Christmas 1 • Colossians 3:12–17 • December 30, 2012
By David L. Adams
In this brief section the Apostle Paul gives Christians guidance for understanding how the life of Jesus, received in baptism, manifests itself in the communal life of love, in worship centered in the word of God, and in a heart at peace that receives all things from God in a spirit of thankfulness.
The Text as Text
There are no major textual problems with this section. Despite widespread attestation for reading Χριστός in place of κύριος in v. 13, the former is probably a clarifying interpretation of the latter. The phrase Ὁ λόγος τοῦ Χριστοῦ is unusual, occurring only here in the New Testament as an alternative for the more customary Ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ. It is, however, almost certainly the correct reading.
The first sentence (vv. 12–15) is somewhat syntactically challenging, though perhaps not uncharacteristic of Paul. Most translations and commentators understand the three participles of verse 16 (“teaching…admonishing…singing”) as circumstantial, though some translations (GW, GNB, The Message, NCV, NIRV, NJB, NLT, RSV/NRSV) and some commentators prefer to understand them as having imperative force. Otherwise the text presents no major translation problems.
The Text as Literature
Paul writes from prison (probably from Rome) to the church in Colossae with a special concern to counter a false teaching among them. The exact nature of the false teaching is not specified, but from the implications of Paul’s arguments it appears to have elements of gnosticism while also emphasizing the importance of the observance of religious festivals and rites. Paul clearly sees this teaching as a threat to the gospel.
Colossians 2:6–7 serve as something of a theme for Paul’s teaching on the Christian life in this letter. Key to Paul’s thinking about the Christian life, here and elsewhere, is the union of the Christian with Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism (2:11–15). Following the baptismal theme, Paul speaks of the Christian life in terms of “putting off” the old life and “putting on” the life of Christ. Our passage belongs to this context.
The first element of the Christian life Paul mentions here is the practice of certain virtues. That the list of Christian virtues given in our text differs from other such lists (cf. Gal 5:22–23; Eph 4:1–3; 6:13–18, etc.) is not problematic. These lists are not intended to be exhaustive but illustrative. The second element in this baptismal life is the rule of the peace of Christ which manifests itself in thankfulness (3:15, 16, and 17). The third element is word-centered teaching and worship.
The Text as Theology
The baptismal life is rooted in the fact that they have received Christ (2:6, 13–14, 20; 3:1—in the latter two instances the Greek εἰ would be better translated “since” than the ESV’s “if,” since the context makes it clear that Paul is here speaking of a realized condition rather than an unreal one). Paul is not talking about what people must do to become Christians, he is describing the life of faith that flows from the presence of God in the lives of the redeemed people of God, who have died with Christ in baptism and have been raised with him (Col 2:12–13, 20, 3:1; cf. Rom 6:1–5). In this baptismal life Christians should not be side-tracked by “philosophy and empty deception” (2:8) or by “questions of food or drink or in the matter of a festival or new moon or sabbath” (2:16). All such matters are irrelevant to those who have died with Christ (2:20).
The Text as Proclamation
There are a number of ways that one might approach this text. One might highlight the five virtues, of which Paul speaks, bound together in love, or the three overarching characteristics of the baptismal life in the communal life of love, in worship centered in the word of God, and in a heart at peace that receives all things from God in a spirit of thankfulness. Whatever the approach, one point must underlie everything: that the life of Christ of which the Apostle here speaks is rooted in the redemptive work of Christ, by which he has made us his people. It is because of what Christ has done for us that we can put on this new life; we do not put on this new life so that we can receive Christ’s blessings. Paul makes this point explicitly in chapter 2:12–13, where he characterizes the life of those who follow Jesus as a baptismal life, a life begun and rooted in our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.