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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Foundation of Pauline Ethics (3:1-4)
The Foundation of Pauline Ethics (3:1-4)

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.

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