Commentary on Colossians 3:1-4
When I read passages such as these, I always wonder how they will be heard by the people sitting in the church.
The language of Colossians 3:1-4 is very imaged, metaphorical. It talks about “being raised with Christ,” about “Christ being seated at the right hand of God,” about the “things of above,” about the final revelation of Christ which will mean the revelation of the Christ believers. The language of this passage reflects a very particular worldview, and it is sometimes a struggle to detach this language from its particular historical context in order to understand it today. And yet this operation is necessary, otherwise we run the risk of making the language of the Bible in general sound completely alien to men and women in the 21st century.
So I want to begin by saying a word about the language used by the author of Colossians (whether in this case the author is Paul or not, does not really need to concern us here. What seems clear is that, if Colossians is not by Paul, it is by someone who puts himself in a tradition and perhaps a school informed by Paul). The entire context of the passage is marked by apocalyptic thought. For the author of Colossians, Christ has inaugurated the end times. While Christ has now found his proper place at the right hand of God, on earth, it means that Christ believers are called to reflect this new time in their behavior. They cannot continue leading their lives as if things had not radically changed. They need to embody the eschatological community that Christ has founded. They have died to the old way of understanding the world, and themselves, and their real life, is now embodied in who they are in Christ. This eschatological identity is not immediately accessible to the people around them, since, in reality, Christ believers do not look different outwardly.
Ethical orientation of Colossians
To understand the ethical implications of the apocalyptic age, it is necessary to consider what comes directly before and after Colossians 3:1-4. Immediately before, the author of Colossians asks a question that sounds very much like something that Paul could have asked: “if with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (Colossians 2:20). Readers familiar with Paul will recognize the concern for being in the world without belonging to the world. This is another sign that the eschatological age has begun.
In the eschatological age, the Christ believers have abandoned their beliefs in the elemental spirits. Exegetes have long debated what the “elemental spirits of the universe” represent. It seems plausible to see here a reference to philosophical discussions concerning the elements that organize the universe, elements that could also be understood as having magical powers, and as controlling various relationships in the world. Whatever this expression specifically means, it is no longer part of the reality of the Christ believers. It can thus also no longer serve to organize their lives. Because of this change in who/what is controlling the basic orientation of their lives, the Christ believers need to embody a new ethic.
Now, as Colossians 3:1-4 makes clear, it is Christ who decides how they need to behave and treat each other. Concretely, their new orientation needs to be concretely translated in abandoning specific behaviors. As Colossians 3:5 states: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil, desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” What I find interesting in this list of behaviors to abandon is that these are stock expressions of Greco-Roman ethics in late Antiquity. Even in what the author of Colossians says before, we hear the echoes of a pagan philosophy that probably advertised a similar behavior: “All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:22-23). For the philosophies that the author of Colossians condemns, the same behaviors criticized in Colossians 3:5 are condemned. Stoic philosophers aimed at controlling desires, mastering passions, in order to lead a life of contentment and peacefulness.
Thus it seems important to notice that what distinguishes Colossians from other Greco-Roman philosophies of the time is not so much concrete behaviors. The difference lies in a basic orientation of the person, in what motivates the ethical behavior. For the author of Colossians, the Christ believers have to modify their actions because they now belong to Christ and recognize that he has inaugurated the eschatological age. It is only if they have this proper orientation, this correct self-understanding, that their actions can reflect their new identity. Otherwise, these actions have the potential to be misunderstood as the behavior of any respectable Greco-Roman philosopher of the time.
And for us?
For us, this distinction between concrete actions and basic orientation in the construction of ethics is key. It means social and cultural circumstances condition the concrete actions that are condemned. They are not what needs to concern us most, because these concrete actions can change according to the culture, society, and time in which we live, and need to be redefined depending on what evils most assail our world (today, we could think in terms of injustice, inequality, racism, discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality, rather than in terms of fornication or impurity). What remains timeless and can help us articulate a Christian ethic is the question of who orients our freedom, who is the ultimate referent of what we do, as a Christian community. And this referent, for the author of Colossians, remains Christ, in the first century and in the twenty-first century.