Living in the New Reality: An Exegetical work on Colossians 3:1–11
This work is not of the normal nature of my writing as this is highly academic but if understood still very applicable to the Christian life. Rather than let something I spent a lot of energy and time on sit on in the cloud for years on end — I decided to put this out for the one reader who might benefit from it. So if your the one, thank you — I hope you better understand the Scriptures after reading. Grace and Peace.
With affirming the Pauline authorship of Colossians, we find this letter very interesting as the church in Colossae was not planted by Paul to the best of our knowledge, but more than likely was planted by Epaphras (Col 1:7). This gives us a key insight into Paul’s heart for the universal Church and its unity in thought. With this in mind, this piece will argue that the thrust of Colossians 3:1–11 is for the Church to live in the new reality in Christ which will result in corporate unity. This thesis will be supported by a short look at Paul’s theology and the context of the letter followed by a detailed exegesis of 3:1–11.
I. Paul’s theology and Context of Letter
When thinking about Paul’s theology as a whole we could pinpoint the ‘centre’ of it as “God’s act in Christ,’ according to D.J Moo. This notion, in my opinion, is correct and is evident in the book of Colossians. God’s act in Christ as the supreme one puts the Christian in a new reality of having died and being buried and raised with Christ (2:9–15). This new reality gives us freedom of human rules (2:16–23), reconciliation to God (1:21–23), and reconciliation to one another giving unity in the Church (3:11–17). Unity in the Church is fitting as we know Paul always seems to have the larger community in mind even when talking about individuals. The body of Christ is the church and the head of the body is Christ, allowing there to be unity in diversity (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Colossians 1:18). This type of unity is only possible in God’s act in Christ. Paul beautifully builds this logic in Colossians 1:13–23, where he declares Christ has created all things and all things are ‘held together’ in him. In Christ, all things “on earth and in heaven” are reconciled through the “bloodshed on the cross,” including the Church. This corporate unity is a result of individuals living in the new reality in Christ and how one is to live in this new reality. This is detailed in Colossians 3:1–11, which is where our focus will go for the duration of this paper.
II. Exegesis of Colossians 3:1–11
3: 1–11 can break up into two large units of thought: The first being the initial command for those living in the new reality of resurrection in Christ (3:1–4) and second is the detailing of that command in the “putting off” vices (3:5–11). Within the second larger unit we have what I would call a sub-unit or smaller unit in 3:9b-11, where the picture is zoomed back out to the bigger reality of the “new man” being renewed in knowledge daily leading to reconciliation and looking more like our Creator. To fill out the structure on either side of this passage we see just before this passage in 2:20–23 the initial command for those who have died with Christ, which comes before the new reality of the resurrection. And on the other end in 3:12–17 we have the “putting on” virtues for those living in the new reality which results in unity. With the larger structure in mind, we will begin to walk through 3:1–11 verse by verse to further support the thesis.
II.2 Section 1: Initial Command of the New Reality (3:1–4)
This passage begins with the conditional conjunction Εἰ giving us the implication that the new reality in Christ is only true for individuals based upon a condition. The conjunction συν is a post-positive referring back to the previous context of the letter mentioned in the structure section. The verb in this first clause, συνηγέρθητε (have been raised up) ties this passage back to 2:12 where this verb is first used and the resurrection reality is presented. In 2:12 συνηγέρθητε is accompanied by the prepositional phrase δια της πιστεως της ενεργειας του θεου του εγειραντος αυτον εκ νεκρων which provides the condition for an individual to be a part of this new resurrection reality for Christ, namely faith in God’s act through Jesus. There also appears to be clear parallels between 3:1 and 2:20. If you have ἀπεθάνετε with Christ then you must also συνηγέρθητε with Christ. These are parallels presenting the conditions of the two new realities. Our passage deals with the ultimate reality that we have been raised with Christ.
Paul connects the reader back to this reality presented in chapter two in order to support his imperative in the second clause of verse one; τὰ ἄνω ζητεῖτε (seek the things above). The present tense imperative allows the reader to focus on the “process of seeking.” Therefore, we could translate this clause as “keep seeking the things above”. I would like to argue that this imperative is Paul’s overarching command for those living in the new reality of resurrection with Christ. Paul reinforces his primary command by describing it with another present imperative in verse two, φρονεῖτε (set one’s mind on, be intent on). With this in mind, the reader must ask two questions: what are the things above, and what does it mean to seek those things?
Paul first reminds his readers where the things above are writing, οὗ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν ἐν δεξιᾷ τοῦ θεοῦ καθήμενος. This phraseology calls to mind other biblical references to Jesus “sitting at the right of God” such as Matt 26:64, Mark 14:62, Luke 22:69, Ephesians 1:20, and Hebrew 8:1. All carry the connotation of power and authority. Paul tells the reader why this place is where the Christians focus should be in verse three, recalling the first reality in 2:12 and 2:20 with ἀπεθάνετε γάρ and telling us the implications of that reality being ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν κέκρυπται σὺν τῷ Χριστῷ. The verb κέκρυπται carries the perfect tense and brings a strong focus to this implication of dying with Christ. We can take σὺν τῷ Χριστῷ as a locative dative of sphere; therefore “our life is hidden in the sphere of Christ.” This brings thoughts of eternal security, in the sense that our lives can’t be stolen from Christ but they are protected, hidden away with Christ. This also speaks to the identity of a Christian. Their identity is hidden in Christ; therefore nothing else can define who the Christian is, once they have put faith in Him. The prepositional phrase ἐν τῷ θεῷ gives further depth and security to where our lives are hidden, which is in Christ, who is in God.
With this in mind, it is clear why the reader is to “seek” and “set his mind” on the things above because those things define the Christians very life, their new reality with Christ. Paul makes this thought more explicit by putting Christ in apposition with ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν (our life) in verse four. Paul’s command to focus on the things above also focuses the reader towards a future reality. ὅταν ὁ Χριστὸς φανερωθῇ (whenever Christ is revealed) referring to Christ second coming, τότε καὶ ὑμεῖς σὺν αὐτῷ φανερωθήσεσθε ἐν δόξῃ (then you also with him will be revealed in glory). The adverb τότε presents us with the consequence or logical sequence of events that will happen when Christ is revealed.
The reader must now ask “what does it mean for us to be revealed when Christ is revealed?” In a world that doesn’t reverence Christ or recognize Him for who he truly is, we know that one day He will be shown as the true King and His Kingdom will come to full power. At the same time, the Church will be revealed for what they are as servants and co-workers of the King, to a world hostile towards them. ἐν δόξῃ can be taken as an instrumental dative, further, a dative of manner to answer the question of how we will be revealed, and that is “in glory”. Just like the mystery of the Gospel has been hidden and revealed to us, Christ and His children have been hidden but will be revealed to the world in glory in due time. This presents a great hope for the Christian motivating them to live in their new reality despite living in a world that will involve suffering for embracing this new reality.
II.3 Putting off Vices to Live in New Reality towards Unity (3:5–11)
οὖν is a logic marker pointing us back to the reality Paul just described in 2:20–3:4, primarily focused upon 3:1–4. It also serves as a break-point between verse 1–4 and 5–11. The Christian has died with Christ, has been raised up with Christ, and his/her life is hidden with Christ. They will only be revealed for who they are when Christ is revealed for who He truly is. With this in mind, the reader must take to action Paul’s next imperative, Νεκρώσατε (put to death) τὰ μέλη τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (the members upon the earth). The reader must now ask two question to understand Paul’s language: what does it mean to “put to death,” and how do we interpret “the members upon the earth” as an object?
To “put to death” carries the connotation of a command to “rid” these things from your life, almost as a metaphorical use, but not quite. The use of this word brings power to the imperative calling Christians to actually “kill” these “earthly members” in their lives. How then should we understand, τὰ μέλη τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς? When we take into consideration the list Paul provides right after this command, we have a better clue as to what these “members” are. In 3:1–4 we have seen a clear contrast between the upper (above — heaven) and the lower (earth). However, we must not confuse this thought with Gnostic thought separating the physical as evil and the spiritual as good. Paul is simply drawing the Christians attention to the realities “above” in Christ, which is our power and motivation for living well now. He is making no comment on physical and spiritual separation.
With this entire context in view, we can take the “members upon the earth” as anything that is worldly or of the “lower” thought. The list of vices further clarifies what these worldly ways or bodily temptations are. Something must be said about the interesting tension brought up in this verse with the imperative to “put to death” certain things when we have already died to the elemental spirits or teaching of the world in 2:20. Paul is painting a clear “already-not yet” tension between the realities we can embrace in Christ and the efforts we must make on earth as we wait for Christ to be revealed. This tension is very important for understanding Paul’s logic because if the realities “above” weren’t true, then our efforts upon earth would be futile.
Verse five then caps off with Paul providing the reader with a specific list of accusatives that would fit under the “members upon the earth” we are to put to death. As I mentioned above, this list helps define the “members upon the earth.” Most of this list seems to be bodily focused except for the last on the list which is τὴν πλεονεξίαν (greediness), which he further clarifies with the relative clause showing it as εἰδωλολατρία (“idolatry”). Idolatry can be understood as worshiping something other than the Triune God. Paul could be further clarifying this vice because it is an obvious problem in the recipients of the letter, but this is speculation and not evident. The consequence of this list is then given in the preposition phrase in verse six, διʼ ἃ ἔρχεται ἡ ὀργὴ τοῦ θεοῦ (through which comes the wrath of God). The relative pronoun ἃ refers back to Paul’s list of vices that are categorized as “members upon the earth.” The second prepositional phrase shows the reader where this ὀργὴ (wrath) is directed, επὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τῆς ἀπειθείας (upon the sons of disobedience). Who are the “sons of disobedience”? Based on the previous context we can assume these “sons” to be the ones committing such vices and not putting to death their “earthly members.” The other place this exact clause occurs is in Ephesians 5:6 where the “sons of disobedience” are connected with “immorality, any impurity or greed,” which we could say all fit our vices list here in Colossians.
Continuing on to verse seven, the reader might have thought of people they considered to be “sons of disobedience,” but Paul adds another prepositional phrase bringing the past reality home, ἐν οἷς καὶ ὑμεῖς περιεπατήσατέ ποτε (in which also you formerly walked). The relative pronoun οἷς refers back to τοὺς υἱοὺς τῆς ἀπειθείας. We used to be part of the “sons of disobedience” in the way that we formally lived before coming to Christ. This is further clarified by the temporal conjunction ὅτε which gives us the time in which we “formally walked” in the sphere of “sin” (ὅτε ἐζῆτε ἐν τούτοις). Paul continues in verse eight (νυνὶ δὲ ἀπόθεσθε καὶ ὑμεῖς τὰ πάντα) presenting a contrast what we formally lived in and what we are to do now (indicated by the temporal marker νυνὶ) in the new sphere we live in, being Christ. Paul is commanding that in our new identity in Christ, not as “sons of disobedience” we are to rid ourselves furthermore of the list to follow of destructive sins. This list adds to the previous list made of vices Christians are to “rid” themselves of in light of the new reality. This additional list includes ὀργήν (anger), θυμόν (rage), κακίαν (wickedness), βλασφημίαν (blaspheme), αἰσχρολογίαν ἐκ τοῦ στόματος ὑμῶν (abusive language out of your mouth).
Paul then adds to these two lists with another imperative, ψεύδεσθε (lie) leading into what I would like to call a “zoomed-out” picture of this process we live in because of our identity in Christ. This command could be included in the list given in the previous verse, which is fitting because lying is a sin “out of the mouth” like the previous few, but Paul seems to be bringing focus upon this command. This is the case because it is a present imperative instead of an accusative noun which makes this clause marked. Paul could be addressing a specific issue in the church or it could just be an important topic to him. Either could be the case, however, I would like to argue that this is simply important to Paul as he shifts his view towards unity at the end of this unit and the next unit of thought. Lying is inherently divisive and is in need of specific attention if unity is Paul’s focus.
Now the process as a whole is put back into focus as we near the end of this unit with the participial phrase, ἀπεκδυσάμενοι τὸν παλαιὸν ἄνθρωπον (taking off the old man). Considering the next clause, σὺν ταῖς πράξεσιν αὐτοῦ (with his practices), we could take the “old man” as focusing on the old reality we were in. We walked as “sons of disobedience” but now we have died and been raised with Christ where our life is hidden. These “practices” are referring back to the list of vices and sins to take off starting in verse five. Paul continues in verse ten providing the positive action we are to take with the “taking off” the past reality and this is καὶ ἐνδυσάμενοι τὸν νέον (putting on the new). The “new” is referring to the new reality of resurrection with Christ that has been recalled at the beginning of this unit recalling all the way back to 2:20.
This “new” man is τὸν ἀνακαινούμενον εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν (being renewed in knowledge). Renewal is a continual process which we know by the lexis and also the present tense participle. The prepositional phrase εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν is explanatory, giving us what we are being continually renewed in, and that is knowledge. This phrase brings to mind Paul’s writing in Romans 12:2, which says we are to be transformed by the “renewal of our minds”. With the objects of knowledge and mind connected with ‘renewal,’ there is a clear mind or thought aspect to this. Our thought process is continually being changed to adapt to living as the new man or in this new reality in Christ. Paul further qualifies this “renewal” with the preposition phrase, κατʼ εἰκόνα τοῦ κτίσαντος αὐτόν (according to the image of the one who created him). The preposition κατα is referring back to the participle ἀνακαινούμενον giving us the “standard” we are being renewed too, that is the Creator, God.
Paul caps off this unity with a beautiful picture of unity that results from individuals living in their new reality in Christ, being continually renewed in mind. The corporate new reality is ὅπου οὐκ ἔνι Ἕλλην καὶ Ἰουδαῖος, περιτομὴ καὶ ἀκροβυστία, βάρβαρος, Σκύθης, δοῦλος, ἐλεύθερος (where there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free). The adverbial conjunction ὅπου refers back to this new man and his reality we have embraced. As we are being renewed in thought towards the image of Christ our corporate relationships and “boxes” change. In this new reality, all categories of society are broken and reconciliation happens across dividing lines, resulting in corporate unity. This doesn’t eliminate these categories on earth but calls the Christian to relate to them differently. The Church is a body of inclusion and equality because of our common reality above with Christ. This reality is true because of τὰπάντα καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν Χριστός (Christ is all and in all). The categories of privilege and unprivileged, included and excluded don’t exist in Christ. In the new man, or reality, all people who have put faith in God’s act in Christ are united in Christ.
In the book of Colossians, Christ is seen as supreme and the faithful believers in Christ have died and been raised with Christ. Living in this new reality is Colossians 3:1–11 primary claim. Since the Christian is resurrected with Christ, her focus is to be “above” where her life is hidden and protected. The practices of the old reality upon earth must be “rid” of and the new reality must be lived in, which will result in unity of the universal Church. In the new reality in Christ, all walls are broken. This truth should change the way Christians interact with others here on earth. If the Christian is to live a life of “lowly thought” participating in the practices of the “sons of disobedience,” they act as if Christ death and resurrection is meaningless to us. Paul’s dominate thrust is that the Church lives in their new reality in Christ.
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Erickson, Millard. “The Government and Unity of the Church.” Pages 1009–10 in 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.
Henry, Matthew. “An Exposition, with Practical Observations, of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians: Background.” [G36] Pages 602–3 in Matthew Henry’s Commentary: Acts-Revelation. Vol. 6. 6 vols. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991.
Moo, D. J. “The Centre of Paul Theology.” Page 138 in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000.
— — — . “The Church as the Body of Christ.” Page 140 in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000.