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The Gospel Lived - How to Be a Christian (Colossians 3:1-17)

Do everything in the name of Jesus to the glory of God the Father.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Colossians 3:1-17

Paul gives the church in Colossae a picture of the Christian life -- replacing unrighteous words, thoughts, and actions with righteous ones. A Christian life should be characterized by forgiveness, compassion, peace, love, and worship. His one-sentence summary is that we should do everything in the name of the Jesus to the glory of God the Father.

And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 3:17

[Editor's note: this is being posted on Veteran's Day. I cannot say thank you enough to the men and women who protect our freedom; I will never fully appreciate what you have done for me and my family. May we all use our freedom to the glory of God!]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Power of Clothing

When we covered the parallel passage in Ephesians 4, I started it off with a "the power of walking" section. Let's talk about clothing this lesson!

One optimistically-titled article "The Science-Backed Power of Clothes" makes the claim,

"Studies show that clothing can influence your posture, body language, motivation and even mood. The right outfit can enhance creativity, focus and negotiation skills. Clothes certainly impact how other people see us. People make snap judgments about us based on our appearance, especially when it comes to what we are wearing. But what we wear has meaning beyond what the outside world sees and perceives; it also affects the way we perceive ourselves."

I, actually, totally buy that. How about you?

My favorite such story is that when my wife first met me in a 20something Bible study, she thought I was the leader because I was wearing a coat and tie, and the actual leader was wearing jeans and a t-shirt (my workplace was business formal; his wasn't). Weeellll, I had been a Christian for maybe a year, and I was pretty clueless about all of it, so that goes to show the power of clothes. (And my future bride wasn't necessarily impressed 🤔.)

Let me throw out four categories; how do you react when you hear these:

  1. Business formal

  2. Business casual

  3. Casual casual

  4. Pandemic casual

Employers have poured millions of dollars into decided what kind of dress code would be "best" for the workplace. While I was at Koch, we went through the transition from business formal to business casual, with anyone meeting a client expected to be business formal. Why do you think they did that? What dress code works best for you? Why?

[Bonus topic: has pandemic casual been good or bad for productivity? How about for you?]

In what ways do you think clothes are important? For identifying somebody? For giving a vibe? What clothes/uniforms/outfits do you have that affect the way you perceive yourself?

(And don't sleep on the power of costumes!)

I'd really love to know if you can remember the first time you put on

  • Your graduation gown

  • Your wedding dress/tux

  • Your Class A uniform

  • The nametag for your first job

  • Your "I'm a Grandparent" t-shirt

  • Your letterman's jacket

or whatever article of clothing that was really important to you. How did it make you feel? How did it affect your behavior?

Anyway, here's the point: Paul likened our new life in Christ to taking off old garments and replacing them with brand new ones. Not only is there the refreshment of new clothes, there is also the expectation of how those clothes identify you. Just as you would expect certain behaviors out of someone wearing a lab coat, the same should be true for Christians.

There is so much to cover in this week's passage that we should get to it post haste!


This Week's Big Idea: Christian Ethics

Ethics is the study of behavior, namely answering the question "How should I act?" or "What behavior would be approved by God?" It's not the easiest topic to extract from the Bible because Christian ethics is inseparable from theology -- as in, God acts according to His character. Because God cannot be reduced to simple words on a page, ethics cannot be reduced to a simple checklist. Nevertheless, we are expected to "walk worthy" of Jesus, or live according to God's ethic. So, how do we do that?

[I'm going to do my best to summarize a bunch of articles in my Evangelical Dictionary of Theology and Holman Bible Dictionary. Sorry -- this topic can get wildly complex.]

There Is One Biblical Ethic for All People in All Times

For the Bible to help us make ethical decisions, we have to believe three things:

  1. The Bible applies to all people

  2. The Bible is consistent across contexts

  3. The Bible gives moral commands

In other words, behind the very unique and specific contexts and applications of the commands in the Bible are general principles that apply to every unique life today. (And that study will help us distinguish universal commands from unique commands. For example, Jesus commanding "untie the colt" in Mark 11 doesn't mean that untying colts is part of the Christian ethic.)

The Judeo-Christian Ethic Is Rooted in the Person of God

The unifying force behind biblical ethics is God and His character, which means that expectations for humanity are rooted in our being made in the image of God, and our most important need is to have a right relationship with Him (through Jesus Christ). Thus, when the Bible says that "God is holy" and "God is love" and "God is just", we are also to reflect those characteristics. The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) was an early example to the Jews how they could do that, with right behavior affecting their relationship with

  • God

  • Time

  • Family (parent, spouse)

  • Life

  • Other families

  • Society

  • Truth

Our Ethic Is as Focused on Our Heart as Our Behavior

Jesus summarized the law as

  • Love the Lord your God

  • Love your neighbor as yourself (do for others what you would have them do for you)

That general approach is much more powerful than a unique "case law" approach because everyone's possessions are different, everyone's family structure is different, everyone's workplace is different, and so on, and the Christian ethic must apply equally to you as to me.

The most important and unique consequence of that is that Christian ethics focuses on "the heart" rather than on behavior. This is what we talked about in last week's passage. All of the ethical demands in the world cannot change the heart, and good behavior without a right heart will still result in a person's damnation. Rather, Christianity starts with the heart, and our behavior flows out of our heart. This is why Christian ethics cannot be reduced to "don't" -- merely refraining from doing something wrong is not doing something right. (The Sermon on the Mount was given as an example of what that means.)

New Testament Do/Don't Lists Are to Help New Christians

There are multiple lists of commands in the Bible (like this week); they mainly exist to help Gentile converts who didn't grow up learning Jewish morality (remember -- God's ethic did not change from the Old to New Testaments). They take the principles of the Old Testament and word them in ways that make sense in a Greco-Roman culture. That helps us see the principles today in our culture. Here are common features to those lists:

  • Personal holiness/purity

  • Personal righteousness

  • Forgiveness

  • Generosity

  • Respect for others

  • Respect for government

  • Humility

  • Mutual submission

  • Courage

  • Dependence on the Spirit

  • and Imitating Jesus

Those lists are intended to be a starting point for a new Christian to begin to learn how to follow Jesus in his or her life. Never does Paul (or Peter) intend such lists to be comprehensive. Rather, Paul writes "this is what your life looked like before Christ, and this is what it should look like in Christ" while including some example behaviors as illustration.

Here's my challenge to you: as we study this week's passage, try to write down the overarching principles. And if you read a specific instruction that really speaks to you, be specific! When we finish this lesson, it would be wonderful for you to have a grasp of how we make decisions about "the right thing to do".


Where We Are in Colossians

One of my professors in seminary believed very strongly in the importance of outlines and diagramming. He said that the key to really understanding a book of the Bible was being able to write a clear outline. (And also diagram the major sentences.) The outline would reveal the major arguments of the book, and the diagram would reveal the key words. I think he's absolutely right. Here's my outline of this week's and next week's passage.

Your New Life in Christ (3:1-4:6)

I. The Guidelines for Christian Living (3:1-4)

1. Focus: things above, not earthly things (3:1-2)

2. Reason: you now belong to Jesus (3:3-4)

II. Put Your Old Life Away (3:5-11)

1. Unholiness (like lust and greed) which brings God's wrath (3:5-7)

2. Sinful thoughts and words (like anger and lying) (3:8-9)

3. End your old life by living out your new life in Christ (3:10)

*. Key ethic: In Christ's new humanity, there are no divisions (3:11)

III. What Your New Life Looks Like (3:12-17)

1. Holiness (like compassion and forgiveness), which reflects God's behavior (3:12-13)

2. Love, which holds our identity together (3:14)

3. Peace, which unites us all together (3:15)

4. Words of truth, wisdom, and worship (3:16)

[Background attitude in all things: thankfulness/gratitude]

*. Key ethic: Live every moment as a representative of Jesus (3:17)

IV. What Your New Relationships Look Like (3:18-4:1)

-- this is next week

Paul doesn't randomly put together topics; he always has a plan and a direction. So, every time I try to create an outline of Paul's letters, I always find something I didn't notice before. It's a great exercise that every Bible student should practice regularly. It makes it easier to see how Paul juxtaposes anger with love, lying with worship, selfishness with gratitude, and so on.

This week's passage is going to give us an incredible summary of the Christian life. Let's get to it!


Part 1: A New Life (Colossians 3:1-4)

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

You'll have a hard time convincing me that more beautiful words about life have ever been written (non-Jesus category).

We all know the famous mom advice -- "you are what you eat". Well, therapists have a version of this that they are equally committed to: "you are what you think" (or some variation thereof). And no, this isn't "the power of positive thinking" I warned against a few weeks ago in Philippians. This is fundamental, practical advice. Who's the one person who modeled real life for us, who showed us right from wrong, who walked the path of righteousness, who made a way for us to be right with God? Jesus. Only Jesus. So, if we want to have a model and a focus and a goal and a purpose in life, we should look to . . . Jesus. Right? It's real easy when we think of things that way. And where is Jesus now? At the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

What is the practical impact of that basic fact?

We need to have our hearts set on the things Christ's heart is right now focused on.

What are those things? What are those eternal things?

(1) The glory of God the Father Almighty, and (2) the destination of human souls (which will be reunited with a "glorified body"). That's it. Everything else turns to dust.

Those two principles should be all we need to make ethical decisions in this life. Think about it! When you're deciding what to do/how to act, you can ask two basic questions:

  1. Does my action bring glory to God?

  2. Does my action bring a person closer to salvation in Jesus?

How simple! How brilliant! The rest of the passage fleshes that out with practical examples, but it all comes back to the principles in these verses.

Remember that I said 2:6-7 were the pivotal verses in the letter:

6 So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in him, 7 being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.

After this, Paul makes the argument

  • Don't follow man-made philosophies because they can never do for you what Christ did for you: change your hearts and make you right with God (2:8-15);

  • Don't follow man-made religions because they also can't make you right with God, and they're bound to the things of this passing world (2:16-23).

And that leads us right into this week's passage about setting our minds on things above. It's right in line with what Jesus said in Matthew 6:

19 “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. So if the light within you is darkness, how deep is that darkness!"

The key verse is, of course, 21: "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also". How do you store up treasures in heaven? If you can answer to that question, then you can also understand how to set your mind on things above.

Let's hit some details:

  • "seated at the right hand of God" -- this is another way of describing Christ's preeminence (which Paul has harped on throughout). "Seated" means that His work is finished. The "right hand of God" is the place of supreme privilege and authority.

  • "set your mind on" -- this is a continuous imperative, as in "keep on doing it!"

  • J. B. Lightfoot summarized this as "You must not only seek heaven; you must also think heaven". I like that!

  • "not on earthly things" does not mean that we are supposed to withdraw from the world -- we have to live in the world in order to share the gospel! But, as we studied in Philippians 4, we must have a heavenly perspective on earthly things, being able to dwell on what is right and not what is wrong.

  • "you died" -- there are people today who think that Christianity is something we add onto our lives; certainly, there are a lot of Christians who live that way. But that's wrong. Our old life is gone. It's dead. We illustrated that in our baptism. That means it has no power over us.

  • "hidden with Christ in God" -- this is a gorgeous way of expressing the security of our salvation (if it's hidden, it can't be stolen); it also hints at the spiritual nature of what's going on within us.

I want to camp out on verse 4 for a moment. (Are we going to get through the whole passage? Not at this rate.) The Greek word for "appears" (phaneroo) is one of the words used to describe Christ's coming. Parousia refers to Christ's presence with His people; epiphaneia refers to His visibility; apokalypsis refers to its meaning. Phaneroo refers to how it will be open and obvious. In other words, Paul chose the term that pairs with the concept of "hidden". Your life is hidden now with Christ, and it will one day be revealed with Christ.

If you're like me, you think that sounds a little strange. But remember Paul's bigger context -- he's contrasting the truth of Jesus Christ with the lies of the false teachers. No matter how clever their philosophies sound, or how pious their behaviors seem, they will fail when Christ returns. Do you want to be found with them, or with Christ?

And here's the cool things about Paul's grammar -- he's using present tense. This is reality. You are at this moment raised with Christ. There shouldn't be any fear or doubt, no matter how forceful these false teachers get. The victory is won.

And then Paul does his common-but-always-brilliant transition: if this is who you are, then this is how you should be.


Part 2: Put Off (Colossians 2:3-11)

5 Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, God’s wrath is coming upon the disobedient, 7 and you once walked in these things when you were living in them. 8 But now, put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self. You are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator. 11 In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.

We've covered these concepts at length in other studies. As I said above, God's ethic hasn't changed over the generations. Lust has always been wrong. Anger has always been wrong. So let me just briefly summarize how Paul describes the "earthly nature":

  • Sexual immorality -- this refers to any inappropriate sexual activity

  • Impurity -- any unrighteous thought, word, or action (very broad)

  • Lust -- any uncontrolled desire

  • Evil desire -- any unrighteous desire, even if it's "minor"

  • Greed -- any desire for more (of anything)

Why would greed be "idolatry"? Because it causes you to pursue that thing when you should be pursuing God. God cannot tolerate such a nature.

You can see how this first list focuses on desire (and you could argue that the emphasis is on sexual desire, though I think Paul deliberately chooses words that are far more broad).

The second list focuses on action:

  • Anger, wrath and malice all refer to feelings that bubble over to outbursts

  • Slander -- verbal insult of another

  • Filthy language -- any abusive or obscene talk

Paul focuses on lying, probably because it is more common than the other sins listed. What do you think? Is lying a bigger problem than flying off the handle? (It wouldn't be hard to convince me of that.)

Note that Paul is very strong with his wording. We are not to control our bad impulses; we are to exterminate them. We are not to moderate our bad behavior; we are to kill it. This is right in line with what Jesus said in Matthew 5:

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Then, in verse 9-10, Paul uses the clothing metaphor. This is not original to Paul; Jesus used a similar metaphor in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22; the man wearing the wrong clothes was cast out). My guess is that most of us are going to think of a time we were filthy and couldn't wait to change our clothes (and take a shower, like this guy who fell during a cave tour). And that's a good start. I remember a football game in college that we played on a muddy field in November. It was part of an initiation ritual that definitely wasn't hazing. I remember being so miserable, and then trying to get in my car without ruining it. I just wanted out of those clothes. How about you?

That kind of image probably isn't strong enough for what Paul is getting at. Paul has in mind a kind of clothing that you want never to have anything to do with again. Maybe it's been covered with filth (or worse). Maybe it's embarrassing. The point is that your change of clothes is a big deal.

Here's a cool thing about Paul's choice of words: the change of clothes is a one-time thing, but the new clothes are continuously being renewed. That's a great description of salvation. Salvation is a one-time thing, but our life in Christ (sanctification) is something that happens every day. We are always being renewed.

Paul then ends with his first ethical principle: In Christ's new humanity, there are no divisions. What do you think this principle has to do with things like greed and lying?

I think the first and most important consequence actually points to the clothing metaphor: there is only one salvation. Everyone saved in Christ "wears the same clothes". But then beyond that, where does harsh language come from? Where does greed or covet come from? Is it not because we think of someone else as beneath us, as deserving of such harsh words or thoughts? And is not all greed rooted in the idea that we deserve something that someone else has? When we realize that every human is the same before God, all of those imagined inequalities that bubble over into sin go away.


Part 3: Put On (Colossians 3:12-17)

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. 14 Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Please do everything you can to save most of your time for these verses. They're not hard to understand! And yet, these ideas are repeated throughout the New Testament. Why is that? Because they're so important and we haven't gotten them right yet.

As we go through these words, think about how your life reflects them. What do you need to focus on, and in what way?

[Aside: if you think of these virtues as pieces of clothing, similar to how Paul describes the "armor of God" in Ephesians 6, then you can "put on" all of these things as you get dressed in the mornings.]

  • Compassion -- pity and compassion for those suffering

  • Kindness -- goodness/graciousness

  • Humility -- put others before yourself; not a virtue to a Roman

  • Gentleness -- delicate consideration of the feelings of others; not a virtue to a Roman

  • Patience -- self-restraint; bearing insult and injury

  • Bearing with -- expands on patience

  • Forgiving -- in the same way God has forgiven us

  • Love -- agape love, a self-giving love

Read 1 Corinthians 13 for a fuller description of "love" and why it should be considered the highest of all virtues.

[Aside: maybe love should even be considered the sum of all virtues. Galatians 5 has a lot in common with this week's passage, especially "the Fruit of the Spirit":

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Many have pointed out that "love" is the singular fruit of the Spirit, and the rest of that is simply expressions of love. It could be equally agued that Paul's point is primarily that each of those virtues are united -- that they are all different ways of describing the "one fruit" of living in the Spirit (or maybe that's what Paul means by saying that "love" binds the other virtues together in "perfect unity"). But the point is the same either way. Love -- self-giving, self-sacrificing love -- is the centerpiece of the Christian life. Why is that?]

But then Paul singles out "peace", as if it were on the same level as love. This has caused confusion, but unnecessarily. The word for "rule" originally referred to the ancient equivalent of an umpire, the person who decides if the rules have been followed correctly or not. In other words, if there are any questions as to how best to display love, that can be arbitrated by if it brings peace. Because Paul specifically mentions the "one body", this means peace among the church members. Paul elsewhere tells us to live at peace with all people (Rom 12:18), but the inviolable rule for Spirit-filled love is creating peace in the church.

This might have a little to do with how we display "tough love" ("this hurts me more than it hurts you"); i.e. sometimes when we think we're showing tough love, it's not being received that way. Whatever the case, peace is the way we can determine whether or not we are showing love properly in the church.

[Note: this has nothing to do with church discipline or heresy! These words have been grossly misinterpreted as "peace at all costs". No! Paul has said that his ministry is to "present everyone mature in Christ", and he has just admonished them not to let anyone distract them from the truth of Jesus. Love and peace inform the why and the how of helping one another grow in Christian maturity.]

Make sure you highlight the "and be thankful"! He says this three times in rapid succession, taking us back to the very beginning of the letter and Paul's brilliant overview of the Christian life in 1:10-12: a life that pleases God is characterized by

  • good works,

  • growing in our knowledge of God,

  • being steadfast and patient in our faith, and

  • giving thanks to Him.

What's the big holiday in November? Just wondering.

Then this section closes with two of my very favorite verses. I strongly encourage you to memorize them! "The Word of Christ" is the gospel, the message about Christ. Under the influence of the gospel, we are to do two things:

  1. Use every kind of wisdom to teach one another, and

  2. Use every kind of song to praise the Lord.

Those are the right way to use words.

[Aside: because it will probably come up, know that our modern use of the words "hymns" and "choruses" and "songs" are totally independent of what the words meant 2,000 years ago. Paul's point is that every kind of song should be used to worship God. Here are the two rules we can draw from context:

  • They must be intended as worship;

  • They must be worthy of the name of Jesus.]

Paul then erupts into his second ethical principle: live every moment as a representative of Jesus. There are no days off from being a Christian. No breaks. No time-outs. You are always a Christian, so everything you do should be as a Christian (a representative of Jesus, a "little Christ").

Here's a really cool implication of that truth: there is nothing that you do that is too boring or mundane to be done in the name of Jesus.

Closing discussion idea: are there things you do, maybe at your job, maybe in your chores, that you have a hard time doing "in the name of Jesus"? Bring them up! Let the people in your group help you work through that!

Verse 17 is the perfect one-sentence summary of living the Christian life. How can you apply it to the way you live your life now?


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