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Colossians 3:1-11 Biblical Commentary
The Apostle Paul and his coworker Timothy wrote this letter to the church at Colossae (v. 1), a small city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Paul had not visited Colossae, but had received reports from Epaphras, the missionary who most likely founded the church there (1:7).
Paul speaks positively of the Colossian Christians’ faith, love, and hope (1:4-5) and acknowledges that the Good News is bearing fruit and growing in them (1:6). However, Epaphras has apparently brought Paul news of serious problems at Colossae—problems with false teachings that some scholars today have labeled “the Colossian Heresy.” Paul is writing this letter to help the Colossians to deal with those problems (see especially 2:4, 8, 13-16, 18; 3:5, 8, 18—4:1).
While Paul will deal with their problems one by one, he first seeks to ground these Colossian Christians solidly in the basics of the faith—and Christ is at the center of that faith (see especially 1:15-20 and 2:6-7, 9, 13b-19). If these Colossian Christians can better understand the nature and mission of Christ—who Christ was and is—and what Christ came to do for them—that understanding will give them a firm footing to deal with the problems with which Paul is concerned.
In chapter 2, Paul told the Colossian Christians that they had been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him (2:12). They had been dead in their sins, but Christ “made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (2:13).
Now he spells out some of the implications for their lives. Since they have been raised with Christ:
• They need to seek the things that are above (vv. 1-3).
• They need to put to death their worldly behavior, such as sexual immorality and covetousness (v. 5).
• They need to put away such things as anger, wrath, malice, slander, and shameful speaking (v. 8).
• They need to speak truthfully to each other—truth rather than lies (v. 9).
• They need to remember that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek—neither circumcision nor uncircumcision—neither barbarian nor Scythian—neither bondservant nor freeman—for “Christ is all, and in all” (v. 11).
COLOSSIANS 3:1-2. SEEK THE THINGS THAT ARE ABOVE, WHERE CHRIST IS
1 If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth.
“If then you were raised together with Christ“ (v. 1a). In chapter 2, Paul told these Colossian Christians that they had been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him from the dead (2:12). That verse parallels what Paul said in Romans 6:3-5, where he portrayed baptism as a burial and resurrection with Christ—the burial of the old before-Christ person and the resurrection of the after-Christ person to new life.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul spells this out in more detail:
“I have been crucified with Christ,
and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me.
That life which I now live in the flesh,
I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me, and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
“seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God“ (v. 1b). The word “seek” is present tense, which in the Greek indicates continuing action. In other words, Paul is telling these Christians to seek and to keep on seeking the things that are above. It is a lifetime quest.
As a consequence of their new life in Christ, these Christians need to lift their eyes from the mud at their feet to the stars above. They need to leave behind their concern with kosmos worldly things so that they might focus their concerns on “the things that are above.” Above, after all, is where Christ now lives and reigns—the same Christ with whom they were joined in baptism and resurrection. He is “seated on the right hand of God”—the place of greatest honor.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says that, because Christ Jesus was obedient even to death on a cross,
“God…has highly exalted him,
and gave to him the name which is above every name;
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,
and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
“Set your mind (phroneite) on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth“(v. 2). In verse 1, Paul called these Christians to “seek the things that are above.” Now he calls them to “set their minds on the things that are above.” The Greek word phroneite has to do with our understanding—attitudes—mindset.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul called them to take upon themselves the mind of Christ, who was equal with God, but didn’t consider that equality something to be grasped. Instead, Christ emptied himself, came to earth in human form, and was obedient to death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8). Therefore, God has highly exalted him.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul said:
“Don’t be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,
so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing,
and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).
Many people think of “heart-religion” or an emotionally-based faith as superior to “head-religion” or faith with less emotional content. While passionate faith can be a good thing, the Bible speaks much more frequently of what we might call “head-religion” than it does of “heart-religion.” While “heart” is a literal translation of the Greek word kardia, the people of Biblical times thought of the heart as the center of the intellect and will rather than the emotions. The Bible calls us over and over again to believe—a head-based activity.
We should not wonder why the Bible places such an emphasis on the mind—the intellect—our beliefs. People tend to act based on their beliefs. If they believe things that aren’t true, they will act on those false beliefs and will suffer the consequences. If they have been well taught, so that they believe what is true, they will benefit immeasurably by their teaching—and by their true beliefs.
Furthermore, faith is rooted in believing, and faith is key to discipleship and salvation (Romans 3:28, 30; 4:5, 11-16; 5:1-2; 9:30-32; 10:6; Galatians 2:16; 3:8ff; 5:5).
In this verse, Paul contrasts “the things that are above” with “the things that are on the earth.” While he doesn’t define either of those, his comments in verses 5-9 give us a good deal of insight into what he would categorize as “the things that are on the earth”—sexual immorality, uncleanness, and all the rest.
COLOSSIANS 3:3-4. YOU WILL ALSO BE REVEALED IN GLORY
3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.
“For you died“ (v. 3a). Death is a serious transition. It brings everything to an end. In this case, these Colossian Christians have died to the old order. Their old selves no longer exist. But, for them, death has not been the end. They have been “raised together with Christ” (v. 1)—raised to a new life.
“and your life is hidden with Christ in God“ (v. 3b). There is a good deal of hiddenness or mystery associated with God. After all, God says,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways….
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
How could it be otherwise! How could we, the created ones, plumb the depths of the one who created us?
However, we have not been required to plumb the depths in order to know God. God has revealed himself through the law and prophets—through his long history with the people of Israel—through Jesus Christ (John 14:9; see also Matthew 16:17)—and through the work of the apostles (Ephesians 3:8-9).
Nevertheless, the things of God remain unknown, except to those who have chosen to believe. To those without faith, the divine secrets are as impenetrable as ever (1 Corinthians 2:7-8, 14-15; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
It is in that sense that the lives of these Colossian Christians are “hidden with Christ in God.” Having been born again through their baptism—their death and resurrection with Christ—they have become different in ways that unbelievers cannot understand. Like the divine secrets, these Christians are “hidden with Christ in God”—a double hiddenness.
“When Christ, our life, is revealed“ (v. 4a). The first thing to notice here is that Paul says that Christ is “our life.” In his letter to the Philippian church, he said, “For to me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). In his letter to the Galatian church, he said, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me. That life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). Now he suggests that what is true for him is true for every Christian—that Christ is their life.
What are the practical implications of Christ being our life? For one thing, Christ makes us privy to eternal life, which involves the life we live here as well as the life we anticipate living in the hereafter. In his high priestly prayer just prior to his death, Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). Eternal life has as much to do with the quality of life as with its quantity—although both quality and quantity are involved. Eternal life begins in the here and now, and stretches beyond time.
This means that the Christ-centered life takes on a new character that is far more positive than the life we lived prior to knowing Christ. Like a navigator who possesses a compass that always points to true north, we can live with confidence that Christ is leading us aright. We might not be able to see around the next corner—and our lives will include hardships—but our goal and direction are certain. We live with the promise that “it is (our) Father’s good pleasure to give (us) the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
“is revealed“ (v. 4a). This revelation will take place at Christ’s Second Coming. At that time, everyone will see him for who he is—the Messiah (the Hebrew word)—the Christ (the Greek word)—the Son of God—the Savior of the world (2 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:7, 13). Then “at the name of Jesus every knee (will) bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).
“then you will also be revealed with him in glory“ (v. 4b). When Christ is revealed in glory, he will share that day with his disciples—those who have believed in him and tried to follow his lead. We, too, will be revealed—revealed in glory, just as Christ was revealed in glory. John confirms this when he says, “We know that, when he is revealed, we will be like him” (1 John 3:2).
COLOSSIANS 3:5-6. PUT TO DEATH YOUR IMMORALITY & EVIL DESIRES
5 Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry; 6 for which things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience.
“Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth“ (v. 5a). Let’s deal first with the word “therefore” (Greek: oon). That little word connects verses 1-4 with verses 5-9. In verses 1-4, Paul encouraged the Colossian Christians to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (v. 1)—and to set their minds “on the things that are above” (v. 2). He reasoned, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (v. 3). In other words, when they became Christians, they died to their old life and were reborn to a new life (2:12; see also Romans 6:1-8).
Now, with the word “therefore,” Paul leads them toward the natural consequences of their new status as Christians. Since they have died to their old life and been raised to a new life with Christ, it is only right that their thinking and behavior should reflect their new identity.
The logical outcome of their changed status is that they “should put to death” (or “reckon as dead”) their “members which are on the earth.” The Greek word that is translated “members” means members or parts of the body. It would be possible to misinterpret this verse in the same way that some people have misinterpreted Jesus words in Matthew 5:29-30—leading to some sort of self-mutilation. That isn’t what Paul (or Jesus) had in mind. Paul’s emphasis here is that these Colossian Christians have died to their old self and have been resurrected to a new redeemed self. Therefore they should act the part. They should leave behind their old behaviors that were consistent with their old selves—and should live lives consistent with their new selves.
Then Paul goes to the trouble of providing a list of specifics—starting with the most overt (sexual immorality) and regressing back to the root problems that lead to sin (depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness).
This is not an exhaustive list, but is merely illustrative. In verses 8 and 9, Paul will provide another list—completely different.
“sexual immorality“ (porneia) (v. 5b). Porneia has to do with illicit sexual relationships. Paul has used porneia to refer to an incestuous relationship between a man and his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1). He counseled Christians not to have anything to do with people who claim to be Christians but who practice porneia (1 Corinthians 5:9). He counseled them not to defile their bodies by engaging a prostitute (pornes) (1 Corinthians 6:15). Ephesians 5:3-5 counsels Christians not even to talk about sexual immorality (porneia), and warns that “no sexually immoral person… has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God.”
The emphasis on sexual immorality has deep roots in the Old Testament. Adultery was not only prohibited but was punishable by death (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 18:20; 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:18; 22:22-24). Women were expected to remain virgins until they were married (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). Incest was forbidden (Leviticus 18:6-18; 20:10-21), as were certain other sexual behaviors (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13-15).
“uncleanness“ (akatharsia) (v. 5c). The word akatharsia connotes uncleanness, whether physical or moral. In 2 Corinthians 12:21 and Galatians 5:19, Paul uses it to refer to sexual impurity—but it can refer to other forms of moral impurity as well.
“depraved passion (pathos), evil desire“ (epithumia kaken) (v. 5d). The word pathos doesn’t necessarily indicate “depraved passion”—and there is no word in the original Greek of this verse that would be translated depraved. However, its linkage here with “evil desire” (kaken is the Greek word that is translated evil here) suggests that Paul means depraved passion here.
“and covetousness (pleonexia), which is idolatry“ (v. 5e). The word pleonexia comes from two Greek words, pleon (more) and exo (to have)—and means covetousness or greediness.
Covetousness is an inordinate desire for something that belongs to someone else—desire so intense that it has the potential to provoke the covetous person to do whatever is required to fulfill his/her desire. The last of the Ten Commandments prohibits coveting a neighbor’s house or wife or servant or ox or donkey or “anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). Covetousness, therefore, is the root cause of many other sins.
Paul equates covetousness with idolatry, because covetousness involves loving something other than God with an insatiable love—worshiping something other than God—making something other than God the top priority.
How can we keep from coveting something? Do we have that kind of control over our feelings? Is Paul requiring the impossible of us?
There is no doubt that our feelings are important. However, it is NOT true that we are at the mercy of our feelings—that we cannot exercise control over them. The first step is to use traditional spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading, and participation in public worship and Christian fellowship to keep our lives on an even keel.
The author of Ephesians tells us to “put on the whole armor of God, that (we) may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Ephesians 6:13). This armor consists of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the Good News of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:14-17). He recommends “praying at all times in the Spirit” (6:18).
“for which things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience“
(v. 6). By “which things” Paul means the things mentioned in verse 5—”sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness.”
Paul warns that engagement in these vices will provoke the wrath of God on the children of disobedience. God is holy, and cannot abide unholiness.
In some cases, these consequences have an almost automatic quality. People who become addicted to drugs or alcohol almost always suffer consequences to their physical, mental, financial, social, and spiritual lives. People who practice promiscuous sex often catch social diseases—or find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy.
In other cases, we might not see the consequences at the moment. However, that doesn’t mean that God won’t set things right in the future.
COLOSSIANS 3:7-8. PUT TO DEATH YOUR ANGER AND SHAMEFUL SPEAKING
7 You also once walked in those, when you lived in them; 8 but now you also put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and shameful speaking out of your mouth.
“You also once walked in those, when you lived in them“ (v. 7). Paul reminds the Colossian Christians that they once were guilty of the sins listed in verse 5—sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness. They know what that kind of life was like, and they chose to put it behind them when they became Christians. They had been lost, but have now been found. Why would they go back to their old ways?
“but now you also put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and shameful speaking out of your mouth“ (v. 8). Paul calls these Colossian Christians to put away the sinful behaviors that had once characterized their lives—and he gives a list of specifics—feelings and behaviors that would be destructive to them personally as well as to the people around them.
“anger” (orge), “wrath” (thumos) (v. 8b). The kind of anger represented by the Greek word orge is the kind of smoldering anger that lies hidden beneath the surface, just waiting for an excuse to erupt. Today a psychologist might call it hostility.
The kind of anger represented by thumos is more active. If orge is simmering, seething anger, thumos is explosive anger—orge let out of its cage.
The New Testament repeatedly encourages Christians to put away anger and wrath:
• Jesus warned, “Everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca’ shall be in danger of the council; and whoever may say, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna” (Matthew 5:21-22).
• Quoting Deuteronomy 32:35, Paul said, “Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.'” (Romans 12:19).
• In his letter to the Galatians, Paul includes hatred, strife, jealousy, anger, rivalries, and divisions factions among the works of the flesh, and warns, “those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:20).
• Quoting Psalm 4:4, the writer of Ephesians said, “‘Be angry (orgidzo from orge), and don’t sin.’ Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath” (paraorgismos from para and orge)…. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander, be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:26, 31-32).
• Warning of the coming judgment, the author of Hebrews reminds his readers that God said, “Vengeance belongs to me…. I will repay” (Hebrews 10:32).
The value of Paul’s counsel regarding anger is easy to see. Anger is deadly. In his book, Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner says, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
But it isn’t just oneself at risk. A person’s anger threatens the well-being of family, friends, coworkers, fellow church members, and nearly everyone else. An angry person is likely to injure others with angry words—and sometimes with physical violence.
Also, while anger might seem to get results in the short run, in the long run it is usually counter-productive. A counselor-friend once told me, “Anger hooks anger.” In other words, people usually respond to an angry person by becoming angry themselves—and that dynamic is more likely to produce heat than light.
Someone might counter by giving examples of angry people who get things done—and there are many of them. The question is whether they might have accomplished even more if they had controlled their anger more effectively.
But how can we control our anger? How can we get rid of it?
• The first step is to understand anger’s corrosive nature so that we will be motivated to bring it under control.
• The second step is to remember that God says, “Vengeance belongs to me…. I will repay” (Hebrews 10:32). Justice doesn’t depend on our engaging in angry behavior.
• The third step is to engage in traditional spiritual disciplines such as prayer, devotional reading of the Bible, and participation in public worship and Christian fellowship. These disciplines can help us to develop self-discipline with regard to anger—and many other things.
“malice” (kakia) (v. 8c). The Greek word kakia means malice or ill-will. The person who is malicious is motivated to strike out and injure the other person.
“slander” (blasphemia) (v. 8e). When blasphemia is used in relationship to God, it means blasphemy. When used in relationship to other people, it means slander or speaking evil (see Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:22; Ephesians 4:31; 1 Timothy 6:4; Jude 1:9).
“shameful speaking” (aischrologia) (v. 8f). The use of foul or vulgar language—words that others would likely find offensive.
Words (whether spoken or written) are powerful, and have the potential to be used for good or evil. James likens the tongue to the bridle of a horse or a rudder of a ship. It is relatively small, but it has great power to steer one’s life. Just as a small fire can destroy a great forest, so also the tongue is a fire that has the potential to defile the whole body.
James says that we routinely tame animals, but “nobody can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the image of God. Out of the mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send out from the same opening fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree…yield olives, or a vine figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh water” (James 3:3-12, esp. vv. 8-12). James’ point, of course, is that our speech grows out of that which is in our hearts. If we have become new people in Christ, our speech should reflect the new person that we have become.
COLOSSIANS 3:9-11. DON’T LIE TO ONE ANOTHER
9 Don’t lie (pseudomai) to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his doings, 10and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator, 11 where there can’t be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondservant, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all.
“Don’t lie to one another“ (v. 9a). The Greek word pseudomai means to lie—to say things that aren’t true—but it can also imply cheating or defrauding.
Both Old and New Testaments prohibit falsehood and honor truth:
• The Ten Commandments prohibit bearing false witness against a neighbor (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20).
• A person who “deals falsely with his neighbor in a matter of deposit, or of bargain, or of robbery…shall restore what he took, …and shall add a fifth part to it” (Leviticus 6:2-5).
• “You shall not lie. You shall not deceive one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and profane the name of your God” (Leviticus 19:11b-12).
• “You will destroy those who speak lies. Yahweh abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man” (Psalm 5:6).
• One of the six things that God hates was “a lying tongue” (Proverbs 6:17).
• The New Testament has harsh words about false prophets (Matthew 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; Luke 6:26; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1; Revelation 16:13; 19-20; 20:10). Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
• “Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak truth each one with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25)
• “If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth” (1 John 1:6).
• John says of the New Jerusalem, “There will in no way enter into it anything profane, or one who causes an abomination or a lie” (Revelation 21:27).
Now Paul calls on the Colossian Christians not to lie to one another—not to engage in deceit.
“seeing that you have put off (apekduomai—from apo and ekduo) the old man with his doings, and have put on (enduo) the new man“ (vv. 9b-10a). These words, ekduo (put off) and enduo (put on) are words that would usually be used to speak of taking off or putting on clothing—undressing and dressing.
Paul’s rationale for calling these Colossian Christians not to lie is that they have “put off the old man” and have “put on the new man.” He recognizes this “putting off” and “putting on” as something that has already taken place. He doesn’t call them to do it, because they have already done it.
Paul uses this clothing metaphor to remind the Colossian Christians that they have “put off the old man with his doings, and have put on the new man” (3:9b-10)—meaning that, when they became Christians, they became new people. They let go of their old sinful person and have assumed the role of a new person guided by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s call to honesty is in keeping with his call for them to act like the new people they have become—to cast off old behaviors and to adopt new behaviors (see also Romans 13:14).
“who is being renewed in knowledge“ (epignosis) (v. 10b). It is the “new man” (v. 10a) “who is being renewed in knowledge.”
If gnosis is knowledge (which it is), then epignosis is a deeper, truer kind of knowledge—the kind of knowledge that we can’t get from a book—the kind of knowledge that comes only through life experience.
Paul speaks of this kind of renewal elsewhere:
• He reassured the Corinthians that “though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). That’s great news for those of us who are growing older and watching our physical abilities diminishing day by day.
• He appealed to the Romans not to “be conformed to this world, but (to) be transformed by the renewing of (their minds), so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2; see also Colossians 1:9).
“after the image (eikon) of his Creator“ (v. 10c). The purpose of being renewed in knowledge is that we might more faithfully reflect the image (eikon) of our creator.
• This alludes to the creation story in Genesis, which says, “God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
• Paul told the Romans that God predestined those whom he foreknew “to be conformed to the image of his Son, that (the Son) might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
• He also said, “As we have borne the image of those made of dust, let’s also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Corinthians15:49)—the “dust” being the environment of our old person and the “heavenly” being the environment of our new person in Christ.
Bearing the image of the creator is important. If we fail to bear God’s image faithfully, we compromise our witness to God and our ability to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). When people see us, they need to see the mark of God on our lives.
“where there can’t be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondservant, freeman“ (v. 11a; see also Galatians 3:28). Once we have “put off the old… (and) put on the new” (v. 9), we enter a barrier-free zone where the old walls of division no longer exist.
Paul gives several examples of social divisions that no longer apply for the Christian:
• “Greek and Jew” is an obvious example, with “Greek” serving here as a synonym for “Gentile.”
We should not lose sight of the fact that the separation of Jew and Gentile was God-ordained. God chose Abram as the father of the Jewish people, and promised that he would make of Abram a great nation (Genesis 12:2). Torah law required circumcision and dietary restrictions—practices designed, in part, to help the Jewish people maintain their distinctiveness from surrounded cultures. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Yahweh made it clear that they were not to marry the local inhabitants (Deuteronomy 7:3; see also Joshua 23:12-13; Ezra 9:1-2, 10; 10:1-4). When Solomon took foreign wives, “his wives turned away his heart after other Gods, … (and) Solomon did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh, and didn’t go fully after Yahweh, as did David his father” (Deuteronomy 11:4, 6).
The first Christians were Jews, and the church required male Gentile converts to submit to circumcision. But then Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch—a man who, because of his physical defect (castration) was not eligible for full membership in the Jewish community (Acts 8). Next, Saul saw a vision of Christ on the Damascus Road—a vision that led to him becoming known as Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9). And finally, Peter saw a vision requiring him to eat animals that were unclean by Jewish law. This led to Peter’s broadened understanding: “You yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man who is a Jew to join himself or come to one of another nation, but God has shown me that I shouldn’t call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28)—and “Truly I perceive that God doesn’t show favoritism; but in every nation he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35; see also Acts 15).
After that, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, became ascendant, and we hear little of Peter (the old defender of Jewish legalisms) in the remainder of the book of Acts.
• “Circumcision and uncircumcision” is another way of saying Jew and Gentile. Torah law required Jews to circumcise baby boys on the eighth day after their birth as a sign of their membership in the covenant nation of Israel (Leviticus 12:2-3).
However, as Christians, we have no need of circumcision, because we have been “circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands”—an act of God rather than man—a spiritual rather than a physical circumcision—a circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:29; see also Acts 15:1-29; Galatians 2:1-10).
• “barbarian, Scythian.” Unlike the previous examples (Jew and Gentile—circumcision and uncircumcision) barbarian and Scythian are not opposites. The Greeks thought of non-Greeks as barbarians—people who spoke a crude language and lived crude lives. Scythians were an extreme type of barbarian—known for their savagery and shocking practices such as drinking the blood of their enemies.
“bondservant (doulos), freeman.“ The word doulos can be translated servant or slave, but suggests involuntary servitude. A doulos is subservient to his/her master and is expected to obey the master’s command. A freeman, by contrast, is not only free, but might even own slaves.
Paul wrote a letter to Philemon, a Christian slave-owner, regarding Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves who had probably run away. Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon, asking that Philemon receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much rather to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would receive me” (Philemon 16-17).
“Christ is all, and in all“ (v. 11b). All the categories listed in verse 11a are subsumed under the headship of Christ, who “is all, and in all.” In Christ, the old categories no longer have any meaning. All have sinned. All are forgiven. All have been saved. All have equal access to the Lord’s supper. All are brothers or sisters. All are “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984)
Donelson, Lewis R., Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996
Dunham, Maxie D., The Preacher’s Commentary: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982)
Hay, David M., Abingdon New Testament Commentary: Colossians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000)
Lincoln, Andrew T., The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002
Longman, Tremper III, and Garland, David E., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians-Philemon, Revised (Zondervan, 2005)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Colossians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1992)
MacDonald, Margaret Y., Sacra Pagina: Colossians & Ephesians (Liturgical Press, 2008)
Martin, Earnest D., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Colossians, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993
Martin, Ralph P., Interpretation: Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991)
Melick, Richard R., Jr., New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Vol. 32 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
Moo, Douglas J., Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon(Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008)
O’Brien, Peter T., Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon, Vol. 44 (Dallas: Word Books, 1982)
Pao, David W., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Colossians & Philemon(Zondervan, 2012)
Wall, Robert W., IVP New Testament Commentary: Colossians and Ephesians (IVP Academic, 2010)
Wright, N.T., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon, Vol. 10 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1986)
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Copyright 2013, Richard Niell Donovan