She was a wild, uncouth little creature. She roamed about during family meals, snatching handfuls of food from plates, shoving them into her mouth. She screamed for no reason. She cried and threw things. Like an angry cat, she lashed out toward an approaching touch.
But her family forgave her for all this, because she could not see and she could not hear. At just nineteen months old, Helen Keller contracted an unknown illness that affected her brain, leaving her deaf and blind. Years later, in her autobiography, she would say that in childhood she lived “at sea in a dense fog.”
We know about Helen Keller, because, somehow, someway, she came out of that dense fog. She would learn to read, communicate, and speak. She would become the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She would go on to even become a famous writer.
We will have reason to return to Helen’s story below, but for now need to make this point: Helen could not become herself by herself. Everything she learned, each word, how to read, how to speak, how to write, was only possible because of the constant presence and care of another.
This other person was her life-long teacher, Anne Sullivan. Anne took Helen into her home; was with her every day, sat at her side and held her hand. Anne would inscribe with her finger the shape of a word on Helen’s left hand, while placing the object the word represented in the other, i.e., spelling water and running the faucet over hand.
Helen’s path out of the fog, her ability to develop into a functioning and flourishing person, was completely dependent on the constant presence and care of Another.
Helen’s story draws our attention to the main point of Colossians 2:8–15. We cannot become ourselves by ourselves.
Like an infant, dependent on her mother’s body from womb to breast for sustenance, dependent on her mother's arms for safety, dependent on her mother’s gaze and voice to learn how to smile and speak, dependent on her mother’s affirmation as she grows, for her own sense of identity and purpose.
This is the main point of our passage: we are not ourselves by ourselves, but our life—identity, ability, fulfillment—is only discovered in relationship to Another.
Before unpacking this, however, let me situate this passage in relation to last week’s sermon. Last week we also were in Colossians 2, but focused on Paul’s warning against drifting into error. Our last point in that sermon was the remedy against error—how to avoid it.
That summarizing point was this: Love the teacher, because if you do, it will be second nature to follow his teaching. The remedy to error was found in keeping a close, reverent, loving relationship with Jesus Christ, the true teacher.
This week’s sermon is essentially a deep dive into the heart of that relationship—the relationship between the believer and Christ. It is evident that the driving theme of Colossians 2:8–15 is a relationship. Again and again, Paul brings the believer into a stunning closeness to Christ, almost making the two inseparable. Notice how he does this.
V. 10, “you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority”
V. 11, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands”
V. 12, “Having been buried with him in baptism”
V. 12, “In which you were also raised with him through faith
V. 13, “God made you alive together with him”
There is a kaleidoscope of images swirling about in this passage: circumcision, burial, baptism, resurrection. However, the common denominator in all is that the believer is joined, somehow, in some way, to Christ: the believer’s life happens “in him,” with him. The believer is not herself by herself, but only lives by being “in Christ.”
We need to pause a moment and take in this aspect of Paul’s experience of Christianity. We have thirteen letters of Paul in our Bible. In these letters, Paul uses this little two-word phrase, “in Christ,” something like a 165 times. The throbbing heart of Christianity for Paul is not so much a set of teachings, though that matters greatly. Rather, however, the heart is a relationship—it’s being in Christ.
I have often heard Christianity explained like some sort of legal contract. The explanation runs: imagine you committed a crime and are being tried in court, facing a life sentence. Just before the judge pronounces you guilty, Christ comes in, sits in your place, and takes the penalty for you. So, you walk out of the courtroom with your life back—you are free.
Of course, this is part of it, and a glorious part. Verses 13–14,
God made us alive together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Through the cross, God places our sins on Christ, punishes them there, and by doing so delivers us from their penalty.
But if we stop here, we miss the whole point. Stopping with the legal contact, with the declaration of innocent, would be like a man saying the whole point of his marriage was the marriage license and the legal standing it gave him. No, the license is simply a doorway. The point of the marriage is a relationship.
Paul’s experience was so much more than a canceled record of debt, as important as that was. The debt was canceled, the sins forgiven, so that a relationship could be restored and enjoyed. Thus, for Paul, he could find better shorthand for describing the Gospel than these two words: in Christ.
I want us to go deeper, too. I want us to better understand what Paul means by this. What does it mean to not experience your life by yourself, but to find and live your life “in Christ”? This seems confusing to understand at times and even harder to live out.
My goal here is not to exhaustively explain what this mystery means, but to shed some light on it. To do so, we’ll move through our passage in two parts, making two points about what it means to live “in Christ.” Two paradoxical realities come forth from this passage about what it means to live our lives “in Christ”: First, it means “we die in him in order to live; second, “total dependence on Him is true freedom.”
Another way to say this would be that living “in Christ,” in this life, involves two ongoing realities: death and dependence. To live “in Christ,” requires death and dependence.
Let’s unpack what this means.
1. Die in order to live
According to vv. 11–12, to live “in Christ” involves dying with Him.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism.
Paul employs two images here—circumcision and baptism—but with the aim of drawing attention to one truth. To be “in Christ” means to die with Christ. The phrases “putting off the body of flesh” and “buried with him” both signal that Paul has in mind Christ’s death.
When we think of baptism, our first thought is often of new life, being made clean. It certainly is about this. However, before it signified new life, baptism signifies death, being submerged into the waters of chaos.
Some images of Jesus’ baptism depict his feet down in the water of the Jordan. Deep down below, under his feet, mysterious creatures lurk; sometimes a dragon or snake-like figure is depicted. This signals the chaos and death he was plunged into.
And in Mark 10, when the disciples James and John ask Jesus if they can sit at his right hand and left hand in his kingdom (Mk 10:37), he replies, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Here, Jesus likens his death and suffering to a baptism.
Here is the entry point to life with Christ, to being “in Christ”: we are submerged into his death. How is it that being “in Christ” involves dying with Christ?
First, there is a past and present emphasis here. Through faith in Jesus, it is as though we were actually joined to him on the cross, our sinful nature entwined to his perfect nature, our sins being judged through his death.
However, there is also an ongoing aspect to what it means to be buried, or to die, with Christ. It means that ongoing sufferings in the Christian life, can be the strategic pathway through which you find intimacy with Christ and become like Christ.
I want to spend some time on this. To live “in Christ” means to die with Christ. And this means an ongoing process where your suffering may be the pathway through which you (a) find intimacy with Christ and (b) become like him.
How does dying with Christ create intimacy between us and Christ?
One of the titles given to Jesus prophetically, in Isaiah, is “the man of sorrows” (Isa 53). Jesus’ life with us was not one of constant ease and simple happiness. It was a three-dimensional life, where joy was balanced with sorrow, life with death.
There is a truism in life that people often connect best when they have a shared experience. If you are a person who has gone through profound suffering, at times it is hard to relate, or deeply connect, to a person who has not. Therefore, one of the things that happens when we suffer is that we are invited to be “buried with Jesus,” to find ourselves alongside him in his tomb.
Perhaps you have experienced this. In a dark season of your life, you’ve found yourself walked into the tomb of Jesus. You’ve laid your head on the cool rock floor beneath his burial stone. You’ve learned to be still, to let go, to rest, in the presence of the man of sorrow. You have met Jesus in the tomb.
There is a type of intimacy to be found with Jesus, that can only be found in the tomb of suffering.
The second thing that suffering and dying with Christ accomplishes in us is true change. We not only get close to Christ, but are changed to be more like Christ.
This is the meaning of Jesus’ words in John 15,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
I would imagine that if a branch could talk while being pruned, it would say something like this to the vinedresser: “It feels like you are killing me.” Sometimes during my own Christian life, I have found myself saying to God, “Lord, it feels like you’re killing me.” But in these seasons, as I look back, I see that not only did I meet Jesus in those dark caverns, but also, it was in this pruning, in this dying, that God brought about new life in me.
There is a man whose life illustrates these truths so well—how dying with Christ brings us close to Christ, and makes us like Christ. This is all depicted quite remarkably through the life of Francis of Assisi. Born during the 13th century in the Italian town of Assis, Francis was part of a wealthier home, his father a businessman, his family well known and respected. As a young man, Francis dreamed of earning glory as a soldier, then, perhaps, following his father in the family business. Several things began to unfold like dominos in his early youth, that shattered these dreams.
Illness sent him back from the battlefield. Having never unsheathed his sword, he was to mill about with the women and children while his comrades became heroes. A breach of his father’s trust led to a falling out with his family—he was soon cast into a debtor’s prison of sorts by his own father. Confusion about how God was leading him and why God let such things happen, soon left him spiritually bewildered, reprimanded by his church, and alone.
Francis’ human nature was suffering the heaviest and most crushing blows—he was seen by his militant peers as a coward, seen by his father as a failure, seen by his church as confused, and seen by his community as a fool. So Francis disappeared, both literally and metaphorically, into a cave. Francis’s only path, was to go and die; die to himself, die to his dreams, die to his place in the world.
But as Francis went into this cave of dying, the strangest thing happened. He found Christ. He found the man of sorrows in the darkness of the cave. And a spiritual and psychological reversal began to take place. By being united to the man of sorrows—dying with Christ—Francis began to truly live. As one of his biographers, G. K. Chesterton, put it, “The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead.”
By Christ taking his hand, Francis was passing through death to true life, and learning that courage was not merely had on the battlefield, but shown in loving the least of these, acceptance from one’s father could never supplant acceptance by God, and to be a fool before mankind, for the sake of Christ, was to be a prince in the house of God.
Francis of Assisi had to die—die to everything—in order to live. And his life became so powerful, that a hundred years after Francis emerged from that cave wearing nothing but dirty rags, the great Dante himself would be laid to rest, wearing the simple habit of the Franciscans.
This is a great truism to what it means to live “in Christ”: the way up, is down. The way to Christ’s bosom is often to enter his tomb. And this is why the flow of Paul’s thought does not go immediately from faith to life, but first passes through death. Notice well the flow of vs. 12, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith.
For Paul and every Christian after him, being joined in close relationship to Jesus—living “in Christ”—involves dying with Christ. First being joined to Christ on the cross, then being drawn again and again into fellowship with the man of sorrows—often through our own sorrows.
There is a second aspect of living in “Christ” to note, and that has to do with dependence.
II: Dependence Is the Only Freedom
In verse 13 Paul moves from the focus on death to life, from dying with Christ to living with him. He speaks of being “made alive together with him” (v. 13).
The phrase “made alive together” is really derived from one Greek word, an amazing word. Rendered literally in English it would read “together-living-made.” To grasp what Paul means by saying we are “alive together with Christ,” we need to first understand what he means by this strange phrase earlier in verse 13: you who were dead in … the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Christ.
What does Paul mean by saying we were “dead…in the uncircumcision of our flesh”?
We lack space to fully unpack this, but the image of circumcision in Israel’s history evoked many ideas. One of them was the need to be circumcised in the heart; meaning, to have your heart of stone made soft, alive, and receptive unto the Lord.
One of the problems of having an uncircumcised heart, or being uncircumcised in the flesh, is depicted by the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah tells us that it involves being spiritually dead, or being deaf and blind to spiritual realities. He writes:
Jeremiah 6:10, To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen, behold, the word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn.
Jeremiah 5:21, Hear this, O foolish people and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears, but hear not.
For Paul, without the help of God, a person is spiritually deaf and blind. Another way to put this, for Paul, is to say they are dead.
What might it mean, in this context then, to be “made alive together with Christ”? I think it means that in order to truly see, to truly hear, to truly become ourselves and navigate life, we are as dependent on Christ as Helen Keller was on her life-long teacher, Anne Sullivan.
Helen’s hope was not found in being made independent, of seeing and hearing and living in her own strength. Rather, she could only become herself by being completely connected to another—to her teacher. Helen had to move in with her, to be with her constantly. And Helen had to be close to her; Helen needed to hold her very hand. Helen Keller, completely in the dark and completely cut off from all voices, had to sit, hand in hand with her teacher. And slowly, patiently, her teacher taught her how to see the world, how to hear the world, how to live in the world.
This is what it means to live “in Christ.” It means he is our constant helper, he is a constant presence, and we sit with him, hand in hand.
It means that when we are often confused and blind about the why and how of life, we hold onto his hand. He teaches us, slowly, patiently, to see things through His eyes. When we cannot figure out which way to go, he teaches us to hear the father’s voice, the still, small voice, so easy to miss.
To live “in Christ” is to allow our brokenness and sufferings not to defeat us, but to drive us to the helper, the man of sorrows. And to learn to see, to hear, to live, not on our own, but in him.
We are not ourselves by ourselves, but only truly live, in relationship to Him.
 G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis, 47.
by Sam Ferguson. Sermon given on July 21, 2019