Colossians, Jewish New Testament and comments of David H. Stern

chapter 2
1. For I want you to know how hard I work for you, for those in Laodicea, and for the rest of those who have not met me personally.
2. My purpose is that they may be encouraged, that they may be joined together in love, and that they may have all the riches derived from being assured of understanding and fully knowing God’s secret truth, which is — the Messiah!
3. It is in him that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.
Understanding... fully knowing... secret truth... wisdom... knowledge.... All are Gnostic technical terms; see 1:19N above. On "secret truth" see Ro 11:25N, Ep 1:9N. 

4. I say this so that no one will fool you with plausible but specious arguments.
5. For although I am away from you physically, I am with you in spirit, rejoicing as I see the disciplined and resolute firmness of your trust in the Messiah.
6. Therefore, just as you received the Messiah Yeshua as Lord, keep living your life united with him.
7. Remain deeply rooted in him; continue being built up in him and confirmed in your trust, the way you were taught, so that you overflow in thanksgiving.
8. Watch out, so that no one will take you captive by means of philosophy and empty deceit, following human tradition which accords with the elemental spirits of the world but does not accord with the Messiah.
Philosophy. Here the word stands for the heretical Gnostic or pre-Gnostic alternative to the true understanding of who the Messiah is. Human tradition here is pagan tradition, because it goes along with the elemental spirits of the world (see Ga 4:3N). Contrast it with Jewish tradition (including the Oral Torah; Mt 15:2-6, Mk 7:3-13, Ga 1:14) and with Messianic tradition (Ro 6:17; 1С 11:2,23; 2 Th 2:15; 3:6). 

9. For in him, bodily, lives the fullness of all that God is.
For in him, in the Messiah Yeshua, bodily, in an actual human body and not merely in an imitation of one, as many pagan heretics taught (see I Yn 4:2&N, 2 Yn 7&N), Uves the fullness (pleroma again, see 1:19N) of all that God is. Literally, "Because in him dwells all the fullness of the divine nature, bodily." The Greek word "theotes" and two similar words, "theiotes" at Ro 1:20 and "theion" at Ac 17:29, each mean "deity, divinity, divine nature." Each occurs only once in the New Testament, each appears in a context where Sha'ul is dealing with pagan issues, and each, in the King James Version, is rendered, "Godhead." "Godhead" has a distinctly non-Jewish ring to it, because Judaism speaks of the personal God, not the abstract and impersonal "Godhead" of "philosophy" (v. 8). On the other hand, Reuben Alcalay's The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary lists "Godhead" as one way to translate the Hebrew word Sh 'khinah (on which see MJ 1:2-3N).

Stauffer, explaining "theotes" in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Volume 3, p. 119), writes,
'The [One God] of the Old Testament has attracted to Himself all divine power in the cosmos, and on the early Christian view He has given this fulness of power to Christ as the Bearer of the divine office."

Kleinknecht (ibid., p. 123) writes that "theiotes" is
"that which shows God to be God, and gives Him the right to [receive] worship." The JNT rendering expresses these truths in Jewish terminology.

This verse poses a challenge to non-Messianic Jews who attempt to reclaim Yeshua for Judaism by making him over into a great teacher, a wonderful man, or even a prophet, but yet a merely human figure and nothing more. For in him, bodily, in this human figure, Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God, lives the fullness of all that God is. Underlying such a sweeping claim, though directed at pagans, not Jews, is the unshakeable foundation of the Tanakh. "For unto us a child is born; unto us a Son is given; and his name shall be called Wonder Counselor, Mighty God, Father of Eternity, Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:5(6))

'"Behold, days are coming,' says Adonai, 'when I will raise to David a righteous offshoot. He will reign as king, prosper and execute justice and righteousness on earth. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell safely. And here is the name by which he will be called: Adonai Tzidkeinu [YHVH our Righteousness].'"(Jeremiah 23:5-6)

See also Micah 5:1(2); Zechariah 12:10; 14:3-4, 9; Psalms 40:9-10; 45:6; 47:2,7-8; 102:16; 110:1-4; Proverbs 30:4 for other indications in the Tanakh that the Messiah is divine as well as human.

A number of denominations outside the fringe of Christianity, including Jehovah's Witnesses. Christian Science, Mormonism, Unitarianism and Unity, have a view of the Messiah which is not exalted enough to square with what the New Testament says about him. This verse and others in the New Testament, such as Yn 1:1-18, 10:31,17:5 and Pp 2:6-11, present the Messiah as divine, fully identified with God.

At the same time, this verse poses a no less pointed challenge to uncritical Christians who confuse Yeshua with God the Father. The New Testament almost never states, "Yeshua is God," but uses indirect expressions (Pp 2:11 is a rare exception, and Ro 10:9 may be another; see notes there). For example, even when Yeshua says, "I and the Father are one" (Yn 10:3l&N), this is not the same as saying, "I am the Father." Such circumlocutions do not deny or detract from Yeshua's divinity; rather, they stimulate faithful but thoughtful definition of its character. Much of Christian theology has occupied itself with that enterprise, which is known as Christology (whether the Hebrew-Greek hybrid word "Messialogy" will obtain currency in Messianic Judaism remains to be seen). Nevertheless, few believers are clear on the difference between the Son and the Father. In the many tomes devoted to the subject one can find statements which express the truth well. But they are often buried in verbiage, expressed in language that minimizes the Jewish connection, and inaccessible to the ordinary believer because in most churches theology is rarely taught in depth. Therefore the opinions and resultant actions of the average Christian can easily remain unconformed to the Bible.

Messianic Judaism must take on itself the task of expressing the Messiah's human-divine character in Jewish language faithful to both the Tanakh and the New Testament. This will be a useful corrective to the paganism that has crept into much popular Christianity. Also it will help Jews attracted to New Covenant faith but trained to resist the concept of a Messiah who is more than human. See Yn 1:1N. 

10. And it is in union with him that you have been made full — he is the head of every rule and authority.
You have been made Full, Greek pepleromenoi, related to "pleroma" in the preceding verse. The "fullness of all that God is" which is "in" the Messiah "bodily" (v. 9), will be in believers as well, because they are part of his Body (compare Yochanan 17; Ep 2:4-7, 19-22; 4:13-16).

The past tense is used to express a promise certain of fulfillment, a future truth as good as accomplished. Sha'ul does the same in v. 12 ("you were also raised up along with him"), Ro 8:30&N ("those whom he caused to be considered righteous, he also glorified"), and Ep 2:6 ("God raised us up with the Messiah Yeshua and seated us with him in heaven"). 

11. Also it was in union with him that you were circumcised with a circumcision not done by human hands, but accomplished by stripping away the old nature’s control over the body. In this circumcision done by the Messiah,
12. you were buried along with him by being immersed; and in union with him, you were also raised up along with him by God’s faithfulness that worked when he raised Yeshua from the dead.
13. You were dead because of your sins, that is, because of your “foreskin,” your old nature. But God made you alive along with the Messiah by forgiving you all your sins.
According to v. 11, you Gentile believers were circumcised spiritually, not physically, since it was a circumcision not done by human hands, but... done by the Messiah, the believer's spiritual mohel (Hebrew for "circumciser"). Using graphic language. Sha'ul explains that this spiritual circumcision consisted in the Messiah's stripping away not the literal foreskin but what it stands for, the old nature's control over the body. Verse 13a makes the metaphor explicit by equating 'foreskin" with a person's sins and his old nature; one need only be present at a traditional Jewish b'rit-milah ceremony to understand very well the idea of "stripping away the foreskin." Such spiritualizing of ritual circumcision was not invented by the New Testament writers; the Tanakh does the same thing when it speaks of circumcised hearts (Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 9:25; Ezekiel 44:7,9) ears (Jeremiah 6:10) and lips (Exodus 6:12, 30); compare Ac 7:51&N.

However, an alternative understanding of the metaphor is possible. The Greek phrases rendered "the old nature's control over the body" and "your old nature" are, literally, "the body of the flesh" and "your flesh" (see Ro 7:5N). But Sha'ul could be thinking of the entire physical body as the "foreskin" of the believer's human spirit. The believer's body will be "stripped away" — it will die; but because he is united with the Messiah it will be replaced by a spiritual body like Yeshua's (1С 15:45-49&NN).

Before this "circumcision," you were dead (compare Ep 2:1-3, Ro 6:2). Bui you were raised up along with him by God's faithfulness that worked when he raised Yeshua from the dead. This is equivalent to the promise of Ro 8:11, that "if the Spirit of the One who raised Yeshua from the dead is living in you, then the One who raised the Messiah Yeshua from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you."

Most translators and commentators understand this passage differently; the Revised Standard Version is typical: " were... raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead." This attributes your being raised up to your faith, not God's faithfulness. My reasons for rendering as I do are the same as at Ro 3:22&N: "faith of God" should be understood grammatically as a subjective genitive.

You were also raised up. By using the past tense Sha'ul expresses how certain he is that God, in his faithfulness, will fulfill his promise to resurrect believers. See v. 10&N.

This does not say that a believer's old nature no longer has any influence on him. but that he can rale over it. In traditional rabbinic terminology, the yetzer ra' ("evil inclination") with which a person is bom need not dominate the yetzer tov ("good inclination"; see Ro 5:12-21&N, 8:1-13). When these verses are used to prove that Messianic Jews should not have their sons circumcised, the metaphor of spiritual circumcision is being tested beyond its strength. The verses do not say that spiritual circumcision has replaced physical circumcision for Messianic Jews, but that Gentile Christians are full members of God's people through trusting God and his Messiah Yeshua, even though they have not taken the three steps necessary for conversion to non-Messianic Judaism. The verses say nothing about whether b 'rit-milah is required, forbidden, or a matter of personal choice for Messianic Jews. However, that question is raised by Ac 16:1-3&NN, 21:20-21&NN.

This is the only passage in the New Testament where circumcision is identified with immersion (that is, with baptism; see Mt 3:1N). Sha'ul makes this identification because, as explained above, he is thinking in terms of Jewish initiation requirements and intends to reassure Gentile believers that they are fully initiated members of God's people. But the comparison is with Gentile proselytization into Judaism, not with b 'rit-milah for the sons of Jewish parents. It is not that immersion has now replaced circumcision, that Messianic Jews should baptize their baby sons instead of having a b rit-milah for them. Rather, it is that, spiritually, all three of the Gentile proselyte initiation requirements — circumcision, immersion, and sacrifice — are fulfilled when one trusts in and is united with Yeshua.

Yeshua makes a spiritual circumcision of the heart, ears, and lips. It is accomplished at the time of one's physical immersion in water, which is also a spiritual immersion by and into the Messiah, a union with him in his death (you were buried along with him; compare Ro 6:2). This union continues on through the present and into the future, culminating in resurrection (you were raised up along with him). The element of sacrifice enters in the discussion of his being executed on a stake in w. 14-15. There is no clear dividing line between these three; for Sha'ul they are all one. Just as with proselytization into Judaism, the three requirements represent one spiritual event, entering God's people.

God made you alive along with the Messiah by forgiving you all your sins. This connects immersion with sacrifice, and vv. 14-15 explain how, through the Messiah's death on behalf of all, God was able to do this. 

14. He wiped away the bill of charges against us. Because of the regulations, it stood as a testimony against us; but he removed it by nailing it to the execution-stake.
When a criminal was executed on a stake, it was customary to nail a list of his crimes on the stake; an example is the sign placed above Yeshua's head (Yn 19:19-22). Some interpreters take this verse to mean that God removed not the charges against sinners but the Torah itself. Rather than repeat the many arguments against this view, 1 refer the reader to Ro 9:30-10:10&NN; Ga 2:16b&N, 3:23b&N; Ep 2:15a&N. 

15. Stripping the rulers and authorities of their power, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by means of the stake.
The spiritual rulers and authorities are the denizens of the demonic universe under the control of Satan. Compare 2C 10:3-5&N, Ep 6:10-18&N, 1 Ke 5:8, 1 Yn 4:4 and Mt4:l-10&NN.

After triumphing over their enemies and stripping them of their power, it was customary for Roman victors to lead their captives in a procession and make a public spectacle of them; the same imagery is used at 2C 2:14.

Triumphing over them by means of the stake. But have the demonic powers been defeated? The theologian Oscar Cullman, writing shortly after World War II, compared the Stake (standing metaphorically for Yeshua's death) with D-Day, when the Allies' invasion of Normandy assured their ultimate victory. Yet the hell of war continued for another eleven months, unlil VE-Day, the day of Allied victory in Europe, to be compared with Yeshua's Second Coming.

In Sha'ul's time, the three elements of a Gentile proselyte's initiation into Judaism were getting himself circumcised (men), immersing himself in a mikveh ("ritual bath") and offering a sacrifice at the Temple. (In today's Orthodox Judaism the last is moot because there is no Temple at which to sacrifice, but the other two remain as requirements for converts.) These three elements are set forth in these five verses as having been effected for Gentiles who trust in Yeshua, even though they have not become Jews (see following notes).

16. So don’t let anyone pass judgment on you in connection with eating and drinking, or in regard to a Jewish festival or Rosh-Hodesh or Shabbat.
Don't let anyone pass judgment on you in connection with optional matters. Gentile believers are free to observe or not to observe rules about dining and Jewish holidays, as is clear from Romans 14&NN, I Corinthians 8&NN.

Eating and drinking, not "food and drink." Biblical kashrut says a good deal about which foods Jews may eat, and the Oral Law makes modest additions concerning drink (e.g., "kosher wine" is a rabbinic concept). But here it appears that Gentile Judaizers, perhaps like those in Corinth who put themselves "in subjection to a legalistic perversion of the Torah" (1С 9:20b&N), have set up arbitrary rules (Sha'ul brings examples at v. 21) about when and how to eat and drink, in order to "take... captive" (v. 8) their fellow Colossians. They probably included elements related to the laws of kashrut to give their pagan product a Jewish veneer. Also see Ga 2:14b&N for a discussion of (Jewish) Judaizers.

The list of holidays progresses from yearly to monthly to weekly. For more on them seeGa4:8-10N.
A Jewish festival. The word "Jewish" is not in the text but is added because of the context. The major annual festivals are Rosh-HaShanah. Yom-Kippur, Sukkot. Chanukkah, Purim, Pesach and Shavu'ot.

Rosh-Chodesh, literally, "head of month," renders the Greek word for "new moon." Rosh-Chodesh commences when the new moon is first sighted visually; this is a day or two after its conjunction with the sun. In Sha'ul's day, word was brought to the rabbis in Jerusalem at the first sighting of the new moon; fires were lit on successive hilltops to signal Rosh-Chodesh to the Diaspora. Today Rosh-Chodesh is considered a minor festival and is celebrated in the synagogue with special prayers, although only relatively observant Jews are even aware of its existence. Rosh-HaShanah ("head of the year"), the New Year, is of course also a Rosh-Chodesh. Shabbat. See Mt 12:1N. 

17. These are a shadow of things that are coming, but the body is of the Messiah.
These are a shadow of things that are coming, meaning the good things that will happen when Yeshua returns; or, alternatively, "These are a shadow of things which were yet to come," meaning the good things that happened when Yeshua came the first lime but were still in the future when kashrut and the festivals were commanded.

These are a shadow. Most English versions (the New International Version is a welcome exception) deprecate the Jewish holidays by gratuitously adding the word "only" (or an equivalent): "These are only a shadow of things to come." But Sha'ul values Jewish practices; he himself observed them all his life (Ac 13:9&N). If one is going to add to the inspired text, the word to add is "definitely" or "indeed": "These are definitely a shadow of things to come." The festivals do indeed have value; since God commanded the Jewish people to observe them, they remind Jews of God and of what he has done. They are one of God's ways of bringing the Jewish people closer to himself.

With that understood, the rest of the verse falls into place: but, nevertheless, of even greater importance and value than a shadow is the body which casts the shadow, the reality behind it, because it is of the Messiah. See MJ 8:5, 9:23-24, 10:1 for a similar metaphorical comparison of shadow and substance, also MJ 10:1 — 18N. Lenski's commentary agrees with my point about the shadow, although his emphasis locates its value only in the past: "We should not think slightingly of the shadow. It was no less than the divine promise of all the heavenly realities about to arrive. The shadow proved the actuality and even the nearness of the realities, for only an actual body and one that is not far away casts a shadow. So the shadow called out all the faith and the hope of the Old Testament saints in the impending realities and guaranteed that faith and that hope in the strongest way. By faith Abraham saw Christ's day and was glad (John 8:56); Isaiah saw Christ's glory and spoke of it (John 12:41; Isaiah 53)." (R. С. Н. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessakmians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon, p. 126)

For Gentiles, however, Jewish practices are in most cases nothing more than a shadow, insofar as they do not arise out of their own national experience. (The exception would be the Gentile believer who has involved himself with Jewish life on a daily basis and absorbed naturally elements of the Jewish lifestyle without ascribing to them value for salvation or sanctification, since this contradicts the teaching of Galatians and Romans.) God gave the Torah to Israel in the context of Israel's peoplehood, and its details reflect what God knew Israel needed in order to grow spiritually. But rules concerning kashrut and celebrations are external impositions for non-Jews. Messianic Jews, since they are part of the Jewish people, have reason enough for observing these rules, which for them are pleasant shadows, even as through trust in Yeshua they have the substance as well. But since these shadows are irrelevant to Gentiles, since God did not give these commands to Gentiles, Sha'ul urges the Colossians not to be bound legalistically to them. For that matter, he elsewhere urges Jews as well not to fall into the trap of perverting the Torah into a legalistic system (Ga 2:16b&N, 3:23b&N). 

18. Don’t let anyone deny you the prize by insisting that you engage in self-mortification or angel-worship. Such people are always going on about some vision they have had, and they vainly puff themselves up by their worldly outlook.
19. They fail to hold to the Head, from whom the whole Body, receiving supply and being held together by its joints and ligaments, grows as God makes it grow.
Compare 1:18; Ер 1:22-23, 4:15-16, which employ the same imagery, with Yeshua the Head and his followers the Body (see Ep 1:20-23a&N). The use of the word "body" in v. 17&N is unrelated. -. 

20. If, along with the Messiah, you died to the elemental spirits of the world, then why, as if you still belonged to the world, are you letting yourselves be bothered by its rules? —
Elemental spirits. The same expression is used at 2:8 and Ga 4:3, 9; all three verses, like this one, have as their context Gentile observance of Jewish practices. See Ga 4:3N. 

21. “Don’t touch this!” “Don’t eat that!” “Don’t handle the other!”
22. Such prohibitions are concerned with things meant to perish by being used [not by being avoided!], and they are based on man-made rules and teachings (Isaiah 29:13).
Things meant to perish by being used [not by being avoided!). The phrase in brackets makes explicit Sha'ul's otherwise somewhat elliptical point; the brackets show that these words are not part of the Greek text. 

23. They do indeed have the outward appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed religious observances, false humility and asceticism; but they have no value at all in restraining people from indulging their old nature.
So. The first word of v. 16 connects this passage with vv. 8-15, particularly with its keynote warning, sounded in v. 8, against being deceived into "following human tradition which accords with the elemental spirits of the world but does not accord with the Messiah." The rest of vv. 16-23 illustrates and explains exactly how such deception works.

The Colossian heresy involved not only Gnostic elements (1:14-19, 2:2-10) and Jewish initiation requirements (2:11-15), but Jewish-sounding rules applied pointlessly to Gentiles and in a legalistic way which has no value at all in restraining people from indulging their old nature (v. 23).

v. 18-23 There are critics of Messianic faith who draw a false contrast between Judaism and Christianity. They charge that Christianity requires self-mortification and asceticism because of its supposed otherworldJiness; while the superior approach of Judaism is one of embracing this world with the object of improving it. Verses 18 and 23 should lay this canard to rest.

Elsewhere Sha'ul wrote, "I treat my body hard and make it my slave" (1С 9:27), meaning that he does not let himself be ruled by his impulses; and he counsels the Colossians similarly at 3:5 below (compare Ro 8:13&N). Sha'ul's approach to self-mastery is entirely Jewish in character, and so is his view of self-mortification and asceticism: these produce only the outward appearance of wisdom and stem from false humility (that is, from truly sinful pride disguised as humility) and have nothing to do with what the New Covenant requires. Moreover, they have no value at all in restraining people from indulging their old nature. In sum, the New Testament view is that asceticism fails to achieve its goal of squelching or confining the yetzer ra' (Ro 5:12-2 IN) but instead fosters its own virulent species of sin, pride.

Thus, for example, if Simeon Stylites (c. 390-459 C.E.) is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, it is not because he lived for thirty years exposed to the elements on top of a fifty-foot pillar; but because, in spite of his odd and austere abode, he proved himself a champion of the poor, a wise counselor, a healer and worker of miracles, and an evangelist (although no friend of the Jews).

Man-made rules and teachings (v. 22, citing Isaiah 29:13, as did Yeshua at Mk 7:5-13&N). The God-given commandments in the Tunakh certainly do not fit this description. But requiring legalistic observance of rules (v. 21) is an all-too-human power-play by teachers who vainly puff themselves up by their sinful worldly outlook(v. 18;seevv. 16-17&NN). 

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