A look at Colossians 3:1-11

The Apostle Paul deeply cared for the Colossian church. While in prison, Paul wrote a letter to exhort them in their Christian faith. In chapter one, Paul explained that even though he was in chains, he rejoiced in his sufferings for them and was encouraged by them. In chapter two, he encouraged them to grow in their assurance and knowledge of their position in Christ as believers, warning them of false philosophies. Here, in Colossians 3:1-11, Paul exhorts the Colossian church to live out the reality of their new position in Jesus Christ by being heavenly minded and by eradicating lingering sins.

THE HEAVENLY MINDSET (COLOSSIANS 3:1-4)

Chapter three begins with Paul saying “Εἰ οὖν συνηγέρθητε τῷ Χριστῷ…” Paul here, in using οὖν, is referring back to 2:20 where he asked them why they were still submitting to regulations if they had died with Christ.  In this allusion, Paul uses the same approach when he says, “Therefore, if you were raised with Christ…”

Paul uses “Εἰ” here in the first class condition. For the sake of argument, Paul assumes the fact that they have been raised in Christ. He is setting them up for understanding their role as believers in response to what their position is in Christ. Paul also uses “συνηγέρθητε” in verse 2:12 in relation to baptism. This is intentional, as baptism is a symbol of the believer’s death, burial, and resurrection with Christ. Here Χριστῷ is a dative of association because believers have been risen with Christ.

Paul explains that in light of the truth that they have been raised with Christ, they should “τὰ ἄνω ζητεῖτε” (literally, “seek the upward things”). Why seek the things above? Christ is there, and more specifically, He is sitting at the right hand of God. That is where their focus is to be and that is the only place that they will find their satisfaction. “Καθήμενος” is an attributive participle functioning as a predicate adjective. This phrase is not used periphrastically in relation to things above.[1] It is literally where Christ is.

Verse two continues with Paul telling the Colossians to “τὰ ἄνω φρονεῖτε, μὴ τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς.” Not only are they to seek the things above, but they are to think on the things above. The “seeking” of verse one is focused on a practical striving and the “thinking” of verse two is focused on an inward disposition.[2] As Vincent puts it, “We are to both seek heaven and think heaven.” The fact that Paul is somewhat redundant may be for emphasis. To have a heavenly mindset is more than making a simple decision to have one. It is an intentional decision that the believer needs to make in light of the fact that he has been raised with Christ, and then lived out

They are not to have their minds on things “ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς.” Paul describes such people in Philippians 3:19, those who have their minds set on earthly things, as those whose end is their destruction, and whose god is their belly. The things on earth are not in and of themselves sinful, however, but when they are sought or thought on over the things above, they become sinful.[3]

In verse three Paul further substantiates his argument for having a heavenly disposition. He uses the explanatory conjunction “γὰρ” to relate it to the imperatives of verses one and two. Paul says they are to have a heavenly disposition because (γὰρ) they died, and their life has been hidden with Christ in God. Their death is a definite event also wrapped up with Christ (Rom 6:2).[4] “ἀπεθάνετε” is a consummative aorist because the action has stopped. He asserts that they are dead in the sense that they were separated from the former life and all that is related to it.[5]

Paul says that “ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν κέκρυπται σὺν τῷ Χριστῷ ἐν τῷ θεῷ.” This “hidden” motif is common of the Jewish apocalyptic worldview.[6] The things that are hidden are only hidden in the present, but because they are the things of God in heaven they will be revealed. The Christian life, Paul is saying, is at this present time hidden with Christ in heaven. Although the believer currently does not seem to be different from unbelievers, that will change in when God reveals the believer for who he really is. Paul’s point here is that their actions should match the reality of where their life is, and that is with Christ. He asserts that the believer is no longer a part of this earth, but belongs to the heavenly realm. The fact that the believer’s life is hid in Christ enables him to live differently than he has in the past.[7]

In verse four, Paul explains what happens when this hidden life is revealed at Christ’s coming. Paul mentions Christ here for the fourth time and states that the believer’s life is not only with Christ as verse three mentions, but is Christ.[8] So the believer died with Christ (2:20; 3:3), was buried with Christ (2:12), was raised with Christ (2:13, 3:1), and when He returns the believer will appear with Christ.[9] “Φανερωθῇ” should be seen as a Proleptic aorist showing the certainty of Christ’s return. As the believer can be certain that his life is hid in Christ, he can be certain of the return of Christ in glory.

PURIFICATION FROM SIN (COLOSSIANS 3:5-11)

Paul in verse five begins a new focus, while still using familiar metaphors. Paul now applies this metaphor to the life of the Christian while on earth.[10] Here “οὖν” links verses 5-11 to verses 1-4. The imperative “νεκρώσατε,” and the imperatives that follow, are rooted in the teaching of verses of the previous four verses.[11] Paul tells the Colossians that they are to put to death the members which are of the earth. The word “μέλη” is a physical term, but Paul is using it in a moral sense. He is attacking in some sense the Gnostic mindset that the soul is not affected by the deeds of the body.[12]

Because positionally in Christ they have died (v. 3), the Colossians’ actions and character should reflect this truth. That is why Paul uses the same imagery and tells them to “put to death” the members which are on the earth, and then gives examples.

The order of the vices is generally from less comprehensive to more comprehensive. Therefore, “πορνεία” is a special kind of uncleanness, and ἀκαθαρσία is used in a more generic sense.[13] The vices in a sense also gain a somewhat climatic force and then end with “καὶ τὴν πλεονεξίαν, ἥτις ἐστὶν εἰδωλολατρία.” The structure changes here and states that covetousness is idolatry. Perhaps Paul is suggesting that covetousness is the source of the other four sins mentioned in the list. At the same time it must not be thought that idolatry explains the entire vice list. Paul marks “πλεονεξίαν” with an article setting it apart from the rest of the list. Paul is explaining that the desires of this earth are not compatible with the heavenly mindset already discussed. To put anything before God is greed, it is idolatry, and Paul says to “νεκρώσατε” such things. These are sins of earth, and the believer’s life is hid in Christ in heaven. He is not to be meddling with “τὰ μέλη τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς.”

Paul is not making a suggestion to the Colossians that they rid themselves of such sins, but demands it of them. In verse six, Paul states that “διʼ ἃ ἔρχεται ἡ ὀργὴ τοῦ θεοῦ.” Here “διʼ” is a preposition of cause. Paul is saying that God’s “ὀργὴ,” His wrath and judgment, is coming to those who practice such sins, to those who have not put those sins to death. Paul is trying to make them realize the seriousness of their sins and that if they do not put to death those sins, then they should expect God’s wrath. The verb “ἔρχεται” is in the present tense and denotes the certainty of the future event of the coming of God’s wrath.[14]

The next part of verse six has text critical issues. The words “ἐπὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τῆς ἀπειθείας” are lacking in some key manuscripts. The words are not included in several English translations (NASB, NIV, ESV, TNIV). As the NET Bible explains, this is a difficult problem to resolve. Ephesians 5:6 includes these words, providing the scribes with a possible motive for adding them in this passage. Yet, if the words are not part of the text, then the reading could be considered too hard. This is because the “ἐν οἷς” in verse seven would not have an immediate antecedent if “υἱοὺς” is not part of the text. The other option is to see the antecedent as being the vice list in verse five, if “ἐν οἷς” is taken as a neuter. [15] There remains uncertainty, but the external evidence for the longer passage remains strong enough to be included.

Whether or not the end of verse six contains the phrase is important because it influences how verse seven is translated and interpreted. If “ἐν οἷς” refers to verse five, then it is understood as “in which things,” but if it refers to verse six, then it is understood as “among whom.” It is very important to note that even if the phrase at the end of verse six is included, it does not necessitate “ἐν οἷς” to be seen as masculine and referring to “υἱοὺς.” It can still be viewed as neuter and referring to “these” in verse six, and thus referring to the vice list in verse five while retaining the longer reading.

“περιεπατήσατέ” is talking about their way of life. The verb is most likely a constantive aorist. They were living in the sins, and walking accordingly. Paul is reminding the Colossians of their former ways. They “ποτε” walked this way. They were once children of disobedience. And to those who are still walking in sin, Paul is urging them to see that they are no different than sons of disobedience. The word “ἐζῆτε” stands out in distinction from the aorist tense of “περιεπατήσατέ.” Paul once again alludes back to 2:20 when he asked the Colossians about why they were acting as if they still lived in the world.[16]

The Colossians might have once walked this way, but Paul continues to exhort them to live consistently in light of their life being hidden in Christ. In verse eight, Paul uses the emphatic “νυνὶ δὲ” in contrast to the “ποτε” of verse seven.[17] Another list of vices is brought up, and Paul says to lay them aside like old clothes. Paul uses this metaphor of clothing here with “ἀποθεσθε,” but also in verse nine with “ἀπεκδυσαμενοι,” in verse ten with “ἐνδυσαμενοι,” and in verse twelve with “ἐνδυσασθε.”[18]

Paul does not intend this list of vices to be exhaustive. He says that “πάντα” such things are to be put off. They are the vices which follow, but also sins of the same sort. Specifically, however, Paul says to put off five specific sins. He first mentions “ὀργήν.” This word God is said to have in verse six, and justly given to the unjust for their disobedience. For the created being to have this “ὀργήν,” it is not appropriate. If this wrath is not appropriate, then θυμόν is worse, for it is a “tumultuous outburst of passion.”[19] “κακία” (malice) and “πονγρία” (slander) frequently occur together (e.g. 1 Cor 5:8).[20] “αἰσχρολογίαν” is a hapax legomena. It is made from “αἰσχρολογος” (as in 1 Cor 11:6) and that is made from “αἰσχος,” which means disgrace.[21] Paul includes these vices perhaps to include more of those who did not feel they were guilty of the other list. These sins were probably more common among the believers to whom he was writing. But Paul here is telling the Colossians that they must take these sins off as they would dirty old rags.

In verse nine, Paul tells the Colossians not to lie to one another because they have stripped off the old man with its practices. Here “ἀπεκδυσάμενοι” is understood in the causal sense of the circumstantial participle. Building on the metaphor of verse eight, Paul gives the image of a person stripped of who they were. They are naked. It is at this point that Paul tells them to not lie to one another. There are two possible assertions: 1) Paul is saying that because they have already stripped off the old man with its practices, the practices mentioned in verse five and eight, it would be foolishness to lie to one another. To do so would be trying to put on the “old self” again, the filthy rags that were just stripped off. 2) Paul potentially could be saying that now that they are naked, they have nothing to hide. To lie would be foolishness because others see them for what they are. It would be an obvious offense and sin because they have already stripped off their “old self”. Their sin needs to be covered, but in their nakedness their offense is obvious, setting up the need for something beyond themselves, namely Christ.

This new metaphor of the “παλαιὸν ἄνθρωπον” and the “νέον (ἄνθρωπον)” that Paul brings into the mix is key in understanding many of Paul’s theological arguments. He sets up a contrast between a realm that opposes God, rooted in Adam’s sin and defined by sin and death, and that of the realm that is rooted in Christ’s death and resurrection and is defined by righteousness and life.[22]

Once the old self has been stripped off, and the person stands naked, there is a need to put on something. Therefore, Paul tells the Colossians to “ἐνδυσάμενοι” (put on) the new self in verse ten. This word is the same one used of putting on Christ in Galatians 3:27 and Romans 13:14. When the “new self” is put on, the ability to do the things which are characteristic of this new self is possible. It is only through Christ that one can live righteously, and the fact that one has put on this new self that he can be seen as righteous.

Paul used the word “ἀνακαινωσις,” a word found nowhere before his use of it.[23] It has the idea of the continual refreshment of the new man in Christ. The person who puts on the new man is qualitatively changed. The individual puts on the “new self,” and the new self penetrates the whole being. The mind of the person is renewed, specifically “εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν.” This is the true knowledge in Christ.[24] The image of God in the one who puts on the “new self” is being fully restored. This image is ultimately found in Christ, the perfect image of God (1:15), and hidden with Him in heaven. It is when Christ returns that the image will be complete and man will be as Christ is (1 John 3:2). Ultimately, it is Christ who supplies the pattern for the “new self” and gives the ability to live in accordance to the image of God.

In verse eleven, Paul explains that here (“ὅπου”) in this new man there exists no distinction of any race or people. Paul uses “οὐκ ἔνι.” “Ἐνι” is the long form of “ἐν” and “ἐστιν” is to be understood, making this to say, “there does not exist.”[25] Pushing against racial distinctions would not have been common in that day, but Paul is boldly doing so here.

Paul’s argument is that racial distinctions fade away in Christ. In a context where people were divided over race and heritage, Paul asserts that these are not so in Christ. Whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, has been circumcised or not, they are no different than the barbarian or the Scythian, slave or free. Everyone is equal in Christ. Within the church at Colossi there were slaves, free men, and masters. Perhaps Paul even had Philemon and Onesimus in mind here.[26] In the Colossian church, their errors were Judaistic and ceremonial, insisting on things such as circumcision. This made them look down on such people as barbarians and slaves.[27] But Paul goes beyond religious precepts and ceremonial observances. He says that there is no real advantage to even being born a Jew. Therefore, it is to no advantage to make people become as Jews.[28]

Here in verse eleven is the only place that Paul mentions the Scythians. It is known that the Jews had no good feelings for barbarians, an onomatopoeic word mocking the way the Greeks spoke (“bar bar bar”).[29] But as compared even to barbarians, Scythians, it is assumed, were the “epitome of unrefinement and savagery.”[30] But, as Paul concludes, Christ overcomes all as the One who is “πάντα καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν.”

CONCLUSION

In Colossians 3:1-11, Paul argues very clearly and forcefully for the Colossians to be living in the reality of their position in Christ. Paul earlier explained that they had died with Christ (2:20), and now he explains that they also have been raised with Christ. Beyond this being a phenomenal truth, Paul argues that this has implications for how they live on this earth. Even though their lives are hidden with Christ in heaven now, Christ is coming and believers will appear with Him in glory. In light of this truth, Paul instructs the Colossians to do two main things: 1) Have a heavenly mindset, and 2) put to death the sins which are characteristic of this world. Through metaphors and allusions Paul exhorts them to live in a way consistent of their position in Christ, and he also warns them that to live in a way inconsistent of this truth warrants God’s wrath (3:6). He shows the Colossians their need for Christ in this, and that they are to put on the “new self” after stripping off the “old self.” He ends in verse eleven by explaining that in the putting on of this “new self” Christ makes all men equal, for He is all and in all. Paul’s argument is clear, logical, and practical. Living with the heavenly mindset and in the “new self” allows for love, hope, and faith within the church – all aspects that Paul desires to see in the Colossian church for the glory of God.


[1] A. T Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), Col 3:1.

[2] Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word studies in the New Testament (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002), Col 3:2.

[3] Kenneth S Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament : For the English Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), Col 3:2.

[4] Robertson, Col 3:3.

[5] Wuest, Col 3:3

[6] Douglas J Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 250.

[7] Ibid, 249.

[8] Vincent, 3:4.

[9] Moo, 251.

[10] Robertson, 3:5.

[11] Moo, 252.

[12] Robertson, 3:5.

[13] Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon., 8th ed. (London and New York: Macmillan and co., 1886).  209.

[14] Vincent, 3:6.

[15] Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition (Biblical Studies Press, 2006).

[16] Moo, 262.

[17] Robertson, 3:8.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Lightfoot, 212.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Robertson, 3:8.

[22] Moo, 268.

[23] Robertson, 3:10.

[24] Lightfoot, 213.

[25] Robertson, 3:11

[26] Ibid.

[27] Vincent, 3:11.

[28] Lightfoot, 214.

[29] Moo, 271.

[30] Ibid.

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