Commentary on Colossians 3:1-11
Your best life now…is hidden.
Not inside of you—like some dormant seed that, once found, can be watered, nurtured, and coaxed into maximum fruit-production—but hidden. Your Hidden Life Now; perhaps this could be the subtitle of the letter to the Colossians.
The third chapter of Colossians describes what may seem like a bit of a paradox. The life of the Christian is. And (but?) it is hidden with Christ. This is not something that has to be earned, but it is both encouraged and expected. It is something that is a reality—if a reality that can be hard to recognize, realize, and really show forth every day.
In The Letter to the Colossians: Your Hidden Life Now, and in particular in these eleven verses from chapter three, Paul confronts ideologies that stand in opposition to the word of truth, which is the gospel (Colossians 1:5). And the reality is that the message to the Colossians, and if we preachers echo it our own message, is pointedly counter-cultural.
What is real life in Christ?
Much (if not all) of Colossians is about dealing with counter-christologies, different and—in terms of the body of what would become the New Testament—divergent ways of understanding who Jesus is and what Jesus means.
With apologies to Joel Osteen and those like him (all of whom I am willing to grant the benefit of doubt in terms of their sincerity and the genuineness of their beliefs), some of the loudest and most popular modern christologies portray Jesus as a life-giver in the daily, physical, present terms of wellness—health and wealth. Jesus came to us, died for us, rose for us, all, apparently, so that we might do well in both waste-line and bottom-line.1 The problem is that, at least in biblical terms, all of this is simply wrong. What is most troubling about the prosperity gospel (sic) is that it sounds a bizarre combination of first century gnosticism and twenty-first century consumerism. It smacks, at least to me, of Christian Greed.
The prosperity gospel echoes all too closely another of the major voices in American culture, the secular culture’s call to a measureable success. The voice of the character Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) sounds this particular call clearly and perhaps compellingly to the tune of the late 1980’s:
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms. Greed for life. Greed for money. Greed for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind….”2
Obviously the key word here is “greed,” a word used in both the Gospel reading and in Colossians 3:5. In this week’s Gospel text Jesus says that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Jesus introduces this description of real life by saying urging us, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” Among a catalogue of other potential misbehaviors Colossians labels greed as idolatry. In Luke Jesus calls on us to be “rich toward God” (12:21), and in Colossians we are exhorted to “seek the things that are above” (3:1)3. All of which is counter-cultural, preaching not the rewards of greed (even greed veiled in the seeking of Christian life), but the danger of it—Greed is, for lack of a better word, idolatry. Greed is wrong. Greed does not work. Greed confuses, covers up, and corrupts the Spirit of Christ. Greed, no matter its form. Greed for your best life, for spiritual wisdom, marks only human traditions and empty deceits (Colossians 2:8).
Real life in Christ, according to Colossians, is nothing like these others voices would have us believe. Real life in Christ is something different (from the old), something new (to us), and yet something to which we are already raised (in Christ), something which cannot abide the trappings of any kind of false life (i.e. our old selves).
The New Self—Your hidden life now as the Emperor’s New Clothes?
One of the striking things about Colossians 3:1-11 is the way in which it describes the paradox of life in Christ. This life is something which we already have—if you have been raised with Christ, and you have, for you have died, and your life is hidden with God (3:1, 3); and it is something which we must strive to live into—put to death therefore whatever in you is earthly…these are the ways you once followed…you have stripped off the old self with its practices…(3:5, 7, 9).
At the end of our reading the Paul of Colossians echoes the baptismal promise of Galatians.
“[You] have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
We who have heard the gospel are now clothed with a new self, clothed with what may appear at times and to some to be a life like the emperor’s new clothes—we still struggle with anger, slander, abusive language (Colossians 3:8) and at times give ourselves over to impurity, evil desires, and the idolatry of greed (Colossians 3:5); but we are in fact clothed in Christ Jesus, raised with him, renewed in him, clothed in the majesty of not of an emperor, but the King of Kings.
What Colossians describes is the reality of our present selves, a reality which we need to preach, hear, and as best we are able to practice—a life hidden not inside of us, but in Christ.
1“You have the seed of Almighty God on the inside of you. You were never created to be average. You were never created to reach a certain level and then plateau. You were created to excel.” Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, (New York: Free Press, 2007), 5.
2Wall Street, Dir. Oliver Stone, 20th Century Fox, 1987.
3Compare Peter in Mark 8:33 divine things / human things.