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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).