Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17
The Letter to the Colossians combines large segments of theological/doctrinal and practical/ethical materials.
At times, however, it is nearly impossible to determine which kind of issue one is dealing with. The passage for this first Sunday after Christmas has the flavor of both theological and ethical concerns. Interpreters in general, however, regard these verses as belonging to the more doctrinal portion of the epistle — though they still admit that there are prominent ethical features to the text. Perhaps a final decision is not necessary, though anyone working with commentaries on this epistle will encounter discussions about the nature of the material in this section.
It is important to locate verses 12-17 of chapter 3 in their immediate literary context. Colossians 3:1-17 is a recognizable section of the letter. First, in verses 1-4 readers are admonished to seek heavenly ways because they have been raised with Christ. Second, verses 5-17 elaborate the meaning of this exhortation. Here, there are a pair of passages, one negatively focused (verses 5-11) and one positively oriented (verses 12-17).
Colossians 3:5-11 contains two lists of five negative items Christians are to shun. Then, in 3:12-17 there are a series of admonitions, including another list of five items, this time positive items that Christians are to embrace. Our text for this Sunday contains the more positively expressed set of verses.
The verses of our lesson begin with the word “therefore” in Greek–though this is often translated “then” and placed somehow as something other than the first word of the sentence. The “therefore,” however, reaches back to the material in 3:1-4 and recognizes that whatever actions the Christians take are taken because of what God has done — that is, Christian life is the consequence of the gospel. The verses of this lesson (verses 12-17) focus on Christian virtue, defining and describing Christian character while speaking to the community of believers.
The previous section of the letter (verses 5-11) with its concern with vices is now left behind. Now, the letter presents the positive dimensions of life in Christ as actions. Christians are to “put on” certain characteristics so that they live these qualities, they do not merely “have” them. Not merely traits, but actions define Christian living. As Christ lived, so the Christians are to live.
The list of five virtues in verse 12 (“compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience”) are found elsewhere in the Pauline epistles to designate actions/characteristics of God or Christ. These “virtues” describe the character of active Christian living as God’s chosen people who are called out of the ordinary realm of human existence to be especially dedicated to God as/because God loves them. The Christian community lives as it embodies the very gospel by which it was called and that it now proclaims.
The passage tells us that virtue exists, love prevails — why? Because “the Lord has forgiven you.” Thus, that which the community experiences, the community is called to live out — and here, it is crucial to see that the “you”s of these verses are consistently in plural forms; that is, the author addresses the community, not merely the pious individual. Preaching from these verses should labor both to avoid individualizing the sense of the text and to address the congregation as a whole. The gospel is personal, but it is not — based upon these verses — to be made private. The text of Colossians envisions a community in action.
The virtues of verse 12 and the forbearance and forgiveness of verse 13 come about because of what the Lord has done. As the community lives in Christ (putting on the godly virtues delineated in the text), the work of the Lord is manifest in the community in love. Love itself is neither a mere feeling nor an abstraction. (One curmudgeon put it that “the only place that you can really know what love means is on a tennis court.”) Rather, love is that power of God that has the capacity to bind all godliness together into a divine perfection.
In light of the admonition, “Above all these put on love,” the rest of this passage registers imperatives that may be considered for forming and directing the life of a Christian community. Other than to put on (and live out) the five virtues that are given in verse 12, the passage states a variety of directions: Verse 13 tells the recipients of the letter that they must forgive exactly as the Lord has forgiven — a very high standard indeed. Verse 14 itself is the admonition to put on love, which seems to supersede and epitomize the other virtues and directions given in this passage. Verse 15 seems to speak of the results of following the directives to love and to forgive — that is, the Colossians are both to let the peace of Christ reign in their hearts and to be thankful to God for the peace and forgiveness that they experience.
Verse 16 focuses on the life of the community in quite concrete terms: The Colossians are to “let the word of Christ dwell in [them] richly, which means teaching and admonishing, and singing. Thus we see education, exhortation, and worshipful expression. Finally, in verse 17, the author tells the Colossians to do whatever they do — be it in word or in deed — in the name of the Lord, all the while giving thanks to God through him. Thus, all of life is to be devoted to the Lord and lived in accordance with the gospel of God’s grace and love at work in Jesus Christ.
In essence, all of Colossians celebrates the gift of God through Jesus Christ to the community of faith. That gift is a new context (“Christ”) and a new power (“love”) for living. As we clothe ourselves in Christ (take on his way of life) we are transformed, not merely by our own actions, but above all by God’s own love at work in the gospel of God’s grace at work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.