This is the fourth consecutive week in Colossians and the final selection before transitioning to as many weeks in Hebrews. Each week has built upon the Pentecost theme of the coming “new creation” resultant upon the redeeming work of Christ Jesus. The point of contact with humanity (the place where new creation collides with and overcomes old creation) is Holy Baptism — where the Word (Heaven) and water (Earth) come to bear on people. The text for this Eighth Sunday after Pentecost puts an exclamation point on the new creation that has dawned within the baptized believer. You are now born anew of the kingdom by sheer grace, therefore live in accord with Kingdom expectations or, put differently, be what you are by grace, through faith, on account of Christ.
Preaching these Colossians texts, and especially this text, cannot be done with integrity when reference to baptism is omitted. Like Romans and Ephesians, Colossians is saturated with baptismal vocabulary, references, and allusions. The preacher does well to anchor the declaration of Gospel comfort in the work of God through baptism which brings the saving benefits of Christ.
So, given chapters 1 and 2, what does a Christian life look like? Rephrased, given that, as verse 3:1 says, Christ is sitting (“…with all authority in Heaven and Earth” - Matthew 28:18) at the right hand of God and, further, He fills all things and governs all things, what does He expect of me now He has translated me into His Kingdom of Grace? What is the Christian ethic, in other words?
This might be the question to set-up verse 1. Paul answers with the Resurrection because resurrection and baptism are, in this respect, synonymous. Baptism is the resurrection of the human spirit from a state of, “[death] in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). What results from baptismal resurrection is new life, new creation, and new patterns of habit. Because one is “in Christ” one begins to interpret, understand, and engage reality through the death and resurrection of Christ and, therefore, their share in it, namely through baptism.
Baptism is decisive because resurrection is decisive. It both effects and signals a clean break with the old creation, “the old man” as Paul puts it in verse 9, and announces and initiates, “the new man” (verse 10). Consequently, a new life follows because a new life has been declared, engendered, posited.
Indeed, baptism is life because resurrection is life. Nothing short of regeneration—renewal of life—is accomplished by God through sheer grace because of Christ Jesus. Thus, on this basis, Paul offers a striking series of contrasts in this pericope by using the juxtaposition of death and life, old and new, putting off and putting on, which are all predicated on the fact of Baptism. Hence, 3:1, “Εἰ οὖν συνηγέρθητε τῷ Χριστῷ — Therefore, if you were raised with Christ.” With a past particular supposition (“if”) meaning since, Paul grounds the ethic of the Kingdom of God (that is, the Church) in the reality of what took place for his readers in their baptism (2:11-13), the place or event in which one is graphically raised from the watery grave and birthed (“breaking the waters,” i.e. “born again”).
Paul Deterding delineates a host of baptismal connections within the first five words of verse 1. The word “therefore” (οὖν), near the beginning of 3:1, is significant, for it helps to ground this section of exhortation in the preceding exposition of the Gospel, particularly in dealing with baptism. Several other elements in 3:1 also point to Baptism. “You were raised with Christ,” has the same verb (even in the identical form, συνηγέρθητε) used in 2:12 to describe what took place at Baptism; namely the resurrection of one’s spirit. Similarly, the dative τῷ Χριστῷ (“Christ”) recalls the precious proclamation that in baptism we were raised with our Lord. Hence, the protasis of the conditional sentence describes a fulfilled condition. The readers have been raised with Christ in Baptism.
But there is more, Colossians 3:3 contains several references to the significance of the believer’s baptism. “You died,” (ἀπεθάνετε) is, as several commentators note, identical in form to the initial verb of 2:20 which says, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” Paul has thus stacked this teaching throughout his epistles: the aorist tense (one-time past action) recalls the description of baptism as a participation with Christ in His death (see also Romans 6:3; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 4:5; and Colossians 2:12). Baptism is unavoidable. It is nothing less than a “short cut” term for the availing crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ for you and applied to you.
Now the implications: The Gospel has fallen like an axe upon the root of the problem — our bondage, death in sin, and alienation. The Gospel of the crucified and now resurrected Christ has exploded it all and, in being united to Him in a death and resurrection like His through baptism, all those things in us have exploded as well.
Although we are exhorted to have our minds on things “above,” it is precisely while we dwell here “below.” Paul, in other words, is talking about a life of piety and devotion in the here and now. Ordinary, mundane life is given to the things here that are the on-high-kind-of-things, namely the Word of God and the Sacraments and the Church. In this life we are to be resurrection people because through baptism we have already participated—in part—in resurrection life: the regeneration of our spirits, with our bodies to follow on the Last Day. Since this is in fact the reality, says Paul, live like resurrection people. Life and the full future of resurrection has already come. “As one’s entire spiritual and intellectual orientation is set on the indicative of God’s salvation in Christ, this will shape one’s moral conduct accordingly,” explains Deterding.
Therefore, Paul exhorts his readers to be what they already are juridically (declared forgiven, righteous, adopted, etc.) and ontologically (regeneration) by pure grace. What they are now is not of the world, so all the world’s perverted and corrupted values, ways, and divisions must give way to new life in Christ, driven by the Spirit of God. Hence, the contrasts delineated from 3:5-11.
3:1: ἄνω (“above” or “on high”) is not a spatial referent, but soteriological. What is “on high” or heavenly has to do with God’s gracious declaration and merciful, life-giving presence. Here, Paul, I am convinced, exhorts a pious life—devotion to the higher things in this life or, at least, overlap with it from above, namely the Sacraments, the Word of God, and the Church.
3:3: κέκρυπται (“has been hidden” — perfect tense) denotes how this life stored up for safekeeping has already been secured by Christ’s death and resurrection.
3:5: Νεκρώσατε οὖν τὰ μέλητὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (“Begin to put to death”). Paul essentially says, the break with the past has happened, now set your mind to a conscious break with the past. You must start somewhere with something. The matter of starting at some point has already been settled.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Colossians 3:1-11.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Colossians 3:1-11.