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Colossians 3:1-17

© Rosemary Bardsley 2014

Colossians 3:1 – 3

In these verses Paul gives his final warning with respect to the false teaching that was troubling the Colossian believers. He does so by repeating or teaching a number of important truths, and bases his final exhortation on these truths.

The first truth, and the first reason for ignoring the false teaching: you have been raised with Christ.  He has already stated this in two different ways in chapter 2 – in verse 12: raised with him, and verse 13: God made you alive with Christ.  Because of this truth, Paul says: sets your hearts on things above.

The second truth, backing up and expanding on the first: ‘where Christ is seated at the right hand of God’. This is the first time Paul has mentioned this truth in this letter. This position of authority is alluded to by the title ‘firstborn’ [1:15]. It is assumed in the fact that Christ is ‘head over every power and authority’ [2:10], but in this letter it is stated only here. Because Christ is seated at the right hand of God, believers are to set your minds on things above, and not on earthly things. The false teaching, as we saw in 2:16-23, forced the believers to look at themselves – their personal spirituality and their personal religious performance. It took their focus and their confidence away from Christ. It diverted their hearts and minds away from him in whom they had complete and multi-faceted salvation.

The third truth, which shows the foolishness of looking at and trusting in one’s own spirituality and performance: you died. By this Paul wants us to understand that as far as the law is concerned believers are already dead. We, in a very real sense, are irrelevant. Our works, our performance of rituals, our spirituality – none of these can contribute anything to our salvation. It is no longer taken into account. We are crucified, dead, and buried with Christ.

The fourth truth: ‘your life is now hidden with Christ in God.’ Here is a further reason for setting our minds and our hearts on things above: Christ is there, and we are in him. Our life, and what we do in our life, has no say about whether or not God accepts us, or forgives us, or is reconciled to us. We have died. Our ‘body of the flesh’ [2:11] has been put off. We have been buried with Christ [2:12]. Our life – is hidden with Christ in God.

This statement contains the absolute in assurance and confidence and security. Nothing, not even the judgement of God, can touch us here. Our lives, with all of their sin, their lack of love, their imperfection, the ups and downs, ... everything ... are hidden with Christ in God. The believer is as safe in the presence of God as Jesus Christ is safe. Christ will never again have to bear the punishment for our sin: and because we are in him, we will never again have to bear the punishment for our sin. Christ will never again be forsaken and rejected by God the Father: and because we are in him, we will never again be forsaken and rejected by God. Our sin will never again separate Christ from the Father: and because we are in him, our sin can never again separate us from the Father. The believer is just as accepted by God as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is accepted by God the Father. This is the peace and the reconciliation of which Paul spoke in 1:20-22. We are now seated with Christ in the presence of God. Hidden forever from his judgement. Accepted forever in his Son.

In this is peace. In this is joy. In this is contentment.

The fifth truth: Christ is our life. Our life has been circumcised off. It has been discarded like a garment. It has died. It has been buried with Christ. It was most unsatisfactory, that life – it attracted God’s judgement, it alienated us from God, it disqualified us from life with God, and so on. But God raised us up with Christ, God made us alive in Christ, God announces us complete in Christ. Christ died our death and Christ gives us his life: not his nature so that we become God, but his perfect human life, his righteousness credited to us just as our sin was debited to him. So Paul teaches us that Christ is our life. This is what God takes into account when he looks at us.

The sixth truth: ‘when Christ … appears, then you will appear with him in glory’. The false teaching, with its dependence on human performance, robbed the believers of their assurance and their hope. Paul has already taught them in 1:27 about ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’. He has taught them that God presents them ‘holy in his sight, without blemish, and free from accusation’ [1:22]. He has taught them that they are ‘complete in Christ’ [2:10]. Now he ends his exposure of the contrast between the true Gospel and the false teaching, by giving them this grand assurance: when Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will appear with him in glory. The false teaching gives no such certainty, indeed it cannot. But this is the glorious hope, the sure and certain confidence of those who know Jesus Christ: We will not be rejected. We will not be condemned. Rather, we will appear with him in glory.

Colossians 3:5-17

Having dealt with the false teaching about Christ and salvation, Paul now deals with the question of Christian behaviour - 3:5 to 4:6.

To some extent his commands are related to the false teaching in one of two ways:

The false teaching’s emphasis on keeping rules, regulations and rituals, and on the perceived level of one’s spirituality, had, like all legalism, the tendency to create divisions among believers based on their religious performance. Some of Paul’s instructions address these inter-personal divisions.

Certain other aspects of the false teaching [where it expressed Greek ideas about ‘matter’ being insignificant] sometimes resulted in licentious living. Such ideas found fertile ground in the sinful human heart. Paul’s instructions seek to correct both our sinfulness and our misconception that sin does not matter.

Paul’s encouragement to the Colossian believers to get rid of sin and embrace and display Christ-like behaviour and attitudes is grounded in what he has already taught them about who Jesus Christ really is and what God has done for them in and through the death of Jesus Christ.

While Paul can’t stand a bar of teaching that makes our relationship with God (our salvation) and with each other depend on our performance, he makes it quite clear that because we are saved, because we enjoy this amazing in Christ relationship, there is behaviour that is inappropriate and there is behaviour that is appropriate. There is behaviour that doesn’t fit and there is behaviour that fits. There is behaviour that is wrong and there is behaviour that is right. He gives us a number of principles to guide and govern our choices about our lifestyle and behaviour.

Much of what he says is similar to his instructions in Galatians and/or Ephesians.

Colossians 3:5–17

His instructions, particularly those in 3:5-17, are based on the two significant truths about salvation in Christ that he has been emphasising in the first two chapters. These instructions can be summed up by the following principles:

Principle #1: The Principle of union with Christ in his death and resurrection: Because we have died (in Christ’s death for our sin) and have been raised with him, in such a way that he is our life (3:1-3) we should put to death (3:5), or get rid of (3:8) those behaviours for which God’s wrath would fall on us if our lives were not hidden in Christ [3:5-10].

Colossians 3:5 contains ‘therefore’ – that is, because of the truth of our present union with Christ in his death and resurrection, and our future glory, there are behaviours that are totally inappropriate, and he commands us to personally deal with these behaviours just as decisively as Christ dealt with them legally as our substitute.  

Put to death’ – Aorist Tense. This is a command to a decisive, immediate action.

In and through the death of Jesus Christ for us God has already decisively dealt with the legal aspects of our sin:

He set us free from it [1:14]. This is indicated by ‘redemption’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’.
He removed the prohibitions and impediments caused by our sin [1:20-22].
Because of it he presents us to himself totally without sin – legally perfect [1:12,22; 2:10].
He put off ‘the body of the flesh’ – by Christ he ‘circumcised’ us [2:11].
He buried us with Christ [2:12].
In and with Christ we died – [2:20; 3:3].

Because the legal aspect of our sins is thus dealt with in the death of Jesus Christ, the spiritual impact of our sins has been reversed: spiritual death has been replaced with spiritual life [separation and alienation from God have been replaced with uninhibited access to God and relationship with God.] Just as our sins were counted Christ’s, with the result that he died, cut off from God by our sins, even so the perfectly righteous life of Christ is counted ours, with the result that we now live, reunited to God by his perfect life.

God reconciled us to himself [1:20,22].
He established peace between us and himself [1:20].
He raised us with Christ [2:12; 3:1].
He made us alive with Christ [2:13].
He seated us at his right hand in Christ [3:1-3].

In addition, we no longer belong to the ‘dominion of darkness’; we belong to the ‘kingdom of the Son’ [1:13].

So now Paul says ‘put to death …’. Where the NIV has ‘ … whatever belongs to your earthly natures’, the Greek text has ‘put to death your members which are on the earth’. The word translated ‘members’ means ‘a limb or part of the body’. In 2:11 Paul taught us that God, in Christ, had put off ‘the body of the flesh’ – the whole body. That is, figuratively, all that we are in ourselves – all that we do, good and bad, all that we are, all that we have achieved. God circumcised this off of us and dealt with it in the death of Christ. Now, Paul says, you take each individual part of what you are and what you do and put it off in an actual, practical, moral way.

‘whatever belongs to your earthly nature’ – that is, actions and attitudes that are characteristic of unredeemed human beings. He begins his list in verse 5 and completes it in verses 8 and 9. The first list is largely about our sexual values and standards. Here in verse 5 we are commanded to put to death:

‘sexual immorality’ – the Greek word is pornea – from which our English ‘fornication’ and ‘pornography’ are derived. In the Bible it refers to a whole range of sexual actions that God forbids. An extensive list of these actions is provided for us in Leviticus 18:1-30. All of the sexual choices listed here are described as utterly abhorrent to God. They include:

Adultery – a sexual act between a married person and a person to whom they are not married.
Incest – a sexual between close relatives of various kinds.
Homosexuality – sexual actions between persons of the same sex.
Bestiality – sexual actions between humans and animals.

Paul is telling us to ‘put to death’ all of these actions, and any other sexual actions outlawed by God. Kill them off. Get rid of them.

‘impurity’ – while ‘sexual immorality’ refers to our actions, ‘impurity’ refers to our inner thoughts, to our minds. Sometimes in our English idiom we might say that a person has ‘a dirty mind’. ‘Impurity’ is a reference to ‘uncleanness’. Here we are instructed to put all such impure thoughts to death. This necessitates a radical reformation of the mind and a radical and deliberate stopping of all those things that feed and encourage these impure thoughts. It means that Christina men and women will repent of and reject all involvement in and association with:

Pornography in all of its kinds and levels: magazines, cable TV, DVD, internet. Recent statistics indicated that at least 50% of Christian men and 20% of Christian women in the USA engage in pornography. This includes a significant percentage of pastors and church leaders.

Sexually explicit material wherever it occurs: books, songs, movies, sex-shops, dating sites. If we inadvertently buy, open, turn on, etc anything that feeds impurity into our minds we should immediately burn it, shut it, turn it off – do whatever we must do to get out of there fast. And also remember, and not buy, open, turn on, that particular thing ever again.

Dirty jokes and other impure speech – Paul specifically tells us to put these off in Ephesians 5:3,4, where he states that they ‘are improper for God’s holy people’.

Dating sites – some are not ‘impure’, but there are hundreds that contain extremely pornographic images and use extremely suggestive language. Their deliberate intention is sexual impurity and sexual immorality. I urge every believer to flee from these as if your very life depended on it.

[Involuntary exposure – our contemporary culture seems to be saturated with sexually explicit references – in everyday speech, in talk-shows, in various forms of advertising – print, billboard, TV, website. It is almost impossible to avoid some exposure to this material that can trigger impure thoughts and lust. We should do our best to limit this involuntary exposure.]

‘lust’ -  Paul has commanded us to put to death sexual actions forbidden by God; he has commanded us to put to death impure sexual thoughts. Now he addresses our emotions. Our sexual feelings or passions. This is where thinking becomes desiring. And the desiring becomes so overwhelming that it transitions into imagining/doing the action in one’s mind. And this is the grave danger of the things listed under ‘impurity’ above: that filling our minds and our thoughts will these things will inevitably lead to lust. Such is the nature of human sexuality in rebellion against the boundaries set in place by God. In Matthew 5:27-30 Jesus made it clear that ‘anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’. This is what pornography, even of the ‘soft’ kind, generates.

‘evil desires’ – Greek: kakos = worthless, depraved, harmful; epithumia = longing, particularly for what is forbidden. [Notice the destructiveness of these desires inferred by the word kakos.] It does not necessarily refer only to forbidden sexual actions, thoughts and desires. But given that Paul has just been speaking of these, it surely must here include forbidden sex. In my lifetime I have seen the erosion of sexual standards and values as more and more people desire the legalization, or at least the acceptance, of sexual practices forbidden by God. This erosion has, in my observation, occurred in this order:

Divorce – when I was a child, it was extremely rare. Now it is basically expected. It is certainly considered normal. Here the God-ordained sacredness and permanence of marriage is rejected. This despising of the marriage vows, and the exclusive sexual union involved, has opened the doors for a whole range of sexual practices.

De facto relationships – the public acceptance, and government recognition, of long-term heterosexual relationships without the formal marriage union.

Pre-marital sex, free sex, etc – without any long term commitment. This has become the norm. Virginity is seen as something to get rid of as soon as possible, not something to guard and treasure. Parents and schools supply any child who has reached puberty with condoms or pills. Sex is just as much part of one’s daily or weekly routine as eating and sleeping. People think they can’t survive without it.

Homosexual actions – again, when I was a child, one only knew there was such a thing because the Bible mentioned it. Now homosexual actions and relationships are increasingly seen as one among many acceptable human ‘sexual preferences’. They are legalized in many countries.

What is next? … If one can believe what one reads or hears, some people are wanting to legalize polygamy, incest and paedophilia in some countries. We know that in private lives these are already being practised. As Francis Schaeffer points out in one of his books, [I think it is Whatever Happened to the Human Race?], that which is unthinkable today, is accepted tomorrow.

The lure of the ‘forbidden’ is great. The sinful human heart seeks it out. At a philosophical level, the absence of any perception of God [resulting from secular humanism and the evolutionary hypothesis] has left man unhindered by any thought of displeasing a supreme Judge. Man is also left unhindered by the high view of ‘human’ that was formerly held – robbed of the image of God because there is no God, the ‘human’ has become a sexual object to be used, misused, abused and thrown away. Destroyed. ‘Moral’ values have become relative to what the majority wants, and the majority is so very easily influenced by the media – print, video, audio and internet. At a popular level, working in tandem with the underlying godless mindset, the ever increasing acceptance of divinely forbidden sexual practices and relationships has been brought about in part, and maybe largely, by, for example, movies and soapies shaping public perception of what is ‘normal’.

Our world and culture has become very much like the biblical world and cultural setting where sexual practices forbidden by God proliferated. God’s people, the people of faith, the people God has set aside for himself, lived, and now live, in a world in which these things were quite ‘normal’. But God puts a higher value on people, and has a higher standard for his people. This stuff, all this forbidden stuff that cheapens and destroys humans, including ourselves, we are told to put to death. Decisively. All of this does not fit with the reality of our death in Christ and our new life in Christ.

Help: To get a clear perspective on how secular humanism has corrupted western thinking, read Schaeffer’s book mentioned above. For immediate help with sexual addictions go here - http://www.blazinggrace.org/ .

[Paul’s reference to evil desires could refer to desiring any forbidden thing or practice, not just sexual practices. There are actions, other than sexual actions, that God has forbidden. Everything God has forbidden we are commanded to put to death.]

‘greed’ – [‘especially greed’ - according to the grammatical structure.] The Greek word is pleonexia; it is sometimes translated ‘covetousness’. It is a different thing from the ‘love of money’ referred to in 1Timothy 6:10. It refers more to the total orientation of a person’s mind towards getting and having what he does not have at the moment. It is a very self-centred attitude in which what I want I will get for myself regardless of how it affects others. As such it has a clear connection with the sexual sins identified in this same verse. But, it has a broader application. It is that self-idolizing attitude which will happily engage in fraudulent practices, or dishonesty and deception, or whatever it takes to get what one wants for oneself. Thus Paul adds the phrase ‘which is idolatry’. This attitude puts self in the place of God: here personal avarice, personal wants, dictate my choices, rather than God dictating my choices.

Colossians 3:6,7

Paul tells us two things about these behaviours:

[1] These are the actions and attitudes because of which God’s wrath comes [present tense]. If believers were not ‘in Christ’ this wrath would be upon them. For them that wrath has already fallen upon Christ. That is how abhorrent these sins are in God’s sight. This is how inappropriate they are. To continue in these sins is to stand at the foot of the cross as Jesus bore the wrath of God for these sins and say ‘Thanks Jesus. I’m going to go and engage in sexual sin now!’ Such an attitude to sin despises the death of Christ and makes mockery of any claim we might make to understand who it is who is there on the cross dying for us.

[2] That these behaviours ‘used to’ characterize believers, before they were saved by Christ [verse 7]. They were part and parcel of that ‘body of the flesh’ which was circumcised off in their union with Christ and his death. Christ is now their ‘life’ – verse 4 – and these things are totally incongruous with their new identity in Christ.

But now you must rid yourselves of all things such as these …’ – Again the ‘rid yourselves’ is in the Aorist Tense, commanding yet another deliberate, decisive action. The word – apotithemi – means to ‘put away’: now you must put away. Just as in Colossians 2:11 Paul spoke of ‘the putting off’ [not the same word] of our ‘body of the flesh’ in our union with Christ in his death, so here he speaks of ‘putting off’ everything that is contrary to the perfection of Christ and the perfection we have been credited with in him. There is was God’s action done to obtain our legal salvation; here is it our action done to achieve our moral sanctification. By God’s action we are declared holy in Christ; by our action we are to be holy in ourselves. [As we have seen elsewhere, this inner transformation of our attitudes is being wrought in us by the indwelling Holy Spirit.]

Colossians 3:8-10

Paul’s second list, verse 8,9a, is about how we treat other people, particularly how we speak to other people. He lists a number of verbal sins that express our human divisions from each other and our human rejection of and disrespect for each other. [Compare Paul’s similar list in Ephesians 4:29-31].  These sins that exalt ourselves and belittle the other also display a disrespect for God. He created humans ‘in his image’, and it is this truth that prohibits all actions, attitudes and words that despise our fellow man [see Genesis 9:6; Matthew 5:21-24]. In addition, as we will see shortly, such sins also ignore the union all believers have in Christ, and treat the work of Christ for them and in them with contempt. These sins destroy others emotionally and psychologically; they are also the sins that are fore-runners to physical abuse and murder, or express that same contempt of others that results in physical abuse and murder.

‘anger’ – Greek – orge. This refers to a settled angry attitude or disposition of the mind towards others,  that simmers away inside. It includes displeasure towards others. It often includes the planning of revenge. It is long lasting.

‘rage’ – Greek – thumos. This is a more agitated and violent, explosive form of anger. It bursts forth. Iti expresses itself in fierce indignation.

‘malice’ = ‘maliciousness’ - Greek – kakia. Lightfoot defines it as ‘the vicious nature which is bent on doing harm to others’ [p214]. It contains a deliberate intention of harming the other.

‘slander’ – the Greek – blasphemia – refers to vilification. The word is most likely derived from blapto – to injure, and pheme – speech. Hence – speech that injures. [In respect to God, it is human speech that defames God.] But Paul is here listing sins that hurt other people. His meaning is then, that we should get rid of speech that vilifies, defames, injures other people, including their reputation. Character assassination is thus outlawed.

‘filthy language’ – Lightfoot translates as ‘foul mouthed abuse’. The two concepts of ‘abuse’ and ‘filth’ are contained in the word. Paul is not speaking here of putting off dirty jokes and sexually explicit speech. He has already done that in verse 5.  Here he is outlawing that verbal abuse of others that uses sexual references or terms, or any other foul or obscene terms or inferences, as part of that abuse and in order to abuse and belittle and shame and destroy. It includes abusing others in terms/words of sexual actions, body parts, excreta, and so on. This is very common in our contemporary culture. By using it the abuser feels great and powerful in his own eyes.

do not lie to each other’ – Paul here commands honesty and integrity in all of our dealings with each other.

Paul grounds his instructions about these verbal sins on two facts [verse 9b,10a]:

‘since you have taken off your old self with its practices’
‘and have put on the new self …’

Both of these verbs are in the Aorist Tense. Both refer to what believers have done. ‘Haven taken off’, and ‘having put on’ – having totally divested themselves of their ‘old self’ and having clothed themselves with the new self. This total stripping off of the old self and putting on the new self was achieved by God in the death and resurrection of Christ [2:11-12]. It was God who did it, in Christ. But, this other fact is also true – that when they received Jesus Christ, they by that action of receiving Jesus Christ, deliberately put off the old and put on the new, acknowledging the vicarious death of Christ as their substitute, and embracing his gift of new life in him. They have put off themselves, and have put on Christ [see Galatians 3:27].

Paul then gives a third reason why such interpersonal verbal sins are outlawed: that the new self that they have put on ‘… is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator’ [verse 10b] - Present Tense.

2Corinthians 3:18 teaches us that the Spirit of God is at work within the believer, gradually transforming the believer into the image of God as the believer contemplates Jesus Christ. Here he speaks of that same progressive, on-going, transformation. And again it is grounded in our knowledge of Christ. Some Christians believe that this transformation can and should be complete while we are still here on earth, and that this perfection [sometimes called ‘eradication’] should be the expectation of every believer. However, 1John 3:1-3 makes it clear that in this interim period between our salvation and the return of Christ there is always a hiddenness, an incognito factor about believers – that this perfection, which we already possess ‘in Christ’, is never observable in us as we live out our existence here on earth. It will, however, be instantly observable in us ‘when he appears’. Then, and only then, will we be ‘like him’.

Nevertheless, although in its fullness this perfection is never attainable in this life, the fact that the Holy Spirit is continually working on renewing us is given by Paul as a motivation to get rid of these sins. He challenges us to work in tandem with the Holy Spirit, not contrary to the Holy Spirit. [In Ephesians 4:30 Paul states that these verbal sins that destroy people actually grieve the Holy Spirit.] God’s goal for us is his image, his likeness, completely restored in us. This should govern and dictate all of our choices; all of our words. Each time we open our mouths we should first consider: will these words I am about to say reflect the nature of God my Saviour? Are they in sync with the quiet working of the Spirit within me?

Principle #2: The Principle that we are all complete in Christ: Because, by the grace of God, Christ is all and is in all - irrespective of race or religious background [verse 11], that same grace and acceptance which governs his relationship to us in Christ should govern our relationships with each other [3:12-16].

Colossians 3:11

In 2:10 Paul taught: you have been given fullness in Christ – you are complete in him. This completeness in Christ means a total equality of all believers. This is what Paul is saying in 3:11. All things that commonly divide human beings from each other are removed: religious divides [Greek and Jew], ritual divides [circumcised or uncircumcised], cultural divides [barbarian or Scythian], social divides [slave or free], and, in Galatians 3:28, gender divides [male or female], no longer signify. All believers, irrespective of any of these things that divide people and distinguish them from one another, are one in Christ Jesus. Christ is all – for each one on either side of every divide, all that God requires of them they possess in Christ, they are complete in Christ. Lacking nothing. Totally accepted in God’s presence. Totally acquitted of all that had previously held them bound in guilt and condemnation. And Christ is in all – in every believer the Spirit of Christ dwells. This grand equality in Christ, this incredible and perfect qualification possessed by all who are in Christ, excludes and outlaws a whole range of improper, sinful interpersonal behaviours.

Paul applies this principle in a number of ways:

[1] The verbal sins listed in verse 8 and 9 are contrary to the Gospel: they express our sinful human attempts to excuse, protect, save and justify ourselves in the presence of others, at the same time as belittling and destroying the others. When we engage in these sins we are forgetting our completeness in Christ, we are forgetting we have no need to promote ourselves. We are forgetting our equality and our shared acceptance in Christ. The person who knows Jesus Christ and his salvation is set free from this need to preserve himself. The person who knows that he, and his fellow believers, share in the same Christ, also knows that he does not have permission to verbally abuse and verbally despise those whom God has blessed with full acceptance in Christ.

[2] Our acceptance with God and our preciousness to God, and the amazing gift that he has given us in Christ should determine the way we relate to each other: Because we are ‘in Christ’ we are God’s chosen people; he has declared us holy in Christ, we are dearly loved by him [verse 12].

God’s chosen peopleeklektos – Paul here describes believers as those who are God’s chosen ones. We find a similar concept in:

1Corinthians 1:27,28 – ‘God chose the foolish things … God chose the weak things … he chose the lowly things … so that no one may boast before him’

Ephesians 1:4 – ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world …’
James 2:5: ‘Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith …’

1Peter 2:9: ‘But you are a chosen people … a people belonging to God’.

holy – we have already looked at this in reference to 1:22. In Christ God sees us as ‘holy in his sight’ – set apart as his special possession, set apart by God for God, no longer ‘ordinary’.

dearly loved -  the Greek is simply ‘loved - egapemenoi’. It is Perfect Tense – indicating previous establishment and on-going permanence of being loved; it is Passive Voice – it is done to us by Another. We are ‘loved’ by God.

Because all believers share this special identity there is are attitudes and actions that are appropriate for our interpersonal relationships with each other, and these attitudes and actions exclude their opposites as inappropriate.

Colossians 3:12-16

Paul therefore commands us that:

Colossians 3:12

That same compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience which God in the Gospel expresses towards us should characterize our relationships with others [3:12]. We should, Paul says ‘put it on’, ‘clothe ourselves with’ it. [The verb is Aorist.]

‘compassion’ – Greek = splangkhna oiktirmousplangkhna means ‘bowels’; oiktirmou means compassion, mercy. The Jews considered the ‘bowels’, not the ‘heart’, to be the location of our emotions. Hence ‘bowels of mercy’, ‘bowels of compassion’. When Jesus looked on the crowds in their spiritual lostness [Mark 6:34] and their physical need [Matthew 9:36; 14:14], the Gospel writers use the verb splangkhnidzomai to report his attitude and feeling towards them. It is a deep-seated gut-wrenching feeling of tenderness towards them that recognizes their deep need and their own inability to save themselves, and then acts to relieve that need. In the parable of the unforgiving servant [Matthew 18:23-35] Jesus taught that this is how God has acted towards us – he was moved with compassion towards us - recognizing our deep spiritual need, knowing that we don’t even understand the greatness of our spiritual destitution or realize our inability to ever make good, he himself has cancelled that debt. The punchline of this parable is: if that is how God has dealt with us, if God has acted towards us with this deep-seated compassion, that is how we should act towards each other. Indeed, Jesus said, if we don’t, if we don’t relate to others with this compassion expressed in forgiveness, then we do not ourselves have God’s forgiveness. Paul’s command here is thus extremely significant.

‘kindness’ – Greek – chrestotes – usefulness, kindness, gentleness, beneficence. From the derivation of this word it seems to refer to that aspect of kindness which recognizes and acts to meet the needs of others. It is a useful, practical type of kindness. It is used to refer to God’s kindness or goodness towards us [Romans 2:4; 11:22; Ephesians 2:7 and Titus 3:4.]

‘humility’ – Greek – tapeinophrosune – This refers to that humility of mind in which we do not think of ourselves more highly than we ought [Romans 12:3], but are ready to put ourselves out in order to be of help to others [Romans 15:1-3; Philippians 2:3,4]. Lightfoot comments that it affects both our relation to others and our estimation of ourself. Note that Paul uses the same word here that he used in 2:18 and 23, where he described the humility encouraged by the false teachers. This should immediately alert us to the fact that the humility God requires is not a contrived, external appearance of humility that camouflages a hard, unloving, conceited heart.  The key to developing this genuine humility is to take our cue from Jesus Christ, as Paul points out in Philippians 2:5ff, and as Jesus himself instructed in Matthew 11:29 – ‘… learn from me, for I am gentle [praos – see below] and humble [tapeinos] in heart …’

‘gentleness’ -  Greek – praotes – some translations have ‘meekness’. The adjective ‘meek – praos’ – is used only once in the New Testament, and is referred to Jesus [see above]. However, the expectation or command that Christians should demonstrate or practice ‘meekness – praotes’ occurs several times:  Galatians 5:23, where it is a fruit of the Spirit; Galatians 6:1, in the context of restoring a brother who is caught in a sin; Ephesians 4:2, where the context is similar to Colossians; 1Timothy 6:11, where Paul instructs Timothy as a man of God to pursue gentleness; and Titus 3:2 where the NIV translates it with ‘humility’ and Paul commands that it is to be shown to all.

‘patience’ – Greek – makrothumia. [See the note on Colossians 1:11 in the study on 1:10-14.] This ‘patience’ or ‘long-suffering’ is what Paul prayed for the Colossian Christians in 1:11; now he commands them to clothe themselves with it. As noted before, it is ‘self-restraint that does not hastily retaliate’ against a wrong.

Colossians 3:13

Paul now sums up in one brief command all of these qualities that he listed in verse 12. That same patience and compassion that God exercises towards us when we sin we should exercise towards each other: we should bear with each other [3:12]. [Literally ‘bearing with one another’ - Present tense – something we are to keep on doing.] What Paul is saying is ‘clothe yourselves with all these qualities, bearing with each other …’ The bearing with each is what will happen if we have clothed ourselves with these qualities.

Similarly, we will also be ‘forgiving each other’. That same forgiveness that God granted to us should be granted by us to others when they offend us [3:13], regardless of whatever grievances we may have against each other. [Literally - ‘forgiving each other’ - Present tense – something we are to keep on doing.] Let us remember that God’s forgiveness of us is massive, and we are here told to forgive others just like that. Paul here twice uses the same word for ‘forgive’ that he used in 2:13 – the concept of covering the sin with grace, instead of giving them what we think they deserve.

Bearing with and forgiving each other [3:13] are the outward evidence and expression of the inner qualities of heart and mind commanded in verse 12.

Colossians 3:14

Paul commands that on top of all of this, we should dress ourselves with (put on) love – it is that same love with which the Lord loves us that will bind us all together in perfect unity [3:14]. Let us remember that God loved us while we were still sinners [Romans 8:8]. He did not wait for us to be acceptable first, and then love us. This is the kind of love which binds believers together: a love like God’s, that knows the worst about us and loves us just the same. He loves us warts and all: even so should we love one another.

The false teaching with its perceptions of what Christians ought to do and the expectations it loaded upon Christians created divisions. Judgement, criticism, guilt, shame, superiority, inferiority – all of these pervade a group where acceptance is based on personal performance. There are those who ‘have arrived’ and there are those who have not, with the former being viewed as superior to the latter, in stark contrast to the unity described by Paul in 3:11.

Colossians 3:15

Similarly, that same peace which characterizes our relationship with God in Christ, should govern our hearts and our relationships with each other [3:15].  We all belong to Jesus. We are all accepted by God on the same basis - not on the basis of performance but on the basis of Christ. There is no place in Christ for spiritual rivalry, for impatience, for revenge or retaliation, for superiority, for inferiority. There is no place for either the giving of threats regarding a person’s relationship with God or the feeling of threat concerning one’s own relationship with God. We have peace with God through Jesus Christ. This should empower us to let peace rule our hearts and our relationships with others, because we are called to peace. [See Ephesians 2:14,15.] Note that Paul is here stressing that it is ‘as members of one body’ that we are called to peace. Not just peace with God, but peace with each other within the body of Christ. This peace is to govern our hearts. The word Paul uses means ‘umpire’. In other words this peace of Christ sets the boundaries, enforces the rules, keeps us in order in our interactions with each others, controls the game, resolves the conflicts.

In this context Paul commands ‘and be thankful’.  Be thankful that this is the way it is, not the way the false teachers were telling it and enforcing it. There was no peace of Christ in the false teaching: it judged [2:16], it disqualified [2:18]. It created divisions.

Colossians 3:16

Let the word of Christ’ (that is the Gospel which Paul has been re-affirming to the Colossians both about who Jesus is and what Jesus did) ‘dwell in you [present tense] richly’ [Greek = plousios – richly, abundantly].

In the Greek text ‘in all wisdom’ comes next in the sentence. Some commentators and translators link ‘in all wisdom’ with the word of Christ dwelling in us richly. Others link it with the teaching and admonishing that follows. Hence, the NIV places this phrase after both of these, as the manner or content of the teaching and instruction.

Previously in this letter Paul has -

Prayed that God would fill the Colossians ‘with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding’ [1:9].

Said that he and his associates proclaimed Christ ‘admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom’ [1:28].

Taught that in Christ are ‘all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ [2:3].

The first and third of these would encourage us to link ‘in all wisdom’ with the word of Christ indwelling the believers; the second with teaching and admonishing. However, if we understand ‘teach and admonish each other with all wisdom’ to refer to the content, not the method, of teaching, then both suggested applications of this phrase end up meaning the same: that all the wisdom of the word of Christ is to dwell richly in our hearts, and is to be taught so that it continues to dwell richly in our hearts.

The word of Christ dwelling richly in our hearts with all wisdom will express itself by …

Teaching each one another,
Admonishing one another, and
Singing with gratitude [Greek = grace] in our hearts to the Lord, and
Giving thanks to God the Father through him [verse 17].

This mutual support and encouragement expressed verbally is the very opposite of the verbal abuse outlawed by Paul in 3:8,9a. When the Gospel [the word of Christ] governs our choices the goal of our speech and conversation, will not be to promote and justify ourselves by destroying others but to support and encourage our fellow believers.

This impact of the ‘word of Christ’ in our hearts in Colossians 3:16 is the same as the impact of continually being ‘filled with the Spirit’ [Ephesians 5:18-21], where the expression of this filling is described as:

Speaking to each other is psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
Singing and making music in our heart to the Lord [compare Colossians 3:16],
Always giving thanks [compare Colossians 3:17], and
Submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ [compare Colossians 3:18].

Both commands are in the Present Tense. Both lists of outcomes or expressions are written in Present Participles. These two lists in their extended form contain very similar actions and attitudes. This similarity gives us an important insight into what Paul means by ‘be filled with the Spirit’ in Ephesians 5:18: it is not a mystical experience that divides believers into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. It is a command to all Christians. Colossians speaks of being dominated/controlled by and submissive to the word of Christ; Ephesians speaks of being dominated/controlled by and submissive to the Spirit. They are one and the same thing. What the word of Christ does, the Spirit does – and of necessity this must be so, given the equality and unity of the Trinity.

Colossians 3:17

Whatever we do, whether in word or deed, should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:17 has been partly dealt with above as part of what happens when the word of Christ dwells in us richly. It also expresses a third principle related to the believers’ union with Jesus Christ:

Principle #3: the principle of relating to God, to others and to ourselves, always and only in Christ. This is where God has placed us. This is how God relates to believers – never to us as we are in ourselves, but only ‘in Christ’ – on the basis of what he has done to us and for us in Christ. Because this is how God now relates to us, this is also the only basis on which we should live out our lives.

This verse means that everything we do and say, including our Christian proclamation, our Christian service, our Christian worship, our praying, our obedience to the Scripture, our secular activities - everything should be done in his name, and be true to his person and work. That is, from our secure, shared position ‘in Christ‘ and grounded in the word of Christ. Individually, we each belong to Jesus Christ. Corporately, we all belong to Jesus Christ. It is his name that saves us. It is his name that unites us.

How will this affect us?

[1] It automatically outlaws and excludes some activities. There are things that we never could do in the name of the Lord Jesus because they are things quite contrary to his purpose, his character and his example. For example, in terms of what Paul has just been commanding, we could never speak with malice ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’. We could never indulge in lust ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’. Because we are ‘in Christ’ everything we do either exalts his name or dishonours his name. There is no way we can escape this fact unless we hide or deny our allegiance to him.

[2] It excludes all teaching and all actions that express or generate divisions within the body, the church. When we engage in such things we are hurting ourselves, for we are all members of the one body. We cannot ‘in the name’ of Jesus, teach salvation through ritual observance. We cannot, in the name of Jesus, promote a performance-based spirituality that divides believers. We cannot, in the name of Jesus, foster a mystical, experiential religion that depends on human emotions and not on the death of Christ.

[3] It reminds us that in ourselves we, along with our prayers and our Christian service, are totally unacceptable to God. Everything we do is imperfect. Everything we do is tarnished by our sin. It is only because we are in Christ that we have access to the presence of God in prayer; it is only because we are in him that our worship is acceptable. It is only because we are in him that our service and ministry in his church are acceptable to him. So we pray, not trusting in our own righteousness, but in his name.  And we worship, not trusting in our own acceptability or the acceptability of our worship, but in his name. And we serve, depending on Christ alone for God’s acceptance of our service and working through our service. We pray, we worship, we serve in the name of the Lord Jesus. Not in our own name. Not on the basis of our abilities or our spirituality or our credentials, but always, ever and only in his name, from our secure and perfect position in Christ.

Thus every thing we do should be done with thanks to God that our relationship with him does not depend on the perfection of our words and actions, but that these words and actions of prayer, worship and service also are covered by the cross of Jesus Christ, that in his name we, despite the imperfection and sinfulness of our actions and attitudes, find access to the very throne of God. There we stand, not in ourselves, but in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. In this truth, in his name, we are given, not the freedom to sin, but freedom from condemnation and rejection because of sin. In this truth, in his name, we are given, not the freedom to use, misuse or abuse each other, but the freedom to be for each other.