Sometimes Addition Is Subtraction

Tom Shepherd

Sometimes Addition Is Subtraction

If you are facing a situation in which someone wants to control your life, the Book of Colossians is a good read. Paul wrote Colossians probably at the time of his first Roman imprisonment around A.D. 60-61 and sent the letter to the church of Colossae via two trusted workers, Tychicus and Onesimus (Col. 4:7-9). Colossae was located at the eastern end of the Lycus Valley in a section of what is today western Turkey. About 10 to 15 miles distant were the larger and more famous cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. But it is Colossae for which a book of the Bible is named. It is the smallest town to which Paul wrote for which there is record.

Paul wrote to encourage the church members, but more particularly to counter heretical teaching that was sneaking in. Just what this heresy was is a matter of some debate among scholars. The false teaching included a rather odd conglomeration of such diverse characteristics as Jewish feasts, philosophical speculation, worship of angels and ascetic practices (2:8, 16-23). The false teachers were quite controlling in their approach. They condemned people who did not follow their dietary and festival practices (vs. 16). They disqualified Christians who did not do things according to their ways (vs. 18). And they insisted on their own dogmatic view of regulations (vss. 20, 21). On top of all this, they seem to have been not a little pompous regarding their spiritual insights and wisdom (vss. 18, 23).

How should a Christian, particularly a pastor, respond to this sort of imposition on believers? Paul takes the high road and begins the Book of Colossians with an amazing emphasis on the power and all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. Two central passages in Colossians 1 and 2 deal with this. The first is the famous Christ Hymn of Colossians 1:15 to 20. Here Paul emphasizes two main concepts: Christ is the Creator, and He is the Redeemer. The central term the apostle uses to describe our Lord in both cases is “Firstborn.” Sometimes people confuse this to mean that He was a created being. But counter such an idea are the clear words of 1:16 that Christ created all things.

In reality, for people in Paul’s day, the term Firstborn contained two ideas, first in birth order or supremacy of position, and it is the latter of these ideas on which the apostle focuses attention. This fact is emphasized in the first part of the Christ Hymn (1:16) by Paul’s litany of the Lord’s creation of all things visible and invisible including thrones, lordships, rulers, and authorities. He is above them all.

Then Paul speaks of Christ as the Firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). Jesus was not the first person ever raised from the dead, so He is not “firstborn” in that temporal sense of the term. But His resurrection holds primacy of position because of who He is (God in the flesh, 2:9) and because of what He did (died for our sins, vss. 11-15). His resurrection life empowers our conversion and assures our resurrection from the dead at His return.

The second key passage where Paul emphasizes Christ’s power and all-sufficiency is Colossians 2:11 to 15. Here the apostle presents five amazing word pictures of redemption. Space does not allow explanation of these in depth, but we can highlight what they focus on. The first borrows a concept from Judaism (circumcision) and indicates how conversion is a setting aside of the old ways of the flesh (vs. 11). The second word picture focuses on baptism and how it is burial and resurrection with Christ (vs. 12). The third picks up the idea of death and uncircumcision and indicates that God makes us alive with Christ by forgiving our sins (vs. 13). The fourth picture speaks of God wiping out the debt of sin, removing its condemning power by nailing it (in Christ) to the cross (vs. 14). And the fifth picture presents the triumph of Christ over the spiritual forces of evil in the ironic twist of the shameful cross becoming His victory chariot (vs. 15).

This wonderful theology of Christ and salvation forms the backdrop for Paul’s argumentation against the false teachers in Colossians 2:16 to 23. Verse 16 begins with therefore, indicating that what follows is rooted in the salvation pictures of verses 11 to 15. Because of what Christ has done, because of our experience of that salvation, we should not let others condemn us (vs. 16). Not condemn us for what? Paul says, “Do not let someone condemn you in a matter of eating and drinking or in regards to a feast or new moon or Sabbath.”1

This text is a source of confusion for many. Though it cannot be explained in detail here, the following points may be made. Paul rejects the false teachers’ condemnation of the Christians at Colossae who have found salvation in the full work of Christ. The apostle is not discarding things like food laws or observance of holy days in themselves. He goes on to call them shadows of things to come (vs. 17)—that is, they have a role pointing toward Christ. Likely the Sabbaths being described in verse 16 are ceremonial Sabbaths, since it is these that pointed forward to Christ, whereas the weekly Sabbath points back to creation (Ex. 20:8-11) and is not a shadow.

But the point to keep clearly in mind concerning Colossians 2:16 to 23 is actually something different. Paul indicates that the false teachers’ controlling ways are out of step with the salvation work of Christ. How so? Likely what was going on in Colossae was that the false teachers were adding on requirements as some way of assuring success in salvation. This may not have been simply a doctrinal issue, but rather a sense of needing to submit to various spiritual forces above us, lining up with their requirements so as to ensure our salvation. This fear of the spiritual forces and the desire to avoid offending them is why Paul emphasizes over and over that Christ is supreme, that the fullness of divinity resides in Him and that He has overcome all forces against Him (Col. 1:15-20; 2:8-15).

Here is where the Bible Math comes in. It goes like this: When you add on something to Jesus, you actually subtract from Him.2 If more than Jesus is needed for salvation, then we say that He is not enough. We subtract from Him and from His saving work so beautifully described in Colossians 2:11 to 15.

The false teachers were putting the cart before the horse based on their trust in their practices as some sort of “fire insurance” against what spiritual forces could do to them. But if you have Jesus, your salvation is secure. Obedience to Him is a result of that relationship, not a gateway to it. We live our discipleship in obedience to Christ, not to gain salvation but because of what Jesus has done for us. He has provided all we need. Do the math.



1. My own translation.


2. It was my Ephesians and Colossians teacher, Ivan Blazen, back in the 1980s at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, who shared with our class this beautiful summary of Paul’s point.