Reading yesterday’s reflection, some of you may have wondered if I’d deliberately ignored the last couple of verses, and the really tricky teaching about circumcision. Well, maybe! Though actually I’d said plenty already, and this section of the letter is the hardest to explain, with the most technical theology. So, I’m going to pick it up today, and try to take you all through what Paul is teaching here. If the overall cultural context is (as we observed yesterday) relatively similar to today in certain respects, this is one of those sections of the letter where not living in that culture means we are missing a lot of background understanding. So, bear with me, we’ll take it bit by bit….
The fundamental contrast St Paul is drawing is between the life of the ‘flesh’ and the life of the Spirit. This is a common theme in Paul, and the overall idea is the same as it is in his other letters: in Christ, we live life in the Spirit, we are no longer driven by ‘the flesh’ i.e. our worldly inclinations and desires, or indeed any human wisdom and tradition which has nothing to do with God’s view of things.
However, in Colossians Paul gives it a particular twist. Much Greek thinking of the day – influenced by the great philosopher Plato – drew a similar contrast between the material world and the spiritual world, but interpreted the consequences in a totally different way. In Platonic thought, the body had to be mastered and disciplined. Harsh treatment of the body and various rituals, combined with other ‘spiritual practices’, were offered as the solution. Paul refers to some of these directly in the next section.
But the point he makes first is that Christ is the full spiritual revelation of God. We don’t need to add lots of rules about how we treat our bodies or which rituals we practise to somehow ‘improve’ what Christ has already done. Our spiritual inheritance is already secure – note the past tense in v10: ‘you have been brought to fulness.’
He then uses two specific examples to illustrate how Christ’s spiritual victory over the ‘flesh’ has already happened. We’ll look at the second tomorrow in vv13-15, but the first is circumcision in vv10-12. Since the time of Abraham, circumcision was the sign of being part of God’s covenant people. And of course it’s a physical act, done literally to the flesh. But now, our membership of God’s people is guaranteed not by a physical act, but by trusting in Christ. So, Christ ‘circumcises’ us (v11) in the sense that he is the one who brings us into the redeemed, covenant people of God.
This is entirely a spiritual thing – what Paul calls elsewhere the circumcision of our hearts, as Christ comes to dwell in us by his Spirit – though note that the one physical way we mark it is through being baptised (v12). Baptism is a public marking of our new spiritual life in Christ: dying to sin (‘buried with him’ v12) and rising to new life (v13 – more on that tomorrow!).
What does all this mean? Simply put, we have new life in Jesus! We also have a new family: the family of God. The shared nature of our faith is vitally important: Jesus comes not just to rescue individuals but to create a new humanity, a community of people filled with his life-giving Spirit. That is our reality, too – give thanks today for your Christian family, and pray for grace to know ever more deeply that we have been brought to fulness.