This is the last in the series of four readings from Paul’s letter to the Colossians in this Pentecost season. It is a fitting word of exhortation to end our reading of the letter, rooted as it is in the baptismal center of last week’s text which says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (verse 2).

A word from Martin Franzmann brings this fact home, with emphasis:

“As Christ is the whole Gospel and the whole refutation of all distortions of the Gospel (1:15–2:23­), so He is the whole basis and power of the new life of those who believe in Him. His name (Christ, Lord, Lord Jesus, Lord Christ) occurs 15 times in the 31 verses of this section [3:1–4:6]... The reality of the Christian life is to be seen in Christ; nothing is more real than the fact that Christians have died with Him, have been raised with Him, and share the glory of His life in God.”[1]

The distinction which follows, between things “above” and things “on earth,” is thus grounded in the fact that Christ-as-Lord is both the center and the whole of the Christian life. This should keep us from a false pie-in-the-sky dichotomy that would deny or despise our earthly existence.

A word from Jeff Gibbs brings this fact home, with emphasis:

“Christ has accomplished all that he has for the believers precisely through “mundane” things, namely, the blood of His cross (Colossians 1:20). The believer’s death with Christ and new life with Him has been inaugurated through the circumcision made without hands but using the earthly element of water (Colossians 2:11–12). The “things above” that the believers are to seek are precisely those promises and perspectives that have come true on earth, and that now are sealed and certain because Christ who accomplished them is sitting in divine power and splendor. The promises and priorities are “with Christ,” but they are all about life here on earth, lived through faith in Christ and in love for one’s neighbor.”[2]

We set our minds on things above, but our feet are firmly planted in the stuff of earth, our hands open to the treasure which is our neighbor. This interconnectedness, in Christ, of things above and on earth is how, indeed, “Christ is all and in all” (verse 11).

We set our minds on things above, but our feet are firmly planted in the stuff of earth, our hands open to the treasure which is our neighbor.

Notice how Paul underscores this life with two further accents. First, this life has an eschatological trajectory (verse 4). What is now hidden will be revealed, and when Christ is revealed in glory, so shall we. I cannot help but think, for Paul, this verse is a one-sentence summary of what he spells out in much more detail in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, the future-tense dimensions of the resurrection. Second, the list of vices and iniquities in verses 5-9 are each, in their own ways, variations on the parenthetical in verse 5: “...which is idolatry.” They are all forms of idolatry, of the incurvatus in se that is the self in-grown upon itself which is life outside of Christ.

This is why the second list in verse 8 can be so damning, especially in this present day when “abusive language” (New Revised Standard Version and English Standard Version: “obscene talk”; New International Version: “filthy language”) has become so pervasive, in so many ways, in contemporary American culture. This is not just the seven words you cannot say on TV made famous by comedian George Carlin. It is all the ways language is used to do violence toward ourselves and others. This makes Paul’s exhortation in verse 9 all the more emphatic: “Do not lie to one another.” The life that has died and is risen in Christ speaks only in the language of sincerity and truth (see also 1 Corinthians 5:6-8), which is ultimately the language of love.

I have often wondered how Christians, and Christian communities, could put this into action in a way which is as radically countercultural as Paul makes it out to be. I have to confess that most days, as we move from one culture war to the next, I am not optimistic. For this reason, I find it exceedingly difficult to stop Paul’s exhortation at verse 11. As Paul does so often, he first lists the vices so he can then list the virtues. If Paul first shows us what the Christian life is not, Colossians 3:12-17 gives us the vision of what the Christian life is, concretely: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience...” (1:12). Liturgically, 3:12-17 would provide a magnificent charge to the people of God in light of every word we have heard from Paul to the Colossians these past four weeks, before we then receive the Benediction of God to put it into action.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Colossians 3:1-11.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Colossians 3:1-11.