The text we are studying for Sunday, August 26 is Colossians 3:5-17, a portion of a letter to the church at Colossae that provides instructions for Christian living. Here are my notes on that text:
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: More lists. The literary analysis approach doesn’t get much traction with these texts …
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Colossae is one of the many early churches in Asia minor (so it makes more sense that there’s an instruction later in the text to have this letter read in Laodicea, and to read the letter to the Laodiceans in Colossae), a gentile church; also the church to which the letter of Philemon is addressed. [Philemonstudy features a helpful map.]
The letter itself is one of the epistles whose Pauline authorship is disputed – it seems to have been written somewhat later, uses different literary style, etc., shares some features with Ephesians, and so on.
Its main purpose may have been to counter some false teaching or ideas, maybe about worship forms, which seem to be the focus of a good part of chapter 2. We don’t have much detail about this, just the clues provided in the letter itself. Still – the sound instructions that make up chapter 3, then, follow right on from the rejection of unsound practices in chapter 2.
Verses 1-4 make the transition, and act as the rationale for the instructions that follow:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
The theme of being raised with Christ echoes the introduction to the letter, reminding the Colossians that they really are in a different location and condition after having accepted the gospel.
CLOSER READING: The structure of the text is based on a contrast: what not to do (vv5-8) and what to do (vv12-17), with something like an image of baptism mediating that contrast: the taking off of one set of visible attributes, like clothing, and the putting on of another, different set (vv9-11).
The language of taking off and putting on repeats (vv9, 10, 12, 14), making it the dominant image in this text. If we count “putting to death” (v5) as part of this baptismal image (which I think we could), that language intensifies the “two ways of life” structure. The ”put to death” language points back to v3: “you have died” – so the death of what is associated with the former, earthly life, and the cultivation of what is proper to the new, Christ-like life, all fits together.
In particular the practices (v9) of the old way of life have been discontinued; the renewal of the new self is going to emerge from new practices that cultivate “the image of its creator,” (v10) the new source of the new self’s new life.
What needs to be put to death are various unwholesome forms of bodily practice (v5); what needs to be got rid of could all be seen as unwholesome forms of expression (v8) that express a deeply faulty perception of or relationship to the nature of things.
The contrast is the clothing appropriate to the chosen ones (v12) – compassion and kindness in place of anger and malice.
The new practices come from letting the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. The image of the peace of Christ ruling, being the governor, along with the word of Christ dwelling – literally making a household (v16) – makes clear where this “putting on” of a new way of life comes from.