“Pastor Paul’s Top Ten New Year’s Resolutions for his Colossian Congregation.”
Colossians 3:12-17First Sunday of Christmas, Year C
(As usual, Commentary and sermon suggestions at the beginning, and exegetical, critical notes at the end)
This passage is in two parts, this is the second half of a series of injunctions marking the end of the old humanity and the inbreaking of the new. Note that in the first half of this chapter, Paul says they must “strip off” their old negative selves (vv. 5-9) and now he says they should put on the clothing of new selves. The old self or old humanity was “earthly,” which is characterized by “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (v. 5). Outsiders were enemies, towards whom they treated with “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” That was the way they acted when they were “living that life” (or an alternative in the nrsv note: living among such people). Or, “when you lived among people who behaved in this way” (CEV). Or, “when you were living in them” (ESV). When you live among the worldly, you tend to act like the worldly.
However, Paul says, it doesn’t have to be that way. Now that you are in the family, you see the world and the people in it differently, and now you can “get rid of all such things” (v. 8). Now that “you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self” (v. 9), you no longer have to lie and deceive one another. You have a new self which is being “renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (v. 9), and in that renewal, “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (v. 3:11). According to Francis Beare in the Interpreters Bible, this means that “the relationship of [people] to Christ transcends all earthly relationships and annihilates the barriers which separate [one person from his or her sibling].”[a]
There is a subtle note to make here. The way most English texts render these verses mean that in the renewal from the old self to the new self, we recognize that human barriers and distinctions are bogus. But the Greek is slightly more ambiguous than that. The nrsv translation of the last part of v. 10 and the fist of v. 11 has:
“you have clothed yourselves in a new self which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Jew…”
However, the literal Greek (as shown in the nrsv note) has:
“you have clothed yourselves in a new self which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator where there is no longer Jew…”
Do you see the difference? The word “where” is left out and “in that renewal” has replaced it. Probably because the translators thought that the writer’s intention was to say that because of our renewal, we no longer see the distinctions between Jew and Greek, etc. But did he? Where,” hopou, slightly changes the meaning of the sentence, in a way that I think is significant, and perhaps more profound that the translator’s meaning. Instead of saying that a new awareness of the oneness of humanity comes with the renewal of your new self, which is being done according to the image of God (your self’s “creator”), instead it says that your new self is “being renewed in knowledge according to the image of God, where there is no longer Greek and Jew” etc. That is, he is saying that “In the image of God there are no distinctions.” Not, “In your renewal you will not see distinctions.” It’s not saying that you’ll just see people as one. It says that you will see the reality that people are one. The difference is slight, but very interesting and in my opinion, significant.[b]
So, after you have taken off the clothes of your old life, you must now put the clothes of a new one. That brings us to today’s passage. Interpreters argues that the metaphor doesn’t work. You can’t put on—as the kjv puts it—the “bowels of mercy.” That’s an internal, not an external event. But to me that’s nit picking. Paul is not talking about biology, he’s talking about a total change of life and attitude.
It is helpful to think that Paul is intending a parallel with baptism. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). That was a mystical experience. Here he puts an ethical twist to it. You can’t put on Christ without taking off worldliness. Being in Christ means being out of the world.
Note that in v. 13, Paul does not say if you have a complaint with someone forgive that person. That is good, and honorable and helpful, but Paul assumes that you are part of a faithing community, that you share together, that you love one another. So if you two have complaints, then the two of you must forgive each other. You get together and talk about it. You share with one another, you resolve it. You don’t talk to somebody else about it. You go to the person you have the complaint with. We are not asked to forgive one act or even many acts, but to have a life of forgiveness. It is an “ongoing mark of Christians”[c] A life of forgiving, rooted in the first act of divine forgiveness.
These are not maxims for the broader culture, but for us, those who are on the inside of a special relationship with God. People who have discovered themselves chosen and graced by God. These verses are little vignettes of what the life lived out of this special relationship should look like. What will distinguish them from their neighbors who have not yet discovered themselves called and graced by God. “There are both Proscriptive and descriptive dimensions to the injunctions.”
These are very broad in scope, as are most of the injunctions in the Bible. For the most part the Bible does not get involved in the small, narrow sins that today’s Christians split and fight over. In that way they are timeless. They applied to Paul’s church in the first Century and their fight and they apply to us today when we are and when we are not fighting.
One last interpretive piece that could be expanded to an interesting riff in a sermon. In Verse 16, the writer says, “the Word of Christ dwell within you.” What does this mean? It is not found in the rest of Paul’s writings ( in Thess. 1:8, the ‘Word of the Lord’ probably means “the gospel). According to The Interpreter’s Bible, It could mean:
- The actual words which Christ speaks, as a real presence still living within us (Lightfoot).
- The essence of the Gospel which is within us (W. Knox).
- The Word, as in “Logos,” that is, the divine essence, the spirit of Christ who dwelt among us (John 1:14). Interpreters argues for this third option, “immanent in the universe and present in each individual soul.[d]
And then, after this long introduction (which is great material, but is not in the lectionary reading itself, we come to “Pastor Paul’s Top Ten New Year’s Resolutions for his Colossian Congregation.” If you line up all of the suggestions, admonitions and encouragements that Paul gives in Colossians 3:12 to 17, they add up to ten and look like this. If you can’t find a sermon in this list, you should go back home and ask your parents to take care of you (so to speak). It’s a great list and the first of the year is a great time to drag it out (even though Dave Letterman is gone and his “top ten” lists are no longer part of our contemporary verbal lore.
12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
- clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
- 13Bear with one another
- and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
- 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
- 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
- And be thankful.
- 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly;
- teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;
- and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
- 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Anyone who tries to be compassionate or kind or meek or patient or loving just because they think that's the way they ought to be, will sooner or later crash and burn. Eventually your innards will rot with the hypocrisy. Don’t try it, trust me I know. Instead, work on being within God’s love and God’s will and then be the face that comes out naturally.
If you try to do the right thing because you think you have to, to obey some kind or real or assumed law, you will eventually fail. You have to follow the rules, but even better is when you follow the one who created you.
“And perhaps that was one of the problems in Victorian religion. People were expected to follow a lot of rules and regulations, and as long as they did that, were reckoned to be OK with God. But that was the sort of behaviour Jesus denounced. He called people who dressed up in their Sunday-best morals but who didn't know the God within themselves, hypocrites and "whitewashed tombs" - clean on the outside but full of death within.[e]
Good luck, God bless, and see you next week.
Exegetical and Critical Notes
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.b 7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.c 8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusived language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another,[f] seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewale there is no longer Greek and Jew,[g] circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
12As[h] God’s chosen ones,[i] holy and beloved,[j] clothe yourselves[k] with compassion,[l] kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.[m]
13Bear with one another[n] and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord[o] has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.[p]
15And let the peace of Christ rule[q] in your hearts,[r] to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
16Let the word of Christ[s] dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.[t]
17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
[a] “Colossians,” The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955), p. 217. The original quote in 1950s vocabulary was, “the relationship of man to Christ transcends all earthly relationships and annihilates the barriers which separate one man from his brother.”
[b] There are a number of other translations that leave the “where,” including the KJV, ALT, BBE, LEB and JUB.
[c] Texts For Preaching, p. 72.
[d] Interpreter’s Bible, p. 221.
[e] “Let Christ dwell within you,” Janice B. Scott, http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788017279&key=qy4CcjwzAmmzw3aj
b nrsv note: Other ancient authorities lack on those who are disobedient (Gk the children of disobedience)
c nrsv note: Or living among such people
d nrsv note: Or filthy
[f] “Do not lie to one another” (mē pseudesthe eis allēlous). Note that he has switched to the present tense. Does that imply that that kind of behavior is still going on? See Eph. 5:18 and Eph. 4:25, “ So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
e nrsv note: Gk its creator, where
[g] For other sets of these contrasts that don’t exist in God’s eyes, see Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28.”
[h] There is a “therefore,” aun, which is missing in the nrsv. The sense is that, given all that I have said already (3:1-11), therefore you must (“put on…” [endusasthe ]is in imperative plural form) do the following.
[i] “God’s chosen ones” (hōs eklektoi tou theou; “chosen,” ἐκλεκτός, eklektos) “picked out, chosen”. The kjv has “God’s elect.” Possibly “picked,” as Phillips’ translation, but is more likely a designation for God’s set-apart people, the membership of which is by grace through faith.
[j] “Chosen,…holy, …beloved.” “All three terms are titles given to the community of Israel in the O.T. scriptures, transferred now to the heirs of Israel’s spiritual prerogatives.” (Interpreter’s Bible).
[k] “Clothe yourselves” (endusasthe oun). First aorist middle imperative of endunō (Col_3:10).
[l] “Compassion” there are actually two words in the Greek here for the one word in English, σπλάγχνα, bowels, intestines, entrails, etc., and οἰκτιρμου, compassion, mercy, etc. The sense is that one’s compassion comes from one’s stomach. The kjv translates this the “Bowels of mercy.” I like that better because it’s more graphic, more visceral. See 1Peter 3:8 and 2 Corinthians 1:3.
[m] “Patience” (makroqumian). Long-suffering. God is patient in that he forgives his people and delays the day of judgement. His friends should show similar patience, one toward another, Eph.4:2, 1Thess.5:14.
[n] “Bear with one another” (anecomai) pres. part. forbearing, enduring. The participle probably functions as an imperative, as a command, so NIV and most translations. The present tense indicating ongoing action. “Put up with each other”, CEV (Bryan Findlayson, “Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons,” Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources, lectionarystudies.com/christmas1ce.html).
[o] nrsv note: Other ancient authorities read just as Christ. “On the strength of the weight of ‘P’ joined by the best witnesses of both the Alexandrian and the Western texts the Committee preferred κύριος, and explained Χριστός as an interpretation by copyists of the more indefinite κύριος, and the other two variant readings as due to scribal assimilation (partial or complete) to Eph 4.32” (Metzger)..
[p] “In perfect harmony” (sundesmos tēs teleiotētos, gen.). “in perfect unity” - of perfection. The sense of the genitive is unclear. O’Brien suggests “the bond that produces perfection”, but the genitive could simply be descriptive as NIV, even epexegetic, explaining something of the bond, ie. a bond that expresses itself in perfection. The first option seems best; “you must clothe yourselves in love, which holds all the other qualities together and completes them”, Barclay (Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies).
[q] “Rule” (brabeuetō, pres. imp.). “Let [the peace of Christ] rule” - let arbitrate / administer, control, rule. Lightfoot suggests the idea of “arbitrate”, so, “let the peace that Christ can give keep on acting as umpire in your hearts”, Williams. Most commentators opt for “rule”. “Let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts”, CEV. Lit., “be referee.” NISBC reminds that it is a sports metaphor. “The peace that Christ gives (cf. John 14:27) should settle disputes, not self-interest (cf. 1 Cor 13:5).” Lightfoot translates this “the one supreme umpire in your hearts, the one referee amidst all your difficulties.”
[r] “In your hearts” (en tais kardiais) “The heart being the center or rational thought, so “in your decisions” (http://www.lectionarystudies.com/christmas1ce.html).
[s] “Word of Christ.” The expression is not found in the rest of Paul’s writings. “In place of the unusual expression “the Word of Christ,” several witnesses substitute the more customary “the Word of God” or “the Word of the Lord.” In addition Χριστου (“of Christ”) has the strong support of P א c B C D G etc.” (Peter t. O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 44: Colossians, Ralph P. Martin, ed. (Dallas, Texas: Word Books). “
[t] nrsv note: Other ancient authorities read to the Lord “ The Textus Receptus in accordance with Ephesians 5:19 reads τῳ κυρίῳ (“to the Lord”). But the early and widespread manuscript evidence is in favor of τῳ υεῳ (“to God”). ((Peter t. O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 44: Colossians, Ralph P. Martin, ed. (Dallas, Texas: Word Books)).