Colossians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Community's Conversion from Vice
When someone restores an old car, it is not enough to simply paint over the rust. Even if the paint is of highest quality, the rust will soon reappear and if not quickly treated will destroy the car's body. The rust must be removed and rusted parts replaced before the car is painted.
God's grace is similar in that it enables us to get rid of "the old self" before restoring our capacity to live in accord with the Creator's intentions. This is the logic of conversion; and that logic is envisioned by this passage, which casts its first ethical exhortation in negative terms: put to death immorality and rid yourselves of it. Sin is where God's grace begins its work by rescuing sinners from the "dominion of darkness" and its destructive ethos. And those who have died and risen with Christ to a new life (3:1-4) have already put to death those things that are opposed to that life (compare Rom 6:4-11). The moral imperative, then, is to become what one has already become in and with Christ. In negative terms, if vice has been crucified with Christ, then vice must be crucified by those in him.
In introducing his moral program, Paul has located his essential moral principle to "mind the things above" somewhere between his realized Christology (3:1) and futuristic eschatology (3:4). His opening demand, therefore, cues the reader to the dynamism between "the already and the not yet" that will continue to frame his description of the moral life: to put to death . . . your earthly nature is to avert the wrath of God [which] is coming.
The NIV obscures Paul's intended meaning by the phrase your earthly nature. In the Greek, this phrase literally reads "the limbs that are upon the earth" (ta mele ta epi tes ges) and probably refers to people's body parts or "limbs" (compare Rom 6:13, 19; but see Lohse 1971:137). The literal sense seems especially apropos here in a catalog of vices involving sexual organs (however, see O'Brien 1982:176-78). Putting body parts to death should not be viewed as a vow of celibacy, or worse, of castration (to become, in Jesus' words, a "eunuch of the kingdom"--see Mt 19:12); Paul has already chided those who would inflict pain on the body to gain favor with God (2:23). Rather, understood in the light of 3:1-4, this exhortation refers to the radical transformation of the believer's mind, which brings a new way of understanding the body. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Paul outlines a new perspective on human sexuality that comes from a new perspective on the body, not only as an instrument to be used for God's glory rather than for sexual perversion (1 Cor 6:19-20) but as the place of God's final justification: the body will be raised incorruptible (1 Cor 6:17; 15:35-49).
Because the human body has eschatological value and the prospect of a transformed body is critical to Paul's conception of hope (compare 1 Cor 15:42-54), the reader should expect the subsequent caveat the wrath of God is coming (compare 1 Cor 6:9-10). The wrath of God is a familiar eschatological catch phrase and refers to God's judgment on a fallen creation. According to Romans 1:18-32, God's eschatological wrath is already revealed within human history whenever we refuse God's good for creation. God's wrath withdraws the grace that prevents people from doing what is best for them. Thus, we are allowed to act in self-destructive ways (Rom 1:32). As a future prospect, God's wrath reclaims creation for its Creator by utterly destroying the old order of sin and death (see Rev 21:1-4). God does not single out particular sins for special displeasure; rather, the need for salvation is indicated by sin's self-destructive tendencies.
Where salvation has begun for those in Christ, the old has given way to the new, vice has given way to virtue. Eschatology yields to soteriology with its moral result: the community's conversion to the new age is indicated publicly by a change of lifestyle. Those in Christ no longer live in the life you once lived. The shift in verb tense from future (v. 6) to aorist (v. 7) underscores that a real change has taken place in the past, with results into the present and future. Unfortunately, the NIV obscures the inverted parallelism in verse 7, which emphasizes that the new life or walk (B) marks a change from a life "in these immoral ways" (A). Literally, the verse reads: "in these ways" (A) "you used to walk" (B), "you once lived" (B') "in these ways" (A'). The repeated formula makes Paul's critical point: to live in vice rather than in Christ means to exist in a "dominion of darkness" where evil forces and powers shape a self-destructive life in rebellion against God's good intentions for the creation.
Paul lists five sins to illustrate: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Scholars have variously located the ancient source for the lists of vices or virtues that are found throughout the writings of Paul (see O'Brien 1982:179-81). Since rabbis used such lists to guide the moral formation of young Jewish children, it is likely that Paul had memorized them in his Jewish catechism. Because no single list is found in Paul's writings, it is also likely that he adapted both their content and their form to address particular situations. Some have argued that he uses lists of virtues and vices to illustrate the moral byproduct of belief or unbelief rather than to respond to specific situations. While the vices and virtues selected by Paul have general application, in most cases he modifies them to have special significance for his first readers. Again, his point is not to prescribe a code of conduct which must be obeyed if one is to be fully Christian. This would oppose Paul's core ethical conviction: that the Spirit of the Risen Christ has replaced "written codes" in the new dispensation of God's salvation (Rom 7--8; 2 Cor 3). Paul lists moral virtues or immoral vices in order to describe the effective yield of God's transforming grace in the believer's lifestyle (Wall 1979).
In the case of Colossians, Paul constructs his lists in response to the rules imposed by the spiritual umpire (see 2:20-23). Because such rules "lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence" (2:23), in the absence of a vital relationship with Christ they may actually result in sexual vices. The problem Paul envisions is christological rather than moral per se. Colossian believers are tempted to submit to rules of self-denial as a substitute for devotion to Christ, and sexual perversion is a symptom if not a result of this heresy. According to Paul, the church's participation in the results of Christ's work extinguishes the behaviors that rules of ascetic conduct have no power to deny. In fact, such codes "lack any value," Paul says (2:23), not because they produce illicit passions but because they are ineffective in ending them.
The final vice, greed, which Paul clarifies as idolatry, seems out of place in this catalog of sexual sins. Perhaps the best explanation of its meaning proceeds from reading the list backwards as a chronology of sexual sin. Sexual immorality (that is, porneia, which usually refers to sexual relations outside of marriage) is the byproduct of evil desires (natural sexual desire corrupted by sin), which more specifically are lust. This process from lust to sexual immorality has its source in greed (pleonexia), which literally means "to crave more" or to covet what one does not have (O'Brien 1982:182-83). In Jewish teaching greed is often combined with idolatry, because whatever is the object of greed (in this case, more and better sex) has replaced God at the center of one's life (compare Jas 4:1-12). If Christ is Lord over all things, then the disciple's passions are brought under control and centered by "minding the things above." The result in the believer's life reproduces the Creator's good intentions for humanity.
Especially at a time when many mainstream churches wrestle with Christian ethics, Paul's advice guides our response toward issues of human sexuality. Today, the tragic results of sexual dysfunction are every day's news: AIDS, sexual harassment in the workplace, increasing promiscuity, adolescent pregnancy, confused gender identity, and pornographic depictions of both women and children. Paul's lists of sexual perversion or of sexual purity set moral boundaries around our sexuality--what accords or discords with God's will. The lists describe, then, the fruit of God's character-creating grace in a person's life: sexual purity is evidence of fellowship with God. Yet the lists also describe sexual patterns that reflect God's original intentions for creation (compare Rom 1:18-32). The aim of grace as it transforms human existence is to restore humanity to a time when God's good purposes for human beings were carried out purely. The lists describe the kind of sexual revolution that will bring humanity back from sexual chaos into harmony with the Creator. The result of this sexual revolution in Christ is an alternative moral culture.
Paul's second vice list (which also includes five sins) begins with a familiar eschatological idiom, But now. "But now" that the new age of God's salvation has begun because of Christ, you must get rid of vice. As before, the church's imperative, you must rid yourselves, is linked to the indicative of God's salvation: since God has forgiven us our sins and redeemed us from their consequences (see 1:14) and since God's reconciling grace has liberated us from accusation and sin (see 1:22), we are to live a vice-free life. In this case the sins are social and not sexual, and deal primarily with speech that reveals hatred toward others and usually results in broken fellowship.
James reminds us that the real issue at stake when people talk with each other is not so much the verbal transmission of ideas, but how those ideas affect human relationships for good or ill (Jas 3:1-18). Thus, if our speech is informed by heavenly Wisdom and thus characterized by purity (Jas 3:17), then relationships are put at peace and the community can await God's "harvest of righteousness" (Jas 3:18). If, on the other hand, our speech is informed by earthly wisdom and is thus "of the devil" (Jas 3:15), then relationships are destroyed by "bitter envy and selfish ambition" (Jas 3:14) and the community finds "disorder and every evil practice" within itself (Jas 3:16), thus imperiling its entrance into a future shalom (Jas 3:2; 1:4). Similarly, the purpose of Paul's second list is to remind the reader that God's grace does not fixate upon the individual. Christianity is not a cult of the individual! Rather, God's grace transforms a people who live in right relationship with one another. To end anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language, and to not lie to each other repairs relationships.
How this fivefold catalog of social vices is relevant to the Colossian situation is difficult to say. Perhaps we should take our clue from the emphasis Paul places on the final vice: do not lie (pseudomai, lit. "to speak falsehood"). Paul's earlier polemic against the errant philosophy focused on two contrasting claims: the gospel is "the word of truth" (1:5), and the competing philosophy is "hollow and deceptive" (2:8). Since the measure of the message is its fruit, Paul implies here that the philosophy has resulted in a weakened capacity to resist sexual and social vice.
Many of my non-Christian students reject the compelling claims of the gospel because their experience with Christians has not been very convincing. Christians' slandering other Christians does not constitute solid evidence for a gospel of reconciliation. Congregations that are angry with each other are not solid evidence for a loving God. Christians who claim to love the Lord and then lie or cheat to get ahead or to live extravagantly do not provide convincing evidence to the non-Christian world that God's grace makes much of a difference in one's life.
The essential point of this section is this: the missionary Paul is mindful that fundamental changes in how we use everyday language or in our attitudes toward human sexuality are the most compelling evidence for the truth of the gospel we confess. Incarnation is critical to proclamation; without the first, the second seems as hollow and deceitful as the Colossian philosophy seemed to the apostle.
Once accepted and rooted, the gospel will have its moral effect. Vice is rejected and rooted out since you have taken off your old self . . . and have put on the new self. Paul makes his point more vivid by using verbs for taking off and putting on clothes--another metaphor of change. As we grow up, we learn why and when it is important to change our clothes: either because they are dirty or because they are inappropriate for a new occasion. Paul's choice of metaphors draws from Jewish teaching, where dress symbolizes the character of a community's relationship to God: taking off vice and putting on true devotion to God is a change of spiritual clothes proper for the Jewish way of life. Likewise, Paul says, God's grace has made sin inappropriate for our new life in Christ.
It is necessary for a new humanity to put on new clothes of holiness. Several commentators understand the "old-new" motif in terms of Paul's "Adam Christology." Frequently in his writing Paul alludes to Adam to typify a particular response to God: Adam is a type of rebellious humanity, who need God's salvation (Rom 5:12-21) but whose sin prevents God's grace from having its redemptive effect. Christ, whose response to God is obedience rather than rebellion, is the "second Adam" (1 Cor 15:45-49; Phil 2:5-8); he is a type of believing humanity who have been redeemed. In this light Paul uses the words old (palaios) and new (either neos, as here, or kainos, as in 2 Cor 5:17) to express the transforming power of God's grace over sin for those in Christ.
The phrase new self does not mean Paul is focusing on personal ethics at the expense of a corporate understanding of the new life. While morality requires individual responsibility and character, Christianity is not a cult of the self-sufficient individual; it is a way of worship and witness for an entire people of God, a "new humanity." The new self, then, is a metaphor for a congregational and relational whole. Individuals who respond to God's call by confessing Jesus as Lord and are subsequently transformed by God's salvation-creating grace become members of a people in whose life and history God's transforming power is at work. For Paul, then, the critical decision for any individual is how to become a member of God's people in Christ. The primary fruit of an individual's faith is how the believer relates to others who belong to the congregation of God's people.
For this reason, some scholars have understood "taking off old and putting on new" as an allusion to Christian baptism (Wright 1987:138-39). The verbal ideas are stated as aorist participles, which indicates that Paul has in mind an event of singular, unrepeatable importance, such as conversion and the baptism of the new believer into Christ's transcendent body (see 3:1-4). But for Paul, this union with Christ is not quite so mystical. The great achievement of the Christ event is God's victory over the evil forces that prevent human beings--God's greatest creation--from enjoying what God intended us to be and to do.
Paul extends the meaning of his first metaphor by a second: which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. The ethical renewal of the new self is nothing less than the complete restoration of God's very good purposes for human existence, which were left unrealized because of the Fall. Paul is absolutely confident that the deepest longing of the human spirit can now be satisfied in Christ. Paul has already indicated that this is the aim of God's reconciliation (1:22) and so of his own evangelistic ministry (1:28). The community's hope for perfection in the Creator's image rests on the knowledge that Christ is "the image of the invisible God" (1:15) and the very embodiment of God's intentions for humanity (2:9). In this sense, to "mind the things above" is to know that those who already have participated in Christ's triumph are now being renewed in his image--the pattern of moral transformation the Creator has established for all humanity. Paul's conclusion would not be lost on his readers: a Christless religion based on "human traditions" and mediated by "spiritual beings" is powerless to renew people, because it transmits a false knowledge of God's moral pattern for the new age.
The christological foundation of Paul's ethical teaching is sharpened by this first of three important conclusions to his moral codes (also see 3:17 and 4:1). The first part of this passage describes the "new humanity" that accords with the image of the Creator: Here (that is, in Christ) there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian (uncultured non-Greeks), Scythian (the most remote and savage non-Greeks), slave or free. This is a Pauline "Magna Carta" of the sort we find in Galatians 3:28. The sociology of the faith community found in Christ is egalitarian. The meaning of this statement for the Colossian believers is similar to its meaning for the Galatian believers: the gospel doesn't confer on one class of people a higher value than any other. God doesn't play favorites; God saves us all in the same way and for the same end. Thus, the divisions Paul draws here represent religious (Jewish) and cultural (Hellenistic) classes (see Wright 1987:139-40). Paul may be responding to the elitism promoted by the false teaching in Colosse, whose "fine-sounding" arguments, "traditions and regulations" have had greatest appeal among the educated (and perhaps Jewish) middle class. In Christ all believers are equal, regardless of social class.
Armed with a faith founded on this conviction, the Wesleyan revival of eighteenth-century England helped to fashion social and political reforms on behalf of the working-class poor that have been carried through to this day. John Wesley had in mind the transformation of all life, spiritual and societal, on the basis of the gospel. The gospel claimed that the poor and powerless were the equal of the ruling-class rich; the love of God gave value to society's marginal members within a world whose greed and indifference victimized them. Within a Wesleyan "society" the least and the last had a voice and a vote for the first time. This empowered them and provided them with a new vision for all of society. The Wesleyan revival and countless other evangelical movements bear witness to the truth of the gospel, which reorders the way our relationships are viewed; the grace of God transforms the way life is lived.
The concluding formula, Christ is all, and is in all, echoes the confession of 1:15-20 and once again lays claim to Christ's lordship over the new order. In Schweizer's words, "Christ is the measure by which everything is to be defined" (1972:200); he is "all that matters" (Harris 1991:154). This is the firm conviction of the new humanity--those who have already "taken off" the fallen order and "put on" the good intentions of the Creator which they have begun to realize in Christ.