Firm Foundations – Study 5 – Colossians 2:8-23

Religion, spirituality and the body of Christ

Topics covered:
Which religion is right?
Church rituals (making a good thing bad)
The cross of Christ
Glossary: baptism; circumcision; true religion.

Discussion Question

What draws you to church?


Paul has praised God for the way that the gospel message has reached Colossae, and affected the believers to produce faith and love flowing from their hope in Christ. Paul reminded them of how universally and singularly important Jesus Christ is to all the earth and he encouraged them to keep going and growing up in their knowledge of the faith. Their foundation is Christ and they are to continue in him.

Read Colossians 2:8-23

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. 

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. 

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. 

20 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: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

What did you see?


  • Christ is your new reality – realer than real (8-15)
  • Don’t go chasing shadows (16-19)
  • Why submit to things that are powerless? (20-23)

Christ is your new reality – realer than real (8-15)

“…hollow and deceptive philosophy…” Verse 8 was included in the last lesson too but it flows out of the last lesson and into this one. Paul actually has one long argument that stretches the entire book. The hollow and deception mentioned in Verse 8 feeds into the language of shadows and the appearance of wisdom but lack value, of false humility and so on. Humans can be easily swayed toward a thought because it is packaged so convincingly. Christians are no exception. We need to be on our guard against what people are trying to sell us.

“…depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world…” Verse 8 is also included in this section because of the repeated phrase in Verse 20 about ‘elemental spiritual forces’. As mentioned last time, the word ‘spiritual’ is not actually in the Greek but is included in the NIV and many other translations because of a perceived understanding of the context. I wish that translators would not go that far for people! The phrase in Verses 8 and 20 appear to suggest that there is a basic worldview that drives people everywhere to lead them into false and empty traditions. They are man-centred or humanistic and lend themselves to the difference between good things and bad things. If they were spiritual forces, then why are they sourced from hollow and deceptive philosophy. We can read Verse 8 with a clear mind and understand that anything that is not driving us to Christ, is hollow and deceptive. Other parts of scripture would agree that satan is the prince of lies and the prince of this world and so you could read spirituality into this verse in Colossians. But I don’t see a need to.

“…in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form…” This could mean either, Jesus Christ is God in every sense of the word, or that God possessed Jesus Christ. Jesus said that everything He has belongs to the Father (which is what any servant of God must be able to say) and that all that the Father has is His – that last statement is a statement of deity (John 17:10; 10:29; 16:15). Jesus is God. As one person put it, if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen God (John 1:18). John 1:1-18, in fact, gives us a clear doctrine of Christ’s divinity, his eternal existence, equality with God and dwelling in the fullness of God in the fullness of humanity.

Paul picks up two amazing truths which blended together is one of the greatest miracles of all time. Jesus Christ is completely God and Jesus Christ is completely human. He, God, appeared in bodily form. This is referred to as the incarnation (think carnivore – think flesh). Paul is not talking about God in some mystical, out of reach, spirituality experience, he is talking about a historical figure who presented and proved himself to be God in the flesh! So this is not about empty or hollow deception. When we look at Christianity, we need to poke the historic character of Jesus of Nazareth.

“…and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” Now notice the repeated use of ‘fullness’. In Christ we see the fullness or completeness of God, and because of Christ you and I have been made full or complete. Notice that in the latter instance, we are passively made complete.

“He is the head over every power and authority.” Jesus is the boss. This is what we mean when we call him Lord. Recall Paul’s description of Christ in Colossians 1:15-20. There is nothing nor no-one above Christ. He is not subject to anybody. His title as God is not because of some election and it has no expiry date and nobody will ever dethrone him.

“In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands.” Now Paul moves from the physical and real kingship of Jesus to express how we have been made complete in him apart from any other authority. I hope you know what circumcision means. What it represented in the bible – for Jews – was their response of obedience and submission to God as their King. Even though this is an obviously male ritual, it was a national sign of inclusion. Someone has said that as God had promised to bless the world through the seed of Abraham, he ensured that Abraham and his descendants would never forget that it is God’s promise and not their strength that brings the blessing – so he gave a very graphic and fleshly reminder that it is God’s promises that they believe in. But, because of where Paul is taking this, let’s remember that circumcision is about cutting flesh. It was a sign of something and Paul is about to reveal what the sign pointed to…

“Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ…” What Paul says here is very impressive! He is saying that the ritual of circumcision was not enough. What was needed was a complete removing of the flesh but this time, it is not a brutal and mortifying ritual done to us, but something that was done in Christ. He is described as the fulfillment of the circumcision sign. It pointed to Christ himself being torn apart in the flesh. Remember that Verse 9 emphasised Christ being God in bodily form. In Chapter 1 Verse 22, Paul spoke of Christ’s physical body needed to reconcile us. And in Verse 24, he spoke about Christ’s afflictions in the flesh for the sake of the body which is the church. We need to see the picture that Paul is painting to see that, while circumcision has been a small sign, it has been fulfilled completely by Christ on the cross. And now we ourselves are ‘put off’ when circumcised by Christ. It is a spiritual circumcision that we do not do, but Christ has done on our behalf but now we live as those who belong, not to this earthly world but to Christ.

“…having been buried with him in baptism…” The word baptism is not an english word, it is Greek. One of the complications with the word, baptism, in the bible is that it has come to mean ‘water ritual’ in English. So, we need to stop and ask the bible text, what do you mean when you say baptism because it obviously does not always refer to a water ritual. You can see in this verse that it is about burial. The word, baptism, has the notion of being drowned or overwhelmed or dying. This makes sense when we think of the water ritual as a symbol of saying goodbye to who you once were and embracing a new community in Christ. So, Paul is talking about our becoming fulfilled in Christ and entirely his (Verse 10). What was done to Christ, by faith, is done to us. The burial and the resurrection are both ours when we are in Christ.

“…in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Keep in mind the subject of this statement: buried in baptism. Just as Christ physically died and was raised to life again, we who are in Christ have submitted ourselves to Him in faith and so are bonded to Him in salvation. It’s like being on an aeroplane bound for London. You get on the plane and you will land wherever the plane takes you (which is London). Christ is the plane. He died, paid for sins and was raised to life again. We don’t go through that process either literally or symbolically through rituals, but we are in Christ as if we are his body. The important word in this text is the word faith. We put our trust in Christ.

“…the uncircumcision of your flesh…” Paul is writing to a non-Jewish audience who were not raised to be circumcised. But he is not writing to tell them to be circumcised. Quite the opposite. While others may come to them and persuade them with hollow and deceptive words to be circumcised, Paul is saying, you are already circumcised through Christ.

“…God made you alive with Christ.” Once you were dead but now you are alive. Dead because we were in sin and guilty (Ephesians 2:1-5). I did not make me alive – it was God. I was not made alive through my own efforts or activities aimed toward life – it is only with Christ that I am saved. 

“He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” Write down verses 13 and 14 and memorise it! It is clear. It is not ambiguous. It doesn’t speak of the cross as an example that Christ gives us for life but as a means by which God is able to bring guilty people to salvation. Our sins are not swept under the carpet but were nailed to the cross. As the songwriter puts it, “it was my sin that held him there” (How Deep the Father’s Love). God forgave us. God canceled our debt. He took it and He nailed it to the cross where His Christ in full deity took care of it for us.

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” How has Christ disarmed the powers and authorities? Isn’t it that when they tried to slay him, he got back up again? The worst they could do to him was only to play into his plans all along! The cross was meant to be a public spectacle of Jesus but Christ turns that around and proclaims that moment to be the victory over death and sin!

Paul has showed us that Christ is the new reality for us. Without Him we are still dead in our sin, and under the power of the basic rules of this world. But we put our faith in Christ who is bigger than everything and is the fulfillment of everything and who makes us holy, blameless, complete, clean, debt-free and alive! The world did it’s worst to Jesus on the cross and the cross of Christ gives his believers the best of everything! Christ is our new reality!

Don’t go chasing shadows (16-19)

“…do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink…” All scripture must be read in context. This verse pulled out of context would feel like we just don’t care what people think about us. This is not correct and is more like the words of a rebellious and carefree child. But Paul is concerned that his readers will make decisions of religion based on what people will read into those choices. We will care what people think because we don’t want people to feel we need to eat certain things or drink certain things in order to be right with God. We are already right with God!

“…religious festival…New Moon celebration…Sabbath day.” Paul gives examples of things that people put a lot of weight and importance in. Special days are ok to be special but Paul warns his readers against being forced to observe certain days out of fear that God will not love them.

“…a shadow of the things that are to come…” If something is a shadow, then it is not the real thing. We want the real thing.

“…the reality…is found in Christ.” Notice how everything in Paul’s letter begins, continues and even ends in Christ! Are we looking forward to the great Sabbath rest to come (heaven)? Don’t you know that it is all about Christ!!? We must not see Christ as a means to an end but that he is the end. We were made in him and through him and for him! We find our fulfillment in Christ!

“…false humility and the worship of angels…” Paul give further examples of hollow and empty philosophy. But this time, it appears spiritual. Some may present themselves as uber religious and spiritual. But don’t be mislead by them either!

“Such a person…about what they have seen…puffed up…” Gurus and people who claim to have a greater insight to spirituality are really just puffed up and deceived themselves. The way to eternal life is clear, it is through faith in Christ! Anyone who says otherwise is puffed up and unspiritual – even if they implore you that they are super-spiritual!

“…they have lost connection with the head…” The whole of verse 19 is a condemnation to anyone who claims to know stuff but speak about more than their knowledge of Christ crucified. Paul reminds us that we need to keep watch over things like this because following them can lead us to disconnection from Christ and therefore disqualification from eternal life. The message of Colossians is clear – follow Christ. Just notice the continued metaphor of the flesh and body that the church is made up of. We are not individuals but one church held together as we follow the head who is Christ.

Why submit to things that are powerless? (20-23)

I cannot see how to shed clarity on the words of Paul in these verses which are such a clear summary of the whole. Why pursue and persevere in things that just do not save us? Christ saves. It is by grace we are saved.

“Since you died with Christ…” This phrase just needs highlighting. It’s the same idea as being buried in baptism. We say goodbye to our old selves and, just as we received Christ Jesus as Lord, we continue to live our lives in him, rooted and built up in him. The Christian faith demands that we follow Christ with all of our heart. Read Luke 9 and ask yourself if Jesus is happy with a half-hearted follower?

“…have an appearance of wisdom…but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” This is a powerful condemnation against religion as rules and rituals. They may appear to be wise and helpful but they do nothing to stop us from sinning! But life in Christ, while still a battle to grow in holiness, is about pursuing our new life in him, putting to death the deeds of the flesh and following the one who nailed our sins to the cross. That is already effective and completely fulfilling our destiny for us!

What did we learn?

Church life can be filled with rules, regulations, rituals and things that appear good for the soul, or church can be filled with mystical sayings, worship of angels and poems that inspire to grow, or it can be dedicated to growing in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ – celebrating his victory on our behalf at the cross and surrendering our lives to knowing him and growing in him. We don’t want hollow lessons on empty things – we want a real assembly of people surrendered to Jesus because he is our life, our hope and our fulfillment.

Now what?

Topic A: Religious rites such as baptism, holy communion, and correct conduct at church. What has the book of Colossians taught you about these things?

Topic B: Spiritual experiences such as speaking in tongues, summoning the Spirit through music, healings and speaking with angels. What has the book of Colossians taught you about these things?

Topic C: Dying with Christ. What does that mean?