The section of the letter to the Colossians that appears in the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Col 2:6–15) contains some intriguing phrases. It offers a portrayal of Jesus that stretches beyond what we find in the earlier, authentic letters of Paul. There, Jesus is a Jewish man, chosen by God, designated as God’s Son, raised from the dead, and designated as Lord (see, for instance, Gal 4:4 and Rom 1:1–4).
In this letter, Jesus becomes the one “in whom the fullness of deity dwells” (2:9; also 1:19). There is no evident sense of the humanity of Jesus; he is swept up into the mystical-philosophical world of “elemental spirits” (2:8) and deals with the “rulers and authorities” of that dimension (2:15). Indeed, in the previous chapter, the writer of this letter (whom I don’t believe was Paul) praises Jesus in full blown terms: “he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (1:15–16).
(For my thoughts on the authorship of this letter, see https://johntsquires.com/2022/07/08/the-word-of-truth-according-to-colossians-1-pentecost-5c/)
In contrast to the expressions that Paul provides about the community of believers being “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12, 27), in this letter, the mystical speculation grows; “he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:17); and indeed, rather than the whole body being Christ, here Christ is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything (1:18).
So when we see the figure of Christ placed into this mystical-speculative-philosophical context, we know that we have moved quite a way from the thoughts about Jesus that the apostle Paul dictated in his letters; we have entered a world that scholars call proto-Gnosticism. Gnostics were those who—to put it very simply—believed that salvation came, not through faith, but by means of knowledge. The one who knows is the one who is saved.
Thus, in this letter written to “the saints and faithful ones in Colossae” (1:1), knowledge is emphasised (1:9–10; 2:2–3; 3:10). The author sends this letter to the Colossians to encourage and strengthen them in their knowledge. Paul, by contrast, commends those to whom he writes for their faith (Rom 1:5, 8; Phil 1:25; 1 Thess 1:2–3).
To be sure, the anonymous writer of this letter, drawing from Paul’s practices, does commend the Colossians for their faith (Col 1:4), but it is his prayer “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9), that they may “grow in the knowledge of God” (1:10), that they may “have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2–3).
So, this letter is somewhat different from the style and theology of the seven letters authentically written by Paul. Another way in which is is different from the thoughts set out in those letters, can be seen in verses 3–15 of chapter 2.
First, let’s note that the verses immediately before this do seem to correlate with Paul’s way of thinking. The notion of “spiritual circumcision” (2:11) bears similarities with the claim that “it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 2:3), or “real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:29). Although, Paul does also dismiss circumcision as being “nothing” (1 Cor 7:19), “for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything” (Gal 6:15). Perhaps in those verses he is dismissing physical circumcision as it gets in the way of “spiritual circumcision” ?
And the description of being “buried with [Christ] in baptism” (Col 2:12) does seem similar to the statements that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … we have been buried with him by baptism into death … we have been united with him in a death like his” (Rom 6: 3–5).
Although, once again, it has to be noted that the sequence in Romans 6 looks to a future union with Christ in his resurrection, whereas in Colossians that union is now present, having been achieved by a (perhaps recent) past event: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12). So there is a subtle difference; a development in thinking beyond that of the authentic Paul.
It is in what follows, however, that a striking difference emerges. In verses 13–15 the letter writer considers exactly what was achieved by Jesus when he was crucified. In Paul’s authentic letters, he draws on what many consider to be a very early, pre-existing formulation which seeks to convey just what Jesus did when he submitted to death on the cross, when he gave up his life.
In those letters, Paul notes that “Christ died for us”. That’s a short and simple way to describe the significance of the death of Jesus; we find it at Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; and 1 Thess 5:10. That’s five of the seven authentic letters; the matter of the death of Jesus does not figure at all in what is being discussed in Philemon; and in Philippians, the death of Jesus serves to emphasise his humility and obedience (Phil 2:8), and Paul’s main interest is in his this death serves to effect a transformation in believers (Phil 3:21).
This affirmation, “Christ died for us”, forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology which is developed beyond the time of the New Testament. These eight times when Paul says, “Christ died for us”, join with a number of other passing comments elsewhere in New Testament texts, to provide the basis for what would become, over time, a detailed understanding of the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers. An explanation is developed, drawing especially on the Jewish sacrificial system, in which the sacrifices of animals were understood to be the way by which the sins of people were forgiven.
But not in the letter to the Colossians. A different understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus is offered. A different way to explain how God forgives us our sins, how we have atonement made for our transgressions, how we are reconciled with God. The language used, and the concepts referenced, are quite different. And this opens the door to a different way of understanding and appreciating the death of Jesus.
This area of Christian theology—how to understand the death of Jesus—is known as soteriology (relating to “how we are saved”), with a strong emphasis being placed on atonement (that is, what is the mechanism for bringing us back into reconciled relationship with God). The atonement has become a debated and disputed arena. How do we understand this today?
One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus? We have every right to ask critical and penetrating questions about this aspect of our faith.
Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. It depends on, but moves well beyond, the understanding that was inherent in the Jewish sacrificial system.
Certainly, dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected. However, I can’t see that the New Testament, anywhere, sets forth such a fully-developed theory of atonement. In true systematic theology style, verses have been plucked from various places in the New Testament, and woven together, with little regard for their original context or intention, to form a developed theory that owes more to rationalist deductive argumentation, than it does to biblical texts.
The explanation in Col 2:13–15 is quite different. Here, the author sees the scene of the crucifixion in his mind’s eye; but rather than relating what was happening there to the Jewish sacrificial system, the vision of the author draws on other imagery. The scene envisaged is much more like a triumphal procession, as seen in the Roman Empire, when captured slaves were paraded through the city streets as captives, and the people celebrated another great victory of the Empire.
The cross, the place where Jesus was nailed and hung until he died (most usually from suffocation), is not envisaged as similar to the place in the Temple where the sacrificial animals were burnt, or even where the blood of the slain animals was smeared (the language of Rom 3:25 draws on on this quite explicitly). It is seen as a public place where “legal demands” (dogmata, 2:14) are nailed for all to see; a public place where those “legal demands” are erased. The language here is about “stripping bare” so that the inequity of those demands is revealed for all to see.
As a result of this, what Jesus is doing on the cross is “disarm[ing] the rulers and authorities”, removing their power, rendering them ineffective (2:15). The Greek word translated as “make a public example of” in this verse, points to a scene of public shaming. The only other place it is used in the New Testament is Matt 1:19, where it refers to the “public disgrace” of Mary being revealed as pregnant without a husband. It would be a moment of intense shaming for her, such that “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her” in this way was planning to “dismiss her quietly”, in accordance with custom—until an angel of the Lord intervened!
So the “legal demands” have been “disarmed” or (in another possibility) “divested”, in a process of “making a public example”. As a consequence, what the author sees as Jesus hangs, naked, whipped, gasping for water, dying on the cross, is nothing other than a celebratory triumphal match (“he made a public example … triumphing over them” (2:15).
Who does Jesus triumph over? The “rulers and authorities”—most likely the same as the “thrones, dominions, rulers, powers” referred to earlier (1:16), or the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:10). The crucifixion has been the location for God’s cosmic battle— remembering that Hod is the subject of the whole clause of 2:13–15.
These “rulers and authorities” are most likely the same entities referred to in Colossian’s companion letter, Ephesians; “all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph 1:21), “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10); “the rulers … the authorities … the cosmic powers of this present darkness … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12), that are best combatted by “tak[ing] up the whole armour of God” (Eph 6:13–17).
Almost a century ago, a theologian named Gustav Aulen wrote a hugely-influential book, Christos Victor, in which he put forward a theory of atonement quite different from the sacrificial-victim, ransom-theory, penal-substitutionary-atonement line of thought. This passage fuelled his argument. The crucifixion, Aulen proposed, declared the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sinfulness and death; it was the way that God declared victory over demonic forces.
Later, an American biblical scholar named Walter Wink took this theory, re-engaged with the relevant biblical texts, and proposed that the victory won by God was not simply over spiritual beings in a heavenly realm, but actually a gritty, this-earthly battle with the systems and forces within society that embedded sinfulness in our very way of living. Wink wrote an influential series, Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), Engaging the Powers (1992), When the Powers Fall (1998), and The Powers that Be (1999), in which he wrote about the myth of “redemptive violence”.
So this short passage in Colossians is very important. It opens the door to a different way of thinking about the crucifixion. It invites us to take seriously our earthly context, and to consider how we are engaged, along with Jesus, in executing the work of God, to disarm the rulers and authorities, publically expose them, and triumph over their evil force.
For more discussion of the atonement and the way that the New Testament writers understood this, see