resurrection life in Christ, in whom one finds the solution to the dead-in-sins condition: “He forgave us all our sins.” The grammatical flow can be explained in a number of ways, but if one sticks to the principle that main ideas come through main verbs instead of participles, one is forced to focus on “God made you alive” (2:13a), followed by verbal explanatory glosses—forgiving and canceling (both participles, vv. 13b–14a), a verb (“taken it away,” v. 14b), and then another verb (“he made a public spectacle,” v. 15b), which is modified before and after by participles (“having disarmed” in v. 15a and “triumphing over” in v. 15c). Here is an outline:
“God made you alive …” (2:13a)
- In forgiving (2:13b)
- In canceling (2:14a)
- In taking it away (2:14b)
Nailing it to the cross (2:14c)
- In making a spectacle (2:15ab)
Triumphing over them
Thus, 2:13b–15 is an extended and extending expansion of the gift of new life. One thought triggers another, but only by digging deeper into the work of Christ. God is the subject of the actions that follow in numbers 1–4.
One more observation on the shift that is occurring in 2:13b. Instead of “you” (plural) Paul writes about “we.” Has he shifted from Gentile Colossians to the all-embracing reality of both Jews (Paul and Timothy) and Gentiles? Or is the “you” at least in part all Christians, and the “we” the assumption he has been using all along? Or is this pastoral theology, Paul identifying with his audience? I am unpersuaded that a careful distinction—“you” for Gentiles and “we” for either Jewish believers or both Jews and Gentiles—can be established consistently in the evidence of Colossians or the Pauline letters at large. Paul seems here to identify with his audience and is offering yet one more expression of the indivisible unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ.
(1) New Creation … in Forgiveness (2:13b)
13b The central image in this paragraph is that God has ushered in new creation. That is, “made alive” is the main verb of 2:13. Several dimensions of how God creates anew become the focus of the work of Christ in 2:13b–15, beginning with the forgiveness of sins. The term “sins” denotes acts contrary to a prescribed set of commands, a violation of God’s will known also by Gentiles. The word behind “forgiveness” is the word charizomai, which could be translated “gracing.” In Pauline theology grace refers to the love of God unleashed to rescue all humans from their captivity in order to bring them into the liberated family of God.131 In this context, the term focuses on rescuing in the sense of erasing all of one’s debt of sins owed to God. Hence, to use Barclay’s perfections, we see here especially the perfections of superabundance, priority, and incongruity, while in the wider sweep of this letter we could factor in grace’s efficacy and even circularity. In the gospel of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and exaltation, God “graces” Jesus with the name (Phil 1:29). God’s revelation in Christ “graces” us with the Abrahamic promise (Gal 3:18) and understanding (1 Cor 2:12); in giving us his Son, God has “graced” us with “all things” (Rom 8:32), not excluding suffering (Phil 1:29). All of these items and more express God’s “gracing” the church (Col 3:13; Phlm 22; Eph 4:32; 2 Cor 2:7, 10). At the very heart of this gracing by God is the grace of removing one’s sins (Col 2:13b), the sins Paul has just said put the Colossians to death (2:13a). If sins put to death, forgiveness brings back to life, a life that unleashes the cycle of forgiveness in the fellowship, and hence its circularity between humans (Col 3:13; Eph 4:32; 2 Cor 2:7–10; 12:13; Matt 18:21–35).
(2) New Creation … in Cancellation (2:14a)
14 The second dimension of new creation now appears: “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us.” There are here four facts at work in this clause. First, there is a handwritten note, contract, or charge. The term cheirographon refers to a commonly known handwritten document that, in this context, refers to a certificate of indebtedness, a receipt or a contract confessed to and signed by a debtor. Such a document is behind the parable of the shrewd manager told by Jesus (Luke 16:1–9). Paul puts himself into such a certificate in Phlm 18–19. A concrete example is found in the Testament of Job:
There were also certain strangers who saw my eagerness, and they too desired to assist in this service [of charity to the poor]. And there were still others, at the time without resources and unable to invest a thing, who came and entreated me, saying, “We beg you, may we also engage in this service. We own nothing, however. Show mercy on us and lend us money so we may leave for distant countries on business and be able to do the poor a service. And afterward we shall repay you what is yours.… And receiving their note eagerly, I would give them as much as they wished, taking no security from them except a written note.…
[Unable to pay Job back, the indebted] would come and entreat me saying, “We beg you, be patient with us.” … Without delay, I would bring before them the note and read it granting cancellation as the crowning feature. (11:1–4, 6–7, 10–11)
Some explore an apocalyptic background for the term and then connect it to the book (biblos) of life (e.g., Exod 32:32–33; Ps 69:28; Dan 12:1; Rev 3:5), in which are listed the names of the blessed. One wonders whether it is too big of a leap from cheirographon to biblos, but support for the view can be seen in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah 3:5–9:
Then I saw two other angels weeping over the three sons of Joatham, the priest. I said, “O angel, who are these?” He said, “These are the angels of the Lord Almighty. They write down all the good deeds of the righteous upon their manuscript as they watch at the gate of heaven. And I take them from their hands and bring them up before the Lord Almighty; he writes their name in the Book of the Living.
“Also the angels of the accuser who is upon the earth, they also write down all of the sins of men upon their manuscript. They also sit at the gate of heaven. They tell the accuser and he writes them upon his manuscript so that he might accuse them when they come out of the world (and) down there.”
And in the Apocalypse of Paul 17: “And I heard the Lord God, the just judge, again saying, ‘Come, angel of this soul, and stand in the midst.’ And the angel of the sinful soul came, having in his hands a document, and said, ‘These, Lord, in my hands, are all the sins of this soul from its youth till to-day, from the tenth year of its birth; and if you command, Lord, I will also relate its acts from the beginning of its fifteenth year.’ ” The view is at least plausible, even if the evidence cannot be established as pre-Pauline.
A variety of sometimes complementary options are raised by the theological implications of the term cheirographon. Is this a bond of accusation established by God against humans who have no capacity to repay? Is this an indebtedness created by human behaviors? Is this the Torah, to which Israel committed itself to be obedient (Exod 24:3), now acting as a condemning instrument? Is it simply an IOU, one that needs to be set in the context of the so-called halakic mystics’ demand for visions? Or as it was read in the patristic era, is this the bond Satan holds over humans that they will die (Gen 2:17)? Is it the human body’s fallen en-flesh-ment that prevents full obedience? Or is it a reference to the various teachings of the false teachers used to press the Colossians into a deeper conversion to the Mosaic Torah (Col 2:16–23)? Or a decree of condemnation?143
An answer comes by recognizing that the term cheirographon is modified by another term: “the handwritten note in its requirements/ordinances [dogmasin].” This second term strengthens the first term by expressing the kind of obligation:145 the handwritten note for which the individual human is accountable is one that specifies the requirements. Asking, Which requirements? pushes us closer to a resolution. It could be the Mosaic law and hence refers to the Torah of Moses, along with the halakah (see Col 2:16, 21–23; also Gal 3:10, 13; Rom 4:15; 5:13). Or it could be more applicable to Gentiles by referring to God’s general revelation of morality, which they have failed and under whose condemnation they now stand (e.g., Rom 1:32). The first is favored by Eph 2:15, which has “the law with its commands and regulations [dogmasin]” and finds substantive support in Deut 27:9–26; Rom 2:14–16, and Jas 2:10–11. Even more, in Col 2:20 we read, “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules?” The term “submit” here translates the Greek verb dogmatizō, which is cognate to dogmasin in 2:14. This usage connects the term to the halakic rulings like “Do not handle!” (2:21). We conclude that the cheirographon records obligations to halakah or Torah.
The next two expressions to consider in 2:14 are nearly synonymous and so are treated together: “stood against us” and “condemned us.” These expressions suggest that the cheirographon is God’s accusing bond of agreement against the sinner. The first expression deals with the basics of a requirement, while the second reveals that requirement stands in an accusing manner (e.g., Gen 22:17; Exod 1:10; 23:27). There are phenomena to bring to the surface: God has revealed his will to all; humans comprehend that will; humans knowingly consent to God’s will as obligatory; humans violate that revelation; that will stands as an accusing instrument against those humans; the accusation leads to judgment; and Christ’s death removes the condemnation against humans by absorbing that very condemnation. These phenomena point us to a gracious revelation on God’s part that entails covenantal obligation of all humans to listen, learn, and obey—and to reverse it all, judgment for those who do not enter into that cross to remedy their sin. Wright expands these phenomena in their proper ecclesial orientation: “The Mosaic Torah did not, we should note, stand over against Jews and Gentiles in the same way. In Paul’s view, it shut up the Jews under sin and shut out the Gentiles from the hope and promise of membership in God’s people.”
Finally the good news: that note has been “canceled.” New creation is a leitmotif in our paragraph, and it gains new color here: forgiveness erases or scrapes off our indebtedness.150 The NIV has “having canceled,” while the CEB has “destroyed the record.” The word “canceled” is used for forgiveness elsewhere in the Bible (Isa 43:25; Acts 3:19; cf. also Rev 3:5), but inasmuch as the clause under discussion describes a handwritten note, implying ink on papyrus, the immediate image is that of scraping away or washing off. Yet, that conclusion demands perhaps too precise of a detail because the verb could be depicting the legal effects: canceling the debit or destruction of the whole certificate by ripping it to shreds or by burning (CEB). Or, less concretely, it could mean just “wipe away” (as in Gen 7:4). But all of these images are compounded in meaning in v. 14b: the certificate is in fact nailed to the cross, which means that the indebtedness is forgiven and the charge is canceled by the death of Christ, depicted thus as a substitutionary death.
(3) New Creation … in Taking It Away (2:14b)
Paul now expresses the same idea of forgiveness in slightly different terms: “he has taken it [the cheirographon] away, nailing it to the cross.” It is not that two acts are performed—first erasing and then taking away—but one major act (new creation) explored in various ways. The word “away” deserves some attention, translating the common Greek expression ek tou mesou. This term evokes presence or proximity, where the cheirographon looms as an accusing finger, like the ghost in Dickens’s Christmas Carol. But in God’s grace this accusing voice in our midst has been lifted and taken away.
How? God has lifted the accusing cheirographon from our presence by nailing it to an instrument of punishment: the cross. One cannot avoid the temptation of thinking that Paul here speaks of the titulus on the cross, the accusation pinned to the cross on which criminals were crucified to announce to all who can read it the charges against the person. Normally, one nailed accusations to the cross in order to condemn, but here the nailing of the accusation to the cross releases the person from those accusations. How so? The innocent one, as we see in 2 Cor 5:21, assumes the charges against the guilty ones so that the guilty ones might become innocent. We thus have here vicarious, substitutionary atonement. Jesus shoulders the accusations against us so we need not experience their consequences in death.
(4) New Creation … in Making a Spectacle (2:15)
15 Suddenly one element in new creation grows to cosmic dimensions: “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them.” The order here matters: first, God disarms the powers; second, God makes a public spectacle of them. And in a conclusive way there will come a third: God triumphs over them in the cross. Each image is a metaphor of new creation and the upside-down theory of Christus victor of Pauline theology. We look at each in order.
First, God’s new creation disarms the powers and authorities. The word “disarmed” is cognate to the term used in 2:11, where it meant “putting off” or “stripping off” the “whole self ruled by the flesh.” In 3:9 the term describes removing the “old self.” While some think the actor here is Christ, others think it is God. Inasmuch as it was God who generates new creation, so also here: God disarms the powers, or as some contend, God strips off the powers and authorities who have cloaked the cosmos.158
Who are these powers?
Excursus: The Powers as Polluted Structures (1:16; 2:15)
When Paul refers in Col 1:16 to “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” and in 2:15 to “powers and authorities,” what does he mean? What kind of reality do we see here? Is this a projection onto the cosmic map of evil forces, like evil and systemic injustice? Is this a description of beings beyond human gaze who inhabit the cosmos and influence even to the point of controlling the ways of this world and the state and institutions and assignments, like an order of angels? Or a description of seemingly impersonal but nothing more than natural orders of creation? Or better yet, structures that have the potential to operate benevolently or maliciously, like government and officials and laws? As Hendrik Berkhof concluded, “In short, the apocalypses think primarily of the principalities and powers as heavenly angels; Paul sees them as structures of earthly existence.”163 Is this an exaggeration of human powers by granting to them demigodlike influence and powers, like Pilate or Nero depicted with otherworldly powers? Is this a political interpretation of genuine human powers, like Pilate or Nero or local powers, who are genuinely influenced by demons and evil angels?
And then, what are we to make of these powers today? Andrew Lincoln sketches the three hermeneutical options:
- they were supernatural forces and are to be so yet today;
- they were supernatural forces but are appropriated today as ideologies and social structures; or
- they were supernatural and social structures then and can be so today.
Lincoln aligns himself with the second as an appropriation of a first-century worldview in our world today, which he does by way of analogy rather than a strict correlation of historical exegesis and modern application. He thus seeks to avoid the problem of demythologizing the New Testament texts through critical reinterpretation. Lincoln’s approach is honest but effectively points its finger at trends of appropriation today: that in principalities and powers we are to see the powers of politics embedded in structures, and these structures are confronted in the gospel and church while at the same time paving a more progressive way. It seems to me that the third view, with emphasis on supernatural beings more than structures, is best supported by the evidence.
We begin to answer these questions by gathering principal evidence found in the Bible.
Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him. (Dan 7:27)
But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. (Dan 10:13)
So he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come.” (Dan 10:20)
None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor 2:8)
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Cor 15:24–26)
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38–39)
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Rom 13:1)
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. (Col 1:16)
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col 2:15)
… he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (Eph 1:20–21)
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. (Eph 2:1–2)
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. (Eph 3:10)
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:12)
The terms “powers and authorities” (Col 1:16; 2:15) are connected with the near parallel in Eph 1:21; 3:10; 6:12, which speak of “rule and authority, power and dominion” and “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,” and then with the cosmic conflict in which Christians engage in the power of the Spirit and in the victory achieved by Christ “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” This language undeniably describes spiritual and cosmic forces at work in this world, which Paul in Ephesians attributes to “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (2:2). Yet, some of this language is routinely used for, say, Roman structures and institutions. In other words, the powers refers to dark cosmic forces that are at work in the structures of God’s world. As Caird expressed it, “In its natural state the human race lives in bondage not only to sin, death, and the Law, but to a host of angelic beings, whose varied nomenclature indicates that all in common have been invested by God with a species of authority over the created order, though somehow the authority becomes corrupt and demonic. These powers include the guardians of the pagan state, the mediators of the Torah, and the angels who preside over the national order—the heavenly representatives of civil, religious, and natural law.”
Yet, these various terms fluctuate from one text to another because they are drawn from the rich and varied vocabulary of Paul’s world and not from some specific cosmology. Even more, Colossians teaches that these structures were created by Christ, as 1:16 makes clear: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” Yoder frames what is in mind with the powers in terms of ideological and social structures, but he spans the cosmic scope of these structures: “If we can analyze more abstractly this wealth of allusions, we might say that we have here an inclusive vision of religious structures (especially the religious undergirdings of stable ancient and primitive societies), intellectual structures (-ologies and -isms), moral structures (codes and customs), political structures (the tyrant, the market, the school, the courts, race, and nation). The totality is overwhelmingly broad.”
However, Yoder fails to see the supernatural-being element of Paul’s language, so we think an even wider scope is needed. In the powers, then, we are drawn into a story that is at work behind the terms: created by God, these structures have become polluted, distorted, and destructive because they are aligned with Satan and empowered by his minions. The powers are created, fallen, and already defeated and struggling with mighty gasps in the interim period of inaugurated eschatology. The defeat, Paul declares (2:13–15), is accomplished, but the structures are still at work, so it is in the church that this defeat is to be embodied. As Berkhof, who also focuses too little on the supernatural beings, puts it: “The very existence of the church, in which Gentiles and Jews, who heretofore walked according to the stoicheia of the world, live together in Christ’s fellowship, is itself a proclamation, a sign, a token to the Powers that their unbroken dominion has come to an end.”
The battle of bringing the enemy under the footstool (Pss 8:6; 110:1) is on, and no one has captured the framing of this epochal battle more succinctly than Longman and Reid:
The contours of the story are of one sent from heaven to subject the cosmos to its Creator and Lord. Born of a woman (Gal 4:4) and taking human form (Php 2:7), he engaged the enemy, was victorious in an epochal battle (Col 2:15; cf. 1:12–14), and was exalted to God’s right hand, where he now reigns as cosmic Lord (1 Co 15:24–26; Eph 1:20–22; Php 2; Col 3:1; 1 Ti 3:16), building his new temple (1 Co 3:16–17; 2 Co 6:16; Eph 2:19–22), and receiving praise and obeisance (Php 2:10–11). He will come again at the end of the age and conclude his defeat of the enemy, who will have waged a final revolt (2 Th 2:8). In the end, death, the final enemy, will stand defeated along with every other hostile power, and Christ will hand over the kingdom to God (1 Co 15:24–28). But in the meantime, the people of the Messiah stand between two episodes—climax and resolution—in the eschatological warfare, enjoying the benefits and advantage of Christ’s defeat of the enemy at the cross (Ro 8:37). Yet, as they await their Lord to descend from heaven on the final day (1 Th 4:16–17), they are till beset by a hostile foe (Eph 6:10–17).
This story of conflict and triumph presumes enemies. And Paul selected and fashioned a rich vocabulary to describe them in their various aspects. These enemies consisted not of Romans or Greeks but of “principalities and powers,” sin, flesh, death, law, and a final enemy he called the “man of lawlessness.”
We are to see in “powers and authorities” created but sinful beings at work in created structures. At times we see a focus on kings and princes (see Dan 7:2–8; 10:13, 20–21; 1 Cor 2:8; 15:24–26; Rom 13:1) and death (1 Cor 15:26), but behind them are beings like angels and demons (Rom 8:38–39; Eph 6:12). These structures and institutions have been turned against God through their capture by dark beings that seek to use them to capture and enslave humans in evil. Inasmuch as angels and demons emerge in these listing of structures in Paul’s letters, we are to see them as more than systemic injustice at work in altogether human structures (like government), even if one might see an inner dimension of a material reality. Instead, we are to see in the powers structures polluted by more than an “inner reality” (Wink) but by real demonic beings who seek to destroy God’s will for our world.173 Thus, it is best here to see a via media, a both-and: both demonic and supernatural beings at work in earthly structures.
The second point of new creation explores an extravagant metaphor: “he made a public spectacle of them.” God publicly shames the powers and authorities by conquering them in the most paradoxical of places: a cross on which a man brutally suffered to death. This strange but wondrous act of God turns typical Roman brutality on its head—whereas Roman military commanders exposed and paraded conquered enemies through Rome on their way (sometimes) to a public crucifixion, so here God exposes the hideousness of systemic evil by means of a crucifixion. There’s more here: behind the word “public” is the Greek term parrēsia, which transcends “public” and means “boldly.” That is, God exposes evil boldly.
To gain a full flavor of what such a triumphal procession looked like and therefore the imagery at work in this paragraph, here is Plutarch’s account of the triumphal process of Aemilius Paulus over King Perseus, the king of Macedon, hence, of Rome over Greece:
32.2 The people erected scaffoldings in the theatres for equestrian contests, which they call circuses, and round the forum, occupied the other parts of the city which afforded a view of the procession, and witnessed the spectacle arrayed in white garments. 3 Every temple was open and filled with garlands and incense, while numerous servitors and lictors restrained the thronging and scurrying crowds and kept the streets open and clear. 4 Three days were assigned for the triumphal procession. The first barely sufficed for the exhibition of the captured statues, paintings, and colossal figures, which were carried on two hundred and fifty chariots. 5 On the second, the finest and richest of the Macedonian arms were borne along in many waggons. The arms themselves glittered with freshly polished bronze and steel, and were carefully and artfully arranged to look exactly as though they had been piled together in heaps and at random, 6 helmets lying upon shields and breast-plates upon greaves, while Cretan targets and Thracian wicker shields and quivers were mixed up with horses’ bridles, and through them projected naked swords and long Macedonian spears planted among them, 7 all the arms being so loosely packed that they smote against each other as they were borne along and gave out a harsh and dreadful sound, and the sight of them, even though they were spoils of a conquered enemy, was not without its terrors. 8 After the waggons laden with armour there followed three thousand men carrying coined silver in seven hundred and fifty vessels, each of which contained three talents and was borne by four men, 9 while still other men carried mixing-bowls of silver, drinking horns, bowls, and cups, all well arranged for show and excelling in size and in the depth of their carved ornaments.
33.1 On the third day, as soon as it was morning, trumpeters led the way, sounding out no marching or processional strain, but such a one as the Romans use to rouse themselves to battle. 2 After these there were led along a hundred and twenty stall-fed oxen with gilded horns, bedecked with fillets and garlands. Those who led these victims to the sacrifice were young men wearing aprons with handsome borders, and boys attended them carrying gold and silver vessels of libation. 3 Next, after these, came the carriers of the coined gold, which, like the silver, was portioned out into vessels containing three talents; and the number of these vessels was eighty lacking three. 4 After these followed the bearers of the consecrated bowl, which Aemilius had caused to be made of ten talents of gold and adorned with precious stones, and then those who displayed the bowls known as Antigonids and Seleucids and Theracleian, together with all the gold plate of Perseus’s table. 5 These were followed by the chariot of Perseus, which bore his arms, and his diadem lying upon his arms. 6 Then, at a little interval, came the children of the king, led along as slaves, and with them a throng of foster-parents, teachers, and tutors, all in tears, stretching out their own hands to the spectators and teaching the children to beg and supplicate. 7 There were two boys, and one girl, and they were not very conscious of the magnitude of their evils because of their tender age; 8 wherefore they evoked even more pity in view of the time when their unconsciousness would cease, so that Perseus walked along almost unheeded, while the Romans, moved by compassion, kept their eyes upon the children, and many of them shed tears, and for all of them the pleasure of the spectacle was mingled with pain, until the children had passed by.
34 1 Behind the children and their train of attendants walked Perseus himself, clad in a dark robe and wearing the high boots of his country, but the magnitude of his evils made him resemble one who is utterly dumbfounded and bewildered. 2 He, too, was followed by a company of friends and intimates, whose faces were heavy with grief, and whose tearful gaze continually fixed upon Perseus gave the spectators to understand that it was his misfortune which they bewailed, and that their own fate least of all concerned them. 3 And yet Perseus had sent to Aemilius begging not to be led in the procession and asking to be left out of the triumph. But Aemilius, in mockery, as it would seem, of the king’s cowardice and love of life, had said: “But this at least was in his power before, and is so now, if he should wish it,” 4 signifying death in preference to disgrace; for this, however, the coward had not the heart, but was made weak by no one knows what hopes, and became a part of his own spoils.
5 Next in order to these were carried wreaths of gold, four hundred in number, which the cities had sent with their embassies to Aemilius as prizes for his victory. 6 Next, mounted on a chariot of magnificent adornment, came Aemilius himself, a man worthy to be looked upon even without such marks of power, wearing a purple robe interwoven with gold, and holding forth in his right hand a spray of laurel. 7 The whole army also carried sprays of laurel, following the chariot of their general by companies and divisions, and singing, some of them divers songs intermingled with jesting, as the ancient custom was, and others paeans of victory and hymns in praise of the achievements of Aemilius, who was gazed upon and admired by all, and envied by no one that was good. 8 But after all there is, as it seems, a divinity whose province it is to diminish whatever prosperity is inordinately great, and to mingle the affairs of human life, that no one may be without a taste of evil and wholly free from it, but that, as Homer says, those may be thought to fare best whose fortunes incline now one way and now another.
Third, God’s new creation concludes in “triumphing over them [i.e., the powers and authorities] by the cross.” The term “triumphing,” or at least participating in the Schadenfreude of the parade, summarily describes often the public parade of the conquering military general, with a display of domination and violence of those who have been conquered. (The Arch of Titus and the Arch of Constantine in Rome today embody empire domination.) Paul paradoxically makes use of this image for apostolic ministry (2 Cor 2:14). Once again there is a phenomenology to be employed. For this set of images to work, we need to have God as ruler, God in conflict with the rebellious powers and authorities, humans and the people of God especially being subverted and suppressed unjustly by the powers, and then Christ, who enters into the fray to take the powers down in defeat through the cross and resurrection and who, as the strong-man victor180 over the powers, creates the space of victory for the Colossians and all the people of Jesus. Furthermore, we need to connect this verse to the theme of reconciliation in the hymn of 1:15–20: reconciliation entails victory over the powers in 2:15. Marianne Meye Thompson insightfully wonders why the powers are not said to be destroyed in 2:15, suggesting that the triumph may imply “restoration of the powers to their purposes in creation.”
The ultimate paradox is now clear: the location to celebrate victory is not the Roman Forum or the public streets of Roman cities but instead the precise place where Rome thought it was dominant: the cross. Some think “by the cross” (en autō) should be translated instead “in him [Christ]” in the sense of resurrection, ascension, and exaltation (cf. Eph 1:20–21; 4:8–10; 1 Pet 3:22), but the more immediate antecedent is “cross.” The powers are reversed: at the place Rome used as the ultimate indignity, God reestablishes the dignity of all. Jesus himself was stripped, and Jesus both was conquered and conquered at the cross. As Dunn says it so well:185
To treat the cross as a moment of triumph was about as huge a reversal of normal values as could be imagined, since crucifixion was itself regarded as the most shameful of deaths. But in this letter it is simply of a piece with the theological audacity of seeing in a man, Jesus the Christ, the sum and embodiment of the divine wisdom by which the world was created and is sustained (1:15–20). The key can only be to recognize that for Paul, as for the first Christians generally, the cross and resurrection of Christ itself constituted such a turning upside down of all that had previously determined or been thought to determine life that only such imagery could suffice to express its significance. The unseen powers and invisible forces that dominated and determined so much of life need no longer be feared. A greater power and force was at work, which could rule and determine their lives more effectively—in a word “Christ.” Triumph indeed!
The cross, then, is not only the politics of Jesus and Paul, but it is the paradigm for the moral life for all who would walk in the way of Jesus. This pattern of Christoformity will be worked out in detail through chapters 2 and 3 of Colossians.
2:13 / The new life that these believers now possess in Christ is contrasted to what they were before their baptism. Basically, they were spiritually dead (cf. Eph. 2:1). This spiritual death manifested itself morally by their sins (paraptōma—or “trespass”). Thus, by way of a contrast, there is a connection with verse 11, where Paul talked about their “spiritual circumcision” (cf. Eph. 2:11, 12). The continuity with verse 13 is shown in the fact that God made you alive with Christ. As Christ was raised from the dead by the power of God, the believer, who is in Christ through baptism, has been raised (2:12) and brought to life (2:13).
The Greek text also illustrates how carefully Paul wishes to emphasize their union with Christ. The word for life (zōē) is prefixed with the preposition syn (synezōopoiēsen). This preposition is repeated with the pronoun “him” (syn autō), leaving no doubt that their resurrection and quickening to new life is God’s action in Christ alone.
This new life in Christ has resulted in a radical change in their moral life. Before, they were dead in their sins; now, they are spiritually alive (God forgave us all our sins). The change from you to us probably indicates that Paul is using traditional material familiar to the early church (note Matt. 6:12 in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts”). This “forgiveness” also has taken place in the past (the Greek aorist tense). Hence, there is no need to look beyond their experience with Christ to other alternatives.
God made you alive with him, when you were dead in your sins and were still uncircumcised Gentiles. He forgave you all your sins, and wiped out the charge-list which set out all your self-admitted debts, a charge-list which was based on the ordinances of the law and was in direct opposition to you. He nailed it to his cross and put it right out of sight. He stripped the powers and authorities of all their power and publicly put them to shame, and, through the cross, led them captive in his triumphal train.
Almost all great teachers have thought in pictures; and here Paul uses a series of vivid pictures to show what God in Christ has done for us. The intention is to show that Christ has done all that can be done and all that need be done, and that there is no need to bring in any other intermediaries for our full salvation. There are three main pictures here.
(1) Men and women were dead in their sins. They had no more power than the dead either to overcome sin or to atone for it. Jesus Christ by his work has liberated all people both from the power and from the consequences of sin. He has given them a life so new that it can only be said that he has raised them from the dead. Further, it was the old belief that only the Jews were dear to God; but this saving power of Christ has come even to the uncircumcised Gentiles. The work of Christ is a work of power, because it put life into those who were as good as dead; it is a work of grace, because it reached out to those who had no reason to expect the beneﬁts of God.
(2) But the picture becomes even more vivid. As the Revised Standard Version has it, Jesus Christ cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; as we have translated it, he wiped out the charge-list which set out all our self-admitted debts, a charge-list based on the rulings of the law. There are two Greek words here on which the whole picture depends.
(a) The word for bond or charge-list is cheirographon. It literally means an autograph; but its technical meaning—a meaning which everyone would understand—was a note signed by a debtor acknowledging his indebtedness. It was almost exactly what we call an IOU. People’s sins had piled up a vast list of debts to God, and it could be said that they deﬁnitely acknowledged that debt. More than once, the Old Testament shows the children of Israel hearing and accepting the laws of God and calling down curses on themselves should they fail to keep them (Exodus 24:3; Deuteronomy 27:14–26). In the New Testament, we ﬁnd the picture of the Gentiles as having not the written law of God which the Jews had, but the unwritten law in their hearts and the voice of conscience speaking within (Romans 2:14–15). People were in debt to God because of their sins—and they knew it. There was a self-confessed written accusation against them, a charge-list, which, as it were, they themselves had signed and admitted as accurate.
(b) The word for wiping out is the Greek verb exaleiphein. To understand that word is to understand the amazing mercy of God. The substance on which ancient documents were written was either papyrus, a kind of paper made of the pith of the bulrush, or vellum, a substance made of the skins of animals. Both were fairly expensive and certainly could not be wasted. Ancient ink had no acid in it; it lay on the surface of the paper and did not, as modern ink usually does, bite into it. Sometimes, to save paper, a scribe used papyrus or vellum that had already been written on. When he did that, he took a sponge and wiped the writing out. Because it was only on the surface of the paper, the ink could be wiped out as if it had never been. God, in his amazing mercy, banished the record of our sins so completely that it was as if it had never been; not a trace remained.
(c) Paul goes on. God took that written accusation and nailed it to the cross of Christ. It used to be said that, in the ancient world, when a law or a regulation was cancelled, it was fastened to a board and a nail was driven right through it. But it is doubtful if that was the case or if that is the picture here. Rather, it is this—on the cross of Christ, the charge that was against us was itself cruciﬁed. It was executed and put completely out of the way, so that it might never be seen again. Paul seems to have searched human activity to ﬁnd a series of pictures which would show how utterly God in his mercy destroyed the condemnation that was against us.
Here indeed is grace. And that new era of grace is further underlined in another rather obscure phrase. The charge-list had been based on the ordinances of the law. Before Christ came, people were under law, and they broke it because no one can keep it perfectly. But now, law is banished and grace has come. We are no longer criminals who have broken the law and are at the mercy of God’s judgment; we are sons and daughters who were lost and can now come home to be wrapped around with the grace of God.
(3) One other great picture ﬂashes on the screen of Paul’s mind. Jesus has stripped the powers and authorities and made them his captives. As we have seen, the ancient world believed in all kinds of angels and in all kinds of elemental spirits. Many of these spirits were out to bring about ruin. It was they who were responsible for such things as demon-possession. They were completely hostile. Jesus conquered them forever. He stripped them; the word used is the word for stripping the weapons and the armour from a defeated enemy. Once and for all, Jesus broke their power. He put them to public shame and led them captive in his triumphant procession. The picture is that of the triumph of a Roman general. When a Roman general had won a really notable victory, he was allowed to march his victorious armies through the streets of Rome, and behind him followed the kings and the leaders and the peoples he had defeated. They were openly branded as his spoils. Paul thinks of Jesus as a conqueror enjoying a kind of cosmic triumph, and in his triumphal procession are the powers of evil, beaten forever, for everyone to see.
In these vivid pictures, Paul sets out the total adequacy of the work of Christ. Sin is forgiven and evil is conquered; what more is necessary? There is nothing that Gnostic knowledge and Gnostic intermediaries can do for men and women—Christ has done it all already.
13. In the spirit of jubilation and solid Christian optimism Paul continues, And you, who were dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you he made alive together with him. In his great mercy God had taken pity on Gentiles as well as on the ancient covenant people. “And you” means, “And you who were formerly Gentiles, and as such morally and spiritually dead, and this not only because of your individual trespasses against God’s holy law but also and basically because of your state before God.” That state is here described as “the uncircumcision of your flesh,” that is, “your state of guilt; hence, your condition of sinfulness, impotence, and therefore hopelessness.”
Being children of wrath, their physical or literal uncircumcision symbolized their moral and spiritual uncircumcision. The word you is repeated for the sake of emphasis, as if Paul were saying, “Ponder this! Continue to reflect on it that on you, yes even on you, so deeply fallen, so hopelessly lost, so utterly corrupt in state and condition, such grace was bestowed.” Cf. Eph. 2:1, 5. The predominantly Gentile origin of this church is clear also from such passages as Col. 1:21, 22, 27; 3:5–7 (similar passages in Ephesians are: Eph. 1:13; 2:1–3, 11, 13, 17, 22; 3:1, 2; 4:17, etc.). But the same God, who raised Christ from the dead, also and in that very act made the Colossians alive.
In verses 13, 14, and 15 the apostle in orderly arranged participial modifiers shows us what was implied in this making alive. It implied:
(1). granting forgiveness to us: “having forgiven us all our trespasses” (verse 13).
(2). blotting out a writing: “having blotted out the handwritten document that was against us” (verse 14).
(3). disarming spirits: “and having stripped the principalities and the authorities of their power” (verse 15).
In the work of salvation the guilt of our sins must be removed first of all. Hence, when Paul describes how we were made alive together with Christ he begins by saying: having forgiven us all our trespasses. Note the striking transition from you to us. If it be true that “all (both Jew and Gentile) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), then all alike need forgiveness. And Paul, who regards himself as “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15) was unable to write about a subject like this without being deeply moved in his own soul, having experienced what God did for him in rescuing him from inevitable damnation.
- Why is it emphasized?
It is worthy of special attention that the apostle speaks about forgiveness in each of the first thee chapters of Colossians. May there not have been a special reason for this? Remember that this letter was going to be read aloud to the assembled congregation of Colosse, yes, to the very church gathered in Philemon’s house. And Philemon was the master of Onesimus, the returned runaway whom Philemon must forgive! It is as if I am present when this letter is being read, and as if I hear the lector reading the precious words:
“The Father rescued us out of the domain of darkness, and transplanted us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.… And you who were dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you he made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.… Put on, therefore, as God’s elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering, enduring one another, and if anyone has a complaint against anyone else forgiving each other. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so do you also (forgive)” (Col. 1:13, 14; 2:13; 3:12, 13). And it is as if I can hear the Holy Spirit whisper in the heart of the host of this house-church, “Philemon, if the Lord did all this for you, should you not, with gladness of heart, forgive Onesimus, and fully accept him as a beloved brother?”
But surely not only for Philemon were these words intended but for the entire Colossian congregation, and in fact—as Paul reminds us so beautifully by saying “having forgiven us all our trespasses”—for each and every believer both then and now.
- What are its characteristics?
The evidence shows that this forgiveness is:
(a) gracious The word used here in the original stresses this fact (see on 3:13, footnote ). It is completely unmerited by man (Rom. 3:24; Titus 3:4–7). It is God’s precious gift in Christ. May not this be the very reason why the sinner must become as a little child to receive it? Cf. Matt. 18:1–3. The story is told of a man who at a Fair offered $10 gold pieces. Accompanying a pile of these valuable coins there was a sign: “Free, Take one.” All day long people passed by. Their smile said, “You can’t fool me.” The pile remained untouched. Just before closing time a child saw the sign, reached out his hand and took a coin!
(b) bountiful When God gives or forgives he does not do so merely of, his riches but according to his riches (Eph. 1:7). His pardoning love super-abounds (Rom. 5:20). Cf. Isa. 1:18; Ps. 103:12.
(c) eager God “entreats” men to be reconciled to him, “not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19, 20). Cf. Ps. 86:5.
(d) certain When Paul received his commission he was sent to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive remission of sins.…” When Festus expressed his doubt about this heavenly vision and the commission given to Paul, the apostle answered, “I am not mad, excellent Festus, but I am telling the sober truth” (Acts 26:16–18, 25). Cf. Ps. 89:30–35.
(e) basic When a sinner is rescued out of the domain of darkness and transplanted into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love, he receives forgiveness first of all. Moral and spiritual cleansing (“holiness”) follows (Col. 1:13, 14, 22). Thus also here in Col. 2:13 the very first blessing that is mentioned in connection with making the dead sinner alive is forgiveness. Cf. Rom. 3:24. Note emphasis on justification in Rom. 5, followed by emphasis on sanctification, Rom. 6. “How can a sinner become righteous in the sight of God?” is still basic.
- How do we receive it?
What is the way along which God leads his children toward the full possession and enjoyment of this basic blessing?
- There must be genuine sorrow for sin (God-wrought sorrow, 2 Cor. 7:10). Cf. Mark 1:4.
- There must be a yearning desire to forsake sin. Those who are eager by the grace of God to put to death their evil nature (Col. 3:5–11) are pronounced forgiven (Col. 3:13). Cf. Prov. 28:13. When the Sunday School teacher asked the class, “What does it mean to repent?” a little boy answered, “To repent means to be sorry enough to quit doing what is wrong.”
- There must be the disposition of the heart to forgive others (Col. 3:13; Eph. 4:32). Cf. Matt. 6:14, 15.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1992). Colossians (pp. 109–112). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Still, T. D. (2006). Colossians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 314–315). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (pp. 108–109). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 McKnight, S. (2018). The Letter to the Colossians. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (pp. 243–261). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Patzia, A. G. (2011). Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (pp. 57–58). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Barclay, W. (2003). The Letters to Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (3rd ed. fully rev. and updated, pp. 163–166). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Colossians and Philemon (Vol. 6, pp. 117–120). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.