This small letter just might be one of the more quotable sections of scripture one will find. It is incredibly aware of Christ, and therefore despite the ways in which the letter itself remains somewhat ambiguous in context and concern, the words themselves easily translate and contextualize across these boundaries. This is a Gentile community looking to be reminded of their new found identity in Christ.
The Letter is attributed to both Timothy and Paul, but it doesn’t take long when reading through it to recognize what scholarship has been pointing out for a good while, which is that the language feels slightly different from Paul. This certainly could push one towards Timothy as a possible author, but tracking down the author of the letter nevertheless remains a bit allusive.
However, if we are talking about the letters translation and contextualization, one thing that is for sure is that its words feels especially true when placed in a larger awareness of the Pauline tradition which likely informs it. Much of the content here fits readily into theologies and ideas and confidences that surround it and that have shaped it. It carries this presence not of a letter that is necessarily influencing wide spread theological development, but of a letter that provides us with a snapshot of a given theology that has been “lived in” and “experienced” and “practiced” in a particular setting. The focus is surprisingly simple and uncomplicated, and its expression quite directive in terms of being lobbied towards this particular community and onto (and into) an idea that has obviously already been fleshed out and understood in their midst.
Of immediate concern here is the encouragement of the Colossians towards maturity in the face of some kind of opposing teaching which was pushing back against their understanding and embrace of the Gospel (2:4;2:8-9;2:18). What we don’t know as readers is whether this teaching was coming from outside of the community or from the inside. To read the letter is to get this sense that it could be either-or, both-and. Also a bit unclear, especially in an ancient world where the opponents of the Gospel were generally quite clear and defined (floating between Gnosticism and Jewish sects), is what these teachings were that were challenging their embrace of the Gospel.
Moving From Darkness To Light- A Liberating Image
This is where the language in the text emerges as something particular, representing an eclectic mix of Jewish mysticism, Pagan beliefs, and Gnostic teachings. Which one of these three things has a greater push and pull is where scholarship remains divided. What we do know with a bit more clarity is that whatever it was, it had something to do with their faith being disqualified by some rule of the Law. (2:16-18; 2:8). Thus the author desires to remind the readers of their movement from Darkness ( where they were alienated and hostile in mind 1:21) to the Kingdom (Light) of his beloved Son in whom we (they) have “redemption” and “the forgiveness of sins.” (1:14)
In this desire, Christ emerges as the letter’s central focus (1:15). In an absolutely wonderful rendering of this movement from the Darkness to Light, the author moves through a descriptive of Christ as “the image of the invisible God”, the “firstborn of creation” who has gone before, is in, and is also holding all things together. Christ is the fullness of God, the same God who is reconciling all in earth and heaven by the blood of the Cross. What a wonderful, sweeping, and liberating image.
Moving From Darkness To LIght- Suffering As An Informing Reality
Moving from this image of the “blood of the Cross”, which is represented as the reconciling work of God, the author then connects this to the notion of suffering. “In (their own) suffering” the author rejoices in a chance to fill up (for them) what was lacking (in them) for the sake of Christ’s witness (the Cross as the reconciling work). This fits with the tagline that comes at the end of the book in which we get this more direct reference to Paul, saying (with an almost “therefore” connotation) “Remember my chains. Grace be with you.”4:18. There is a connective tissue that is exposed here between Christ’s suffering, the author’s suffering, and how these things can inform the reader’s suffering (which in the context of Colossians appears to be holding them to the same hostility of mind they once inflicted on others). In this movement from Darkness to Light, God is choosing their current circumstance (and has chosen them) to make known Christ, whom the author calls the “mystery of God”, the one whom is being revealed to them (in the riches of full assurance of understanding- knowledge) and likewise making them (in their movement from Darkness to Light) hidden in Him. Whatever the hostile arguments were that they were hearing or facing, the author says this so that this would stay as an immovable truth for them. Christ is in them and they are in Christ. This is something they know and the author is simply looking to refill their tank.
The Mystery and the Building Up of This Mystery
It is for this mystery that we (they) then push for “maturity” (1:28), “knit together in love” (2:2), “rooted and built up” (2:7). There is a sense of togetherness to this growth that will emerge more concretely as the letter moves forward, but here the grander picture is the notion of the foundation (Christ) and the “spiritual building” (Christ’s work in us), a crucial theological idea the is present throughout the development of theology in the New Testament writings, as that which is “bringing us together” over and against the hostile voices . And what is being built up through this foundation is their Gentile heritage (2:11-12), which is the thing that is being held (hidden) in their baptism (2:12), a baptism which nails the Law that excludes them, whatever that letter happens to be for the audience of this letter, to the Cross (2:14). Whoever is making accusations (judgements) that this is not the case (2:16), they are being called to remember that Christ is the one that holds their promise and their hope hidden in Him. Christ alone is the “substance” of their faith. Christ is the “Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” (2:19) What a wonderfully raw and blunt image of our baptism. This is one of those phrases that doesn’t sound at all like Paul, but is certainly no less caught up in the same richness of Christ’s witness that has been moving through the Gentile world according to the Pauline witness.
If With Christ, Then Live In Christ
Now the author moves in directly to target whatever semblance of these “false” teachings might have already infiltrated their community. If with Christ you died (moved from Darkness to Light), why do you submit to regulations (Law) 2:23. Presenting the contrasting picture in response, “If then” (with Christ you died), seek the things that are above (3:1). This is where the mystery lies. This is where your life is being hidden with Christ. (3:3) This echos with the authors and voices of the New Testament teachings that call us to stop living as though we are under the Powers of Sin and Death (the Darkness). Live as though you are under the Power of Christ (Light and Life).
God’s Justice And Our Identity: A Unifying and Liberating Force
God’s justice (wrath, judgment, justice, all words with shared concern) is coming (a phrase which calls back to whatever judgments are being lobbied on them in 3:6), so put the earthly ways (that which is not from above, the Law that judges them) under Darkness (3:5, also interpreted as Death) where it belongs. I love this phrase. It’s equally declarative as it is responsive. And it is so wonderfully directive as well. Whatever it is that is telling you that you don’t belong to Christ, take it and put it under “Darkness”. And then step back into the Light. This is the idea of dying to ourselves, or to die is to gain, and living in Christ. For the new knowledge that you (and we) received in this mystery (that is our identity in Christ) has neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free… it has only Christ.
What is especially powerful about this picture is how it arrives with this sense of nakedness and vulnerability. Whatever it is that we are setting under Darkness, we are actively taking off and disrobing from. And as we step into the light, we are putting on this new set of clothes (Christ Himself), the clothing of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, fellowship, forgiveness, and above all love (3:12-14). And then, it says, therefore, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” 2:6
How many people, how many of us, need to hear this message? I know I do. Daily. Whatever it is that tells us we don’t belong to Christ, put it under Darkness, and then put on the new clothes. And we do so that we can have the freedom and confidence to tell others that they are under Christ.
A NOTE ON SIN, SCRIPTURE AND INTERPRETATION
A note here, because if you are reading through Colossians (and reading my thoughts on it), you might (at this point) be tempted to want to clutter the simplicity of this message with the rest of the text. There are particular distinctives that come along with this placing “under Darkness” for the readers of Colossians in Chapter 3. They aren’t simply putting the hostile words under Darkness, they are putting particular ways of living this hostility under Darkness. The list includes “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness (3:5).” These are things that come with the clothes that they are being asked to take off, all things that belong in the Darkness because of the ways in which they, if you continue on in the verse, foster “anger, wrath (judgment), malice, slander and obscene talk (3:7-8).” These descriptors give us something of an image of the world in which fhe Colossians co-exist, and the world that they were pulled out of when they moved from darkness to light.
One of the dangers that often emerges in our reading of scripture is that we tend to fixate on these kinds of passages as simply some kind of generalized form of an ambiguous “moral code” meant to be applied in arbitrary ways that connect to our salvation. Seeing it in this way though removes us from the larger concern and the larger picture. What we would miss here is the larger context for the Colossian readers that we have been following to this point, which is this truth that they are being told they don’t belong (the hostile words), and are being encouraged (filled up) with the truth that they do belong. Whatever this “judgment” (as it calls it) is telling them, this is part of what they are taking off, and they do so “because” of the truth that God’s justice is coming (with the interpretation here being that judgment, wrath, and justice are all words that connote this vision of what is wrong being made right).
That is the main concern for the author. If we lose sight of this, we will inevitably find ourselves doing precisely the same thing that the others are doing to the Colossians, using a measure of the Law to set them in or outside of Christ according to a measure of “hostility”.
The other important thing about this is a tendency to fixate on particular “sins” as that which moves us in and outside of Christ. As you read through the New Testament, there is a noticeable distinction and tension that arises between Christ as the one that frees us from the Law and moves us to the Light, and on the flip side of this the Darkness as a place where “lawlessness” reigns. The consistent call in scripture, as it appears here in Colossians, is to carry this tension with us as we step into the light, not as that which determines our reality (as a child of God), but as an opportunity for this lawlessness (out of which we arrive at notions of sin) to make us aware of our reality in Christ. This is why the Law exists, scripture says, to expose the Darkness. And the Darkness exists to expose the Light. These interchanging ideas is what allows us to function within this tension with a degree of confidence in who Christ has declared us to be. It removes us from the distinctives of the Law (where we are “externally” defined by and judged according to some ambiguous collection of sins), and gives us the distinctive of Christ.
Here is another important and necessary thing to understand. So much of the sin that we tend to fixate on tends to function within the ideologies that hold them in place as a matter of “identity”. It says, we are this therefore we are not in Christ. They tend to take sin and twist it into some measure of a “person” (in highly individualistic terms built by our theological constructs of due “punishment” for sin) which God simply cannot stand and cannot tolerate simply because God hates this particular sin (and therefore must punish us with death) for seemingly arbitrary reasons. This is not how the notion of sin works in scripture though. Sin in scripture always begins with its grander context as The Powers (of Sin and Death), or the Darkness, which is where Sin functions in these identity shaping ways, and the Power of Christ which moves us from Death to Life. Sin, as the Powers, always tells us something untrue about our identity in Christ. It leaves us with Darkness and Death. That is how it deceives. That is how it functions. That is how it holds us in bondage. Sin says to us and the world in all its various ways, you are not standing in the Light and Life. You are not In Christ. God is not saying this to us, Sin is.
This then can whittle down to that measure of the activity of (small letter) sin. These are all the ways in which an individual, a society, a community, a city, a Nation (this individual-collective sweep is important and necessary to uphold, as we always tend to want to make it highly individualized) is acting in a manner that says (outwardly and inwardly) that they are standing under the Darkness (of the Powers of Sin and Death). BUT (and this is a big but), here is what we encounter over and over and over again in scripture. Small letter “sin” always emerges with two central concerns. The first is the physical distinction that these sins make within a community that has been actively “set apart” for the purpose of declaring and bearing witness to a world that is no longer standing under the Powers of Sin and Death. The concern here is for distinguishing between those who live like they are under the Power of Sin and Death (capital letter Sin), and those who live like they are under the Power of Christ (Light and Life). And hint: this is the tension that every one of us, and every community, and every Nation carries every single day. This is the wrestling that comes with these two Powers standing in contention over us. The great truth presented by the Gospel though is that we are no longer under the Power of Sin and Death, with the call always being “so then, live like it.” This is the freedom the Gospel offers. This is what it means to put Sin (and sin) behind us.
This then arrives with another “but” (an even BIGGER but). There is an internal and external function that exists within the idea of sin we find in scripture that is interconnected. The concern for those who live as though they are under Darkness (The Powers of Sin and Death) is personal (internally concerned with the individual who does not know, cannot believe, is stuck wondering whether they are in fact under the Power of Christ), but this internal focus arrives with a concern for the external (the ways in which our witness can tell others that they are in fact under the Power of Christ and not the Powers of Sin and Death). And this mixture of internal and external focus and concern is never relegated to simply “individualistic” terms. In fact, more often than not the “sin” that scripture speaks to carries a communal and collective context. In this way it is not driven by a question of identity, but rather a question of a broken witness (where our actions tell others that they are not defined by The Power of Christ and instead are defined by the Power of Darkness). And sin always arrives in the context of that larger narrative (the Powers of Sin and Death), which is where we locate this notion of God’s judgment, wrath, justice, righteousness, all words that share in this idea that what is wrong God is making right. The force of Sin then becomes about the oppressed and the oppressor, the in-just and the just actions, the same force that carries through the New Testament in this distinction between the ignorance of the Righteous and the liberation of the lowly. If Sin as a name, it is found in those “hostile words” that tell someone they are not “In Christ”.
It is in this context that we then discover a consistent concern for sin (and Sin) as a matter of exclusion, dissension, disunity, division, and a lack of fellowship, which then raises up Christ as the great unifier and our witness as one that is given to fellowship, inclusion, love and unity as Christ’s unifying work. This is the context for the whole of scripture, any time you find sin referenced, you fill find this attached.
It is with this in mind then that we can understand Colossians in the way I describe above. What you find is a Church that is being called to understand its move from Darkness to Light. They are being set apart so that they can know the truth that they are not under the Powers of Sin and Death. Set apart from what? The community which surrounds them (or that exists within them in the form of division) that lives as though this is not true. And how do they live as though it is not true? Their actions are ‘hostile words’. Here the inference, as is often the case, is that when one lives as though this is not true (that we are under the Power of Christ, not Darkness), the only thing they are left with is Death, which in communities set apart for the Light becomes shaped against the letter of the Law in desperate attempts to know that we are in fact in the Light (the Law which connotes two things- either an understanding of the Jewish context of the Law in which Gentiles (outsiders) are seen as not a part of the covenant heritage, or a confusion of the Gospel set against this movement from Darkness to Light which arrives with those natural questions of “how do I know that I am in the light” and thus that need to measure salvation, God’s saving work, according to some letter of the Law and works that we can define and control).
We find indications of both of these things in Colossians, with the clarity of focus coming in the idea that this confusion, whether it is coming from inside or from outside of their community, is setting them under the judgment of this way of thinking as opposed to the judgment (justice) of God which liberates them. Thus we get this emerging reality- this is (or will be) leading them to a divided witness and a broken fellowship, which is making them feel like they are left under the Darkness.
The ambiguousness of this descriptive of the community they once belonged to (defined according to: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness), and which might or might not still be present in their community, are those things that are being put under the Darkness as they take off the clothes of that identity defining judgment that is being lobbied their way (the judgements that are saying that they aren’t in Christ). And the reason they are being taken off is “because” of their association with “anger, wrath, malice, slander and obscene (destructive) talk. This is where the emphasis lies, and this is the mark of sin that speaks to what the Powers of Sin and Death do in us and in our community. It is this secondary list which leads to the hopeful picture here of doing away with these external, identity shaping distinctives that we so like to spin into matters of sin and salvation, and putting on clothing that stands in direct contrast to the anger, wrath, malice and slander that divides them. This clothing is: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, all things which are unifying prospects, prospects that build a fellowship according to love, which is where this passage ultimately leads as the summation of this concern and this movement (from Darkness to Light). Love binds EVERYTHING together, and we are KNIT together in LOVE in Christ.
I hope this is clear. Far too often we come to a passage like this as readers (myself included), and in our own need to know that we are in fact in the light and not the darkness, instead of finding this hope in Christ, we turn our focus to our constructs of sin and salvation. We make them and turn them into a law, giving them a face, a voice, a label, a recognizable distinctive so that we can label the sinners as this and saved as that. And what inevitably flows from this is an emphasis on “small” letter sin that we use to judge ourselves (as in our out), and even more so to judge others. What makes matters worse is that we take ambiguous terms like “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness”, isolate them, put them on a pedestal, and turn them into these particular and specific directives which say “do this or be this” and God will love you, and “don’t do this and don’t be this and God won’t love you.” And then when we attach these things to whatever matter of shape, form and identity that we can find (from types of individuals to cultures and nations and ideas and movements), we can then know what to exclude and include. Which couldn’t be further from this passage’s intent. In fact, once you have walked down this line of thinking far enough, you will inevitably always find yourself as the one who is being condemned by this very same thing (according to the Law or the letter of the Law that you have raised above Christ).
The point of freedom here is Christ. The point of bondage here (the slavery that we find in seeing ourselves as under the Powers of Sin and Death) are the actions that exclude us or others from the Love of Christ by being, by their very nature, anti-love, disunifying and divisive (the hostility they faced in Colossians). Sin always arrives as a social concept, a social concern, not as an individual, identity shaping notion. And it is always concerned with how these social realities limit the reach of the Gospel message. That is how distinguish between the deception and the truth. Wherever it is that we attach these notions of sin to in our own context must be defined by this and this alone. If sin is judged in scripture (which it is), it is ultimately for these reasons.
In the Spirit and Light of this note, where we arrive in this movement from Darkness to Light is in Love. Love unifies. In unity, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, with Christ being the “word” (3:16) of this Love embodied. This becomes the force and the point of the end of Chapter 3 with its emphasis on the “household” code and the call towards unity and fellowship with and In Christ (and one another), which works to erase the distinctions that hold us bondage. It is with this knowledge then that they are called to “walk in wisdom towards outsiders.” (4:5) Because it is in the wisdom of this kind of knowledge (the mystery that is Christ) that we can then bear witness to the reality of a world that no longer sits under the Power of Darkness, but rather, in God’s justice, has been placed under the Power of Light and Life.