“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourself of all things such as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
Do not lie to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices, and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
So I’m a Christian; now what? Often new believers find themselves somewhat bewildered by the next step after coming to faith in Christ. We know that it is by faith alone that we are saved: and that the God who makes the demands (such as the “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” from the Sermon on the Mount) is also the one who meets and fulfills them (through Jesus.) It’s not our works that save us, but they undoubtedly play a role in the Christian’s life. What, exactly, is that role?
Colossians 3 is a clear and direct answer to the What-Next question; it’s so important, in fact, that I’m surprised I don’t hear more discussion of it in church. This passage begins with salvation, and affirms the truth that we already know: We have been raised with Christ and share in the hope of the resurrection, and the defeat of our ancient enemies Sin and Death. What follows is how we orient our hearts and minds. Both of these, we are exhorted, are to be fixed “on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”
This passage reminds us of the importance of changing our perspective following salvation. We have been given a new pair of glasses, so to speak, through which we see the world. But even as Christians, we often forget, and put on our old glasses instead, and see a distorted picture of the world, rather than what God intended for us to see. As Paul teaches here, there is a deliberate act of will involved on fixing your mind on what really matters.
Of course, this is all very easy to talk about in vagaries – what does it mean in practical application? Consider where our minds naturally drift when left to our own devices. We think about our success, and whether we’re moving up in society, making more money, getting a successful relationship, establishing a reputation, and so on. But are these really the priorities of God? What good is it to make hundreds of thousands of dollars if you ignore the unfortunate and needy? What does our reputation and status really matter, in light of our eternal and already-secured status before God? Why do we grope in vain for meaning through friendships, sexual relationships, business networking, and social media presence when we are already perfectly loved and valued before God? These are the kinds of issues we need to view through Christ-centered lenses, rather than a myopic, earthly perspective.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with making money, loving another person, or being successful. These are all good things, but for the Christian they should be byproducts of seeking Jesus rather than an ends to themselves. If we experience them, they are fruits of pursuing God, not the objective itself. We don’t have to look very far to see the often-disastrous results of seeking fame, fortune, sex, and other physical passions as ends themselves.
This leads to the next point, and the most striking part of the entire passage. Paul tells us to put to death the fruit of the Flesh: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed (which he equates with idolatry.) What Paul implies is that these are temptations that will not stop afflicting you just because you know Jesus. They will continue to tempt you and war against your soul, often in extremely subtle ways (particularly in the case of Greed.) That is why Paul commands us to take direct, decisive action against these sins: they are so dangerous, and so insidious, that they often cause great damage without us realizing it, so that the only way to deal with these sins is to drag them out into the light, acknowledge them, and destroy them.
Destroying this sin is something we cannot do on our own, and the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in this process, by giving us power we wouldn’t otherwise have to deal with these sins. But Paul’s command makes it clear that this isn’t just something that’s going to happen by itself; we need to be decisive and deliberate in recognizing and rejecting these sins. A related challenge that has often accompanied the church in dealing with this is avoiding self-righteous, grace-less moralism. That is why, throughout this passage, Paul constantly reminds of our identity in Christ, lest we think that our new behaviors are the cause rather than the effect. These Death Sentenced Sins are identified by Paul as artifacts of the way “we once lived,” before we knew Christ.
Paul moves his focus from sins that are largely external, to those which are more verbal in nature: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language. These are both more obvious and more subtle than the previous ones: we can spend time directly confronting issues like lust or greed, while unaware of our tendency to commit all of these latter sins every time we get in our cars. Paul exhorts us to “rid” ourselves of these sins, which again invokes a conscious recognition and effort toward dealing with them.
The following verse, with its reference to avoid lying, reveals that church-community is the central context of these commands. Paul isn’t just (or maybe even primarily) concerned with personal piety: he’s addressing these sins because they are the ones most likely to damage Christian community. Anger, lying, and slander are the kinds of sins that wreck otherwise fruitful communities, and Paul wants the Colossian church to be on guard against these divisive forces. This is also why Paul emphasizes that in Christ, the former barriers dividing us (Jew to Greek, circumcised to uncircumcised, slave vs. free) have been broken down – he wants to encourage a community where disparate people from all backgrounds are united by Christ.
There is a clear contrast between the Old Self, who was dead in sin, and the New Self, which lives in Christ. The Old Self was dressed in these sins, but the New Self takes off these filthy, rotting garments and puts on a completely new attire: we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and most importantly, love. How out of fashion this seems in our society! We are told to armor ourselves in independence and self-reliance, detachment and apathy; we are told that strength and power are in fashion, and that we should be ruthless in our goals, avoiding all weakness.
This is particularly relevant for men (although really, with American society’s relentless campaign to turn women into men, it applies more broadly.) I read a number of sites focused on men’s issues, some of them from an ostensibly Christian perspective. They often have good things to say about various topics, but they all have the same general emphasis on physical and psychological strength, toughness, superiority, and so on. I certainly wouldn’t characterize them as anything resembling kind, compassionate, humble, or meek; these Biblical values look much like the opposite of our culture’s values. And unfortunately, the Church rarely realizes this; is it any wonder that so few people find the Christian message appealing when we offer a message and lifestyle that is essentially no different from that of society at large?
I don’t mean to suggest that we should be more weak, or scoff at masculine qualities (there’s also far too much of that in the church.) There’s nothing here to suggest that. And I’m not rationalizing laziness, either (I enjoy exercising and think it’s a great thing to practice, and I’ve experienced considerable growth in areas like confidence, leadership, and other, more conventionally masculine values.) But we should never pursue these qualities at the expense of Biblical ones. Just as it was with Jesus, true strength looks different for a Christian compared to the surrounding world. Jesus was the most powerful man who ever lived, but he sure didn’t look like it for most of his life.
The most important thing to understand about this passage is that in order to experience spiritual growth, we don’t need to strive and struggle for something out of reach, grasping for a distant God. As we see in verse 12, those who believe in Christ have already been chosen, and are already dearly loved by God. We already have access to everything we need for godliness (2 Peter 1.3) and that’s why Paul uses the metaphor of putting on these behaviors, like clothes: his reminder is one that we don’t have to go out and buy the clothes because Jesus already bought them for us. All we need to do is put on the new garments that we already possess. And that is Good News.