Glorious Truths in Gruesome Terms (2:11)
The apostle Paul was many things, but "politically correct" wasn't one of them! He rarely shied away from using graphic and often gruesome language if he thought it effective in making a point. If he thought he could help people he wasn't averse to offending them to do it.
How else does one account for the language of Colossians 2:11? There Paul declares that in Christ "you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ."
It's not altogether clear why Paul abruptly introduces the subject of circumcision at this point in his argument. Perhaps the heretics at Colossae were insisting on physical circumcision as a condition for full acceptance with God (although there's little evidence for that; indeed, were it true, one would expect him to explicitly denounce the practice somewhere in Colossians, but he doesn't). Whatever the case, Paul's point is unmistakable: the only circumcision that has any religious significance is a spiritual one. Let me try to explain this by taking each phrase separately.
(1) Physical circumcision was the token or seal of the covenant God made with Abraham and his seed. It was the distinctive sign, the ethnic badge, so to speak, of an Israelite in covenant relationship with Yahweh. But it was always intended to symbolize an inward, altogether spiritual cleansing and purification from sin.
When Paul declares that we "were circumcised" (v. 11a), I'm inclined to believe he is referring to our conversion. In other words, we experienced a spiritual circumcision of the heart at the time of our regeneration. This is what Paul had in view in Romans 2:28-29 where he said that true circumcision is not "outward and physical" (v. 28) but is "a matter of the heart, by the Spirit" (v. 29). See also 2 Corinthians 3:3 and Philippians 3:3.
It's possible, however, that Paul is referring to our identification with Christ in his death on the cross. On this view, to say "you were circumcised" would be another way of declaring, in obviously metaphorical language, "you died." When Christ died, when he experienced "circumcision" by the stripping away of his physical body in death, we died. But I still think the first view is more likely.
(2) Paul describes this circumcision as one that is "made without hands" (acheiropoietos). This word was typically used in the New Testament to contrast what is made by humans with what is made by God. It also points to the contrast between the external material aspects of the old order of Judaism under the Mosaic covenant and the internal spiritual efficacy of the new order under the New covenant (Mk. 14:58; Acts 7:48; 17:24; Heb. 9:11,24).
Thus, to speak of something “not made by human hands” or "made without hands" (acheiropoietos) is to assert that God himself has created it (as in the case of the temple that Jesus would build in three days in Mk. 14:58, as well as the heavenly house [i.e., body] which believers receive at death in 2 Cor. 5:1). Paul’s point is that the circumcision performed in the flesh with human hands is no longer the real or spiritually meaningful circumcision (note especially Galatians 5:6 – "for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love").
(3) Paul says it was achieved by a "putting off the body of the flesh" (v. 11). This is most likely a reference to the physical body and death of Christ himself. The only other place this phrase appears in the New Testament is in Colossians 1:22 where it refers to the physical body of Christ, and the three earlier uses of "flesh" in Colossians all denote physical flesh (see Col. 1:24; 2:1,5).
Thus, the "putting off the body of flesh" does not refer to the believer's experience but to the violent stripping away of Christ's physical body in his death on the cross.
When we combine this phrase with the one that follows ("by the circumcision of Christ") we see that "the body of flesh was stripped off when Christ was circumcised, that is, when he died; the whole statement is 'a gruesome figure for death' . . . . Here is a circumcision which entailed not the stripping off of a small portion of flesh but the violent removal of the whole body in death" (O'Brien, 117).
(4) As just noted, when Paul then refers to "the circumcision of Christ" at the conclusion of v. 11, he does not mean his circumcision as a Jewish infant of eight days (cf. Luke 2:21), but has in view the literal death of Christ. In other words, Paul envisions the crucifixion itself as a circumcision.
[I would be remiss not to mention an alternative interpretation of the phrase "the body of the flesh." According to this view, by "flesh" Paul means not the physical body of Christ (as above, in an ethically neutral sense) but our sinful, fallen, unregenerate nature, or everything we were in Adam before we came to be in Christ. On this view, "the body of the flesh" would be similar to what Paul had in mind in Romans 6:6 when he spoke of "our old self" that was "crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin."]
It's not a pleasant image and these are not easy words, but it sure gets the point across! It is not by "human hands" (whether our effort, good intentions, or a reformed life) but by the Spirit of God that our hearts have been circumcised and renewed and regenerated unto life eternal.
Thanking God for hard texts,