One of the greatest philosophers of the 17th century was John Locke. He rejected several previous streams of thought & sketched out a way of looking at the world which influenced the thought of not only his native England, but also of Europe & America as well.
Was is not so well known is that Locke was actively involved in politics. He opposed the rule of the English kings Charles II & James II, at a time when revolutionaries did what they did at the risk of their lives. He made many enemies, though he managed to survive, & to see William of Orange ascend to the throne after James.
Now just suppose - & this could have happened but I am making it up for the sake of my point – that somebody who strongly opposed the teaching of John Locke had wanted to warn other people against him. In the style of the time, when pamphlets & tracts were circulated, often using colorful language & images, such a person might have said, “Take care that nobody Locks you up with their philosophy or empty deceit!” In other words, it would have been easy for someone to make a pun on his name, to emphasize the warning, which really meant: ‘Take care not to following the teaching of John Locke, or you may find yourself in prison!’
Paul has done something like this in verse 8. Take care, he says, that nobody enslaves you. But the word he uses for enslave – sylagogon – is very close to the word ‘synagogue’ – just as ‘lock’ & ‘Locke’ are very close. Unfortunately, I could not come up with a way of expressing this ‘synagogue’ pun in English. When we look at the warning he gives, & see how it works out, there is every reason to think that, just as my imaginary 17th century thinker would be warning people against John Locke, so Paul is warning the Colossians against being lured into the synagogue.
Why would he do that? Well, think of what had happened in Galatia. There, Jewish zealots had told the new converts that in becoming Christians they had only gotten half of what they needed. What they ought to do now, to complete their religious experience, was to be circumcised & to keep the law of Moses.
Paul spent the whole letter to the Galatians arguing that this is a complete misunderstanding, & that to go this route would land the young Christians in real trouble. They would be buying into a system which would not do them any better than the paganism they had just left behind. And now he is anxious – Colossae was not that far from Galatia, after all – that some of those people would come to the little church there, & perhaps in Laodicea & Hierapolis as well, with the same dangerous message. Most towns or districts had a synagogue, & at least a small Jewish community. Don’t get drawn into it, he says. It will be a form of captivity for you.
It will, in fact, drag you down to the level you were on before. Now that Messiah has come, & has been clearly shown by God, through his death & resurrection, as Israel’s king & the world’s true Lord, a form of Judaism that refuses to acknowledge him is no better than any another type of philosophy. There were plenty of those around already. It is just empty deceit, built upon mere human traditions. In Mark 7, Jesus himself made the same accusations against his contemporaries. It builds up its case by means of the way the world thinks & acts. And the main problem with it is that it is contrary to Christ. Whatever new idea someone comes up with, this is the acid test: does it have Jesus Messiah, the Lord, as its center & focus? If not, beware!
Paul then explains more particularly why: If you already have Jesus Messiah as your Lord, you don’t need to be ‘completed’ by any other system or action, & certainly not by a Judaism that refuses to acknowledge him. The 2 main things he says, the first in verses 11-12 & the second in verses 13-15, are that you certainly don’t need to get circumcised, & that the Torah, the law of Moses, has no claim on you. These were the 2 very things the opponents in Galatia had been insisting on! And now Paul is thoroughly refuting them.
But he begins with something even more important – one of the most important points in all of Christianity from that day to today. All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body. This is a reference to what he wrote in 1:19, towards the climax of the great poem; only now he spells it out slightly further & applies it. What he simply means is that J was & is not simply a fully human being – though he is; not simply a man remarkably ‘full of God’ – though he is that as well. He was & is the bodily form taken by God himself, God in all his fullness. He is not a demigod, half divine & half human. He does not have a human body & a divine spirit or mind. He can only be properly understood as the divine being who embodies, or incarnates, the fullness of divinity.
This meant, of course, that all the pagan deities & divinities were immediately upstaged. The pagan world sometimes spoke of demigods, or heroes who became divine around the time of their death. But Jesus wasn’t like that. He was the real thing. It also meant that Paul was cutting the ground away from any potential attack from the Jewish side. Jews, including Paul himself, believed that God was one. Many, perhaps even Paul himself in his pre-Christian days, would have said that therefore Jesus couldn’t be divine; that the best that could be said of his followers, especially the ex-pagan ones, was that they should now go on to discover the true God, the creator, the sovereign Lord of all. Not so, Paul says: if you want to find the true God, you need look no further than Jesus himself. Verse 9 is perhaps the sharpest & clearest statement in all of Paul’s writings of his belief that Jesus quite literally embodies the one true God, God in all his fullness. All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body.
If you possess Jesus, therefore, you are already filled by him, & no rule or authority can go over his head & impose itself on you. He is the head of them all. The Church in our day most definitely needs to recapture that vision of the supremacy of King Jesus over all other authority!
And in particular – the point of immediate relevance to Paul’s young churches, if Galatia is anything to go by – you don’t need to get circumcised. Why not? Because you already have been – in the only sense that really matters. The true circumcision, Paul boldly declares, is not what people do physically to a male body. It is what happens when you are buried with Jesus through baptism & raised with him through faith in the power of God.
Paul later explains more about what that means. For the moment, the main point is that instead of, as in circumcision, ‘putting off’ a small piece of physical flesh, baptism, the mode & sign of entry into the Christian community from the very earliest days to the present, is all about ‘putting off’ an entire way of life, an entire sphere of existence. It means dying to the old world & coming alive to God’s new one. How can people who have already done that ever suppose they need to go back & do something extra, something trivial by comparison?
Now few of us are likely to face, as the young Christian’s in Paul’s world did, a pressure to convert to Judaism. But there are plenty of religious & philosophical attractions in our world that attempt to draw new (& even old) Christians away from the fulfillment they already have in the King. It might help us to consider what arguments Paul would use to combat them!