In his letter to the Christians in Colosse Paul used a noun (apekdusis) and its cognate verb (apekduomai) which do not occur elsewhere in the New Testament. In fact the noun and its related verb first occur in Greek literature within the Colossian letter.1 The formation of this word with two prepositional prefixes (apo, ek), connoting the idea of “off, away,” would emphasize the completeness of the action. It is thoroughly done.2 Oepke suggests that “the double compound, if used intentionally, is meant to exclude any possible return to the old state.”3 The word seems to signify completely stripping off something.
Paul used the noun form first. In Colossians 2:6-16 he describes how the death and resurrection of Jesus gives human beings the power “to live in him rooted and built up in him.” Because Jesus is fully God (v.9), he holds authority over every other power. The process by which we gain “fullness in Christ” is compared to circumcision, a spiritual action that Paul describes as “the putting off (apekdusei)4 of the sinful nature (literally “the body of flesh)” (v.11). Paul very clearly distinguishes this spiritual circumcision from anything done by human hands and attributes it entirely to the Messiah. The use of apekdusis in the context of circumcision identifies its sense as the act of stripping something away. As stated above, the double prefix suggests the finality of this act. Since this is the work of the Messiah who has all this authority, the act carries immense significance. By his work such human beings possess eternal life.
The second instance occurs in v.15 of this same discourse unit, but this time Paul used the verb in participial form (apekdusamenos). The main verb in the previous clause describes how God or Christ (the subject is not exactly clear and English translations vary on this) “took away” (ērken, v.14, perfect verb form indicating the action stands completed in the present time) the “statement of indebtedness…nailing it to the cross.” He then continues to affirm that Jesus, in his death and resurrection has publicly made them a spectacle, leading them in a triumph, i.e. he leads the parade of those he has conquered (v.15). Jesus’ victory arises because he “stripped [away] (apekdusamenos) the powers and authorities” (coming back full circle to the declaration in v.10 that he is “the head over every power and authority”).
Considerable discussion surrounds this participle. In many translations you will find it rendered “disarmed”. The participle is middle in form, but what this implies is not clear. Some argue that this voice would have the sense that a person stripped something off himself, i.e. the subject acted in a way that affected itself. This would have the sense that Jesus stripped away from himself any influence these powers and authorities may have exercised over him. However, as Oepke indicates5 “the middle is used in the active” sense. If this is the case, then the sense would be that Jesus stripped the powers and authorities, i.e. disrobed, laid them bare (cf. the New Jerusalem Bible). This leads some then to render it as “disarmed” (New International Version; Revised Standard Version). Given the military imagery of the triumph celebration used in the last part of v.15 and the idea of public spectacle conveyed by the main verb, the idea of the powers and authorities stripped in such an open manner would show their complete subjection. Yet, James Dunn notes that the sense of despoil or disarm cannot be confirmed for this verb before the fifth century A.D.6 So, despite the attractiveness of this possible meaning, Paul probably did not use the verb in this sense. This requires us then to translate this participle as “stripped off”. Through his death and resurrection Jesus stripped off the powers and authorities that were binding the cosmos, bringing human beings freedom from death.
The last occurrence comes in Colossians 3:9. In a series of ethical instructions Paul counsels these Christians “do not lie to one another.” The rationale he provides is based on the radical change that their conversion has produced. You have “laid aside (apekdusamenoi) the old self with its evil practices and have put on (endusamenoi) the new self…”(v.9-10). English translations vary in rendering this participle as “stripped off,” “taken off,” “put off,” or “laid aside.” Behind this language probably is the idea of taking off and putting on clothes. Other texts in Paul link this language with baptism. Galatians 3:27 states that “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves (enedusasthe) with Christ.” In Romans 13:14 Paul urges the believers to “clothe (endusasthe) yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other contexts Paul used this language to describe the spiritual armour which Christians wear to enable them to act obediently for God (1 Thessalonians 5:8; Ephesians 6:11,14), but this does not seem to be the concept in Colossians 3:9. The references to the “old self (anthrōpos)” and “new self” move us into the realm of death and resurrection, expressed in baptism. This is the same concept that Paul expressed when he used the cognate noun apekdusis in 2:11 to describe “putting off of the sinful nature” as a kind of spiritual circumcision, related immediately (2:12) to the affirmation of salvation in their baptismal experience.
Paul’s use of this word cluster to describe both what Jesus did in his death and resurrection and what believers experience when they receive the gift of salvation should be noted. He wants his readers to discern a parallelism between these two events. When people confess Christ, they strip away by God’s power those elements of their human condition that enabled sin and Satan to bind them. And then they put on Christ, become new creations. All of this is portrayed in the action of baptism. It seems that Paul wants us to understand that Jesus’ death in some parallel fashion released him from any attempt by spiritual powers and authorities to influence him. At the cross he stripped them away, defeating in humiliating, final fashion their attempts to control him.
The reality that Paul’s language challenges us to accept is this – salvation in Christ radically transforms a person. The actions of stripping off and putting on describe this permanent change that God produces in one’s life. Paul connects this action with expected ethical changes.
- if our salvation creates such radical change, how is this change being lived out in your life today?
- does your baptism hold the same value for you that Paul ascribes to it in Colossians 2-3?
- will your decisions today and tomorrow reflect accurately and fully this fundamental change? In what ways?
- 1A related form ekduō is found frequently (cf. Matthew 15:20; 27:28; 2 Corinthians 5:4).
- 2James Moulton and Wilbert Howard, A Grammar of New Testament Greek. Volume II. Accidence and Word Formation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, reprinted 1968):310.
- 3A. Oepke, “Apekduō,” in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Volume II, edited by G. Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.Co., 1974):318-319.
- 4The New American Standard Version renders the noun as “the removal”. Today’s New International Version suggests “your sinful nature was put off.” The New Living Translation as “the cutting away.” The New Jerusalem Bible suggests “the complete stripping.” The English Standard Version used “the putting off.”
- 5Oepke, op.cit., 319.
- 6James Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon. New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996): 167. Consider also the comments on this verb in F. Blass, A. Debrunner, and R. Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament (Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press, 1961): 165 (section 316.1).