Colossians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Community's Conversion to Virtue
The tone of Paul's moral exhortation changes from negative to positive as he shifts his attention from pagan vice to Christian virtue. This shift of emphasis reflects the natural movement of conversion out of darkness into light. In the previous passage Paul addresses the community as a "new self" because with Christ they have put to death the "old self" and have risen to newness of life. In this passage Paul defines Christian character rather than prescribes rules to obey. For him, morality is a matter of what sort of person one becomes in Christ, where one "puts on" the capacity for doing the good that God has willed. Therefore, believers are transformed by the working of divine grace into people who have the character to do God's will. This new character results in and is clearly demonstrated by transformed relationships within the church (3:12-17) and the home (3:18--4:1).
Significantly, Paul calls the community God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved. In doing so, he identifies this largely Gentile congregation with God's Israel and Messiah, who were both chosen by God's gracious initiative for salvation. Because the terms for God's salvation had taken on an ethnic and nationalistic hue within Paul's world, his statement is religiously and politically controversial. In fact, according to the Old Testament (Deut 4:37; 7:7), God called Israel out from among the Gentiles for salvation and chose them to be a "holy" people (compare 1:2), the object of God's extra special love. But the mystery ciphered for Paul and central to his gospel for the Gentiles (compare 1:24-26) is that God has chosen them as well.
Paul's doctrine of election carries implicit moral content, since some Jewish believers within the earliest church argued that Gentile converts to Christianity should behave like Jewish proselytes (the Gentiles who had converted to Judaism). As I suggested earlier in the commentary, perhaps the ascetic and liturgical codes imposed by the spiritual umpire express this Jewish concern for Paul's Gentile mission (see 2:16-23). If so, this allusion to a biblical people, inclusive of Gentiles, recalls an ingredient of his argument against false teaching. The point is this: not only are Gentiles chosen by God for salvation, but they have also been included by God in a new creation and empowered by God's Spirit to bear witness to the Lord in their daily lives (compare Acts 10:45).
The moral result of salvation in the life of God's people is holiness. The catalog of traditional virtues illustrates the character of holiness that grace creates in us: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. I am not convinced that a careful study of each word can tell us much more about this list (however, see O'Brien 1982:198-201). Paul's point seems to me more general and impressionistic: he fashions a list of five virtues to illustrate his conviction that the five vices of the previous two lists (3:5-8) have been overturned in Christ. According to his gospel, such a moral reversal is the "fruit" of conversion (1:9-11). Appropriately, then, each virtue is cited elsewhere by Paul, who typically alludes to the Old Testament's description of God's saving activity now completed through Christ. Moreover, O'Brien concludes that "each of the five graces with which God's elect are to be clothed shows how Christians should behave in their dealing with others, particularly with fellow-believers" (1982:201).
In addition, reconciled relationships within the faith community bear witness to God's triumph over society's corrupting influence. In this sense, changes within us and between us serve an evangelical purpose: people become convinced that the gospel is true when they see its fruit in the lives of believers. Thus in Galatians, Paul writes that the Spirit produces a compassionate community capable of complying with the "law of Christ" which bids believers to bear each other's burdens (Gal 5:22-23; 6:3-5). The mark of true Christianity for Paul is how well believers care for others, even those outside the "household of faith" (Gal 6:10).
The virtues listed in Colossians include words that carry a profound emotional content referring to how one feels when responding to another in need. Luke uses the word compassion (splanchna) to characterize the good Samaritan's sympathetic response to his needy neighbor (Lk 10:33) and again for the forgiving father's happy reaction to his prodigal son's return home (Lk 15:20). Holiness is not exclusively defined by acts of private devotion; rather, it pertains to public occasions when the community can express its status as God's chosen people through concrete responses to those who are last, least, lost and lame among us. For Paul, our personal salvation is always embodied in our public relationships (see Eph 2:11-22).
Paul himself seems to have specific situations in mind for practical application. First, how does a congregation of believers, made holy by God's grace, respond to a troubled relationship in which each tends to revert to "vice," maintaining grudges and fueling old rivalries? To bear with each other means to "put up with" persons who rub us the wrong way. This does not suggest that we are simply cordial towards difficult neighbors in a detached way; rather, Paul calls us to be vulnerable to grace in order to achieve newfound intimacy where hostility once existed. Indeed, the measure of divine grace is what Wesley called "social holiness." Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience are the very characteristics of the congregation's life.
The second occasion is dealing with abusive people who need our forgiveness when our emotional tendency is to "pay evil for evil" (see Rom 12:17-21). The holy response, prompted by grace, is to forgive. As beneficiaries of the Lord's forgiveness, we know from our own experience how and whom to forgive. Wright suggests that Paul's exhortation forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another echoes the teaching of Jesus (see Mt 18:21-35; Wright 1987:142). Actually, Paul's emphasis is different though complementary. In Matthew the disciple is exhorted to forgive in order to be forgiven; we secure God's forgiveness by forgiving others (Mt 6:12, 14-15; 18:35; compare Lk 11:4). Paul gives the same exhortation but roots it in the community's experience of already being forgiven. Rather than a condition of God's forgiveness as in Matthew, forgiveness for Paul is a response to God: we forgive because we are already forgiven. Rather than a requirement for entering into God's salvation as in Matthew (Mt 5:20; 7:21-24), forgiveness is in Paul's teaching a result of Christ's death. Paul emphasizes the believer's liberation from evil forces and factors that prevent our reconciliation with God and with other people.
Just as Paul earlier gave special emphasis to the evil of telling lies (3:9), he now singles out love for special emphasis. Love for others is the reverse of dishonesty toward others, and such a reversal of character marks one's entrance into Christ and the new age of God's salvation. I remain convinced that though vice and virtue lists were a common literary convention of Paul's day, he always composed his lists with a specific congregation in mind. So his exhortation to love others has particular meaning for the Colossian situation, especially since here Paul expresses such a familiar concern in a unique way. Elsewhere he writes that love is the all-encompassing moral principle (Rom 13:8-10; 1 Cor 13; Gal 5:14). On this occasion, however, he writes that love . . . binds [all these virtues] together in perfect unity.
Lohse interprets this summary phrase to mean that love produces a moral perfection that distinguishes those who endure to the end and receive salvation at Christ's return (1971:148-49). Yet Paul's idea of perfection is not ethical (as it is perhaps for Matthew--see Mt 5:48) but eschatological. That is, perfection is not so much the goal of moral formation, so that the church's unity with God is the result of moral maturity. Rather, perfect unity is a property of God's grace, which perfectly unites the church "with Christ in God" (3:3) and prepares it for Christ's return (1:22, 28). Of course, Paul's Jewish opponents at Colosse challenge this definition; they see Christianity, like Judaism, as an ethical monotheism, and they believe that moral perfection is required by God. Against them, then, Paul's exhortation to put on love presumes a different moral calculus: love is the fruit of faith in Christ (3:1-4) rather than compliance with codes constructed by human tradition (2:20-23; compare 2:8).
As love between people must reign in the faith community, so also must the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. According to Jewish psychology, the heart is the location of volition; one's entire life is guided by what takes place in the heart. If the peace of Christ rules the heart, then every decision made and every action taken will have the quality of peace. Yet Paul expresses this prayer for peace as a corporate prospect: as members of one body you were called to peace. So love characterizes the community's public life, and peace characterizes its internal life. This being so, every collective decision and action that comes from the community will have the character of peace.
But what does Paul mean by peace? First, peace comes from the Lord Christ and conforms to the results of his death and resurrection. Paul uses the same root verb for rule (brabeuo) that he earlier used of the spiritual umpire who has threatened to "disqualify" (katabrabeuo) any convert who fails to observe ascetic religious practices (2:18). The result in this case is moral and spiritual frustration (2:22-23). In sharp contrast to Paul's opponent, Christ's spiritual umpiring promotes peace within the community. Second, the meaning of peace comes from its Old Testament use. While Paul elsewhere speaks of the spiritual and interior dimensions of shalom (Rom 5:1-11), the biblical prophets used it as a comprehensive word for God's full transformation of the covenant community's situation. God chooses Israel for salvation (v. 12) and calls Israel to peace. Thus, when Jeremiah, with whom Paul closely identified, denounced the false prophets of Israel, he claimed that their teaching could not produce peace and should be viewed as "deceptive words" or "lies" (Jer 7:4-8; 23:14). Truth produces peace, while lies produce spiritual and moral frustration.
Further, if Christ rules over the community as Lord of all things, the peace he gives no doubt extends beyond the inward experience of reconciliation. Addressing the Colossian setting, Paul perhaps feels it necessary to extend the meaning of peace to include the material: the Lord Christ's rule ends any need for asceticism, which not only denies the physical but, in the case of the Colossian "philosophy," abuses it as well (see 2:23).
The final characteristic of the community's life is its worship of God. The worshiping community expresses its devotion to God in two ways: instruction and celebration. Paul's exhortation to teach and admonish one another echoes the earlier description of his own ministry (1:28). Paul's ministry aims to produce congregations that will continue his ministry of the gospel elsewhere (compare 2 Tim 2:2). Here, however, he is careful to ground the community's teaching in the word of Christ. This phrase has many possible meanings. It could refer to a body of Christ's teachings that circulated within the earliest church. The idea that the word should dwell in the community may suggest that Paul has in mind the Spirit of the Risen Christ rather than a written collection of Jesus' sayings. In fact, the close correspondence between the ideas of "wisdom" and "Spirit" in Paul's writing (compare 1:9-10) may justify this conclusion. Especially given that the "wisdom" of false teachers (2:23) has been contrasted with wisdom found in Christ (2:3), the wisdom motif may be used here with polemical bite: only when Christian teaching is led by the Spirit of Christ, which is mediated by the gospel of Paul (1:9) and not the errant philosophy of his opponents (2:4-8), will truth be made known.
Just how Christ's Spirit conveys this word to his people, whether by prophetic utterance or by intellectual illumination, is unclear. In my opinion, however, the phrase the word of Christ compares favorably with Paul's earlier phrase "the word of truth" (1:5), which refers to the gospel of grace (1:6). In this sense, then, what is taught to the worshiping community by the Spirit conforms to the gospel learned from Epaphras, preached by Paul and envisioned in this letter's arguments and advice.
The second expression of the community's devotion to God is the celebration of salvation by the singing of spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. Paul's set of words for congregational singing, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, "describe the full range of singing which the Spirit prompts" (Lohse 1971:151). Yet lists in Paul's writings tend to be illustrative rather than technical; his purpose is to impress his readers with an important point rather than with precise prescription. Thus we do not gain much by trying to differentiate among psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (for this see O'Brien 1982:209).
Paul's point is that songs complement teaching in worship. In the Christian liturgy, hymns often clarify the great themes of biblical exposition and prepare parishioners for proclamation and sacrament. In early Methodism, for instance, Charles Wesley's hymns provided the context for understanding the theological contribution of his brother, John Wesley. And what interpretation of the magisterial Reformation is better or more convincing than Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"?
The second reference to hearts in this context no doubt is intended to couple the community's experience of shalom (3:15) with its worship of God. Worship is a natural response that springs from a community filled to the brim with its actual experience of God's peacemaking love. Thus, the effective purpose of worship is not experiential but rather the interpretation of and response to our heartfelt experience of divine love. In this sense, the phrase that the NIV translates with gratitude (en chariti) reflects the community's only response to the grace (charis) of God, which is proclaimed in their teaching and admonishment (compare 1:6) and celebrated in their singing.
I have noticed a disturbing trend among my students, many of whom come from devout families and growing churches: they are biblically illiterate and therefore spiritually fragile. In many congregations worship has become a spectator sport, geared to a generation fashioned by the slick tricks of the media. The "feel good" experience has replaced the hard discipline of knowing God in spirit and truth. The church's vocation in the world is to be of and for God, and this is a difficult and often costly calling. Christians today must have minds as tough as nails, able to cut through the vapid secularism and materialism of our world with the "word of truth."
Every believer today is under siege; the church's witness--even its faith in God--is threatened by the norms and values of a pervasively anti-God world. To support and direct God's people for their daily battles, preaching must be informed by a rigorous study of biblical texts. The church's teaching ministry must help its members understand all of life through a scriptural filter. If we are to know the truth and the demands of God's reign and to better understand the deceits of our anti-God world, so that we are prepared to worship and bear witness to the Lord, our congregations need to gather closely around the Scriptures.
Paul's summary of his discussion of virtue is similar to his summary of vice (3:11) in two ways. First, both affirm that the whole of Christian life, whether . . . word or deed, derives from the Lord Jesus. By minding the "things above," the community finds that it has good reason for giving thanks to God the Father through him. Second, both continue Paul's polemic against false religion. Lohse suggests that the phrase in the name of the Lord Jesus was formulated to encourage the conviction that "the Christian's entire life is placed under obedience to the Lord" (Lohse 1971:152-53). Any rule of faith that disregards the centrality of the Lord Christ for Christianity's self-understanding cannot result in proper worship of and witness to God. Further, our active worship to God comes through him [Christ] alone--not through our congregational leaders or religious rituals and rules. This closing formula, which places the community in relationship to God through Christ, reminds us of what Paul said earlier in 3:3: the community's hope for salvation is viable only if its "life is hidden with Christ in God."