Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17
The celebration of the Incarnation can support the life of the church all year long.
The text for Christmas day, Hebrews 1, and the letter to the Colossians, which provides the first text for Christmas season, display a strikingly similar Christology. Both assert Jesus’ role in creating and sustaining all things, and both declare that Jesus, as God’s Son, displays the very image of God.
In this exalted state where he exists above, below, and within creation, Christ provides the model and foundation for the life of the Colossians. In him, it becomes clear from what they have escaped. They are no longer enemies, but those reconciled to God and made blameless before him (1:21–22). In him, they learn how to think correctly by avoiding vain philosophy (2:8–9). In him, they gain freedom from ineffective commandments (2:16–23).
Hence, in Christ there are still rules to follow. Selfishness and meanness remain prohibited. In this new identity based on and in Christ, ethnicity, religion, geography, or social status bars no one from relationship with God or with others in Christ. As a restatement of chapter 1, the author proclaims, “Christ is all and in all!” (3:11).
Verse 12 marks a shift from what they are not — enemies divided by their human identity — and what they should not do — practice idolatry and enmity — to who they are and how they should behave. As ones God has chosen, set apart as holy and loved, they should make sure their behavior matches up with their identity; their outside should match their inside. Knowing who they are helps them to clothe themselves with behavior that fits. Just as ill-fitting clothes detract from the beauty of a person, so too do ill-fitting behaviors detract from the image of Christ that believers should exhibit.
The qualities Paul recommends paint the picture of a gentle person. As opposed to the fiery and combative disposition described in 3:8-9, the believers in Colossæ should exhibit quiet and calm maturity and display heart-felt compassion. They should be kind, humble, gentle, and patient, and give their fellow believers the benefit of the doubt by opting for forgiveness when a reason for complaint occurs. Just as they were forgiven by Christ for their previous way of life, they should be willing to forgive one another. Finally, because they are loved by God, the most important thing they can do is to love. If they add this to their behavioral clothing, it will bind them together not in a superficial way, but in a perfect and whole way.
Following the description of what actions they should display, the author returns to his first subject, Christ, by encouraging them to let Christ and his qualities accomplish two works in their lives.
First, he admonishes them to let the peace of Christ reign. Specifically, he intends for the peace of Christ to rule over their hearts. This term carries the sense of being in charge of their hearts as a judge. It carries the sense of authority and adjudication. Hence, this is not just a matter of Jesus reigning over individual hearts, but of him reigning supreme and administering decisions over the heart of the congregation. The “your” in this sentence is a plural.
The prominent idea here is not that his peace will quiet a divided and disturbed individual’s heart, but that he will bring peace to the heart of the community, which might have been challenged by feelings of animosity. The communal nature of this peace is affirmed again in the author’s next phrase in which he reminds them that they were called to peace in one body. The reconciliation of the members of this group, who come from a variety of backgrounds, is his goal. When this is achieved, they must remember to be thankful for this miracle.
Second, he encourages them to let the word of Christ live among them richly. In other places in the letter (1:5, 25; 4:3), he indicates that this word is his way of referring to the good news, about God’s work in Christ. When this story gets rooted in the life of the community — when this narrative determines their perspective and their behavior — they will be able to teach and even correct one another wisely. It is one thing to have peace in a community where everyone is polite and gentle. It is quite another to maintain peace even when members of the community call one another out on behavior that needs to change.
Strikingly, he asks the community to practice this difficult task through song. The psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes (a possible indication of the variety of types of music used in this congregation) are meant to teach and to form, not just to uplift the spirits. Similar to the first encouragement, this realization of this one should also result in thanksgiving to God. The final song is one of praise to God who achieves this kind of community.
Living in a Christmas state of mind
The description of the songs of this early community provides a connection to its place in the lectionary. Christmas is one time of year that most people tend to do a lot more singing, especially a lot more communal singing. Yet the instructions of this passage are clearly not meant for only a special time of the year. Verse 17 couldn’t be more comprehensive: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Yet the special celebrations of the Incarnation can support a mindset that continues all year. Because the Godhead put on flesh, his people can clothe themselves with his qualities and do so not just at Christmas.
But how? How do you keep the spirit of Christmas alive all year? This passage provides two avenues. First, live thankfully. The final admonition is the third repetition of this idea. When you do everything in the name of Jesus, do it as thanksgiving to God. Cultivating a spirit of gratefulness continually reminds us both of the great miracles God has achieved, like the Incarnation, but also the more mundane ones, like the creation of a peaceful community.
That leads to the second avenue for “Christmas kind of living.” To celebrate the coming of God in one’s behavior all year long is a communal event. There are no singulars in this passage; everything is directed to the “y’all” of the congregation. To live in a Christmas state of mind, peaceable and wise, is to live counter-culturally, and you cannot maintain that on your own for long. To carry the songs and hymns and odes of the season on into the bleakness of winter and then on into even the dog days of summer takes a critical mass, a body, brought together by the spirit from a variety of backgrounds that can teach and admonish one another to live giving thanks to God always.