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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.