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The Powers of Evil in Colossians 2

Colossians 2:8-23 Christian Life Study 2/15/24

 “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.” (Col 2:8)

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.” (Colossians 2:9-10)

Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 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.” (Col 2:11b-12)

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Col 2:15)

Captive to the elemental spiritual forces I want to cover these passages, or at least some of the key themes that come out of these short sections. Though this is not what the entire chapter is about, you could spend the rest of your life delving into the implications of some of the things we’ll talk about today.

To begin to understand what Paul says we must realize he is trying to help us see the magnitude and scale of Jesus’ work on the cross. Sin is not just a private, personal problem, it is a cosmic crisis. We live in occupied territory. This is God’s world (his kosmos/universe), but it has been overrun by evil, and Paul talks about the malignant forces of evil as “the principalities and powers.” We are in bondage to these earthly powers, and in fact, all of creation is enslaved. What are the principalities and powers that he’s referring to in this chapter? Sin, Death, and the Devil. We sometimes put so much emphasis on the Devil that we forget that Sin and Death are right there with the Devil to make up this unholy and very sinister triumvirate.  

Flannery O’Connor said, “Our salvation is played out with the Devil, a Devil who is not simply generalized evil, but an evil intelligence determined on its own supremacy.”[1]

Now listen to what she is really saying there. Many times, I think we consider the Devil as too small or focused on the particular. My New Testament professor made sure to correct his students when they said, “Well the Devil made me do it.” He’d reply, “Thank goodness the Devil is going after you because that means he’s not going after me!” The point being: the Devil is not God. He is not omnipresent, omniscient, and definitely not omnipotent (all-powerful). He can’t be in two places at once, so if he’s going after you, he can’t go after anyone else at the same moment.

At the same time, Flannery O’Connor helps us put the Devil in a greater perspective. There is an evil, malignant force in the world (that can be personified as the Devil) that is bent on undoing God’s good creation. In partnership with Sin and Death, the Devil works to unravel the very fabric of the created order. A created order that God called tov/good.

Fleming Rutledge also speaks to this idea of the powers in this way: “Sin and its cohort, Death, rule over the kosmos as semi-autonomous Powers. This, however, is not the way we Americans ordinarily think. We believe that we can resist Sin (not that we call it that!) by "making good choices," and Death we keep at bay simply by not thinking about it, or by domesticating it. The biblical story places us correctly within a completely different worldview.”[2]

That worldview is that there is a great battle between God and the cosmic forces of Evil. When we fall into sin, we then (either knowingly or not) partner with the cosmic forces of evil—these principalities and powers—in their pursuit of undoing God’s purposes in the world. When we live into our call as a disciple of the Lord Jesus, the true ruler of this world, we then (either knowingly or not) are working for his kingdom and the restoration of all things.

So, for Paul, if believers have linked themselves to Team God (Team Restoration) it makes no sense why then we would be dragged down by Team Principalities and Powers. As Paul said, “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?” (Col 2:20).

But he is very aware of how powerful and persuasive Sin can be, and he spends a great deal of time in his letters writing about that. But the fact still remains, we have died with Christ, according to Paul, and that means a whole lot.

You may look around and say, last time I checked I’m not dead. I didn’t personally die with Christ, but that is where baptism comes in. Somehow mysteriously our baptism links us to Jesus’ baptism, and even more mysteriously, our baptism connects us to Jesus’ own death and resurrection.

As Paul says, “Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 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.” (Col 2:11b-12)

So, let’s look at this for a moment and we’ll see how all this wraps together.

The Nature of Jesus’ Baptism What is the nature of Jesus’ baptism and how do we participate in it? When Jesus went into the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin, he was linking himself to his creation which was bound by the principalities and powers of this world. Though he was literally “holier than thou” he did not shy away from the messiness of this world.

This is the entire point of the Incarnation—Jesus is God who came in bodily form. He is fully God, the second person of the Trinity, but also fully man. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” as Paul said in verse 9 of our chapter.

And so, when God the Son entered the messiness of this world, he was also entering occupied territory. The king had been away for a long time, and other forces had set up camp, but the king had returned and was ready to take back what was rightfully his. Though Jesus’ birth is the beginning of this invasion, it’s at Jesus’ baptism that the first major shot is fired.

Christian icons get at what we’re talking about because many of them show Jesus in the water with John the Baptist and the dove, but in the river itself are the river gods of the old world…and they’re fleeing from him.

Water meant chaos and danger in the ancient Near Eastern mindset. Who could tame the chaos of this world other than God alone? The point is proven when Jesus calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee.

“Who is this,” his disciples remark, “that even the wind and waves listen to him.” If he can reorder the chaos of creation then he must be the One who set all things in order at the beginning of creation.

The old world of Sin, Death, and the Devil cannot stand on solid ground when the Lord of lords and King of kings has arrived; the foundations of the old order are shaking—demons flee from him, the sick are healed, and the dead are raised.

Baptism is the beginning of all of this. Jesus is sanctifying all things in his baptism and taking us with him.

When we go into those waters we then die with him and come out different—we are changed, heirs of his kingdom, members of his household—and it is all because of the cross.

Jesus ultimately defeated the principalities and powers through his sacrificial love. Paul again says, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Col 2:15). Through this one death comes everlasting life. As John’s Revelation records of the One seated on the throne who says: “See I am making all things new.” The old world is passing away and the new has just begun.

The cross—the symbol of sin, rejection, and humiliation is utterly reversed in the economy of God to signify not sin but sacrificial love; not rejection but victory over the grave; not humiliation but Jesus’ enthronement as King of the World/the Kosmos. The river gods of the old world that fled from Jesus in the Jordan River now must bow to him, and not only them, but Sin, Death, and the Devil were struck with a fatal blow on that Good Friday, and they will die (even death itself) when the Lord returns with power and great glory.

As Krishna Pal put it:

Jesus for thee a body takes, Thy guilt assumes, thy fetters breaks, Discharging all thy dreadful debt — And canst thou then such love forget?[3]

Maybe all Paul is really saying in this chapter is: Don’t forget the One who, out of his great love, broke the fetters of the principalities and powers of this world so that we might be free, and freely choose to love and serve him. Don’t forget your baptism!

[1] The Crucifixion. Rutledge 377.

[2] The Crucifixion. Rutledge 202.

[3] NICNT Colossians F.F. Bruce 110.

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