Why Are You Subjecting Yourselves? (Colossians 2:20-3:4)

💡 Note: This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Dr. Bradley Matthews in New Testament Exegesis at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version, is more technical in nature, and longer than previous posts. I have transliterated Greek works and have bolded the main points of sections and paragraphs.

Jesus brought God’s people out of death and sin and into life and holiness. Therefore Christians motivated by gratitude and Christ’s commands are concerned with righteous living. The commands iterated by God in the Scriptures are simple and clear. For example, it is clear what “do not murder” means. However, Christ’s earthly ministry expanded the meaning of God’s laws by illuminating broader principles and applications. Motivated by righteous living through obedience, Christians learn to recognize their personal areas of temptations and have set up “fences” around God’s commands. This fencing ensures they do not transgress his commands.

The young church in Colossae had this desire. Motivated by righteous living but without strong discernment, they followed additional rules that God did not command. Some may have found these extra-biblical regulations helpful in their spiritual growth, but the laws were laborious. Paul addressed this in Colossians 2:20-3:4. The main question Paul answered in this passage is in verse 20:

If you all died with Christ away from the elements of the world, then why, as living in the world, do you all obligate yourselves?

He answered this question in three moves:

  1. explaining the dangers of the additional rules,
  2. providing the alternative ethic, and
  3. grounding their new life in Christ.

Paul’s Question

Verse 20

Paul began this section of Colossians by posing his essential question: If [and let’s assume this is true for the sake of argument] you all died with Christ away from the elements of the world, [then] why, as living in the world, do you all obligate yourselves [to it]?[21] Prior to this question, Paul reminded the saints in Colossae of their identity:

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him …” (2:6, ESV).

He also reminded them of how they were to conduct themselves:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirit of the world, and not according to Christ. … Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.[22]

In short, the saints in Colossae were to keep a close watch on how they responded to the mixed teachings they heard in Colossae.

Paul’s writing insinuates that they knew how they were supposed to live righteously. Paul used a first-class conditional in verse 20. The first-class conditional is used when one is posing an argument and wants their audience to assume something is true for the sake of the argument.[23] Therefore, Paul acknowledged their salvation by calling them “saints,” which is the substantive of ἅγιος (hagios) meaning “holy” in Colossians 1:1. He asked them to assume for the sake of argument that they died with Christ away from the elements of the world in the protasis (Romans 6:8, Galatians 4:3). He then brought his charge in a rhetorical question in the apodosis. Essentially, Paul highlighted the dissonance between what happened to them spiritually with how they conducted themselves in everyday life (Romans 6:2).

The first word in this passage to take note of is δογματίζεσθε (dogmatizesthē).[27]This is the sole occurrence of the verb in the Greek New Testament, but it is easily understood because the English word dogma is derived from the cognate δόγμα (dogma). Essentially, this word carries the idea of “[placing oneself] under obligation by rules or ordinances.”[28]As Daniel Wallace rightly noted, this verb is a permissive passive: “[It] implies consent, permission, or cause of the action of the verb on the part of the subject.”[29] For the saints in Colossae, Christ freed them from the rules of the world and they were free to live unto him and follow his ethic. Although free in Christ, they allowed themselves to be placed back into the bondage of regulations.

Verse 21

The “enslaving” dogma the saints chose to place themselves under is quoted by Paul in verse 21: Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch![30] The 3 commands Paul listed are all prohibitive subjunctives which are “used to forbid the occurrence of an action.”[31] Essentially, they function in the same manner as negated imperatives.

The first prohibitive subjunctive is ἅψῃ (hapsē),[32] which carries the idea of “partak[ing] of something with cultic implications.”[33] This word is closely associated with θίγῃς (thigēs)[34] which is simply translated as “touch.”[35] Although these words appear closely related, “ἅπτεσθαι [hapesthai] is stronger than θιγγάνειν [thinganein], suggesting rather ‘taking hold of’ than merely ‘touching.’”[36]

As N. T. Wright notes, the order of these commands “[produced] a downward sliding scale … which [corresponded] to the upward rise in absurd scrupulosity.”[37] The false teachers told the saints in Colossae to not consume food or drink that had cultic ties—they were not even supposed to touch them (2:16).

Verse 22

Paul described these false teachings by explaining the true nature of the commands. The nature of the commands were destruction in consumption because they came from humanity and not God.

  1. The first noun φθορὰν (phthoran)[38] carries the idea of the “breakdown of organic matter.”[39]
  2. The second noun ἀποχρήσει (apoxrēsei)[40] is simply translated as “consuming, [or] using up.”

When these 2 nouns are coupled together, they mean that as the saints obey the commands, the commands consume themselves as they break down. The commands break down because they are “according to the commandments and teaching of men” instead of from God (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:7).[41] They break down because their nature is derived from a broken source because of the rebellion to God. If the commands and teachings were from God, they would not break down.[42]

Verse 23

Syntactically, by using a relative pronoun, Paul brought his final critique of these regulations by describing their lack of value. The grammar in this section is difficult because of the word order coupled with several hapax legomena (Greek for “being said once”).[43]

  1. In the first clause, ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ (ethelothrēskia) is essentially “self-made religion.”[44]
  2. This is followed by ταπεινοφροσύνῃ (tapeinophrosunē) which, simply translated, is “humility,” but Paul used it in the “[disapproval] sense.”[45]
  3. Ἀφειδίᾳ (apheidia) is translated, “sparing very little for something” or “asceticism.”[46]
  4. The final word is πλησμονὴν (plēsmonēn) which carries the idea of the “process of securing complete satisfaction.”[47]

In short, these teachings seem to be wise because they look like Christianity and it’s values—humility and right living. However, these commands cannot achieve what they intend because they cannot satisfy the flesh.

Paul’s Exhortation

Verse 1

After Paul concluded his critique of these rules and regulations, he transitioned into exhortation for the saints in Colossae.[52]

He utilized a similar opening rhetorical question in Colossians 3:1 that he wrote in Colossians 2:20:

If, then [and let’s assume this for the sake of argument] you all were raised [in association] with Christ ….

Paul used a compound verb (συνηγέρθητε [sunēgerthēte] is σύν + ἐγείρω) followed by a dative of association to describe the relationship the saints have with Christ in his resurrection.[53]

As Scot McKnight rightfully points out, this section is focusing on a “co-resurrection” with Jesus,[54] which is a clear connection to their baptism. They were raised with Christ because he was resurrected from the dead and this co-death and co-resurrection is signified in their baptism (2:12).[55]

Paul followed this conditional clause with his first command:

Seek the things above.

This is a generic command because “things” and “above” are not explicitly defined.[56] However, Paul further explained his command in the relative clause:

Where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.

“Above” is heaven because of the relative clause and the contrast of verse 2,[57] but “the things” had not been defined. Since it is a neuter and plural article, it is generally referring to what comes from God.[58]

Paul utilized a present periphrastic construction (ἐστιν … καθήμενος [estin … kathēmenos]) to describe Christ’s present state.[59]

While it seems like this is an additional detail about Christ, it is significant that Paul described him as “sitting.” The description of sitting in this instance carries royal connotations. Essentially, it means that Christ is

  1. reigning over all things (with the authority of his Father since Jesus is seated at his right hand) and
  2. his work is finished.

This does not mean that he is not active. Instead, it means that he is interceding constantly on behalf of his people to God (Romans 6:8).

Therefore, since the saints in Colossae were raised with Jesus and he is sitting and reigning, they do not need to further secure their salvation by following extraneous rules that others defined.

Verse 2

Then, Paul repeated the command from verse 1 and expanded it.[60]

In order to seek the things above, 1 needed to set their mind on it. Essentially, to set one’s mind on something is “to give careful consideration to [it].”[61] He expounded on the command from verse 1 by giving the same command again but negating it. In short, they were not to set their minds on the things of the earth since they have died with Christ (2:20). He should be the object of their minds along with the things that are in heaven, not the earth and the things of it.

Paul’s Foundation

Verse 3

Paul started to close out this passage in verse 3 by grounding the reason for these commands. He connected all he wrote in this section with γὰρ (gar). Essentially, this is the logical connector that grounds Paul’s command in the death of Christ. Interestingly, he does not pose a first-class conditional in this section. Instead, he assumed that they in fact died with Christ and that they knew it, too. In short, because they died with Christ, their life has been hidden with him in God. Hiding in this instance does not mean cowering from terror, but that their life is now kept safe by Christ.[62] Additionally, as mentioned before, there is no longer the need for the saints in Colossae to work for their salvation in order to keep it. Since God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and they have been hidden in Christ, who is in God, they are secure.

Verse 4

Paul concluded this passage with eschatological hope.

He started this section with a temporal adverb. This is not a mere possibility to Paul; he is confident that Christ will come again and be revealed. While the second advent has immediate eschatological fulfillment in the cleansing of sin from creation, their lives will also be revealed with him since they have died with Christ.

Paul used σύν to highlight the “intimate personal union” believers have with Christ.[63] This union is intimate and personal because not even husband and wife in the sweetness of marriage can die “with” each other and neither one of them can “reveal” each other on the last day. The saints can only die “with” Christ in his death and only Christ can reveal them in the end.

This revealing will not be in sin, but in glory. The saints of Colossae will not be revealed in the state in which they departed from this life because Paul has an eschatological view in mind. Instead, when the believers are revealed in glory, Christ will reveal them in their new creation bodies (1 Corinthians 15:43).


Living as Exiles

When it comes to assessing the impact of Paul’s letters, it is difficult to know how the church responded. Did they change their behavior or continue living by extra-biblical rules? More than likely, it was a mixture of both. Nevertheless, Paul’s letter was transformative—he shaped his audiences’ mind and behavior. In Colossians 2:20-3:4, he appears to have three direct implications for the saints in Colossae: to remember the significance of their baptism, to live according to the new ethic, and to remain engaged in their city.

Remember the Significance of Baptism

First, Paul excited their imaginations by echoing the significance of their baptism.

Although Paul does not explicitly mention baptism in this passage, he deployed the imagery of death and life to communicate this point. A clear passage where he made this connection is Romans 6:5-11.

Baptism is a sign that believers have died with Christ (2:20, 3:3) and are now identified with him in their life (3:1, 4). This new identity is unique from how the world lives and derives their identity.

Those who received Christian baptism should reflect on that moment and their identity in Christ as an encouragement to live righteously. This reminder of what their Savior has gone through for them will strengthen their desire to live unto him and die to the things of the world.

An ideal time for this reflection could be during baptism in a church service. As one sees a person upfront receiving the mark that they are Christ’s, it calls the observer to remember that they are Christ’s.

This is also a time to commit to discipling that individual as they grow in Christ as others have discipled them.

Live according to the New Ethic

Second, Paul called them to a new ethic—a new way to live.

The saints in Colossae subjected themselves under unnecessary rules. These rules, although they may have started out as helpful to others, became burdensome to some because they denied the body.

The rationale behind this rule is unknown. However, many either willingly or unwillingly practiced asceticism.

Paul, rather than instilling a robust anthropology in these saints, took them to Christ by reminding them of their baptism and what it signifies. In short, Christ did not require these severe demands of their body because he did all the work necessary for them. Rather than following the rules of the world, Paul commanded the saints to set their minds on Christ.

After this freedom, the saints probably enjoyed food and drink with a free conscience knowing that their salvation did not depend on these many rules.

This serves as a reminder for Christians today. While it is important to recognize one’s own areas of needed growth and to guard against sin by recognizing areas of temptations, those rules cannot be imposed on others nor is it necessary to live by someone else’s rules.

Remain Engaged in the City

Finally, it is important to note what Paul did not say. He did not command the saints in Colossae to completely cut ties with their city, which could be deduced from his imperatives in connection with other passages. Paul did not free them from asceticism to bind them to monasticism.

Many use these kinds of verses and passages about heaven and earth as a call to abandon this world because it is corrupt and will be completely and utterly destroyed when Christ returns. As the redemptive narrative suggests, creation will not pass away in a complete and utter destruction contrary to what Richard Melick suggested in his commentary on Colossians.[64]

Rather, creation will be refined and purified.

Instead of Paul commanding them to flee, he redirected their desires toward God and his kingdom as they lived in a hostile world. In short, the cities in which they live matter. The call was not to abandon and flee their cities. Instead, Paul called them to a new missional engagement that kept Christ and his kingdom at the forefront of righteous living.


Endnotes

[21] Colossians 2:20. Author’s translation.

[22] Colossians 2:6, 16, ESV.

[23] Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 692.

[25] This construction occurs online twice: Colossians 3:1 and Philemon 17. Additionally, this construction is rare in the New Testament, mainly occurring in Luke’s Writing (cf. Matthew 6:23, Matthew 7:11, Matthew 22:45, Luke 11:13, 11:36, 12:26, 16:11, John 13:14, 18:8, Acts 11:17).

[26] N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 1986), 130.

[27] Present, Passive, Indicative, Second Person, Plural verb from δογματίζω. Older exegetical commentaries label it as a passive: “The middle, indeed, implies some blame to the readers. But they were not compelled by force, so that even if the verb be understood as passive, it is implied that they submitted to the yoke.” Thomas Abbott, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1909), 272.

[28] Frederick Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 254.

[29] Wallace, GGBB, 441.

[30] Richard Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 275.

[31] Wallace, GGBB, 469.

[32] Aorist, Middle, Subjunctive, Second Person, Singular from ἅπτω.

[33] Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 126.

[34] Aorist, Active, Subjunctive, Second Person, Singular from θιγγάνω.

[35] Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 456.

[36] Abbott, Ephesians & Colossians (ICC), 273.

[37] Wright, TNTC Col/Phm, 12:130–1.

[38] Feminine, Singular, Accusative from φθορά.

[39] Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 1054.

[40] Feminine, Dative, Singular from ἀπόχρησις.

[41] Colossians 2:22, author’s translation. Wallace also notes that this is an example of when the first entity is a subset of the second entity in the Granville Sharp Rule (TSKS). He comments that “Not all teachings are commandments, but all commandments would seem to be teachings.” Wallace, GGBB, 287.

[42] Michael Williams, Scripture, Lecture (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2020). Dr. Williams makes a similar argument on the nature of Scripture in ST300 Covenant Theology for 2 Timothy 3:16.

[43] Dunn, Colossians and Philemon (NIGTC), 195. He also notes that these words do not occur much elsewhere.

[44] Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 276.

[45] Ibid., 989.

[46] Ibid., 155.Each of these words are Feminine, Dative, Singular and come from ἐθελοθρησκία,ταπεινοφροσύνη, and ἀφειδία respectively.

[47] Ibid., 830.Feminine, Accusative, Singular from πλησμονή.

[49] The earliest manuscript support starts in the fourth century, well after the time this letter was written by Paul.

[50] Wright, TNTC Col/Phm, 12:131–132.

[51] Cf. Colossians 2:18 (ἃ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων, εἰκῇ φυσιούμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ νοὸς τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ) to Colossians 2:23 (ἅτινά ἐστιν λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ [καὶ] ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος.). Italics mine.

[52] McKnight, The Letter to the Colossians, 288; Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 243; Pao, Colossians & Philemon, 204. Most scholars agree that this is a natural break in Paul’s argument as he transitions focus and tone.

[53] Wallace, GGBB, 160.

[54] McKnight, The Letter to the Colossians, 290.

[55] Ibid., 289. Cf. Romans 6.

[56] Wallace, GGBB, 232–3. This is an example of the article as a substantive with an adverb.

[57] Acts 2:19, Galatians 4:26, Philippians 3:14, 20.

[58] It seems that most commentaries do not seek to offer an explicit answer on “the things” Paul is referring to.

[59] Wallace, GGBB, 647–648.

[60] Ibid., 233, 236. This is a further example of the article as a substantive with an adverb. Additionally, this verse also contains a use with the preposition.

[61] Danker and Bauer, BDAG, 1065.

[62] Ibid., 571.

[63] Wallace, GGBB, 378. Note that σύν in this instance is stronger than “meta which is [used] ‘to denote close association or attendant circumstances.’”

[64] Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (NAC), 32:281–282.