The problem addressed in this warning is the possibility of being beguiled [only found here in the New Testament] of reward. It means to be misled, submitting to wrong judgement, being disqualified or defrauded of due reward.
The apostle lists four features that mark the disturber. The first is a feigned humility. The word ‘voluntary’ means delighting in – indicating an expression of supreme pride – calculated to seduce the Colossians. The second feature is a worshipping of angels. Good angels repudiate worship, Rev. 22. 9. These are false teachers worshipping elemental and cosmic forces under the sway of ‘the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience’, Eph. 2. 2. The third feature is an intrusion, a penetrating, into the unseen world – a claim to have special visions and initiation into mysteries – but spurious, cp. 2 Cor. 12. 3, 4. Finally, they have a fleshly mind being puffed up with pride; unimaginable conceit dominated by the mind of the flesh.
The false teacher has no relationship with Him, ‘not holding [fast] the Head’; they were heretics.2 They did not appreciate the infinite resources in, and the glory of Christ, who is the source of all nourishment for the body, cp. 1. 18. This is administered through His people, referred to here as ‘the joints and bands [ligaments]’, cp. Eph. 4. 11. This ministry is the source of the mystical unity of the body; ‘knit together’, Christ as the Head in heaven and His members as the church on earth, cp. 1 Cor. 12. 12-14. This unity is the source of spiritual growth – nourishment and unity resulting in spiritual growth – the kind that God intends – ‘the growth of God’! Don’t submit to the idol worshipper; hold fast to the Head!
The apostle has indicated to the Colossians the doctrinal significance of baptism in chapter 2 verses 11 and 12, viz. death in verse 11, burial and resurrection in verse 12. He is now going to show the practical implications flowing from it involving a definite link with the death and resurrection of Christ. In verse 20, he indicates that they ‘died with Christ’ JND, and in chapter 3 verse 1, that they were ‘raised with the Christ’ JND. In both cases, the aorist tense is used, referring to the fact that when Christ died they died, and when Christ was raised, they were raised. Both of these bring important practical outcomes. The overall section is introduced with ‘wherefore’ in chapter 2 verse 20, and each of the sub-paragraphs with the telling word ‘if’ [since]: since you died with Christ, 2. 20-23 and since you were raised with Christ, 3. 1-4. The past facts have abiding consequences! Note that in the section as a whole, the essential relationship ‘with Christ’ is emphasized by the repetition of this phrase or its equivalent four times.3
Interestingly, burial is not mentioned in this section. It was seen to be the evidence of death in chapter 2 verse 12. The apostle is now showing the features of the new life (we don’t stay buried practically!) that have to be seen as a result of our abiding link ‘with Christ’. The fact of this link is assumed and used as the lever for the exhortations.
In this section, the practical implications of the fact that we have died with Christ is explored. The former bondage to the world’s forces has been terminated; these forces cannot control someone who is dead!
The fact of our death with Christ is simply assumed by the apostle, ‘ye have died with Christ’. The same truth is emphasized in Romans chapter 6 verse 8 (indeed in verses 1 to 14) and in Galatians chapter 2 verse 20. The evidence of this fact was seen in their baptism, since only dead people are buried, 2. 12!
The effect of it is anticipated in the balance of verse 20. The believer should be separated ‘from the rudiments ["elements” JND, “elemental spirits” ESV, “forces” FFB4] of the world’ – all that the world has to offer, its prosperity, power, prestige and position. In many cases, these features have become a passion in our 24/7 society. The priority given to them is sapping the spiritual life of many, and affecting assembly life adversely. Families of believers are suffering, in many cases with both parents pursuing ‘professional’ careers and children being cared for elsewhere. The wise words of Davidson, while commenting on Exodus chapter 2 verse 9, should be heeded, ‘Don’t let grandmothers or someone else rear the child. [The] formative years are short and precious. A mother’s keeping at home is more important than earning money’.5 We have witnessed the sad consequences and heartbreaks that have ensued by failure to comply with this wise counsel.
The examples of Noah, Joseph, and Daniel who lived godly lives in a godless society should be emulated. The grace of God teaches us, ‘that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world’, Titus 2. 12, separated from its sin and ‘elemental spirits’.6 It is many years ago that Tatford averred, ‘that it is virtually impossible to distinguish believer from unbeliever’.7 If it was true in 1969 how much more so now!
They ‘perish with the using’. It is a ‘passing world’. Submitting to its value system is the antithesis of spirituality. Indeed, it is incongruous behaviour for the believer, ‘as though living in the world’. The contrast with the imperative in Romans chapter 12 verses 1 and 2 is marked, ‘be not conformed’! But the believer is not to emphasize mere, negative ascetic behaviour, ‘touch not; taste not; handle not’ – ‘don’t, don’t, don’t’ – but to emphasize the positive, ‘holding the head’, v. 19, and growing with Christ, 2 Pet. 3. 18. While the negative exhortations quoted have particular applicability to the Jewish background, the principle is clear for the believer today; the present world is not the ultimate reality! It is ‘[perishing] with the using’. The believer should be emphasizing the eternal, 2 Cor. 4. 18, and asking the question ‘which world am I living for'?
The true nature of the world’s system is exposed in verses 22 and 23
In both their source and their features. Their source is affirmed as ‘after the commandments and doctrines of men’. They are not divinely ordained like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, otherwise obedience would be obligatory – see Mark 7. 6, 7. Their features are outlined in verse 23. They have ‘an appearance of wisdom’ JND, bringing a false accolade and resulting in a false worship, viz. ‘will worship’ (used only once in the New Testament), ‘promoting self-made religion’ ESV; Bruce translates it as ‘faked religion’.8 It is adding to divine requirements! In addition, they lead to the promotion of self in a false humility, ‘insufferable spiritual pride’.9,10 Indeed, the false worship is a demonstration of utter hypocrisy, ‘neglecting [once in New Testament] of the body’, unsparing treatment. However, none of the above factors have the ability to check the indulgence of the flesh; in fact, they support and abet it; they are not a realistic (‘honour’ = ‘of any value’) remedy against it; they result in rebellion against God!
The significance of being raised with Christ, 3. 1-4 – ‘ye have been raised with Christ’ JND
The ‘if’ is again not an ‘if’ of doubt but the basis of an argument; it means ‘since’. The argument is fairly straightforward, ‘since … seek … set … for … when … then’. The focus of attention is made clear by repetition: ‘things … above’, v. 1, and ‘things above’, v. 2; and ‘with Christ’, v. 1, ‘with Christ in God’, v. 3, and ‘with Him in glory’, v. 4. It is altogether fitting that the paragraph ends in glory! Surely, seeking things above, setting affections on things above, being risen with Christ and hid with Christ can only lead to one conclusion – appearing with Him in glory! Our ‘life is hid … our life shall appear’!
The paragraph is pivotal – a fitting conclusion to the doctrinal section of the Epistle and, at the same time, a fitting lever for the exhortations in verse 5 onwards. The supremacy of Christ in every sphere has been unequivocally demonstrated, in relation to God, creation, the universe, the church, the principalities and powers, the Gnostics, the Judaizers, the legalists – He is supreme, preeminent! Surely, it is fitting that He will appear in glory! But what a wonder – He will not appear alone – those who died with Him and who were raised with Him will share together ‘with Him’ in the day of His manifested glory.
The paragraph is also a fitting introduction, along with chapter 2 verses 20 to 23, to the practical ministry to be given in the balance of the Epistle – ye shall ‘appear with Him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth’. Anything other would surely be inappropriate and incongruous.
Cp. Eph. 4. 15, 16.
Contrast 2 Thess. 2. 15; Rev. 2. 13; 3. 11.
2. 20; 3. 1, 3, 4.
F. F. Bruce, The epistle to the Colossians, William B. Erdmans, 1984.
J. A. Davidson, Family life, An Assembly Testimony Publication, 2015.
Cp. Rom. 7. 5, 6; 8. 4; Gal. 2. 19.
F. A. Tatford, The Patmos letters, Prophetic Witness Publishing House, 1969.
F. F. BRUCE, op. cit.
Cp. Prov. 16. 18; 29. 23, and contrast Phil. 2. 5-11.