The Prison Epistles, Part Four

Colossians 3

In Colossians 2:12 we read these words:

[H]aving been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Paul is describing baptism as dying and rising with Christ. The ethical implications of dying with Christ are discussed in 2:20-23,

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

In chapter 3, Paul tells the Colossians what being “raised with” Christ should mean in terms of our moral conduct here and now. This chapter is very typical of one of Paul’s favorite doctrines: the moral conduct of believers is not the means of salvation, but rather the consequence of salvation. It is evidence of a new relationship with God entered into by faith. Our behavior changes, it improves, not because we wish to earn God’s favor, but because we have experienced it.

1. A new frame of reference, 3:1-4

Seeking after things of God should be the lifelong pursuit of every believer. The phrase set your hearts on is a translation of the Greek zeteite, which means to strive for those heavenly things. The believers thoughts, attitudes, ambitions, worldview, and interests should be centered on Jesus Christ. The sense in which believers are to seek is not to discover but to “lay hold of” or “to obtain.” So then, at the very beginning of Paul’s discussion of how we are to live our lives, the very first thing he says is to continually seek heavenly things, striving to grab hold of them.

Verse two seems to be essentially the same as verse one, but there is a very slight difference. Lightfoot observes:

You must not only seek heaven; you must think heaven.

In other words, believers should live with their hearts set on eternal values, not earthly ones. In the natural, human beings cannot do this. But, we are “dead to the world” and “risen to Christ,” therefore, it is possible to live like this. Of course, Paul in no way intends to say that believers are to withdraw from the world; the following verses indicate the exact opposite. However, while we are to have normal relations with the world, Barclay explains:

But there will be a difference: from now on the Christian will see everything in the light and against the background of eternity; they will no longer live as is this world is all that mattered; they will see this world against the background of the large world of eternity.

Verses 3 and 4 give the reader two motives for seeking after and setting their minds on the things above:

First, the believer’s union with Christ in death and in resurrection. Paul implicitly says that if Christians have died with Christ, all that is alien to Him should be alien to them. If Christ is dead to the things of the life, then believers should be also.

But the believer is not only dead in Christ, they are risen with Christ and their lives are “hidden with Christ in God.” This marvelous statement tells us that not only are our lives safe and secure, but that our lives actually belong to God in the heavenly realms (Vaughn). Right now, we experience this spiritually, but one day our relationship will be fully realized. Kelly writes,

The blessed portion of the Christian is that he is dead even to the best things in the world, and alive to the highest things in the presence of God.

The second motivation for seeking after and setting our minds on things above is the prospect our future glory. The “appearing” of Christ refers to His Second Coming, and it is the only time that eschatological reference is made in this Colossians. Differing somewhat from other references of the Second Coming in terms of catastrophic judgment, Paul writes of the Second Coming as a time of manifestation: a revealing of that which is for now hidden. John enlightens us on what Paul is getting at with this verse:

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

Again, Lightfoot offers an interesting take:

The veil which now shrouds your higher life from others, and even partly from yourselves, will be withdrawn. The world which persecutes, despises, ignores now, will then be blinded with the dazzling glory of the revelation.

Believers should live with that reality in their minds.

2. Off with the old habits!, 3:5-11

John Nielson makes this observation on this group of verses:

A mystical theology that has no practical ethical outcome is spurious.

Preaching without application yields few results, so Paul gives his readers some concrete examples on holiness of heart and life. This is typical of the way Paul writes his letters; first he writes about the doctrine then he gives the practicalities of putting that doctrine to work in everyday life.

Since believers have died with Christ, Paul begins, they need to “put to death” or kill their tendencies to sin. He lists a group of five vices, and all but the last one have to do with sexual sins.

  • Sexual immorality. The Greek is porneia, and generally refers to illicit sexual activity, although is came to include all manner of habitual sexual immorality.
  • Impurity, or akatharsia, usually refers to physical impurity, but as it is used here has a moral connotation, including impure thoughts and actions. It is a much more inclusive word that porneia.
  • Lust is how the NIV has translated pathos, which means “feeling” or “experience.” It is generally a passive word which refers to emotions, good or bad. In Greek literature, this word came to denote violent emotions, and in the New Testament it always refers to “uncontrolled desires.”
  • Evil desires is closely related to “lust,” but it a much broader term.
  • Greed. The English word “greed” carried bad connotations, but the Greek term from which it is derived, pleonexian, is a much stronger word and describes one who is so arrogant and ruthless that they assume other people exist only for their benefit. It is taking the idea behind “selfishness” to the highest degree. This attitude is described as idolatry because it puts material things and one’s own comfort in the place of God.

These sins, according to Paul, incur God’s wrath. The apostle goes into great detail about God’s wrath in Romans 1:18-32. This idea of divine wrath is at variance with much of what the Church teaches today. Modern man recoils at the notion of a God who actually punishes one who sins. God’s wrath is linked to His holiness; a holy God cannot be in the presence of sin. This is a cornerstone of Pauline theology and as far as Paul is concerned, avoiding God’s wrath is a good reason to avoid those sins.

Paul also tells his reader to get rid of other sins; sins of the mouth and sins of the mind. Just as before, he lists five of them.

  • The first three terms, anger, rage, malice, are all sins of temperament. They are all committed because we can’t control our tempers and because a general miserable disposition.
  • Slander is rendered “blasphemy” in the KJV, really means insulting and slanderous talk about other people.
  • Filthy language has the idea of being “foul mouthed.”

Finally, Paul tells his Colossian readers to stop lying to each other. The way this phrase is written in the Greek suggests that this was an ongoing problem in this particular church.

3. On with the new habits! 3:12-14

Without these verses, it would seem Christianity is nothing but a negative system of belief. But the reality is Christianity does not involve a long list of restraints and prohibitions; rather it involves imparting a new life that continues to grow and progress. Paul has reminded the Colossians that they “died with Christ,” and after death comes the resurrection: believers have been “raised with Christ.” Being raised with Christ to a new life means the believer needs to “put on” or develop new habits in keeping with their new life. Paul uses the figure of “clothing” ones self with the new habits as one puts on their clothes.

As God’s “chosen people” who are “holy,” believers have been set apart by God, cleansed by the blood of Christ from the guilt of our sins and are being actively delivered, as we grow and mature in the faith, from sin’s pollution, and we are being renewed according to the image of God.

Because of all this, we should be clothed with heavenly virtues, such as those listed by Paul. Among them are:

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. These qualities, if they are present in a congregation, will go a long way in reducing or eliminating factions and friction among the members.

  • Compassion speaks of a kind of pity and tender-heartedness toward those who are suffering and hurting.
  • Kindness, chrestotes, combines several virtues: goodness, kindliness and graciousness (Vaughn). It simply means having a sweet disposition (Ellicott).
  • Humility comes from a Greek word that originally meant to think lowly of yourself because you are so (Ellicott).
  • Gentleness, prautes, is the exact opposite of arrogance and pride. Moule says it pictures a man who is willing to concede to others and put others ahead of himself.
  • Patience, which translates literally as “longsuffering,” suggests restraint or patience under provocation, a withholding of retaliation.
  • Bear with each other, forgive each other. These are the last of the “heavenly garments” Paul says believers should put on. To “bear with each other” suggests an attitude that overlooks or tolerates things in others that may irritate us or things that we dislike in a person. It’s not the idea of not noticing these traits but not allowing them to influence how we treat these people or what we think of them.
  • Lastly, believers are to wear love. The NIV correctly says “over all” as opposed to “above all” because love is pictured as an outer garment, or more a belt, as noted by Eerdman. It covers and unites all the other virtues; it binds them together in perfect harmony.

4. The result of living the new life, 3:15-17

Some see this group of verses as a continuing appeal to have love and concern for others. They see “peace” as peace between the members of the congregation. Others view this section as introducing a new topic: living according to the dictates of a new life in Christ will result in an inner peace. Probably both interpretations are correct. When one is a peace with themselves, they are able to live at peace with others.

This supernatural peace is to “rule” the hearts of believers. The Greek for “rule” is brabeuo, and occurs only here in the New Testament. Originally it meant “to act as umpire.” Scholars debate exactly what sense Paul was intending to convey; perhaps the “peace of Christ” is seen as acting as an umpire, helping the believer as they live their lives in the Body of Christ. A right decision results in peace, a wrong decision results in a lack of inner peace.

Being thankful should be the normative state for anybody who has received grace from God. Literally, the phrase is “become thankful,” and means to cultivate an thankful attitude.

Letting the word of Christ dwell in you means several things. It refers to the teachings of Christ, the Word of God. This must dwell in all believers. The Word of God must have for its home the hearts and minds of individual believers and in the congregation of a church. It is to dwell in us “richly,” meaning in all its power and influence and meaning. Nielson comments:

The Christian must know the Word so well that it remains in the heart and mind, ruling all the actions and presiding over all decisions. That Word is the only basis for teaching and admonishing another.

The punctuation in verse 16 is a little confusing; the most generally accepted way to read it is to link “with all wisdom” to “teach” and “admonish.” Under the leading of the Holy Spirit, believers are to do two things:

  • teach and admonish (counsel) one another using the knowledge of the Word of God;
  • sing with grateful hearts to God using psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

On the first point of believers being called to “admonish one another.” In the Body of Christ we are all called to take notice of each other and to watch out for each others spiritual well-being. When we see a brother or sister in danger spiritually, it is our duty to “admonish” or counsel them, not according to church doctrine or our own opinions, but according to what the plain Word of God says. This, naturally, means believers are to know the Word of God.

On the second point, of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, William Kelly’s observations are most helpful:

I suppose a psalm was a more stately composition than a spiritual song, which admits more of Christian experience and expression of our feelings. This may be very good in its way and season, but it is not the best or highest thing. A psalm, then, is more solemn; a hymn is a direct address to God and consists of praise.

Finally, with verse 18, Paul reaches the climax of his teaching. Obedience to this one admonition ennobles all life. Not only hymns of praise, but every word and every deed should be an act of worship to God. For the believer, there is no separation between the sacred things and the secular things of life. Everything we do, whether in church or not, is to be done in “the name of the Lord Jesus. This does not mean that we are to use his name as a magic talisman. A “name” is how one is identified, or shows what one is. Whatever we do, however we do it, should be done in trusting in Him, in His power, obeying His will; that is real worship.

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