A Matter of Life and Death
The letter to the Colossians is written to a community of young Christians discovering their faith. They are trying to “figure it out.” On the one hand there are vocal spiritual teachers calling for them to understand the Christian Faith in terms of behavior and regulation and having particular religious experiences. But Paul writes this letter to lead these young Christians to a deeper, truer understanding of what it means to be Christian. That is, the Gospel is not essentially about being spiritual but being like Christ, living lives that come from him, exist in him, and move toward him. Today’s passage is framed by this underlying question – Is being spiritual (holy) about spiritual experience or character change?
Paul’s answer to that question is grounded in the new reality we have found in Christ. He works from the case he has been building in the prior passage. “So, then just as you received Christ…” (2:6); “you have been given fullness in Christ…” (2:10); “God made you alive with Christ…” (2:13); “Since you died with Christ…” (2:20). With Christ, everything has changed. Because that is true, we, too, should be changed.
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above.” (3:1) That is, precisely because the reality of your life in Christ has changed it must show in how you live your life. True spirituality – in Christ – is reflected in life as we live it. The original text actually says “if” you have been raised with Christ, “you must set your hearts on things above.” That “if” is assumed to be true (hence the translation as “since”) but perhaps we should not lose sight of the “if, then” character of Paul’s argument. Being “raised with Christ” and setting our hearts “on things above” are two parts of one whole. That is, this orientation for living is not an option or automatic. It is a call to realizing the promise that is offered to us “in Christ.”
“Therefore” – because this is true – “put to death” destructive patterns of living (3:5). The language demands decisive change. This is a call to a radical change of living. “Whatever belongs to your earthly nature” belong to life apart from Christ. A vestige of a different – sinful, destructive – way of living, it must be removed to live in this new way. This is not law, but spiritual “surgery.” The old dead ‘flesh” must be cut away or its decay will destroy the healthy life Christ brings us.
You used to live in these ways, “but now” – because we are in Christ – we must “rid yourselves” of destructive patterns of relating to others. (3:8-9)Again, the language demands decisive change. This is a call to a radical change in our relations with others. They are no longer simply obstacles to our self-service, enemies, or objects. Christ remakes how we see others as he remakes us.
This passage cannot be read as a challenge to incremental efforts at spiritual improvement. It is a call to radical transformation of life. This also should not be read as a call to behavioral regulation or rigorous legalism. It envisions a deeper transformation of person and character. Because we are now found in Christ our lives – character, identity, patterns of living – should reflect that reality. This transformation involves “putting to death” and “putting away” old patterns, but it also embraces “putting on” the new self (3:10) and the character of living that go with it (3:12).
Paul is defining the meaning of our new spiritual life as nothing less than the thorough transformation of our lives, radically remade in this new reality in Christ. Because we have become spiritually minded and spiritually alive in Christ, (therefore) we live changed lives. The result is a new identity – in Christ. No longer “Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free,” we are now “in Christ.”
This passage addresses a challenge to the understanding of what it means to be Christian that is both an ancient historical feature of the context of this Scripture and a very real feature of our contemporary context. The incipient tendency toward Gnosticism that Paul addresses is a resilient strain of Christian thinking and living. It is not difficult in our own context to find “spiritual teachers” who still posture Christian faith as essentially about spiritual experience or behavioral regulation. Neither envision deep, transformative change of people and lives. The measure of spirituality becomes the level of enthusiasm or emotional engagement in events of worship. Music, visual effects, and choreographed group engagement are orchestrated to elicit the most affective result. Or, varieties of behavioral regulation produce new legalisms that equate Christian life with certain actions or types of conduct.
The point is not that experience or behaviors don’t matter. It is that they are not what matters most. Life in Christ works from the inside out. It’s a question of where we begin. When we begin with minds settled on Christ, life grounded in the life of Christ, change must result. Expressed another way, when we begin with minds settled in Christ, grounded in the life of Christ, radical change can happen. Paul is defining not only what we should do, but what we – through Christ – can do. Being “raised with Christ” offers radical life transformation. The old life can be left behind – taken off, put to death. Our new life – in Christ – enfolds us, redefining who we are.
Paul is calling his readers to life their vision. Defining the Christian life centrally in terms of spiritual experience or regulation of actions is not to just get the message wrong, but to set the level of promise and expectation too low. The call to life in Christ is so much more. Paul wants us to focus our vision – and our living – high and lifted up.