Colossians is a gem of Pauline theology. It contains a distilled version of the central doctrines expounded upon more largely in other Pauline epistles. The theology of this epistle is built upon a hymn quoted in Colossians 1:15-20. It is a hymn that proclaims Jesus as the reconciler of all things “in heaven and on earth” through the blood of his cross. It is a theology of cosmic reconciliation in the cross.
This sort of language is distinct from all previous Pauline epistles and has prompted many scholars to conclude that the epistle was not written by Paul at all but by one of his disciples shortly after his death, who “channeled” and distilled the theology of Paul to meet the needs of the Colossian church (see the International Critical Commentary). Whether it was written by Paul or by one of his disciples this epistle benefits from a synthesis of previous Pauline writings and an extension of the work of the cross to cosmic proportions—a reconciliation of “all things”, a disarming of “rulers and authorities” (Colossians 2:15).
However, thoroughly Pauline is the centrality of the cross. This epistle in no way contradicts earlier Pauline writings, but rather builds upon them, following their very logic and theological priorities. In my opinion this makes Colossians all the more precious from a theological perspective: it is thoroughly Pauline, but also more developed and succinct.
It is also on this epistle that I find the doctrine of baptism most lucidly explained, in relation to the cross, to faith, to justification and to sanctification.
As in all Pauline epistles, there two levels of exposition: the first is the doctrine of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The second is the manner in which this great doctrine affects and is applied to our life. In Colossians (as in Romans) baptism is the link between these two levels of teaching, allowing us to pass from one to the other.
The hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 has established that Christ is the source of all created power, and that through his death he has once again united all things in himself. There remains therefore nothing outside of his power. The verses that immediately precede and follow this hymn give an immediate application: Jesus has, therefore, the power to forgive our sins and present us blameless before him. But the question remains: how and when does that occur for the individual? It was accomplished at the cross, but when does that cosmic story touch the reality of each individual? The question is answered with precision in Colossians 2:10-13.
Here is my translation of this passage, preserving the Greek sentence structure. While it makes for clunkier English, it helps establish the connection of ideas. For this purpose I have also indented subordinate clauses:
10. And you have been filled in him,
who is the head of all rule and authority.
11. In whom [him] also you have been circumcised
by the circumcision not made with hands,
in the removal of the body of flesh,
in the circumcision of Christ,
12. having been buried with him in baptism,
in whom you have also been raised
through faith in the working of God
who raised him from the dead.
13. And you,
though you were dead in sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh
he has made you alive together with him,
having forgiven us all sins.
As you can see, he makes a rather complicated statement in 10-12 about how we are circumcised in Christ, and then in 13 he restates it in a more digest form in terms of forgiveness of sins.
The precise role of baptism in 10-12 is clearly a “burial” with Christ. In verse 11: “In him also you have been circumcised […] having been buried with him in baptism”. This is where the work of Jesus on the cross of chapter one, is applied to us. In baptism, Jesus’ death becomes our death. This is described as a circumcision that is not done with hands. How is it a circumcision? By the “removal of the body of flesh”, i.e. death. The parallel is clear. But where circumcision is only a sign, baptism is the real thing; in it we actually died with Christ. The entire body of flesh was put off. What he accomplished on the cross is now ours through that baptism.
While we died to sin and the flesh with Christ in baptism, our new life in his resurrection is not attributed to baptism. Colossians 2:12b continues: “in whom you have also been raised through faith in the working of God who raised him from the dead.” Just as the death of Christ would only be the end of a sad story without his resurrection, so baptism without faith is an empty ritual. But through faith it is the very door to life, accomplished in our resurrection with Christ.
This is another point on which we might detect a very different sort of discourse than in the rest of the Pauline epistles. In Romans 6:1-5, for example, Paul says that we are united with Christ’s death in baptism so that we might be raised with him in the future. But here in Colossians 2:12 resurrection has already occurred: you have been raised with him by faith. Since this epistle sees already in Christ’s death the victory over all things, so in our unification with his death is forgiveness of and complete freedom from our sins (Colossians 1:13-14 and 2:14)—which necessarily and immediately opens to us the doors of life in the resurrection. What is hoped for is so sure because it is already accomplished. If Christ has already risen, and we died with him, have we not also been raised with him? That is the logic of this passage.
The rest of the epistle is built on this logic: Christ conquered on the cross; his death is yours in baptism; so his life must also be yours in the way that you live, free from all other earthly powers, if you continue in faith. Colossians 2:20 says “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of this world..” referring back to baptism. And Colossians 3:1 says “If then you have been raised with Christ…” referring back to the immediate implication of baptism for those who have faith. While baptism is not explicitly the gift of life, it is the personal deliverance from sin in Jesus’ death and thus the necessary path to personally participating in Jesus’ resurrection, just as Jesus’ own death was necessary for his resurrection. Death with Christ in baptism gives us freedom from sin, but that freedom must be embraced by faith for it to be life in Christ.