Colossians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul's Response to the "Spiritual Umpire"

Paul's second response to the teaching that threatens Colossian faith offers a description of the Christian life in four parts. After introducing the essential structure of his ethics (3:1-4), Paul goes on to characterize what a life in Christ is not (3:5-11) before then describing what characterizes life in Christ both within the congregation (3:12-17) and within the home (3:18--4:1).

Paul draws his ethical materials from the Jewish synagogue. On the surface, there is really nothing distinctively Christian about avoiding the vices enumerated in 3:5-11 or pursuing the virtues of holy living referred to in 3:12-17. Moreover, the household code enlisted in 3:18--4:1 generally arranges the various relationships within a family according to prevailing standards, even those found within the pagan world. For Paul, the moral content of the believer's life has not changed with the coming of Christ. The will of a good and holy God did not change with Christ's coming. The real issue, therefore, is one of moral competency: believers are made capable by God's grace to do God's will (compare Rom 12:1-2). The contrast between vice and virtue that Paul draws in this passage is yet another, more moral way of speaking of the believer's conversion. In this sense, then, we can speak of Pauline ethics as "missionary ethics," since virtuous character presumes conversion, and conversion presumes the preaching of the gospel.

When God rescues us from the kingdom of darkness and transports us into the kingdom of God's triumphant Son, the natural result is for us to "put off" vice and "put on" virtue. In this sense, Pauline ethics is descriptive of transformed life rather than prescriptive: the logical, even expected yield of "being in Christ" is to live in accordance with God's will (Wall 1979). The indicatives of God's salvation are fully integrated with the imperatives of Christian existence, so that Paul does not speak of one without the other. To embrace the truth about God's grace is to receive God's grace and to be empowered for living according to God's will (1:9-10).

Of course I am tempted to make excuses for my disobedience. Most of us appeal to the frailties of our fallen humanity or the utter secularity of our culture to explain why we do not follow Christ. Worse, we may construct a theology of grace that considers perfected love of God and neighbor a real impossibility for us; divine grace is not able to transform us into new creatures after all! This is precisely what Paul argues against. For him, the problem with bad theology is that it creates a faulty perception of the real world. The real world is not the marketplace or the town square, fashioned by secular lies and selfish pretensions, but "the kingdom of the Son" (1:13), which is defined by "the word of truth, the gospel" (1:5). The Son's kingdom is the real world because only there will God's grace redeem us from our broken condition to remake us into new persons (3:10) in the image of the One who created us.

Paul also presumes, with other religious Jews, that bad theology will have its moral effect. Already we know that the sophistry championed by some in the Colossian church has resulted in a spurious holiness which supposes that "false humility and . . . harsh treatment of the body" (2:23) constitute a worshipful response to God. In Colosse, then, the issues at stake are not only a false theology that replaces the redemptive importance of Christ's work with "spiritual beings" and "human traditions," but ethical matters as well.

For this reason, I am inclined to interpret Colossians 3:1--4:1 as an integral part of Paul's polemic, setting forth the moral flip side of his theological argument against the "hollow and deceptive philosophy" that threatens the Colossians' confidence in Christ as the only mediator between God and humanity. While the cast of this part of the letter is less polemical, I think Paul has shaped the timeless truths of his moral exhortation into a specific response to the Colossian crisis.

Previous commentary:
The Foundation of Pauline Ethics

Next commentary:
The Community's Conversion from Vice

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