Colossians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Foundation of Pauline Ethics

The language of this passage reflects the cosmic idiom of Colossian Christology (compare 1:15-20), and the ideas it expresses are thoroughly Pauline. Three of these ideas are especially important for understanding his moral instruction. The first is discerned from the grammar of the passage. As elsewhere in his writings, Paul integrates indicative verbs (those indicating facts) with imperative verbs (those that demand something of the reader). Many scholars have recognized the importance of this grammatical relationship for Paul and have explored its significance. In my opinion, the interplay between indicative and imperative moods of the same verb within a passage expresses the logical connection between what one believes and the way one lives (compare "walk by the Spirit" in Gal 5:16, 25). If we trust what Paul proclaims to be true--that the indicatives or facts of God's salvation are found in Christ Jesus--then we also must trust that God's grace will transform us so that we are able to live in accord with God's perfect will. Our minds are in fact renewed to know God's will; our sin nature has in fact been "crucified with Christ" and replaced with the Spirit of the Risen Christ. The result is that our vices are exchanged for virtue. For Paul, the transformed life is the moral result of our participation in Christ's work and helps to validate our public confession that he is indeed God's Christ and creation's Lord.

Thus, Paul begins chapter 3 with an indicative statement: you have been raised with Christ. He expands its eschatological implications with two other indicative statements: (1) your life is now hidden with Christ in God (v. 3) and (2) you also will appear with [Christ] in glory (v. 4). Yet these indicative statements about the facts of God's salvation for those who are with Christ surround and focus the critical imperative statement: set your hearts on things above (v. 1), which is then repeated for emphasis, set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (v. 2). Paul's point is this: the natural, even logical, response to our participation in Christ's triumph--indicated by where he now sits at the right hand of God--is to exchange earthly (or secular) for heavenly (or sacred) norms and values. This exchange of the secular life for the sacred constitutes for Paul the central moral reality of the new life; and he envisages it practically in various codes of Christian conduct that he lists and develops in 3:5--4:1.

Paul's ethical teaching does not belong to the "two-story" moral universe characteristic of many ancient and modern religions; he does not consign moral good to one story (heaven) while consigning moral evil to another (earth). Ethical conduct for him must embody monotheistic faith. There is a morality that pervades all of creation, because there is one Creator. In this light, believers must integrate their "yes" to the norms and values of God's reign with the decisions they make in response to moral dilemmas. The sorts of persons we have become in Christ and the kinds of actions we now take as his disciples must always reflect what and in whom we believe. Ethical choices can not be divvied up into private morality, rooted in values between "me and thee," and public morality, rooted in another set of values between "me and we." The work of grace is inside out, so that private matters of the heart are always fleshed out in the public actions of the body. For the Christian, the marketplace, the town square and their ruling elites are under the lordship of Christ too.

Behind this moral integration of our private and public lifestyles stands the more encompassing spiritual integration of the visible and invisible worlds. Paul taught that God's triumph over sin and death in Christ has already been realized invisibly in heaven and therefore must also be realized visibly on earth. The moral frustration we often feel as believers, when we know what to do but are unable or unwilling to do it, is explained by this spiritual reality: our actual experience of the final triumph of God's grace over human sin awaits Christ's return (see Rev 12:10-12). Paul's exhortation to set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (3:1) in order to "mind" his reign on earth envisions a profound confidence that Christian praxis engages the immoral values of "this present evil age" in a battle that has already been won by the exalted Lord Christ (see Rom 12:2; 13:11-14; Gal 1:4-5). Perhaps Paul's point parallels the more familiar idiom of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father in heaven . . . your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Mt 6:9-10).

The second emphasis of Pauline ethics is discerned from the literary structure of this opening passage. The christological foundation for ethics is made clear by the four explicit references to Christ in 3:1-4, all of which are located at the center of the passage. Especially important in my view is the coupling of an article with each of Paul's four references to Christ. This grammatical strategy is quite unusual and may well stress the decisive importance of Christ for what follows (see Harris 1991:136).

The last two references to Christ in verses 3 and 4 form the center of an inverted parallelism and thereby give readers a visual aid to confirm Christ's central importance for life:

3: (A) Your life (he zoe hymon) . . . (B) with Christ (syn to Christo);

4: (B') When Christ (hotan ho Christos), (A') who is your life (he zoe hymon).

This foundational conviction of the moral life is fleshed out in what follows (3:5--4:1). This passage includes three codes of Christian conduct (3:5-10; 3:12-16; 3:18--4:1), each of which concludes with a summary statement of Pauline ethics (3:11, 17; 4:1). These three summary statements include a christological confession that recalls the central importance of Christ's lordship for the community's obedient response to God's will.

The third emphasis of Pauline ethics is the vital relationship between Christ and God, which Paul envisions in the critical phrase your life is now hidden with Christ in God (3:3). Paul returns to this theme in 3:17 to conclude that whatever is done in Christ's name and through his power must finally be an offering of thanksgiving to God (see my comments on 3:17). If doing God's will has a christological foundation, it has a theological aim: to bring glory and pleasure to God. Thus, the new life is provided its content by the knowledge of "the image of its Creator" (3:10) and its incentive by the community's call as "God's chosen people" (3:12).

The "theo-logic" of this perspective has already been set forth in Paul's earlier confession, which gives thanks (1:12; 3:16-17) for God's rescuing us from our self-destructive sins (1:13, 21), reconciling us by Christ (1:22) and placing us in Christ (1:13), where we are forgiven by grace (1:14) and transformed for the good (1:22). A proper understanding of Paul's realized Christology is that our participation with Christ in death and resurrection positions us with the people--the true Israel--that God has covenanted with for salvation. The community's changed life, which has exchanged vice for virtue and alienation for reconciliation, is the byproduct of God's grace; it also constitutes hard evidence that the new creation that God promised through the prophets is now being fulfilled in the life and history of God's people.The Ethical Demand: Aim at the Things Above (3:1-2)

The opening statement claims that the faith community has been resurrected with Christ, even as it has already died with him (compare 2:20); the believers have been raised with Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God. The latter phrase alludes to the Davidic Psalm 110:1, where the king of Israel is promised victory over his enemies. In this new setting, where Messiah has replaced David as King over kings, the exaltation of Christ is interpreted as his triumph over God's archenemies--sin and ultimately death (see Rev 20:11-15). Not only does Paul reclaim the importance of Christ's exalted status as Lord over all creation (1:15-20), but he reclaims the significance of the church's participation with him in his exaltation: we share in Christ's triumph over sin and death.

In this commentary I have called the Christology of Colossians "cosmic" because of its keen stress on Christ's lordship over all things that make up God's creation. From the beginning of his letter, Paul has developed the theological implications of this conviction in response to the false teaching in Colosse. He is now prepared to draw out its implications for Christian discipleship. Paul has also stressed the church's participation with the cosmic Lord Christ in the results of God's salvation within history. Holy living is one of these results; and we can be confident of this prospect because Jesus is Lord of all.

The apostle's opening statement introduces the aim of discipleship: the pursuit of things above, not . . . earthly things by the proper set of our hearts and minds. This exhortation draws from Paul's prior polemic against the confusion in Colosse about the "things above." The Colossian philosophy's attention is indeed set on heavenly things, but on angels rather than on Christ, supposing that they rather than he are the conduit to God. The moral result is a distorted concern for earthly things (see 2:16-23). Actually, to focus attention on Christ rather than on "basic principles" results in a truer discernment about earthly things. Paul is not asking us to forsake any interest in earthly things; to do so would result in a different version of the asceticism he has just condemned in 2:20-23. He is rather saying that when our spiritual devotion is properly focused on the Lord Christ and his unique relationship to God (as the Son who sits at the right hand of God in heaven), we will be able to see the value and role of earthly things more clearly from God's perspective.

We tend to think of the moral life in terms of either its rules or its overarching vision. If we define morality by certain rules of conduct, then we view the person who obeys these rules as moral. For example, if we establish that telling the truth is a rule of right conduct, then the person who tells the truth is moral. If, on the other hand, we define morality by the characteristics of a moral world, then we tend to view the person who possesses these same characteristics as moral. For example, if we agree that a moral world is just and compassionate, then the person who is capable of just and compassionate conduct is moral.

In my view, Paul's ethical teaching flows from a moral vision rather than moral rules. He is less interested in "doing" codes of rules, although he provides them, than he is in "being" Christian. To be a Christian is to be able to do God's will (see Rom 12:1-2; Eph 2:8-10). Paul was raised in an ethical monotheism, Judaism, which prescribed in great detail how to please God through one's behavior. But his Gentile mission roots Christianity in the indicatives of God's salvation, not its imperatives; it is a religion of divine grace, not human merit. Paul realizes that to know codes of right conduct without having the moral capacity to act on them gets us nowhere. The moral issue, then, is not whether one complies with some prescribed code but whether one is the sort of person who is able to be moral. If one has moral character, then one will act morally.

For Paul, morality is first of all being in Christ, which nurtures the capacity to see the things above. If "to seek" (zeteo) after the exalted Lord Christ envisions the "practical pursuit of spiritual goals" (Harris 1991:138), then "to set the mind" (phroneo) emphasizes the seeker's spiritual capacity to accomplish those spiritual goals. Without being in Christ, the faith community has neither the right goals nor the transformed character sufficient to pursue God's goals in any case.

I would contend that the genius of Paul's ethical teaching is not the various codes he provides to describe the moral life. They contain nothing new; in fact, Paul's Judaism offered a much more comprehensive morality than did his Christianity. Indeed, Torah had already codified God's will. For Paul the problem is practical; it has to do with the sorts of persons we are and whether we are actually able to do God's will. Thus, Paul's moral innovation stems from his christological monotheism. His claim is that in Christ we not only are forgiven and redeemed by God but are also transformed into new persons, capable of knowing and doing the will of God. Nothing less than a moral revolution was triggered by the death and resurrection of Jesus!The Theological Fact: Living with Christ in God (3:3-4)

Remember that Paul's vision of Christian life grew out of his understanding of Christian faith. With his theological assertion For you died, Paul returns to 2:20 to clarify the community's christological ethics. Having died and risen with the Lord Christ (3:1), believers "mind" the things above (where we find the exalted Christ) simply because Christian life is now hidden with Christ in God. The deeper logic of this poetic phrase is inescapable: since we have already participated with Christ in his death and resurrection, we have been hidden in the things above, in God's "things." So we can really do nothing but "mind" the things above, since we are part of the heavenly whole! In this section of his letter Paul will set down no more important an ethical principle than this: that in Christ we should expect victory over sin, since in our new-creatureliness we now have the capacity to obey God. Paul will expand this idea in verses 3 and 4.

Paul uses the verb "to hide" (krypto) in connection with "the mystery of God's salvation" which God revealed to him and commissioned him to preach among the Gentiles (see 1:25-26; 2:2-3). As I said earlier regarding his use of this "hidden-revealed" motif, Paul seeks to draw attention to certain claims previously made by his Scripture. According to Jewish teaching, the plan of God's salvation was to be kept hidden as a mystery until the messianic age, when its revelation would announce the beginning of universal peace, promised by God through the biblical prophets.

Paul's use of hidden here recalls this same motif, with its implications for his Gentile mission, and vests it with moral content. Implied in what he says is that believing Gentiles are now hidden with Christ in God, further exposing the error of claiming that to become Christian the Gentile believer must also become Jewish. From other New Testament writings (especially Acts 15 and 21) we know that Jewish believers were generally concerned that Gentile converts not carry their old moral baggage into their midst, where it might corrupt their lifestyle and disqualify them from God's blessing at Christ's return. The Colossian error distorted this Jewish concern. Paul's response in Colossians is that Gentile believers are with Christ in God and therefore reside in a place other than Judaism, a place where divine grace will transform them into a new creation, capable of doing God's will.

Paul also links his realized Christology with his futuristic eschatology. The result of participating with Christ in his death and resurrection is also [to] appear with him in glory. Glory (doxe) is another apocalyptic motif that is closely associated with heavenly existence. In Paul's modification of Jewish apocalypticism, Christ's death and resurrection constitute the true apocalypse of God's salvation; Christ's faithfulness has already resulted in God's triumph over humanity's sin and death. Christ's future return, then, marks the inbreaking of God's heavenly triumph upon earth; the future manifestation of glory will be the full realization of what God has promised the covenanted community on earth, within history and within its transformed life. Paul may well be offering a tacit commentary on those who are overly concerned with earthly things: the perfection of creation (earthly things) at Christ's coming will be enjoyed by those who are vitally concerned about "heavenly things." God's new creation, the church, will then enjoy the best of both worlds!

Next commentary:
Paul's Response to the "Spiritual Umpire"

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