Proper 13 • Colossians 3:1–13 • August 4, 2013
By Jeff Gibbs
Colossians 3:1–13 divides neatly into two sections. The first (vv. 1–4) calls believers to focus their attention on Christ, in relation both to his finished work (v. 1“sitting”), as well as the coming work of Christ on the last day (v. 4, “whenever”). The second (vv. 5–13) commands believers to act on the basis of the life we have in Christ, by killing “the members which are on the earth,” an unusual phrase which (thankfully) is immediately explained in terms of various sinful desires and actions.
Verses 1–4: The little word “therefore” (v. 1, οὖν) matters. Paul has expressed his dismay (2:20–23) that the Christians have been submitting to “pious requirements” regarding food and festivals; these things have only the “appearance of wisdom” (2:23). To regard such things as necessary is to demote Christ and deny his sufficiency. The Colossians, however, are baptized, that is to say, their old way of life died (2:11–12). So Paul offers a conditional clause—but one they really know is true—“If you died with Christ (and you have!), then keep on seeking the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.” In a sense, the reading could stop here, with the main clause presented: “Keep on seeking the things that are above.” Verse two repeats and explicates, namely, that the things above are not the things merely on the earth. Verse three explains why (γὰρ) the believers should seek the things above. In so explaining, Paul fleshes out the significance of baptism: “you died with Christ, and your (real) life now remains hidden (the force of the perfect, “has been hidden”) with Christ, in God. Verse four contrasts the present hiddenness of the Christian life with the great eschatological promise of the time when believers will no longer have to seek the things above and nothing will remain hidden. Christ’s death, resurrection, and session at God’s right hand have given believers a new way of life—nothing else is needed, and any necessary “supplement” leads to disaster. Christ’s future glory will also be the glory of his believers. All the attention (and glory) belongs to Christ, and this provides the transforming good news to us.
A warning might be necessary. In our present context, where “spiritual things” and “heaven” often are conceived of in virtually platonic fashion, one might be tempted to use this text to despise “mundane” matters. In this misunderstanding, “the things above where Christ is sitting” would be otherworldly, non-physical things. Nothing could be further from Paul’s intention! Christ has accomplished all that he has for the believers precisely through “mundane” things, namely, the blood of his cross (Col 1:20). The believer’s death with Christ and new life with him has been inaugurated through the circumcision made without hands, but using the earthly element of water (Col 2:11–12). The “things above” that the believers are to seek are precisely those promises and perspectives that have come true on earth, and that now are sealed and certain because Christ who accomplished them is sitting in divine power and splendor. The promises and priorities are “with Christ,” but they are all about life here on earth, lived through faith in Christ and in love for one’s neighbor. The “things above” are the good news that empower and direct life lived here on earth.
Verses 5–13: Paul repeats “therefore” (v. 5). Precisely because our life remains in a hidden state with Christ in God, our present experience of life involves grave spiritual dangers. And precisely because we do have such life with Christ in God, strength of will is available to us to act in the face of spiritual danger. The dangers are sinful desires and choices. The action we are to take is simple—kill them. Turn away, denounce, rebuke, deny, and refuse to do. The list in verse five is typical, not comprehensive; one might note that covetousness occupies the final position, and is termed “idolatry”; we are all being catechized to be idolatrous consumers. Such works bring God’s wrath, and so Paul repeats his command (v. 8), now switching to the metaphor of clothing. Interesting, the apostle devotes significant attention to the issue of “lying to one another” which we must not do since the stripping of the old man and the putting on of the new man has already happened in union with Christ. No cultural divisions can matter when it comes to our loving, truth-speaking with one another (v. 11). Christ is all things; Christ is in all things.
Verses 5–13 urgently call us to repentance; not repentance as it is sometimes misunderstood, which is to say, “feeling sorry” about something. Paul is calling the believers to change their behavior, and to live differently. This is always difficult. In our culture, anger has been elevated to the status of a moral virtue (“outrage” or “being offended”), and evil insults and shameful speech are the order of the day on social media. We are, however, to be different. We have a different life, one that is not created or preserved by our faithfulness, our consistency in living differently—even though we are called to such living. Our life is accomplished by Christ, and now hidden with him in God. When our hearts are focused on what Christ has already done, and upon what he will one day do—the only response we can possible make to the urgent call to full repentance is faith’s response, “Yes.”