< April 24, 2011 >

Commentary on Colossians 3:1-4

 

Why do we tell the Easter story?

How is it more than simply the tale of something amazing that happened a long time ago--or a recounting of the mighty act of God in the past? We tell the story, of course, because we are confident that the story includes us, that we are somehow participants in Christ's death and resurrection. Whatever else Christian faith is, it is the proclamation that what God has done in Christ, God has done in us.

Yet this central mystery of the faith compels us to dig deeper and think further. If we die and are raised with Christ, in Christ--how then ought we to live? Much of the letter to the Colossians is taken up with contemplating these questions. The author reminds his readers that the "earthly" way that they have lived is not adequate to their current existence in Christ. Examples of the old existence (e.g., Colossians 3:5--10) contrast sharply with doxologies such as this one, which celebrate the opportunities of the new life.

Commentators often note that this passage (3:1--4) begins the "exhortation" section of the letter to the Colossians. Up to this point, the tone of the letter has been primarily one of instruction, telling the believers in Colossae what they need to know--or, perhaps more to the point, reminding them of their former instruction in the light of conflicting teaching that they have recently received. Now, however, the tone shifts to a hortatory one. The verbs become imperatives, or other verb forms that carry imperatival force. Like other New Testament letters that contain a section of instruction followed by a section of exhortation, Colossians is a directive to its readers both to know and to do. Both are necessary in the Christian life.

Because it often takes several English words to translate accurately one word in Greek, an accurate English translation of this passage is necessarily more long and drawn-out than the Greek original; but some of the "punch" of the proclamation seems to get lost. A less accurate translation allows for fewer words, the better to sense the power of the pithy message:

Co-raised then with Christ, seek things above,
Where Christ sits at God's right hand.
Consider what's above, not on the earth;
You died! And your life hides with Christ in God.
When Christ your life appears,
Then you also with him will appear in glory. (au. trans.)

The compressed language probably incorporates phrases from early Christian liturgy, recalling (like the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2) words that the congregations spoke together in worship, confessions that were familiar to their ears. For example, "where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (verse 1) borrows from Psalm 110:1:

The LORD says to my lord,
"Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool."

Interpreted messianically from early in the church's history, the phrase describes the Christian belief in Christ's exaltation.

Yet the belief in articles of faith, or the repetition of liturgical phrases, do not alone create the unity with Christ that this text proclaims. Using a rich combination of spatial and temporal imagery, along with phrases that recall the practice of baptism, the text reminds us that life in Christ is a unity with Christ that involves the focus of our whole beings on what is "above," that is, the things of God. Interestingly, the proclamation that "you have been raised" (verse 1) precedes the reminder that "you have died" (verse 3). Believers are reminded that, like the Passion as seen from Easter, they recall their death with Christ from the perspective of their present risen state. Just as they have already passed through the waters of baptism, they have passed through death into life with Christ, and that life entails a renewal of the whole person to focus on the things of God.

Still, this is not a proclamation of realized eschatology, as the author's rivals in Colossae would apparently have the congregation believe. If believers stand on the "positive" side of the oppositional pairs "dying/rising" and "things on earth/things above", they still have not passed through "hiddenness" to reach "revelation in glory." Their baptism has not produced a visible change in them. They do not yet fully comprehend what life in Christ will be, and very possibly they are not understood by outsiders to the Christian faith. The author reminds them that their present state is not one of deficiency. They do not "lack" full revelation; rather, their lives are "hidden with Christ in God" (verse 3), with rich connotations of divine protection:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust." (Psalm 91:1--2)

I have put my words in your mouth,
and hidden you in the shadow of my hand,
stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth,
and saying to Zion, "You are my people." (Isaiah 51:16)

God hides those whom God loves, until the time for revelation has come. The believers in Colossae are reminded that they can trust confidently both in the revelation yet to come and the protection that will carry them through to that future revelation.

While the exhortation to Christians to live as "Easter people" may be so overused as to sound trite, it is the very core of the message here: the Easter event is not just a story to enjoy or a set of doctrines to recite. It is a way of living, a way that encompasses who we are and what we do every day of the week, every week of the year. We stand (again, trite, but true!) between the "already" and the "not yet"; our death to our former selves is behind us, our life is with Christ "above," and God overshadows us with divine protection until the full glory of Christ is come, in which we as believers will share.