SUMMARY: The Colossian deception, which was similar to the pagan mystery religions, claimed that Christians are incomplete and that they need something outside of Christ to be made complete. To oppose this error Paul emphasized two main principles in the letter to the Colossians. The first point is made by Col 2:9, namely that nothing exists outside Christ. The second point is made in Col 2:10, namely that, in a trust-relationship with Christ, Christians are already complete.
Col 2:11-14 elaborate on the second principle, explaining that Christians are already complete because their guilt has been removed. Col 2:11 uses circumcision as a symbol to say that their guilt—their “body of the flesh”—has been cut off. Col 2:12 uses baptism as a symbol to say that their guilt has been washed away. Col 2:13 describes their previous condition of guilt as “dead in your transgressions” and the removal of their guilt as “made … alive … having forgiven us all our transgressions”. Col 2:14 describes the guilt of their previous existence as a “certificate of debt” which has been cancelled by God the Father by nailing it to the cross. Col 2:10-14, therefore, forms a unit with a single message and must be read together.
Christians are free from guilt, but not free from sin. However, since they are free from guilt, they strive to become worthy citizens of the “kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13), which is also free from sin.
Col 2:11 and in Him
you were also circumcised
with a circumcision made without hands,
in the removal of the body of the flesh
by the circumcision of Christ;
Col 2:12 having been buried with Him in baptism,
in which you were also raised up with Him
through faith in the working of God,
who raised Him from the dead.
Col 2:13 When you were dead in your transgressions
and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
He (the Father) made you alive together with Him,
having forgiven us all our transgressions,
2:14 having canceled out the certificate of debt
consisting of decrees against us,
which was hostile to us;
and He has taken it out of the way,
having nailed it to the cross.
Col 2:11-13 should be read as a unit.
All three verses describe what happened to the Colossians when they became Christians:
Their conversion is described by verse 11 using circumcision as a symbol. The Colossians, being Gentiles (Col 1:27), have never been physically circumcised. This verse, therefore, says that they have been circumcised “without hands”, which is “circumcision … which is of the heart”, resulting in a new heart and a new relationship with God through Christ (Rom 2:28-29; Phil 3:3). (See Circumcision without hands for more detail.)
Verse 12 describes their conversion by saying that they were symbolically buried with Christ through baptism, and symbolically raised up (made alive) with Christ.
Verse 13 then describes their conversion by combining the terminology of the previous two verses. It combines the circumcision symbolism from verse 11 and the “made … alive” symbolism from verse 12, but then also gives a literal explanation, namely “having forgiven us all our transgressions”.
Verses 11 to 13 are therefore a unit, describing what happened to the Colossians at their conversion.
Realm transfer in chapter 1
Col 2:11-14 are discussed as together because they convey a single message, namely that Christians have been transferred from the realm of guilt to freedom from guilt. Chapter 1 already referred to this realm transfer:
“the Father … rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:12-14).
This verse contrasts their previous and current conditions. Since Christians “have … the forgiveness of sins”, the “domain of darkness” is the Realm of Guilt.
This following verse also contrasts their previous and current conditions, and again the point is that they have been freed from guilt:
“Although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Col 1:21-22)
Their former condition, of being “alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds”, is the realm of guilt. They were “transferred” (Col 1:13) out of “the domain of darkness” (1:13) by being “reconciled” (Col 1:22) to become “holy and blameless and beyond reproach”. This is what 1:13 calls the “kingdom of His beloved Son”. They have “the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14); their guilt has been removed.
Verse 22 mentions something which is absent in 1:13-14, namely the Means of transfer, which is “in His fleshly body through death”.
Realm transfer in Col 2:11-13
Using different symbols and terminology, 2:11-13 also describe the transfer:
- From the “domain of darkness” and guilt (Col 1:13)
- To the “kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13), where they have “forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14).
The realm of guilt is described by verse 11 as the “body of the flesh”. Verse 13, using the circumcision terminology from verse 11, describes it as “the uncircumcision of your flesh” and explains it as to be “dead in your transgressions”.
They have been transferred out of the realm of guilt by “in Him” (Col 2:11). This is explained by verse 12, switching the symbolism from circumcision to baptism, as being “raised up with Him”. This verse, therefore, indicates a strong link between Christ’s death and the transfer to the guilt-free realm. Verse 13, which continues the circumcision metaphor from verse 11, describes their transfer out of the realm of guilt as being “made … alive together with Him” (2:13). This means that the Means of transfer was Christ’s death and resurrection.
The “kingdom of His beloved Son” (1:13), where they have “forgiveness of sins” (1:14), is described as “forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:13).
Theologians sometimes make things more complex than they are. Sometimes they focus so much on detail that they lose focus of the overall message. Verses 11 to 13 use circumcision and baptism simply as symbols of the transfer to the realm where Christians are free of guilt. These verses do not define circumcision or baptism and should never be analyzed in isolation. Circumcision was the initiation into the Old Covenant and baptism the initiation into the New Covenant. For that reason, Paul here uses these as symbols for the initiation into the realm where Christians are free of guilt.
Realm transfer in Col 2:14
Verse 14 uses different symbolism, but the message is the same as in 2:11-13. This verse describes the realm of guilt as a “certificate of debt consisting of decrees”. Many interpret this as a reference to the Law of Moses, but on Certificate of debt consisting of decrees it is shown that the “certificate of debt consisting of decrees”, which has been “nailed it to the cross”, refers to the record of our sins and the penalty due to us, according to God’s Law.
Chapter and verse divisions sometimes distort the meaning of the text. In the original text, there are no chapter and verse divisions. If we add the last part of verse 13 to the first part of verse 14 we have:
“having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees” (Col 2:13-14)
The immediate context therefore also implies that the “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” refers to “all our transgressions” (2:13). Verse 14 therefore also describes the transfer from the realm of guilt to freedom from guilt.
The Means of transfer in verse 14 is clear, for it says that the “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” has been “nailed … to the cross”.
Col 2:11-14 explains Col 2:10
2:11-14 expands on the concept in 2:10 that Christians “have been made complete” “in Him”. The entire letter to the Colossians can perhaps be summarized by two concepts. The first is stated by 2:9, but is also mentioned throughout the letter, namely that everything is in Christ; nothing exists outside Christ:
“All the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” in Christ (Col 2:9). In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). “All things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col 1:16). “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). He has first place in everything (Col 1:18). “It was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him” (Col 1:19). Through Him, God reconciles all things to Himself (Col 1:20).
Notice the word “all” in these examples, which excludes the possibility of anything existing outside of Christ.
The second main thought is stated by Col 2:10, namely that Christians are already complete in Christ; they do not need something else to make them complete. It is this point on which Paul elaborates in the current verses by saying that they have been “circumcised … without hands” (Col 2:11), “buried with Him”, “raised up with Him” (Col 2:12), “made … alive” (Col 2:13) and “forgiven” (2:13). This is also the point of their “certificate of their debt” that has been nailed to the cross.
These two main concepts can be described as:
- Christ all-inclusiveness
- The Christian’s completeness
The second concept is dependent on the first: Since nothing exists outside Christ, Christians are complete if they are “in Him”. This dependence is indicated by phrases such as “in Him” and “with Him”:
“… present every man complete in Christ” (Col 1:28) “in Him you have been made complete … … in Him you were also circumcised … having been buried with Him in baptism … raised up with Him … made you alive together with Him … ” (Col 2:10-13).
“In Him” means to be in a trust relationship with Him.
Since 2:11-13 explains 2:10, and since the Christian’s completeness in 2:10 is dependent on Christ’s all-inclusiveness in 2:9, the entire 2:9-14 should be read together.
But the question remains, why does Paul emphasize the transfer from the “domain of darkness” to freedom from guilt? It is proposed that Paul put so much emphasis on the completion of Christians because the Colossian deception claimed that Christians are incomplete. It is further proposed that Paul put so much emphasis on the all-inclusiveness of Christ because the Colossian deception claimed that Christians need something outside of Christ to make them complete.
As proposed before, the frequent mention of the word “mystery” in Colossians (Col 1:26, 27; 2:2; 4:3), and the description of Christ as the mystery of God (Col 2:2) indicates that the Colossians deception was related to the pagan mystery religions. In these ancient mystery religions secret knowledge was imparted to the initiates via an initiation rite. For that reason, Paul uses the Biblical initiation rites, namely circumcision under the old covenant and baptism under the new, as part of his description of how Christians were made “complete” in Christ.
God the Father
It is perhaps appropriate to point out that verse 13 reads “He made you alive together with Him”. The Means of transfer is Christ’s death, but it is “God the Father” (Col 3:17; 1:2, 3) that “circumcised” Christians “with a circumcision made without hands” (2:11), that “buried” them “with Him in baptism”, and also raised them up with Him (2:12), that made them “alive together with Him” (2:13), that forgave “us all our transgressions” (2:13) and that “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees” (2:14) by nailing “it to the cross” (2:14).
Freedom from guilt
To conclude, note that Christians are free from guilt, but not free from sin. Christians have been transferred to a realm where they have been “forgiven” their “transgressions”. The Lord said, referring to the new covenant:
“Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Heb 10:17)
Since we are free from guilt—“holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Col 1:22)—we need to strive that our deeds must also become consistent with the “kingdom of His beloved Son” (1:13), which is also free from sin.
Colossians Table of Contents