Paul has explained that we were buried with Christ and raised to new life in him (Col. 2:12). We are new creations, new people, and our identity is now in Christ. In chapter 3, Paul draws some conclusions about the kind of behavior that should characterize our new identity.
Throughout Colossians, Paul stresses that Christ has done everything that is needed for our salvation. But this does not mean that we sit back and do nothing — Paul gives instructions for how we should respond to what Christ has done.
A life hidden with Christ
Paul begins with general principles: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:1-2). Earlier, Paul had drawn conclusions from the fact that we died with Christ (2:20). Here, he draws conclusions from the fact that we have a new life with him.
Since we are united with Christ, and Christ is with God, that is where we should set our affections. That is what we should desire, and that is what we should think about. This does not mean that we ignore earthly things (Paul has much to say about how we live in this world),1 but that we bring heavenly qualities to our earthly lives. Paul is moving from a rebuttal of the false teachings, and moving toward a positive statement of how faith works in our lives.
Don’t worry about what you used to be. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). The old “you” is gone, killed with Christ on the cross and buried with him. Our new identity is in Christ, in God. Although it may not look like it, our real self is to be found with him.
Christ has brought us into the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20), and that should transform the way we think — including the way we think about ourselves. Our new life is to be patterned on the reality that Christ has brought us into the divine life, into the fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We belong to God, and we should think and act like it.
Our true identity is hidden. “By no means everything about Christian living is apparent, not only to outsiders, for whom much of it appears foolish, but also to Christians themselves, for whom there remains mystery and much questioning until the final revelation…. Its hiddenness necessitates that Christians live by faith and not by sight and, therefore, without all the answers to the meaning of many events in their lives” (A. T. Lincoln, New Interpreter’s Bible IX, 641).
However, it will be evident to everyone in the future: “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (3:4). Yes, we will be with him in glory in the future — but even now, Christ is our life. We should live in a way that is appropriate for those who live and move and have their being in him.
Out with the old
Paul tells us how to respond to the fact that Christ defines our new life: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (3:5). We are to eliminate five vices — not just desires for illicit sex, but also for desiring too much stuff. In chapter 2, Paul criticized the people who said, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” But here in chapter 3, Paul has also given a list of things to avoid. There is an important difference. The false philosophy was restricting things; Paul is telling us to avoid actions that hurt other people — actions that weaken a sense of community among the people of God.2
“Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (3:6). God does not like it when some of his children hurt the other children, and punishment is appropriate. But there is no condemnation, and no punishment, for those who died with Christ and now live in him (see Rom. 8:1 and 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Our old life included wrong actions and desires: “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived” (Col. 3:7). But we should stop living that way. “You must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (3:83). As people of Christ, our attitudes and words should conform to a new standard. We should eliminate any habits that hurt other people.
“Do not lie to each other.” Why? Because “you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on4 the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (3:9-10). We are to change our approach to life because we have a new life.
God is re-creating us, but he does not force this change upon us — he tells us to do it: to put on, or to clothe ourselves, in something new. We are to make choices in the light of who we are. We are to become more and more like Christ is, because that is who we are. “No system of ‘dos and don’ts’ can create the image of God in humans…. The new life of obedience does not depend on [our] own feeble moral resolve but comes from being united with Christ” (David Garland, Colossians and Philemon, 203, 207).5
In with the new
Our identity is not in our ethnic group, our education, or our social status. “Here [in Christ] there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian6, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (3:11). Christ is the epitome, the standard, the model, of everything that humanity was ever intended to be, and everyone finds their true identity in him. Rich and poor, sophisticated and simple, young and old, we are one in Christ.
Things to think about
- Does my behavior reflect the fact that my life is hidden in God? (v. 3)
- Would Christianity have a different reputation if churches preached more against greed? (v. 5)
- If God has wrath (v. 6), why should Christians eliminate anger? (v. 8, same Greek word)
- How do social divisions affect Christian unity today? (v. 11)
 “This is not…a call to an other-worldly detachment or disinterest in life in this world, for the subsequent instructions in 3.5ff are very much concerned with practical living out of a life ‘worthy of the Lord’ (1.10) here in this world” (A.J.M. Wedderburn, The Theology of the Later Pauline Letters, 52).
 “The vices and virtues selected are those that will either disrupt or enhance the life of the Christian community” (Lincoln, 645).
 Ephesians 4:22-32 is a similar passage. Garland comments on “filthy language”: “We can see that perversion in modern slang, which uses gutter terms to describe the sexual union in terms of acts of hostility, assault, and abuse” (Garland, 228).
 Same verb as the one in v. 12 translated “clothe yourselves.”
 “When we interpret ethical passages, we face the temptation of reverting back to the approach of the Colossian errorists. We may want to issue edicts, develop strict rules, and engage in diatribe in order to rein in immorality. But…our godliness is not measured by the things we do not do. It comes from being in Christ, dying with Christ, and being raised with Christ…. We should never confuse being moral with being Christian, but we cannot claim to be Christian if we ignore morality…. Our behavior as Christians becomes an advertisement for what being in Christ does to a person’s life…. Unbelievers look at Christians and ask how are they any different from anybody else” (Garland, 219, 228).
 Scythians were nomadic peoples who lived north and east of the Black Sea, renowned for equestrian and military skill.
Author: Michael Morrison