Sunday, June 1, 2014
Often while reading articles online the advertisements in the side bar will be for weight-loss programs. Whether it is a diet, a miracle pill, an exercise plan, or a combination of all three, the ad is the way for you to shed 10lbs in a short time. Photos always accompany the ad. Before, the woman was pushing 300lbs. After, she, who is over 4, struts down the beach in a bikini looking like she could be on the cover a magazine.
It is effective. I saw a headline this week that reports obesity as a serious problem is on the rise in every country. The simple answer to the problem is to eat healthier foods, eat less processed and fat-filled food, and exercise. Just walking for 30 minutes a day can make a difference. But the point in the ad photos, the “before” and “after” is the change. We want to be healthy. We want to look good. For a lot of people this means changes need to happen.
Colossians 2:11: “in him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh.” Circumcision is painful. We who have gone through it are quite happy that it happened so long ago, we don’t remember. That’s bloody, visceral imagery. Jesus tapped into this in John 15 where he says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
Circumcising, pruning; does there need to be so much snipping and slicing and cutting for us to grow close to God? Yes. If we could photograph the totality of a person – the mind, the body, the spirit, the soul – there would be a “before,” and an “after.” Like the 200 pounder trying to get down to 170, the one who wants to be in Christ has to get rid of something. The allegiance to the world, the sin nature, the corruption that has infested God’s good creation – humanity – that all has to go. Paul calls this the circumcision of the heart in Romans 2:29, and in Colossians 3:12 he talks about clothing one’s self with the stuff of the Kingdom as opposed to that which comprises our sinful nature. It is taking off the sin as one takes off a tattered garment. It is circumcising the heart so that the will is freed of the evils of sin. It is pruning, cutting off the unfruitful, wasteful bits of life.
Thus Colossians 2:11 - “in him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh.” N.T. Wright in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary says this phrase is quite tricky for scholars translating from the Greek (p.110).[i] I found three potential ways of understanding what the apostle is saying. I share each this morning because this idea of circumcising the heart is a matter of turning one’s self to God. We turn away from all the sinfulness, death, and destruction around us and we turn ourselves to God. That involves more than just one aspect of our lives and I think the three different pathways of understanding I read this week all fit.
The first comes from The Interpreter’s Bible, author Francis Beare where he writes that spiritual circumcision involves cutting off the “corrupt personality as a whole – what [humanity] is apart from the regenerating grace of God.”[ii] Apart from God, we die without hope. Death is permanent and any existence beyond death is an eternity without God, without God’s love and the fellowship of God’s family. God is God of the living. Every moment is a moment closer to our death and a Godless eternity.
However, we have changed – become something different, a new humanity, because of Christ. Colossians 2:10 says we come to fullness in Him. And then our verse, verse 11. We put off the body of flesh – we are no longer of the humanity under the fall. We no longer are destined for death. The change is not seen with the eye, but the reality is unmistakable from God’s point of view. We put off the flesh and we are raised with Christ – raised from the death (Col. 2:12). To read and understand Colossians 2:11, especially that phrase, is to realize our basic nature has changed because of spiritual circumcision.
Baptism depicts this. We go under the water – buried. We are dead in sin and dead things are buried. However, then we rise. In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by the power of God, we rise to new life. As new creations, we have put off the body of flesh. We rise as eternal beings.
A second way of understanding this phrase in Colossians 2:11 is described by Fuller Theological Seminary Professor Arthur Patzia.[iii] This approach was taken by the translators of the New Living Translation which renders the phrase – “Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature.”
This way of thinking is similar to the notion of transformed human nature but is more specific. As people born again in Christ, “put to death” fornication, impurity and whatever is of earth, of the flesh (3:5). We are told to “get rid of” all sinful attitudes and actions (3:8); simple to say, but is it impossible to do? As members of the new humanity which is destined for eternal life not death, we are freed from sin’s grasp. This theme runs throughout Paul’s letters. First Corinthians 15 is one example.
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.
55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Because of the power of God at work in us, we can actually stop sinning and live righteously. Of course this does not come easily our consistently. If it did, Paul would not have had to write letters like Corinthians and Colossians. Even after we turn to Christ, even after Christ takes ups permanent residence in us, we still have the power to choose how we will think and act in life. We are still vulnerable to temptation. Choosing to sin is walking the way of death, yet we do it. Paul urgently reminds us there is another way and the power to turn that way, the way of life, is in us because Christ is in us. Putting off the flesh, Colossians 2:11, is us yielding to a painful but needed procedure – the work of Jesus cutting the sin out of our lives. This requires of us that we sit still and stay focused on him. Sitting still and staying focused comes about when we live spiritually disciplined lives, practicing prayer, confession, worship, and Bible reading. In these and other ways, we are present for God so that the Spirit may work in us, pruning, and growing us.
We have been discussing, this morning, three ways of understanding a phrase from Colossians 2:11 – “11 in him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ.” We have understood ‘putting off the body of the flesh’ to mean the creation of a new humanity, one destined for life in Christ. We have understood it to mean freedom from sin – a freedom made available by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are alive and we are free in Christ. Because of this, we are part of something great – the Kingdom of God
This idea that in Christ we are part of something new is a third way of seeing the spiritual circumcision described in Colossians 2. This perspective comes from N.T. Wright.[iv]
He says, “The Colossians now belong first and foremost to the family of God, and not to their human families to which they formerly belonged. ‘Body’ [from verse 11] can easily carry the connotation of a group of people.” Putting off the body of the flesh in spiritual circumcision, which is marked by baptism, means cutting off old solidarities. Our primarily loyalty then is to one another and to others who are in Christ.
The first way of seeing the phrase, a sense of new humanity, describes what we are. We are born again, born to eternal life. The second identifies our potential. We are free in Christ, free from sin and free to not sin. This third path of understanding builds on the first two by showing where we belong.
Perhaps this third facet of understanding is the most challenging to accept. Are you your family’s name? Are you your nationality? What is it that defines you? To whom do you belong?
Am I a Tennant? Am I an American?
Often this is not in conflict. I can bring honor to my family name as I serve Jesus by loving my neighbor and in doing so I build up my community and help my country. The three loyalties complement each other. Just as often, the loyalties are divided. In Colossians there was a Judaizing presence; mystery cult religions were around, religions that identified many gods. There were local Roman authorities. All these groups vying for loyalty challenged Christ-followers because often group loyalty demanded actions and words that ran against the gospel and the way of Jesus. To make a stand as a part of the community of Christ followers was to draw the ire and scorn of the surrounding people. But, we have put off the body of flesh, the human group loyalty. That has been pruned. We are connected to those who are in Christ. Paul called on the Colossians to stay true to the Gospel even if it meant banding together and enduring persecution.
I saw this many years ago. A friend of mine went to a family funeral, which was in another town. When she got back, I asked about it and all she would say is it was a “Chinese funeral.” That tells me nothing. Millions of Chinese are Uyghurs. Their funeral would be a Muslim funeral. Many millions more are atheist. What happens at an atheist funeral? The fastest growing Christian nation on earth is China. A Christian funeral would be very different than an atheist or a Muslim one.
My friend said her relative had a Chinese funeral. What she did not say was it was a Buddhist funeral. She was living a bifurcated life. She wanted to be in our church family. She believed what the Bible says about Jesus. She wanted to follow Christ. But she wanted to do so without releasing her loyalty to her mostly Buddhist family. She was not prepared for the pruning Jesus was doing in her life. She did not want to put off the body of flesh to which she belonged.
It is not easy. There will be times in every believer’s life when our allegiance is tested. Would I forsake the Tennants if following Christ required me to do so? I hope so. That is what Colossians 2 calls for. When the moment comes, would you see yourself first and foremost as in Christ?
This does not have to mean abandoning those we love. Jesus was not calling on my friend to forever leave behind her Buddhist relatives, people she deeply loved. If she did that, she’d never be able to show Jesus to them. Jesus loves them more than she does. He wants them in His family and maybe she is the key.
We are part of the new humanity when we are part of Christ. We destined for eternal life in the Kingdom. We live among those who die daily because they have not yet received the life Jesus gives. Our mission is to help them see Him.
We are freed from sin. It has no power over us. We live in a world soaked in sin. While we are to not participate in the sin around us, we are to love those still enchained by sin’s shackles. And we are, through humble, patient love, to help people see the way they can be freed from sin by Jesus.
We are connected to the body of Christ. We no longer belong to our nation or to our families but to the Kingdom of God. We still live in the world as it is, loving our families and living in them as a witness to Jesus’ love and goodness.
Colossians 2:12 says we are raised with him. Verse 13 – he has made us alive. This is the new you and the new me – the new us; we are of the new heaven and earth, destined for resurrection, freed from sin, and made to worship Jesus as we draw others to him. The before and after won’t be seen on a banner or advertisement. It is seen in how we live, how we relate to people around us.
Paul says we have received the Lord Jesus Christ; now, we live our lives in him (2:6).
[i] Wright (1986), The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon, Intervarsity Press, Nottingham.
[ii] Beare (1955),”The Epistle to the Colossians” exegesis section, The Interpreter’s Bible Vol 11, Abingdon Press, Nashville, p.196-7.
[iii] Patzia (1984), New International Bible Commentary, New Testament series, vol.10, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, p.54-55.
[iv] Wright, p.109-113.