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Colossians 3:1-11

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is painted on an expansive canvas with bold and vibrant colors. The Cosmic Christ who holds together everything that exists is envisioned in this passage as the one who also binds up the life of the church community. Paul urges the Christians in Colossae to understand the entirety of life within the sphere of Christ. This has implications both for what they do and for what they are not to do. Ultimately, the picture of Christian life together is one of rich, robust, truthful and edifying community, permeated with praise and thanksgiving to God.

Paul has just offered a critique of the church measuring their lives by criteria of the old way of doing things (philosophies, ideologies, and practices), and now urges them to measure their lives according to the work Christ has accomplished for them. He uses a term that identifies their close identification with Jesus, reminding them of their identity as co-resurrected (synergerthete) with Christ. This picks up the previous assertion that they have died with Christ (2:20). The compound word suggests not only that they have also been raised to life, but that they share intimately in Christ’s very resurrected life. Since this is the case, Paul argues, they are to seek the things that are above (synonymous with heaven), where Christ is. Christians often forget about the importance of the ascension in the Christ narrative. Christ’s resurrection ensured the defeat of death, but it is his ascension to God’s right hand that establishes him as Lord of the cosmos. The ascension of Christ as the crowning achievement of Christ’s resurrection plays an important role here, for it also anticipates his return/appearance in glory (v. 4). Though Christ is located in a particular place at God’s right hand, by seeking the things that are above, by setting their minds on things above, the Colossians’ earthy existence is somehow, mysteriously bound up closely with Christ (v. 3).

It would, however, be a mistake to understand Paul encouraging a hierarchical dualism here, where the embodied and physical is to be shunned and the disembodied “spiritual” is good. The contrast between heavenly and earthly here is not a dualism that encourages them to disregard material existence, rather they are to live on earth according to the heavenly reality that defines their life. Since their existence is so thoroughly wrapped up in Christ, it only makes sense for them to live accordingly, setting their attention on the way and ethics of the resurrected and ascended Christ rather than the values and attitudes that abound in the kingdoms and kingships of the earth. The Colossians discipleship necessarily remains embodied, tangible, even lowly. To the naked eye, their unity with a victorious Christ may not be apparent, this is a hidden reality (krypto, v. 3). Nevertheless, to the eyes of faith, their existence is to be indistinguishable with the life of Christ, a hidden reality that will become apparent when Christ is revealed in glory at the end of history. Verse four makes this point clear: when Christ appears (phanerothe), they also will appear (phanerothesesthe).

Paul here admonishes the Colossians to put into practice in their earthly existence that which is already the case about their identity as co-resurrected with Christ. Since they are subjects of the resurrected king, they are to live in that resurrected reality. This means that the deathly practices of the old existence have to be crucified, dead, and left in the grave with their old way of being. They have died with Christ (2:20), therefore, they are to put to death those things that marked and defined their life before Christ. The list of things they are to put to death covers a range of activities that are corrosive to the flourishing of human (let alone Christian) community, from sexual exploitation and lust, to out of control greed and desire. At the root of greed, and perhaps all of it, is idolatry. What these things have in common is the general acquisitiveness that views people and things as objects meant simply to gratify selfish desires. Idolatry is the refusal to honor God with our desires and receive and respect people and things as God’s good creations. It seizes rather than receives with thanksgiving (see vv. 16-17; 1 Tim 4:4-5).

While Christ’s appearance in glory is coming for those who set their minds above, God’s wrath is coming on account of these vices. This sets all action within a framework of “ultimate things.” One’s behavior is oriented toward and aligned with one end or another: Christ’s return or God’s judgment. In truth, there is one single reality behind the two ends: Christ’s work to bring all things together (see Col 1:17, 20). It’s important to see wrath not as God’s cruelty or hair-trigger anger problem, but rather as David Bentley Hart often translates it, “indignation.” That is, God’s anger is justified anger in the face of injustice and the degradation of human and creaturely life. Christ’s return is both a rescue of human and creaturely life and a setting right of injustice. Paul reminds the Colossians that they used to operate according to these vices, in their existence before Christ. Their life in Christ is a dramatic and decisive transformation, and their ethics is meant to bear witness to that change.

Paul continues the list of behavior antithetical to the flourishing of Christian community: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language (aischrologia, abusive or obscene language) are all behaviors that degrade and destroy community. These behaviors have no place in the life of one whose life is intimately bound up in Christ and they have no place in the community that Christ has created. Paul continues his instructions with the ethics of speech by prohibiting lying to each other in the community. Truthfulness is paramount to robust Christian community and this truthfulness is sourced from the transformation that has occurred in the lives of the Colossian Christians.

In all of this, Paul makes clear that the way they live now is not like the way they used to. But this goes deeper than mere choices they used to make now choose otherwise. An entire transformation of being has happened. They have stripped off the old “human” (anthropos; NIV: “self”) along with it practices and have clothed themselves with the new human. This language of taking off and putting on clothing might perhaps point to ancient baptismal practices where people took off clothing before being baptized in the nude and then put on new clothing upon coming out of the water. The baptismal background is strengthened by the similarity of v 10-11 to Gal 3:27-29. Putting off vices and putting on virtues was also a widely used among Hellenistic philosophers.[1]

These ethical instructions should not be understood as an individualized “self-help” program of changing one’s personality. The old “human” that is being stripped off and the new that is being put on are two starkly different ways to exist as human. The old human lives contrary to God, in the old ways expressed earlier in this section. The new human is not simply a different set of choices but a participation in the renewed and restored humanity of Christ. This is solidified when Paul goes on to say that this “new humanity” that they are putting on is in the process of being “renewed” in knowledge of the image of its creator. This is new creation language. The use of “image” (eikon) echoes from both Col 1:15 and Gen 1:27 and suggests that the new humanity is a participating in Christ’s resurrected body, which is the renewal and perfection of the image of God. Christ is the new way to be human.

Verse 11 continues the thought, showing how particular identity is united and bound together in Christ. In the renewed image-of-God humanity of Christ, differences are not cause for division or difference of status, whether ethnic (“Greek and Jew”), religious (“circumcised and uncircumcised”), class (“Barbarian, Scythian, enslaved, free person,”). These differences aren’t erased as if a Jewish person ceases to be a Jewish person once they enter the church, rather the differences no longer hold the power to divide and separate, to make distinctions and determine value. The reason for this is that “Christ is all, and in all.” Christ, as the perfected image of God, is the new humanity that the Colossians have put on; in Christ they are all unified and equally human.


[1] Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 643.