New Clothes for New People: A Study of Colossians 3

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.

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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.

How then should we live? “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness7 and patience” (4:12). Since God has already chosen us, we should respond with these five virtues. These behaviors cannot make us worthy of salvation, but they are part of “a life worthy of the Lord” (1:10).

We are to be like Christ, and we should treat others the way he has treated us: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (3:13).

The chief virtue, the umbrella term that includes all good behavior, is love — which is also the one-word description of God’s nature. “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (3:14).

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful” (3:15). It is hard to be angry and thankful at the same time. When we remember that we are a barbarian saved by grace, it is hard to be angry at the Scythian who is also saved by grace.

Paul concludes with more general exhortations: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs8 with gratitude in your hearts to God” (3:16). As we speak to each other and worship together, the message of Christ should dominate our thoughts. He has changed our identity, and that should change everything else.

“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17). All of life, both words and deeds, are done in Christ, because he is our life. Verses 15, 16, and 17 all end on a note of thanks. Praise God for what he has done for us in Christ!

Christian households

Paul includes brief comments for Christian marriages: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh9 with them” (3:18-19). Paul’s advice for women is typical for that time and culture, but his advice for husbands is unusual: It calls the men to self-sacrifice and puts limits on their authority.10

Greek philosophers sometimes gave similar comments for wives, children and slaves11—these are called “household codes.” The husband, father, and master were usually the same person; Paul gives instructions for him according to these three roles.

Paul’s next set of instructions is also brief: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (3:20-21). Paul addresses the children as morally responsible people who care about their relationship with the Lord. Fathers, who had primary responsibility for discipline, are warned to be careful in their role, and to consider the emotions of their children.

Paul’s advice for slaves is much more extensive12: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (3:22).

Paul does not really mean “in everything.” If the masters told the slaves to stop believing in Christ, Paul would not want them to obey! He is speaking in generalities here, just as he did for wives and children. Repeatedly, Paul connects his commands with the Lord. For slaves he says, “with…reverence for the Lord.” Our Master has something to say about the way we function in society.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (3:23). Slaves should work sincerely, not reluctantly, whether or not the master sees them. Their station in life, although far from ideal, is a way in which they can serve Christ. Paul does not publicly call for an immediate end to slavery—that would only invite persecution for something that was then politically impossible. But his teachings paved the way for eventual abolition.13

Although our society is far different, the advice Paul gives here is often relevant to modern employment. Even if we feel trapped in an unpleasant job, we should be a good worker, because we are servants of Christ. But we show him no disloyalty if we look for a better job.

Reliable workers are often rewarded in this life, but there is an even more significant reward for Christians: “since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (3:24). In the Roman Empire, slaves could not inherit anything. But in Christ’s kingdom, they do. We belong to him, work for him, and are rewarded by him.

Paul next says, “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism” (3:25). Paul is apparently referring to the rewards (or penalties) of the final judgment. Misconduct will be viewed negatively—and this applies to slave masters as well as slaves.14

Paul addresses the masters directly: “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (4:1). Masters should realize that they are slaves of Christ,15 and this should affect the way they treat their slaves. They should conform to what is right and fair. In time, Christians would ask whether slavery itself was fair—and when they had the freedom to campaign against it, they led the way in eliminating this immoral practice.

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)
  • What happens if I don’t put on the clothing that Paul describes? (v. 12)
  • In my congregation, do we teach and admonish one another? (v. 16)


[1] “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).

[2] “The vices and virtues selected are those that will either disrupt or enhance the life of the Christian community” (Lincoln, 645).

[3] 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).

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide.

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[4] Same verb as the one in v. 12 translated “clothe yourselves.”

[5] “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).

[6] Scythians were nomadic peoples who lived north and east of the Black Sea, renowned for equestrian and military skill.

[7] “Lindemann defines it as the power which, in a situation of conflict, enables us to criticize another’s conduct so that they experience it as help and not as condemnation” (Garland, 211).

[8] We do not know how these three types of songs differ from one another. One plausible suggestion is that they refer to Old Testament psalms, Christian hymns, and spontaneous singing.

[9] “The verb…is in the passive voice and may be translated, ‘Do not become embittered [or resentful] toward her.’ Anyone can refrain from harsh treatment of others; Christians must do more, however. They must refrain from being flushed with rage or petulant when others treat them or respond to them in ways that irritate them. This directive addresses the eventuality that the wife might not always be properly submissive” (David Garland, Colossians and Philemon [Zondervan, 1998], 245).

[10] Ephesians 5 includes much more detailed instructions for wives and husbands (see the study of that chapter here). Some scholars have suggested, based on differences in early manuscripts of Ephesians, that Ephesians was a circular letter designed to be sent to numerous cities in Asia Minor. Some then speculate that it is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16) that Paul wanted the Colossians to read. This would explain why the advice for families is so brief in Colossians—Paul expected them to get the longer instructions in the letter we now call Ephesians.

[11] “Comparable instructions from other literature usually address only the male, adult, and free person” (Garland, 258, citing Eduard Schweizer, 213-14).

[12] Paul may have dealt with a runaway slave from this area: Onesimus. Similarities between the people mentioned in Colossians and Philemon indicate that the letters were sent to the same area at about the same time. It is possible that the letter to Philemon was sent first, and he freed his slave, who then went back to Paul with a report about the false philosophy that was affecting the believers in Colosse.

[13] Slaves were an important part of the social and economic structure of the Roman Empire, and sudden abolition would have created social chaos. If Paul and his team of evangelists advocated the overthrow of slavery, the government would have taken quick action to silence them.

[14] This verse may “function both as a warning to slaves and as a reassurance to them. Not only if they do wrong, but also if they are treated wrongly, they can know that there will be an impartial judgment” (A.T. Lincoln, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XI, p. 658).

[15] Since all Christians are slaves of Christ, the exhortation to slaves “is able to represent most adequately the relation of all Christian of Christ” (M. Gielen, cited by Lincoln, p. 657).

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