Commentary on Colossians 3:1-11
Colossians 3 begins with a glimpse into God’s heavenly throne room, where, after his rout of rebellious powers on the cross, Christ is now seated in triumph at God’s right hand (3:1).
This was a common motif in early Christian texts. It reflected the widespread conviction among early Christians that Christ had fulfilled the opening words of Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’” (see also Mark 12:36; Acts 2:33; Hebrews 1:3; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). But to this traditional image the writer of Colossians has made a startling addition. Peering into God’s throne room, the Colossian believers now see themselves there too, their lives hidden away in Christ.
When Colossians urges believers to set their minds on things above (3:2), this is the scene it invites them to ponder: Christ ruling in triumph, and believers hidden away in him, secure in the heavens. To fix their mind on things above is to let these unseen truths shape their visible reality.
Living hidden truths
One basic assumption of early Christian apocalyptic and revelatory literature is that the truth of things cannot easily be seen. Appearances deceive, and human perception cannot on its own pierce through to the reality that underlies them. Hence evil masquerades as good, slavery disguises itself as freedom, and to the human eye God’s victory looks like defeat. God rules the cosmos, yes, but the reality of God’s rule is veiled. From where humans stand, the forces of death and destruction look overwhelming, even invincible. The world, it appears, is ruled by greed and fear, by vengeance and the raw pursuit of power.
To truly understand God’s world, then, requires more than just our senses. It demands seeing with eyes of faith, illumined by God’s revelation.
In the literature of the New Testament, this often means being offered a glimpse into heaven. For if on earth the truth is veiled, in heaven it is clearly seen. Or, to put it more precisely, if, under the sway of sin and death, earthly reality is for the moment misaligned with God’s truth, what God reveals in heaven is the ultimate reality which is also earth’s destiny—“what is, and what is to take place after this” (Revelation 1:19).
So when Colossians invites believers to set their minds on things above, not on earthly things (3:2), this is not a summons to neglect material reality and focus on what is spiritual. It does not mean abandoning the physical realm for the metaphysical, as the distorting lens of later Western thought might suggest. On the contrary, setting one’s mind on things above means viewing all of God’s reality in light of God’s ultimate truth. It means seeing past deceptive appearances, past the false pretenses of those “powers and authorities” that would claim our allegiance (2:8–15), and dwelling instead on the truth of Christ’s reign and the promise of new life in him.
“When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (3:4). The point here is not that God will one day make believers new. It is, rather, that God has already done so, and that this hidden truth will soon be plainly seen.
The task in the meantime is for believers on earth to align their lives with this heavenly reality.
Clothing the self
One way the letter depicts this realignment is with the metaphor of clothing. Believers, we read, have “stripped off (apekduomai) the old person” and are urged to “put on” (enduomai) the new—a new self that bears anew the “image” of its Creator (3:9–10; see also Genesis 1:26–27).
Modern readers may stumble over the details of the metaphor. We tend to think of the self not as something to be worn but rather as an essence that lies deep within. In our prevailing narratives, the true self emerges when we peel off the various layers that otherwise suppress it. “Just be yourself,” we often say, as though to live authentically would mean to shrug off societal constraints and the expectations of others. From this perspective, the true self is the naked self. To clothe the self, as Colossians urges, could only be to mask it.
Clearly, Colossians presupposes a different understanding of the self. In this letter’s vision, when the old person is stripped away, what is left is not the authentic self, but only, as it were, a skeleton. To live anew, believers must clothe themselves with a new self that is also a divine gift (3:10).
As Susan Grove Eastman demonstrates in a fresh study of Pauline anthropology, the Pauline letters manifest not a “first-person” but a “second-person” understanding of the self. From this perspective, which challenges the individualism of Western patterns of thought, “persons are relationally constituted beings from the very beginning of life and are never ‘free’ agents, if ‘freedom’ is understood in terms of individual autonomy; they are from the beginning selves-in-relation-to-another”—more specifically, selves in relation to one another and to God.1
With this in view, it is not surprising that the letter’s vision of thriving is deeply relational, centered on the habits of body and mind and heart that sponsor unity and peace among believers (3:11–17). Love, compassion, patience, forgiveness—these are not individual characteristics. They are rather divine gifts that are only received in the difficult work of relationships. They are garments for the body of Christ.
- Susan Grove Eastman, Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 177.