October 9 – Colossians 3:11
Main focus: Because “Christ is all and in all,” Jesus’ all-surpassing worth erases earthly means of determining worth and value in others.
Yep, just one verse this week. But never fear, there’s loads to talk about here, because if we lived according to this verse, if its truth saturated our lives, our communities would be transformed. What Paul describes here is against the grain of every human society that has ever lived: in Christ, everyone is equal.
In some of your translations, Colossians 3:11 starts with “here” or “where.” That’s literally what the Greek reads, though some translations interpret it for you and tell you where “here” is (ex. “in Christ”). The flow of thought connects to the previous verse in which followers of Jesus have “put on the new self [which] is being renewed…[and where] there is not Greek or Jew…” In salvation we are united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, meaning our old sinful self has died and we’ve been given a new self in Christ. It’s this new self, as we saw last week, that we are working on in partnership with God; we are actively putting it on and we are passively being renewed by God into the image of Jesus. And it is within this new self that a groundbreaking work has begun: the end of discrimination.
“Here,” Paul says, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free.” For a Jewish audience, by starting out with Greek (i.e. Gentile) and Jew he has described every person on the planet (though note that he lists Greek first, either because the majority of his Colossian audience were Gentiles or to make a point to his Jewish readers). “Circumcised or uncircumcised” is just another way of saying the same thing, but at this point we can see the spiritual significance. That’s because the difference between circumcision and uncircumcision is a physical distinction, and one that doesn’t go away when a man becomes a Christian. So how on earth can Paul say circumcision “is not”?
Either Paul is encouraging us to entirely ignore physical realities or he’s pointing us to transcendent realities. Along these same lines, 3:11 goes on to describe “slave [and] free,” but in eleven verses he’ll address slaves directly and tell them to “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters” (3:22). So it sure seems like Paul expects followers of Jesus to live as if earthly realities like the difference between a slave and a free person, or between a Jew and a Greek, are real. Instead, here’s the world-changing shift: in Christ, those differences, real as they are, no longer communicate a difference of value.
As I said, this cuts against the grain of every human society that has ever lived, including our own. Since the Fall, human beings have created distinctions of value between different people (ex. Cain and Abel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the enslavement of Israel in Egypt, etc.). Even God’s people took his Law, which was meant to set apart Israel for a holy service to the nations (ex. 1 Kings 10), and used it to create disparaging judgments about non-Jews (on this topic, see Jesus’ scathing indictment of his hometown’s racial arrogance in Luke 4:16-30). But note that Paul’s list in 3:11 hits both ways; Jews did this with non-Jews, but Greeks also did it with non-Greeks, who they referred to as barbarians, making fun of specific people groups that they viewed as inferior, like the Scythians.
In a fallen world, sinful humanity incessantly looks for opportunities to create social hierarchies in order to shove others down and feel lifted up. And keep in mind, this includes sins of prejudice—“I actively dislike people like you”—and sins of preference—“If I could, I would choose not to be around people like you.” We do this by finding our own worth in things like money, influence, career, education, value systems (ex. conservatism or liberalism, wokeness or anti-wokeness), gender, race, ethnicity, place of origin, criminal background, artistic style, ability or disability, popularity, accomplishments, etc. etc. According to our sinful desires, if you can find a way to distinguish yourself from others with things like that, you will.
But check out Paul’s logic here: the reason we cast off these sinful value systems is two fold. First, in Christ our old self is being renewed into a new self fashioned after the image of Jesus himself, who himself shows no partiality (Rom 2:11). So we follow Jesus in loving our neighbors as ourselves. But second, we love all because we’ve come to a new conviction that Christ is all. Because of Jesus’ all-surpassing worth there’s now no benefit that earthly value systems can offer us in which we don’t already have something better in Jesus.
To summarize, in Christ we can recognize that differences between people are in fact real and bring with them real effects in the world, but we can also cast off any pronouncements of value that disparage other human beings who bear the same image of God (James 3:9). In particular, Paul brings this up in his letter to the Colossians to ensure that these sinful practices are no longer brought into the church, which, among other things, results in divisions among the people of God. In our discussion we’ll turn back to Revelation 7:9-10, which we looked at over the summer, to remind ourselves of the beauty and simultaneous diversity and unity within God’s people. As we can see in Colossians 3:11, this future reality is meant to break into our world now, and it starts with God’s people, with you and with me.
• Could someone read Colossians 3:11 for us?
• What stood out to you from the passage?
• What do you think Paul is communicating by listing these different people groups?
• Glance back at verses 5 through 10. How do you think valuing certain people over others is tied to your “earthly nature” and “old self”?
• What value distinctions are you prone to making between people of different races, ethnicities, incomes, education, etc.?
• What is it about being “in Christ” that breaks down these distinctions?
• Could someone read Revelation 7:9-10 for us?
• How does this passage describe the diversity and unity of God’s people?
• What do you think it looks like for our community group to live according to these values now?