December 27 – Colossians 3:1-17


Heads up: a lot of groups take the weeks of Christmas Eve and New Years off. Planning around the holidays can be tough, and it’s nice to get a break in a busy season. Go ahead and think through how you’d like to stay in touch over the holidays, cause even something as simple as a “Merry Christmas!” text is a good reminder of what unites us in community.
This week we’re between our last sermon series of 2020, Advent, and our first series of 2021, which will be in the book of Job. We’ll turn to Colossians 3:1-17 to talk about the life we have in Christ and how to go about living that life. But don’t miss this: we need to pay close attention to verses 1-4 before we can make use of verses 5-17. Let me explain.

Colossians 3:1-4 marks a big turning point in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Many of his letters follow a pattern of first presenting orthodoxy, right belief, before presenting orthopraxy, right action. 3:1-4 is precisely that turn from orthodoxy to orthopraxy, connecting back to things from earlier in his letter. In fact, we see some clear points of connection between 1:15-20, which talks about the preeminence of Christ, and 3:1-4. Because we have been raised with Christ (1:21-22) we set our minds on Christ (3:1). Because Christ is in a position of utmost authority (1:18), we listen to his words and obey him (3:2). And because we have died with Christ (1:22), meaning the old self and its sin have been put to death with Christ on the cross, we now live a new life with him in his resurrection (3:1).

We should see two things in this short little section. First, right action follows right belief. Actually this is true for all belief, right or wrong; for example, you may find yourself worrying about money often because you believe financial security is the only way to stay safe. This means that, if we find ourselves acting in a way that doesn’t conform to God’s word, or even in a way we don’t like, changing our behavior is the least effective way to address the problem. It’s like putting a piece of tape over a leak in your ceiling—you could keep getting more and more tape, or you could figure out where the water is coming from. Right action flows from right belief, meaning the real work to be done is in the realm of what we think and desire most.

Second, right action follows right standing. Before we can address our actions we must first be in right standing before God, meaning we must first be made alive with Christ before we can walk according to his word. That might sound elementary, but you and I will inevitably struggle with reversing the order and attempting to gain right standing through right action. Many of the people who helped start the Protestant Reformation concluded that the default scheme of the human heart is works-based righteousness. Without the transformative work of Christ in our lives we’ll inevitably try to clean ourselves up in some way, whether by following the rules or inventing our own. But what is the gospel message except the revelation that you cannot save yourself? Paul has clarified this earlier in Colossians, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses.”(Col. 2:13) None of us made ourselves alive; God did this. But you and I will have to do the hard work over the course of our lives to remember this and get rid of that default scheme of religiosity. If being right with God was up to us perfecting our behavior, we would never get there.

Right standing and right belief are the grounds for all of Paul’s commands in 3:5-17. If you don’t believe Jesus is the king on the throne and have life in his name then conversations about what to do and not to do are pointless. We have to keep that straight when we read passages like this, otherwise our default scheme of works-based righteousness can take over and we’ll just start making our list of dos and don’ts. However, we also need to keep from swinging the pendulum the opposite way and simply ignoring 3:5-17. We are accepted because of Christ alone, and yet that doesn’t permit us to live without any thought towards how Jesus wants us to live. As Paul makes the point here, if Christ has saved you, and he’s on the throne, then your life is wrapped up in him, meaning if you want to live the life he’s given you then you should follow his words. In fact, it’s because of the transformation worked in you by Christ that you should obey him; this is why Paul tells us to “put to death what is earthly in you”(v.5), precisely because “you have put off the old self, with its practices, and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”(v.10)

And thus if we live the life Christ has given us we will see this distinction between the old self practices (3:5-11) and the new self practices (3:12-17) in terms of who Jesus is. For example, we forgive because Jesus has forgiven us (3:13). You’ll see that much of the old self practices have to do with division and disunity. According to the old self we covet and curse one another (3:5-7), and draw up all kinds of hierarchies between opposing ethnic and racial groups (see note below). And yet the new life practices urge us to be compassionate, forgiving, and to create harmony (3:12-13), just as Jesus treated us. Passages like this aren’t about telling us how to be a good, moral person—that’s the default scheme talking. Instead passages like this give us specific, concrete examples of what it means to live a resurrected life in Jesus. We are accepted in and because of Jesus, and so we also obey in and because of Jesus. So as we believe more and more in the gospel message and walk in Jesus’ resurrection life we can truly “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”(3:17)

Questions for Discussion

• Would someone read Colossians 3:1-17 for us?

• What stands out to you from this passage?

• What does this passage have to say about living faithfully to Christ?

• What reasoning does Paul give here for putting off the old self and putting on the new self?

• How does being “raised with Christ” help us put off the old self?

• What do you find convicting in this passage?

• What in this passage was comforting for you?

Note: Don’t miss 3:11 and its relevance to all we’ve gone through as a nation this year concerning race. Jews and Gentiles didn’t get along, Greeks thought Scythians were barbaric, and the free had greater political rights than slaves, but here Paul condemns any sort of discrimination or prejudice along these lines, pointing out that these divisions are evidence of the old self, i.e. being dead in sin. As Christians we should take every opportunity to reject any vestiges of the old self within us.