< March 23, 2008 >

Commentary on Colossians 3:1-4

 

Colossians is in many ways "the epistle in the middle."

It seems to be midway in the development from the historical Paul to documents such as Ephesians and 1-2 Timothy and Titus that are clearly written in a later generation to update Paul for a new day. It therefore has characteristics of a letter by Paul, but it also has features that point away from him as the author. Several recent scholars have suggested that Timothy, one of Paul's most trusted protégés, is the author. That position acknowledges that the letter is different enough from those letters for sure by Paul that it is unlikely he wrote it, but that it is also close to Paul. If not by Paul, the letter was written sometime between 60 and 80 by a disciple of his seeking to respond to problems among Christians in the Asia Minor city of Colossae.

Chapter 3 begins the paraenesis or advice-giving section of the letter. The theme of the whole paraenetical section (3:1-4:6) is stated in 3:1, "So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." The implications of what it means to "seek the things that are above" are drawn out in the succeeding verses.

Why is Col 3:1-4 read on Easter Sunday? The answer is as brief as the reading:

*the text refers to the resurrection of Jesus,
*it connects believers to it, and
*it outlines a basic ethical response that the author hopes will guide believers.

The text does refer to the resurrection of Jesus. He has been raised, and he is currently to be found "above," "seated at the right hand of God." One of the characteristics of Colossians, Ephesians, and the post-Paul era in general is that the time categories used by Paul, such as "this age" and "the age of ages," are now transformed into spatial categories of above and below--or, as in v. 2, "above" and "on earth." In that "above" realm, Christ is seated at God's right hand. The right hand is the hand of power and judgment; the reference to being seated at the right hand has its origin in Ps 110:1, one of the most quoted passages in the New Testament (see Eph 1:20, Acts 2:34, Heb 1:3).

Our passage also connects believers to the resurrection. The resurrection affects not only Jesus but all those who trust in him. In the undisputed letters of Paul the believer is not already resurrected with Jesus. In fact, Paul is quite careful to avoid that language (see Rom 6:4, for example). The author of Colossians had no such qualms. The reference to being "raised with" refers to baptism, in which the believer is identified with the death of Jesus and dies to the world's demands (Col 2:20). But the believer is also raised with Jesus to a life of new behavior.

And so, the author directs the listeners to "seek the things that are above, where Christ is." "To seek" does not mean to go on a scavenger hunt for an illusive set of behavior standards, but rather it means to orient our lives on the things that are above. The author calls on believers to lift their vision, to look beyond the complications and messiness of daily life and to find direction for living from "above." And so, v. 2, believers are to "set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." "Set your minds on" translates the Greek word fronei/te phroneite, which refers to a person's orientation or basic stance to life. Where do believers get their orientation--from the "things that are on earth" or from "above?" The author knows that it is difficult for believers to orient their lives properly. And so the author uses the present tense imperative, which signals an ongoing action and a continual need to re-orient, to re-set one's life. In our neighborhood the electricity goes off with some regularity--any major storm or wind almost certainly will mean a blackout. When the power comes back on, I have to spend quite awhile resetting clocks, radios, televisions, and VCR/DVD players. So, too, believers get off track. Our "power" goes off--or better expressed, our ability to access that power goes off. When we reconnect we need to reset our lives. And so for the author of our passage, setting our minds on the things that are above is not a one-time-only decision but a decision that needs to be made over and over again.

And how can believers do that? They can do so by remembering that we have died, v. 3: "for you have died" (see also 2:12, 20). And since the death of believers has occurred in baptism, our passage is close to Luther's counsel that believers need to return every day to our baptisms and kill the old Adam and the old Eve.

Even though the author of Colossians is more relaxed in his use of resurrection language than are the undisputed letters of Paul, he too reserves some things for the end of time. And so the resurrected life of believers, real though it may be (v. 1) is for the moment hidden with Christ. And so, also, the future glory of believers is, well, future! That glory will be revealed only when Christ himself is revealed. And that Christ is our very life, v. 4, by which the author reminds us that Christ is the source of life.

The Colossians text helps us to connect the wonderful good news of Easter to our lives today. When Jesus is killed and when he is raised, in some way we are killed and we are raised with him. And his past-tense resurrection and our past-tense-but-still-future resurrection help us to lift our eyes to the heavens above, both to see the resurrected Christ and to orient our lives to him.