Colossians 3:1-17: As is typical of Paul’s letters, we move from theological argument to ethical reflection – how should we live? It is not as if the theological is abandoned, but the focus shifts toward the more practical. “So if you have been raised with Christ” – that is who we are as Christian according to the author, and this implies living in certain ways and not in others. In general, we are to seek the things that are above. This should be taken metaphorically. It reminds one of Jesus words about the location of the treasure of our lives. “The spatial categories are often used in the New Testament to indicate contrasting realms of value and meaning” (People’s New Testament Commentary). As those whose lives are found in Christ, we should seek values consistent with God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world.
The Jesus way of life rejects certain values. The list in Colossians 3:5-9 is rather traditional. It is not exhaustive, but illustrative of the kinds of behaviors and attitudes that the writer feels are incompatible with Christian faith. In verse 5, the focus is on inappropriate sexual behavior and on greed. Here is the list as rendered in The Message: “sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy.” It is not sexuality itself that is the problem, but giving it undue place in one’s life. Lust is not the fleeting sexual thought, but dwelling on that thought. It is not desire itself that is the problem, but dwelling too long on desire and giving into it without thinking about the web of relationships in which one lives. Such behavior comes under the judgment of God. One need not interpret this in a punitive fashion. It is simply a way of saying that these values will be judged negatively in God’s dream for the world.
The Colossians are to move beyond these values, and then the writer adds to the list – anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language. These kind of values are also destructive of community, of the web of relationships in which we live. So is lying, which is also seen as a part of the old life, the “earthly life.” The writer introduces another metaphor that may be linked to baptism. To become a person of Christian faith is to take off the clothing of an old life and put on new garments. The writer has already linked baptism, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and new life in Christ. Now he perhaps makes use of the tradition of changing garments at baptism as a symbolic gesture. The point of all this is to encourage a certain way of life, in contrast to ways of living that may have characterized some of the Colossian Christians before they became disciples.
The new self that is “put on” is a self that is continually renewed in “the image of its creator.” That renewal is not just an inner reality, but it breaks down dividing walls that previously separated people. New life is life in a new community.
The values that are to characterize this new life, in contrast to those that are rejected, buried, taken off, are often values that enhance community. There is a very strong streak running through the New Testament indicating that how we live life together in Christian community is an important indicator of how we are doing in our relationship with God. The transforming power of God’s love in Christ changes how we live together as human persons.
Keeping with the clothing metaphor, the writer encourages the Colossian Christians to clothe themselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” This is reminiscent of Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians and of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. They are to support and forgive each other. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love.” Here is Colossians 3:12-14 from The Message: So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s you basic all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
This new life is to be a new life of peace in Christ, a life in which the word about Christ fills us abundantly. It is a life of thankfulness, gratitude, song – a life in which we do everything in the name of Christ.
Colossians 3:18-4:1: Now the writer takes these more general principles and applies them to three sets of relationships: husband and wife, parents and children, slaves and masters. Remember that this is an attempt to apply more general principles, and it is the principles that are primary, not the application. Many of us would find the words used here inconsistent with the values and principles just articulated. We have encountered a similar passage already in Ephesians, and will again in other places. The writer has drawn from Jewish and Greek moral teachings to draw out the implications of what he has written for these specific relationships. The author assumes much of the social situation of the time and does not radically challenge it, much to our chagrin. At the same time, within the social structures of the day, the writer hints, ever so softly, at more mutual relationships. Husbands are to love their wives and not treat them harshly. Fathers are to take care so that their children do not lose heart. Masters are to treat their slaves justly and fairly. If you push each of these, it leads to an undermining of the submissive language of the first part. A loving husband does not want a “submissive” wife but a loving partner. A father who cares about his children not losing heart will be less concerned about obedience than about the children growing and developing as human persons. For a master to treat a slave justly and fairly would lead to the end of the master-slave relationship. We would not want this language to stand simply as is as advice for persons living the Christian way today.
Paul is not at his creative best here. If he ever questioned the power structure of male/female relationship or even those of master and slave, he shows little sign of it, leaving many of his modern readers disappointed and unsatisfied. The trajectory described by Paul’s theological thought still soars, while that of his ideas on slavery and other power relationships has long since fallen to earth. Fortunately, there are places in his writings where his theological insight is bright, challenging, and inclusive enough to force us to weigh his ethical statements in light of these passages, where he speaks of Christian freedom and the equality of all believers. (New Interpreters Study Bible).
Colossians 4:2-6: Instructions on the Jesus way of life continue, more in continuity with 3:17 than with the verses in between. The Jesus way of life is a way of prayer, and Paul invites them to pray for his ministry. The Jesus way is not simply concerned with building a certain kind of community, it also affects all ones relationships. “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders.” Part of conducting themselves wisely is to take care in speech. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.” In our day when speech is ubiquitous and often quite ungracious, these are powerful words. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out. (The Message)
Colossians 4:7-18: This section contains words about many people and offers greetings from others. This is unlike Ephesians, which shares so many similarities with Colossians. It adds a touch of genuineness to the letter, and may be part of the argument for its authenticity as a letter of Paul. He ends with a simple good wish. Grace be with you.