Colossians 3

Colossians 3  •  30 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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Exhortation to Christians as risen with Christ: they are dead because Christ died for them, and now they are alive in Christ; that life is hidden in God
Now begin the direct exhortations founded on the truth that has been developed, and adapted to the state in which the Colossians were; that is, viewed as risen with Christ, but not sitting in heavenly places.
Risen with Christ, they were to set their affections on things above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God, and not on things on the earth. The two could not go together. To look, to have one’s motives, above and below at the same time is impossible. Be tempted by things, have to resist them, we may; but this is not to have them as our object. The reason for this is, however, found in our position: we are dead, and our life is hid with Christ in God. It does not say, “We must die.” Man cannot do this by will: we cannot deny will by will. Nor would the will of the flesh ever do it. If it acts, it does not abdicate. We are dead: this is the precious, comforting truth with regard to the Christian by virtue of Christ having died for him. He has received the life of Christ, and all that Christ did for him in that life belongs to him. Thus he is dead, because Christ died for him. The life with which the power of temptation, guilt and the attacks of sin are connected exists no longer to faith. By death all that was connected with it has come to an end. Now that which was connected with the life of the old man was sin, condemnation, weakness, fear, powerlessness against the assaults of the enemy-all that is past. We have a life, but it is in Christ; it is hidden with Him in God. We are not yet manifested in its glory, as we shall be manifested before the eyes of all in heaven and earth. Our life is hidden, but safe in its eternal source. It has the portion of Christ, in whom we possess it. He is hid in God, so also is our life: when Christ shall appear, we shall also appear with Him.
The individual character of our life in Christ, hidden, but safe in its eternal source
It will be remarked that the Apostle does not speak here of our union with Christ, but of our life, of the fact that we are dead and that our life is hid with Him in God. He does not speak of the assembly with regard to our position; he speaks, no doubt, of Christ as being its Head, as to His personal glory, but not of it as to us. He speaks of us individually. Each one has his own life in Christ truly, but as his own; it is not union with other Christians. We have this life in Christ, but it is not here our union as one body with Him. It is the individual character of the Christian, to whom Christ, the Head, is everything.
The absence of any mention of the Holy Spirit in the epistle; life in Christ and its nature
That which is also highly important to observe in connection with this truth is that in this epistle there is nothing said of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle speaks practically of their love in the Spirit, but in the instruction of the epistle he does not name Him. Even when he says, “There is neither Jew, nor Greek,” it is in the new man, not because we are one in Christ. The individual was to cleave to the Head. He was no longer living in this world; he was dead, and his life hid with Christ in God. But this was for himself; he was to know it and hold it fast for himself, as necessary truth, that he might be preserved from the wiles of the enemy. In a word, it is life in Christ. Elsewhere we see many of the things which the Apostle here mentions spoken of as the fruit of the Spirit, by which communion and union are maintained; but here it is simply in the nature of the life that these fruits have their source. It is quite natural, consequently, that the compass and the assemblage of all spiritual relationships in one, in Christ, which we find in the divine instruction when the Holy Spirit is introduced are wanting here.
The Holy Spirit and His work characterizing Ephesians
In the Epistle to the Ephesians this operation of the Holy Spirit is found everywhere and characterizes the whole of that which is developed in communion with the Head, Christ, with whom we are united in one body by the Spirit. Thus we are individually sealed by the Spirit of promise, the earnest of our inheritance; we all have access to the Father by one Spirit; we are also builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit; the union of the Gentiles in one body is now revealed by the Spirit; saints are strengthened by the Spirit in the inner man; there is one body and one Spirit; we are not to grieve the Spirit; we are to be filled with Him; the Word itself is the sword of the Spirit. The union of the body with Christ, our resurrection with Him, that we are sitting in the heavenlies in Him-all that flows from this union is fully developed; but at the same time the Holy Spirit, who unites us to Him, and unites us all together as one body, and who here below characterizes the presence of God in the church, who acts in us, secures our future, and becomes our strength in the present-the Holy Spirit, I repeat, is found everywhere, to complete the truth and to give it its present force for us here below.
Many of the exhortations in the Epistle to the Ephesians are nearly the same as those to the Colossians. But in the Epistle to the Ephesians they are connected with the Spirit; in that to the Colossians, with the action of the Word and of grace in the heart. This gives an immense range and a connectedness to the doctrine of the Epistle to the Ephesians, in that which regards our position here below, because it brings in God Himself, and as dwelling in us by the Spirit, and filling us, whether as in the individual or in the oneness of the body; and gives the full scope of the counsels of God.
The possession of life set forth in Colossians
Yet the possession of life is in its way as important as the presence and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It makes the blessing ourselves, not merely an operation in us, and, as we have seen, the character of divine life is far more fully developed; whereas in Ephesians it is more contrast with the previous state.
The action and presence of the Holy Spirit as presented in Romans
In the Epistle to the Romans we have (ch. 8) this action and presence of the Holy Spirit presented in a very remarkable way as to the individual. He characterizes us vitally in the principle of our resurrection, is the witness in us that we are children, filling us with joy and with the hope of glory as heirs, the support of our weakness and the source of our petitions and our groans. In the Epistle to the Romans it is in connection with our personal relationship to God; in that to the Ephesians, as the presence of God in us in connection with our union to Christ as one body.
The Holy Spirit’s purpose and starting point in Ephesians
and Colossians and the different character of the epistles
There is another thing to be noticed here which throws light on the purpose of the Holy Spirit in these epistles. The starting point in that to the Ephesians is the counsels of God. Man is looked at as he is, without one pulse of life as regards God; he is dead in trespasses and sins, by nature the child of wrath. God is rich in mercy; He raises him up with Christ, who in grace went down into death, and places him according to His counsels in the same position as that Christ is in. We are His workmanship, created anew in Christ Jesus. God is pleased to bring us into His presence according to His own counsels and His nature. It is not said that we are dead with Christ. Man is not viewed as living in the flesh, so that in one way or in another he had to die. This was not necessary. The Ephesians were to apprehend, on the one hand, the full contrast between God and man according to His counsels; and on the other, man’s sinful state according to nature. In their epistle all is the work of God Himself according to the original purpose of His own heart, of His nature, and of His will;1 man is already dead, and even Christ is not brought in as to His place till viewed as dead, and thereon risen and exalted on high.
(1. Hence we have no justification in Ephesians. It treats of a new creation.)
The Colossian danger, living in the world; its remedy, dead and risen with Christ
The Colossians were in danger of subjecting themselves to ordinances, and thereby were in a position to consider man as living in the world; and the Apostle makes them feel that they are dead with Christ. He was obliged in grace to follow them where they were, for their danger was to take man into consideration as living on the earth; in order, nevertheless, to show that the Christian had already died with Christ, and his life on earth was as risen with Him.
The Ephesian standpoint: dead in sins and quickened together with Christ
In the letter to the Ephesians man is not said to die with Christ. He is dead in his sins when God begins to act towards him.
No man is alive to God. The Christian is quickened together with Christ, Christ Himself first viewed as dead.
Life and the new nature set forth in Colossians and the energy of God in Ephesians
This character of the Colossians, however, the dwelling on life or the new man, has its value for us all, and a great value, because the life, the new nature, and grace working in it, are much less brought forward in the Epistle to the Ephesians, where the subject is the energy of God, who creates men in Christ and unites them to Him, fills the believer and the assembly here with the nature and the character of the new man, and thereby of Christ, yea, of God Himself.1 One might suppose that there was only the Holy Spirit acting in the fullness of His power and filling the individual and the assembly. But in this Epistle to the Colossians we find that there is a new nature, an intrinsic change, not of the flesh indeed, but of the man. For we are viewed, not merely as quickened by the Son, but as dead and risen with Christ, the Man who had died, so as to have passed out of-put off-the old standing of a child of Adam, and into a risen one with Christ-put on the new man. This is at once a standing and a state before God, a source of tastes, of sentiments, of desires, of arguments, and of moral capacities which are in connection with the very nature of God, who has caused it to spring up in the heart. We are renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created us. But this source is a life, which needs that the Holy Spirit should reveal to it the objects that are suited to it, and that awaken these tastes and feelings, which satisfy them and cause them to grow. It needs that the Spirit of God should act in it to give it strength; but it is a real life, a nature which has its tastes attached to its very existence;2 which, being enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is conscious of its own existence; and in which we are the children of God, being born of Him.
(1. This difference is of deep interest and brings out the character of the Epistle to the Ephesians in a remarkable way-an epistle in which everything is influenced by the high point of view taken by the Spirit and flows from the original and eternal counsels of God and from His operation to bring those counsels to perfection-the settled purposes of His own heart. He desires to have-He creates-something in order to show forth the immense riches of His grace. He has taken the dead and the lost: but they are only the objects of His operations, suited to make these manifest on account of their own condition. He does not work upon the nature of man, because it is contrary to His own, in order to destroy this contrariety. He quickens from the dead and creates. In Colossians the death of the old man is spoken of, which it was necessary to take into consideration. God be praised, we are entitled to view it as already dead, because Christ has died for us.
I may add here to that which I have said of the Holy Spirit that when the Apostle speaks in Colossians of the power of hope in us, he does not mention the earnest of the Spirit. It is still Christ in us, the hope of glory. Throughout it is Christ, and Christ as life.)
(2. With this difference between the actings of the Spirit and the existence of the new life is connected the liberty of the soul. When we are born of God, we have necessarily a taste for holiness; love acts in us; we take pleasure in the righteousness of God. But, by virtue of these sentiments, although my heart appreciates love in God, and this love attracts me and inspires me with a measure of confidence, yet my conscience condemns me, I feel that I am not that which I love. I am under the law and uncertain of my relationship with God. When I have learned the value of Christ’s blood, that He is my righteousness, the Holy Spirit dwelling and acting in me gives me the sense of my relationship with God. I have the consciousness of it in my soul, and the Holy Spirit bears witness of it. There is liberty.)
The new nature, and the old man and the new
Neither is it unimportant that we should learn, with regard to the life of the flesh, and when thinking of it, although it be on the negative side, that we are dead; that God recognizes nothing belonging to the old man; that He takes pleasure in a new nature, which is indeed ours by grace, but which is of God Himself, and which is the moral reflection of His own.
We are dead, then, and our life is hid with Christ in God. We have members on earth-no recognized life; and we have to put to death1 all these members of the old man. The Christian has to deny them practically as belonging to the old man, while his life is there where Christ is. They bring down the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Christians walked in these things when they had their life in them; but this is no longer the case; and they deny not only gross sins, the fruit of positive lusts (ch. 3:5-6), but all the workings of an unbroken will and an unsubdued heart, every indication of the actings of the will of that nature which knows not God and is not ruled by His fear, all anger and malice and falsehood flowing from selfishness or the fear of man (vs. 8). Truth reigns in the heart which has put off the old man, according to the simplicity of the new man,2 which is renewed also in knowledge after the image of Him who created it (vss. 9-10). The new man walks in the light. It is not only that there is a conscience which judges good and evil according to that which man ought to be according to his nature as a responsible being; there is a new man who judges the old man altogether, judging good and evil according to the knowledge of God. Such is the putting off.
(1. It is a very different thing from dying to sin. This supposes evil in the thing that dies (save, of course, in the case of Christ, who did it for those who had); whereas putting to death is an act of power in that which is good-the new man.)
(2. These three form the whole character of evil in man: generally, violence and corruption, the last taking the twofold form of lust and falsehood. So, before the flood, the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. Falsehood is Satan’s form of corruption, and violence also characterizes him. The Lord declares him to be a liar and a murderer (John 8:4444Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. (John 8:44)). Man adds the lust because of flesh.)
Before Christianity, and after: new apprehensions of the divine life which knows God
Before Christianity, which is the full revelation of God, there were indeed, as need not be said, souls born anew; but their rule, when a rule was definitely given, was man’s responsibility (whatever piety and grace might inspire), and the law, which was the perfect measure of that which man, as a being responsible to God, ought to be. Saints then did not distinguish between a new and an old man, although of necessity they had the conscience of the old man and the tastes of the new in measure in many respects. The sense, for instance, of the evil of falsehood had not at all the same place as with the Christian. Now the new man is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him who created him.1 God Himself in His nature is the standard of good and evil, because the new man has the knowledge of what that nature is; he is made a partaker of it, and he has the light of God. It is an intelligent participation by grace in the nature of God, which is the marvelous and precious privilege of the Christian. God works in this nature; but by communicating it, He has placed man in this position. Christ is the perfect model of this image, the type of the new man.
(1. Note here the difference of the corresponding phrase in Ephesians. There the Christian is created after God in righteousness and true holiness. Here it is the new apprehensions of the divine life which knows God. It is our state, not God’s creative act. Not that this contradicts the Ephesian view; on the contrary, “renewed” here is another word from Ephesians. It is that which is wholly new, never was there before (ανακαινουμενοι; anakainoumenoi). In Ephesians “renewed” is what is kept fresh and new.)
Putting on the character of Christ: the divine check on taking amiable nature for divine grace
Other differences have disappeared: there remains but the old man, which we only acknowledge as dead, and the new man. To the latter Christ is all; so that there is none but He whom they see and whom they acknowledge, and He is in all believers. They put on, therefore, as such, as elect, holy, beloved (Christ being their life), the character of Christ, mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearing one another, and forgiving one another if offense has been given, even as Christ has done to us.1 Finally, they put on love, the bond of perfectness, that which gives a divine character to all the qualities that have been enumerated and that were manifested in Christ, and a divine check on taking amiable nature for divine grace, for divine love is holy.
(1. Remark here how patience and graciousness and long-suffering characterize the Christian. It is remarkable how this is the case everywhere. So must it be in a world like this. So was it in Christ. So in 1 Corinthians 13 the traits of charity are all subjective and of this character. Not that that is a definition of charity, but it is characteristic of it. Where these traits are wanting, charity is.)
And note here that the putting on of these qualities is in the consciousness of the blessed place before God expressed in the words “elect of God, holy and beloved.” It is as such. Nor can we do it otherwise. It is in the sense of this wondrous favor that grace develops itself in our hearts. So in Ephesians: “As dear children.”
Peace as the crown, seal and bond of the Christian’s walk in unity; resultant thanksgiving
Several of these qualities may be resembled by things in nature; but the energy, the features, the bond of divine love, which acts in the sense of communion with God, are totally wanting in the latter; and this gives a character, a completeness, a righteousness of application, a perfection, a propriety, and an energy to the manifestation of these qualities, which love alone can give. For it is indeed God Himself who is there, acting in His nature which He has imparted to us. For He who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him. With regard to the state of the soul, there is a crown to this walk, wherewith they who follow it constantly are adorned. The peace of Christ reigns in the heart, that sweet and ineffable peace which nothing could disturb, though His spirit passed through everything to try it, for He walked ever with God. God has also called us to this; He is the God of peace. And here the Apostle introduces the oneness of the body, not as to its privileges in Christ, but as to the fact that Christians are called to be together in the unity of which peace is the seal and the bond. And then there will be thanksgiving; for the soul is conscious of the love and the activity of God, and everything flows to it from that love.
The activity of the soul; the Word of Christ its directing power; praise and thanksgiving
But, besides peace and thanksgiving towards God, there is the development of life in the knowledge of what is revealed, its food and joy. This too is enjoyed in the activity of life and love towards others. The enjoyment of God and of that which is in His presence leads to this activity of the soul. When the latter is real, it is the joyful liberty of a nature that is itself in the activity of love that is natural to it and which receives its energy from communion with God, according to His nature. The word of Christ unfolds all that is revealed to the soul as that in which it lives, and in which it expands itself, and is thus the rule, and active and directing power, because it is the expression of that nature, and the revelation of all its ways, and of its active energy in love in Him.
The Apostle, therefore, exhorts that the word of Christ may dwell in them richly. This is the development, according to the perfection of God, of the new man, and the wisdom of God to form and direct him. Paul desires that Christians may fully realize this. It is by communion with the Lord, holding communion with Him, that it is done. The word being that in which the wisdom is found; also according to this development the saints can teach and admonish each other.1 But in this case it is not only wisdom that we learn and that is displayed in us, but affections in connection with Him in whom we have found this wisdom, so that these expressions of the life of Christ, as true wisdom in the world, find their voice in our hearts in praise, in thanksgiving, in singing His excellency. All the intimate affections in which spiritual life develops itself express themselves, according to what we have learned: they flow from the Spirit of Christ and are the expression of the soul’s connection with Him and of the feelings this produces in the heart. Christ in His Person, in the consciousness of His presence, as the object of our thoughts, and in the moral fruits proceeding thence, sustains the communion and the communications of the soul that is occupied with His praises.
(1. It is simpler to put the stop after “one another,” and only a comma before “teaching.”)
Christ Himself as the aim and object of the heart and mind in all we do
But this consciousness of relationship with Christ, in the life which is of Him in us, applies to everything. Nothing is done without Him. If He is the life, all which that life does has Him for its end and object, as far as the heart is concerned. He is present as that which is the governing motive and gives its character to our actions, and which preoccupies our heart in performing them. Everything relates to Him: we do not eat without Him (how can we when He is our very life?); we do not drink without Him; what we say and what we do is said and done in the name of the Lord Jesus. There is the sense of His presence; the consciousness that everything relates to Him, that we can do nothing-unless carnally-without Him, because the life which we have of Him acts with Him and in Him, does not separate from Him, and has Him for its aim in all things, even as water rises to the height from which it descended. This is what characterizes the life of the Christian. And what a life! Through Him, dwelling in the consciousness of divine love, we give thanks to our God and Father.
Observe here that the Christian life is not only characterized by certain subjective qualities which flow from Christ, but by its having Christ Himself for the aim and object of the heart and mind in all that we do in every respect. Christ personally reigns in and is present to the heart in everything.
Christ known
To the inexperienced eye of man nature is often confounded with grace; but the intelligent consciousness of Christ as the heart’s object, of His presence, of the seal of His approval when one thinks of Him, cannot be confounded with anything. There is nothing that resembles it, nothing that can appear to take its place. When He reveals Himself to our heart, and the heart walks with Him, and communes with Him in all things, and seeks only the light of His countenance, the seal of His favor on the soul in all things, then He is known, well-known. There is none but He who thus communicates Himself to the soul when it walks in the way of His will, as expressed in the Word.
The Christian character of diverse relationships of life: their charm and depth when marked by grace
After these great and important principles of the new life, the Apostle enters into the diverse relationships of life, giving warnings against that which would endanger them, by showing what the Christian character of each one of them is. To the wife, obedience-affection was natural to her. “Thy desire shall be to thy husband.” To the husband, affection and kindness-his heart may be indifferent and hard. Children are to be obedient; fathers, gentle, in order that the children’s affections may not be estranged from them and that they may not be induced to seek that happiness in the world which they ought to find in the sanctuary of the domestic circle, which God has formed as a safeguard for those who are growing up in weakness; the precious home (if Christ is acknowledged) of kind affections, in which the heart is trained in the ties which God Himself has formed; and that in connection with the Lord, and which, by cherishing the affections, preserves from the passions and from self-will; and which, where its strength is rightly developed, has a power that, in spite of sin and disorder, awakens the conscience and engages the heart, keeping it away from evil and the direct power of Satan. For it is God’s appointment.
I know indeed that another power is required to deliver the heart from sin and to keep it from sin. Nature, even as God created it, does not give eternal life, nor does it restore innocence or purify the conscience. We may, by the energy of the Spirit, consecrate ourselves to God outside these relationships, renounce them even, if God should call us by more powerful obligations, as Christ teaches us in the gospel. The rights of Christ over man lost by sin are sovereign, absolute and complete. He has redeemed him; and the redeemed one is no longer his own, but belongs to Him who gave Himself for him. Where relationships exist, sin indeed has perverted everything and corrupted the will; passions come in; but the relationships themselves are of God: woe to him who despises them as such! If grace has wrought and the new life exists, it acknowledges that which God has formed. It well knows that there is no good in man, it knows that sin has marred everything, but that which sin has marred is not itself sin. And where these relationships exist, the renunciation of self-will, death to sin, the bringing in of Christ, and the operation of life in Him restore their power; and if they cannot give back the character of innocence (lost forever), they can make them a scene for the operations of grace, in which meekness, tenderness, mutual help, and self-denial, in the midst of the difficulties and sorrows which sin has introduced, lend them a charm and a depth (even as Christ did in every relationship) which innocence itself could not have presented. It is grace acting in the life of Christ in us which develops itself in them.
To be without natural affection is a sign of hopeless apostasy and estrangement from God, of the complete selfishness of the last days.
I am not drawing a false picture, or speaking poetically, as though the bright side were all; I only say that God has formed these relationships, and that whosoever fears God will respect them. Grace is requisite. They give occasion, through their intimacy itself, to all that is most painful, if grace does not act in them. The Apostle warns us here of this danger. If the Lord is the bond in them, if our still closer union with Him forms the strength of our natural relationships, then grace reigns here as elsewhere; and, to those who stand in these relationships, they become a scene for the lovely display of the life of Christ.
The work of grace: its effect upon the conscience even when the heart is not converted
It will be observed how the Apostle consequently introduces Christ into them, and especially in regard to those who are subject in them, wives and children; in order to sanctify, by so exalted a motive, the obedience suited to their position. He does this still more where the tie is not of nature but one which has its origin in a sinful world-and from sin itself-that between slaves and their masters. Grace does not set itself to change the state of the world and of society, but to lead souls to heaven by renewing them after the image of God. I doubt not that it has very much altered for the better the social condition of man; because, through bringing the conscience immediately before the only true God whom it has revealed in His own perfections, and establishing by its authority that of the natural relationships in the human family, grace has had its effect upon that conscience even where the heart was not converted, and has furnished it with a rule in that which regards morality. But Christianity, as to its own doctrine, treats the world as alienated from God and lying in evil-man as the child of wrath and lost.
Man’s state and the soul’s connection with God and what is eternal
Christ, the Son of God (who if He had been received could have put all things right, and who will hereafter by His kingdom establish righteousness and peace), was rejected by the world, and the friendship of the world is enmity against God. The state of man is treated in the gospel in a deeper way than in regard to his social condition. It is viewed with reference to the soul’s connection with God, and consequently with that which is eternal. God imparts a new life unto us, in order that we may enjoy those new relationships with Himself which redemption has gained for us. Now as Christ, while living, was the expression of the love and the omnipotent goodness of God in the midst of a fallen creation, so, being now rejected by the world (which thus condemned itself), Christ, who dwells by His grace in the heart of one who has received life, becomes to that heart a source of happiness in communion with the love of God, which lifts it up and sets it above circumstances, be they what they may. The slave, in possessing Christ, is free in heart; he is the freed man of God Himself. The master knows that he himself has a Master, and the relationship in which he finds himself takes the form of the grace and love that reigns in the heart of him who in it exercises his authority.
The Christian slave: his Master and his reward
But as I have said, to the poor slave Christ is especially presented as a resource. He may serve his master, whether a good or bad one, with faithfulness, meekness and devotedness; because in so doing he serves the Lord Himself and is conscious that he does so. He will have his reward there where nothing is forgotten that is done to glorify Christ, and where masters and slaves are all before Him who has no respect of persons.
Two principles act in the heart of the Christian slave: his conscience in all his conduct is before God; the fear of God governs him, and not his master’s eye. And he is conscious of his relationship to Christ, of the presence of Christ, which sustains and lifts him above everything. It is a secret which nothing can take from him, and which has power over everything, because it is within and on high-Christ in him, the hope of glory. Yes, how admirably does the knowledge of Christ exalt everything that it pervades; and with what consoling power does it descend into all that is desolate and cast down, all that groans, all that is humbled in this world of sin!
Three times in these two verses, while holding their conscience in the presence of God, the Apostle brings in the Lord, the Lord Christ, to fill the hearts of these poor slaves and make them feel who it was to whom they rendered service. Such is Christianity.