Commentary on Colossians 3:1-11
Throughout the New Testament, human reality and conduct are interrelated.
Our reality involves our relationship to God be it positive or negative. Positively the writers of the New Testament depict such reality in various ways including being in God’s kingdom; being a child of God; being in the light; being made righteous; or being in Christ. Such a reality is not something we have achieved. Rather it is a new or transformed reality that God established through Christ.
Such a changed reality results in changed conduct so that how we live reflects who we have become. Quite often, instructions regarding this conduct contain two elements: exhortations to live in a given way because of our reality; or comparisons or contrasts with our former negative conduct before divine transformation was enacted in our lives. In this passage from Colossians the author is presenting the interrelationships between our new reality and our new conduct.
Here the author begins with the divinely established reality of our baptism, which he had previously explained to this audience in 2:12-13. In baptism we were raised with Christ (3:1a). Unfortunately most English translations make this a less than sure reality by reading “if you have been raised with Christ.” A better reading of the Greek would be “since you were raised with Christ” as the author is assuming that this actually happened to his audience. Thus we have a resurrected reality as a result of baptismal inclusion into Christ’s resurrection.
This is the springboard for everything he will now say in our text. Because they have a resurrected reality, he exhorts the audience to seek the things above that, in this context entails seeking conduct that reflects our resurrected life in Christ who sits in the position of power and status at God’s right hand (3:1b). Our evaluative perspective is also to reflect our resurrection reality in contrast to an evaluative perspective and orientation shaped by the things of this world.
The so-called “things on earth” introduced in 3:2 will be detailed as immoral behavior in 3:5 which includes sexual immorality, evil desire, and the idolatry of covetousness. Because we experience a death to our old reality in baptism (3:3a) we are now called upon to put such conduct to death (3:5a).
Though we were raised with Christ our lives remain hidden with Christ (3:3). That is, our current physical, mortal existence in some way masks the reality of our resurrected, eternal existence. Such a resurrection reality will only be manifested in glory with Christ at the eschatological manifestation of Christ (3:4). Nevertheless, even now in the present Christ is our life because we were raised with him (3:4), and we need not fear God’s coming wrath (3:6) because that is directed against the conduct listed in 3:5.
This had been our former conduct because we had lived in an old reality that the author had previously depicted as the dominion of darkness or being dead in trespasses (3:7 recalling 1:13 and 2:13). Our baptismal union with Christ’s resurrection, however, now empowers us to conduct ourselves according to God’s will rather than against God’s will.
Colossians 3:8-10 uses imagery of “putting off/away” and “putting on” to depict a number of points about our reality and conduct. We are exhorted to put away conduct detrimental to harmonious and holistic communal life such as rage, anger, evil intentions, slander, abusive language, and acting falsely to each other (3:8-9a) because we put off our old reality and its attendant conduct (3:9a).
In direct contrast is the new reality that we put on and involves ongoing divine renewal in knowledge in accords with Christ who is the image of God (3:10 recalling the depiction of Christ as the image of God in and through whom all things were created in 1:15-16). In this context, the knowledge referred to in 3:10 involves understanding the reality that we were raised with Christ and how this engenders new conduct.
In his use of “putting on” imagery in 3:10, the author is most likely drawing on Paul’s use of “putting on” imagery associated with baptism in Galatians 3:27 so that as Paul immediately follows this with a list of contrasting pairs which were negated in baptism (Galatians 3:28). Colossians 3:11 immediately presents contrasting pairs that have undergone some type of a baptismal negation. There first two contrasting pairs in 3:11 — “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised” — might sound redundant, but the author probably has ethnic differences in mind for Greek/Jew and cultic differences for circumcised/uncircumcised.
The barbarian/Scythian contrast seems more obscure but could reflect an understanding of barbarians as people living in the far southern regions of that world and Scythians as people living in far northern regions so that there is now a unity among those living at the opposite points of the compass. Since the author recognizes the ongoing reality of slavery in his instructions to slaves in 3:22-25, the final contrasting pair, slave/free, in 3:11 helps show that for the author what has been negated in baptism is not the existence of such contrasting groups. Rather these contrasts no longer serve as the prime identity of people’s separateness since they are all in Christ who gives them their prime identity.
Finally, the last line of this text, “Christ is all and in all” draws on Paul’s eschatological claim regarding God in 1 Corinthians 15:28 but with some significant shifts in theology. Whereas in 1 Corinthians 15:28 Paul is making a statement of future eschatological reality in terms of God being the everything in everything, here the author of Colossians is making a statement about the present reality of believers in terms of Christ being all and in all. This reflects his own distinctive theological perspective that what Paul understood to be part of the future (our being raised with Christ and God being the ultimate reality), this author understands happened in the past (resurrection with Christ) and the present (Christ being the ultimate reality).