Commentary on Colossians 3:1-11
The “heavenly-mindedness” of this text presents an immediate problem to the preacher.
How can the author move from a severe criticism of dualism in chapter two to counseling the community to, “Set your minds on things that are above, not things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2) in the very next breath?
Let me suggest another hermeneutical principle. Always assume that an author’s position is internally coherent until clearly proven otherwise. Call this a hermeneutic of generosity.
If Paul has been grounding the community in a decidedly creational worldview (Colossians 1:15-23) that engenders a full-bodied vision of life in Christ (2:10-11), then what do we make of what appears to be otherworldly language in 3:1-4 that might then be seen to occasion a repressive view of sexuality in 3:5-6?
In Colossians 2:8-15 Paul counters the idolatry and dualism that threatened the church by insisting that Christian identity is a matter of being incorporated into the story of Jesus. Just as we are “buried with him in baptism” so also are we “raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12). And now he continues to unpack that narrative as the foundation for what it means to live our lives in Christ (2:6).
When Paul writes, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1), he is, of course, taking the next step in the narrative, moving from Resurrection to Ascension. We set our minds on what is above not because of some heaven/earth dualism wherein heaven is a higher good than earth, but because the risen one is the ascended one whose rule is now “from heaven.”
This is essentially “seek first the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). And if we were to ask what it means to set our minds on the above, to have our imaginations shaped by the rule of Christ, we need only look to the end of the longer section that this verse begins: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus … ” (Colossians 3:17). Whatever you do in your embodied life on earth, do it subject to that name, subject to the risen and ascended Lord. Rather than getting too worked up about the false lord on the throne in Rome, subject your lives to the risen Lord at the right hand of the Father.
This is a narrative ethic. We have been buried with Christ, we are raised with Christ, we are subject to the ascended Christ and, the apostle will continue, “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). Paul finishes the story with an allusion to the return of Christ. Death, resurrection, ascension, second coming. That is your story, therein is your identity in Christ. This is the story we tell every week at the table and from the pulpit. Go live that story.
So when our text goes on to enjoin us to “put to death … whatever in you is earthly” and explicates that with a list of sexual sins, we need to be clear that this is not an attack upon sexuality as a good gift of our embodied lives but a critique of sexual practices that tell a story that is outside of the story of Jesus.
Paul concludes his list of sexual sins with “and greed (which is idolatry)” (Colossians 3:5). That is the heart of the matter. The sexuality of the empire, then and now, is a sexuality of insatiable consumption. An economic ideology of unlimited growth and unrestrained consumption engenders a promiscuous sexual practice. Multiple sexual partners is just good capitalism and a church that will preach against sexual immorality without addressing the idolatrous greed at the heart of our economy does not have the courage of St. Paul.
It is not a stretch to move from sexuality to the dynamics of intense emotion and how we speak with one another. When the apostle calls us to get rid of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” (Colossians 3:8) that just might sound like every day political language on the campaign trail. While such an abusive discourse has always been at the heart of political life, we have seen it descend to new lows in recent years. The problem here isn’t so much the lack of manners and common decency as it is the free reign we give to dismissive and slanderous language in every day life. And it isn’t just a matter of how we talk about people who are different than us (whoever the ‘us’ might be), but it is there in the double-speak of Wall Street, the seductive “come on” of the advertising industry, the spin of politicians, and, yes, the way in which Christians talk about each other in the ecclesiastical culture wars. With a language of love and humility the preacher is called to name the abusive language that is in our mouths and in our ears every day.
Why put to death insatiable sexuality? Why get rid of the discourse of violence? Because, says Paul, that is the life of the old self which needs to be stripped off like soiled clothing as we are clothed “with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10). There is the whole point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. A renewal and deepening of knowledge so that we might be restored to our original calling as those created in the image of God.
If you read the New Testament with Old Testament eyes you will not miss the clear allusion here to Genesis 1:26-28. In Christ we are renewed to our full humanity.
And if you read scripture in the shadow of empire you will not miss the empire shattering implications of a renewal in which “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free: but Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). All the ethnic, religious, cultural, and economic divisions of the empire collapse in Christ!
Look at your country. Look at your neighborhood. Look at your congregation. Is this true? And I wonder what Philemon and Onesimus were thinking when they heard this declaration from Paul.