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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Colossians 3

Verse 1

(1) If ye then be risen (rather, ye rose) with Christ.—In these words is marked the beginning of the spiritual life, referred evidently to baptism. (See Colossians 2:12.) It is a “resurrection with Christ” and in Christ; as such it is dwelt upon in detail in Romans 6:1-14. We may note that this phrase, implying a sudden passing from death unto life, accords more exactly with the idea of adult baptism, accepted in conscious faith, and leading at once to a new life; while the later phrase, “regeneration” (Titus 3:5), which speaks of the soul as passing, indeed, at once into a new condition, but as having only the undeveloped germ of the new life, corresponds more closely with the idea of the infant baptism, which gradually superseded the other. Here this spiritual resurrection is taken for granted, and the Apostle goes on at once to the next stage of the spiritual life.

Christ.—The name, four times repeated, has in all cases the article prefixed to it. Evidently it used emphatically to refer to our Lord, as our Mediator—our Prophet, Priest, and King.

Seek those things which are above . . . set your affection on things above.—Here we have the spiritual life in its continuance. It is described, (1) first, as “seeking the things above”—that is, looking, and so growing, to perfection. This characteristic is dwelt upon with great fulness and beauty in Philippians 3:12-16. (2) Next, in a still higher strain, as “setting our affection on the things above,” or, more properly, catching the spirit of the things above, being “heavenly-minded” already—anticipating heaven, not only in hope, but in tone and temper, seeing things as God sees them, and seeing all in relation to Him. On this we may again compare the great passage in Philippians 3:20-21, on our “citizenship of heaven.” Of such heavenly-mindedness we have, perhaps, the most perfect specimen in the calm and loving certainty of St. John’s Epistles. (3) These two graces must be united In the one is the secret of growth, in the other the present earnest of perfection. Moreover, the higher grace must follow from the former; “for, where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.”

Where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.—The allusion is emphatic. Heaven is to us, in itself, a vague expression of unknown bliss. It is made definite to the Christian by the thought of Christ. in His glorified humanity, there enthroned in majesty, “preparing a place for us,” and drawing us to be with Him. (Note a similar emphatic reference in Philippians 3:21; and comp. Ephesians 2:6, “He raised us up, and made us to sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”)

This glorious idea of Christ in heaven, and heaven in Christ, runs through the whole book of the Revelation of St. John, from the opening Epistles to the last vision of glory.

Verses 1-4

III.

(1-4) As the partaking of the death of Christ taught the negative lesson of death to the Law, so the partaking of His resurrection teaches the positive lesson of the spiritual life. We observe that this celebrated passage occupies a place at the close of the doctrinal portion of the Epistle, exactly corresponding to the even greater passage on the unity of the Church in God in the Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4:1-16). It is unlike that passage, because, summing up the main teaching of this Epistle, it dwells simply on the close personal relation of all souls to God in Jesus Christ, who is at once “the image of God,” and the one Mediator between God and man. It is like it (and like other passages of the Epistles of the Captivity) because it passes on from Christ risen to Christ in heaven: it takes for granted our being risen with Christ, and bids us in heart to ascend to heaven now, and look forward to the bliss of heaven in the hereafter.

Verse 3

(3) Ye are dead.—Properly, ye died. See Colossians 2:20, and Note there. The phrase here is to be taken in its whole sense, both of “death to sin” and “death to the visible world.”

Your life is hid with Christ in God . . . Christ who is our life.—In these two phrases, again, we pass from a lower to a higher expression of the same truth. (1) First, “our life is hid with Christ in God.” The spiritual life in man is a “hidden life,” having its source in God; the full conviction of it, as distinct from the mere instinctive consciousness of it in the mind itself, comes only from the belief that it is the image of God in us, and is sustained by constant communion with Him. If God be our God at all, we must live; for “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32). It is also “hid with Christ.” Our Lord’s ascent to His glory in heaven is at once the pledge and the means of this our spiritual communion with God. It is “with Him” that we can “in heart and mind ascend;” it is “with Him” that we can “continually dwell.” (2) But this is not all. “Christ is our life” now as well as hereafter. This is simply a summary of the two truths;” Christ liveth in me (see Galatians 2:20), as the source of life; and “To me to live (the actual condition of life) is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). It is but a brief expression of faith in the truth which our Lord Himself declared (John 11:25), “I am the Life; whoso liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.” (Comp. John 14:6.) Hence our spiritual life is not only a being “with Christ;” it is also unity with Christ in the bosom of the Father.

Verse 4

(4) When Christ . . . shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.—This describes the last stage of the spiritual life—the glorification with Christ in heaven, manifesting what now is hidden, and perfecting what exists only in germ. (Comp. 1 John 3:1-2, “Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.”) This same conclusion ends the corresponding passage in Philippians 3:21.

In all these Epistles we note how constant a reference there is to the “glory of God,” and to the share in it reserved for us. So we also note the especial reference to the “appearance of Christ” in the Pastoral Epistles (see 1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 1:10; 2 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 4:8; Titus 2:13), and the constant revelation of it in the Apocalypse.

The whole passage forms a complete and magnificent picture of the spiritual life in Christ—the means of its beginning, the signs of its presence, and the hope of its close. It may be compared with the fuller yet hardly completer picture of Romans 8:0.

Verse 5

(5) Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth.—The expression is doubly unique. It is the only passage where “mortification”—the killing of anything in us—is enjoined; and it is also notable, as not explicitly distinguishing between the members themselves, and the evil of which they are made the instruments. The sense is, of course, clear enough. It corresponds to the “crucifying the flesh” of Galatians 5:24; and the idea of evil, mostly expressed plainly in the word “flesh,” is here hinted in the phrase “which are on the earth,” that is, which are busied with earth and bind us down to the earthly life. The particular word “members” is perhaps suggested by our Lord’s command to “cut off the right hand” and “pluck out the right eye” if they cause us to offend (Matthew 5:29-30). But, as a rule, Scripture more clearly marks the distinction between the members and “the law of sin in the members” (Romans 7:5; Romans 7:23); and we are usually bidden not to “kill our members,” but to turn them from “instruments of unrighteousness” to be “instruments of righteousness unto God” (Romans 6:13). The fact is that this passage contains only half the truth, corresponding to the death with Christ, and not the whole truth, including also the resurrection to the new life. Accordingly, as the next verse shows, the members to be mortified are actually identified with the vices of the old man residing in them.

Fornication, uncleanness . . . covetousness, which is idolatry.—See Ephesians 5:3, and Note there.

Inordinate affection, evil concupiscence.—These words are not found in the parallel passage. The word rendered “inordinate affection” is the general word for “passion” (pathos). It is found united to “concupiscence” in 1 Thessalonians 4:5, “the lust of concupiscence.” Both words here are general words, denoting the condition of soul, of which “fornication” and “covetousness” are both exemplifications. This is the condition of unrestrained passion and desire, the former word implying a passive receptiveness of impression from without, the other the positive energy of desire to seek gratification. Comp. Galatians 5:24, “the affections” (passions) and “lusts.” Of such a temper Article IX. of the Church of England declares with singular accuracy, not that it is sin, but that it has in itself rationem peccati, that is, the initial principle of sin.

Verses 5-9

Colossians 3:5-9 contain the negative section of St. Paul’s practical appeal, drawing out the consequences of the “death with Christ,” in the mortification of all tendencies to impurity, malice, and falsehood. For these are the opposites to purity, love, and truth—the three great attributes of God, and therefore the three chief graces of man.

Verses 5-17

[5.

Practical Exhortation, General.

(1) NEGATIVE.—To MORTIFY THE OLD MAN, by fleeing from—

(a)

Uncleanness and lust (Colossians 3:5-7);

(b)

Wrath and malice (Colossians 3:8);

(c)

Falsehood (Colossians 3:9).

(2) POSITIVE.—To PUT ON THE NEW MAN, making Christ our “all in all.”

(a)

In love and peace, as shown in mercy, humility, patience, and forgiveness (Colossians 3:10-15);

(b)

In thanksgiving (Colossians 3:16);

(c)

In living to the glory of God (Colossians 3:17);

(The whole of this section stands in close parallelism, frequently in verbal coincidence, with Ephesians 4:20 to Ephesians 6:9. There are, however, constantly emerging indications of independence of handling. Generally speaking, the Ephesian Epistle is fuller and deeper in treatment; and, moreover, it constantly brings out, in relation both to moral duty and to the observation of the relations of life, the great characteristic doctrine of the universal unity in Christ. This Epistle, on the other hand, is briefer and more incisive, and has only slight, though clear, indications of the idea so powerfully worked out in the other Epistle.)]

Verse 7

(7) In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived (were living) in them.—The former condition of heathenism was that in which “they were living,” with contagion of evil on every side. But St. Paul is not content without noting their own active participation—“ye walked in them.” (Comp. Ephesians 4:17-20.)

Verse 8

(8) Anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy (slander—see Ephesians 4:31 and Notes there), filthy communication.—The word is “foul,” and the context here seems to show that it refers to grossness of insult and abuse, rather than (as in the cognate word of Ephesians 4:4) to “filthiness.”

Verse 9

(9) Lie not one to another.—Comp. Ephesians 4:25, and note the characteristic insertion there of a clause to which there is nothing here to correspond, “for we are members one of another.”

Seeing that ye (have) put off the old man.—Comp. the fuller description of Ephesians 4:22-24.

Verse 10

(10) The new man, which is (being) renewed.—There are here the same two different words which are found in the parallel passage. (See Notes on Ephesians 4:22-24). “The new man” is here properly the youthful man “which is renewed,” that is, to which is given a nature really fresh and new.

Verses 10-17

(10-17) In these verses we have the corresponding positive exhortation, connected with the idea of resurrection with Christ, through which we put on the new man, holding Christ to be our all in all. Of the new nature there are two marks—towards man love in all its various forms, towards God thanksgiving and living to His glory.

Verse 11

(11) Where there is neither . . .—This passage naturally suggests comparison with Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Jesus Christ.” In comparing the passages (passing by the insertion here of “circumcision nor uncircumcision,” which is simply explanatory of “Jew nor Greek”) we notice in this—(1) The insertion of “barbarian, Scythian.” This insertion is clearly intended to rebuke that pride of intellect, contemptuous of the unlearned, which lay at the root of Gnosticism. The “barbarian” was simply the foreigner (comp. 1 Corinthians 14:11); the “Scythian” was the savage, towards whom the contempt implied for the “barbarian” assumed explicitness, and reached its climax. (2) The omission of “male nor female.” In the Oriental society, as in Galatia, the dignity of women needed to be asserted against supposed inferiority. In Greek or Græcised society, as at Corinth, Ephesus, and Colossæ, the new “freedom” of the gospel was apt to be abused to license; hence it was rather the “subjection” of women which needed to be suggested. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 11:3-16; 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; Ephesians 5:22-24; and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.) (3) Whereas in the Galatian Epistle the stress is laid on the unity of all with one another in Christ, here (as usual) the great truth is that “Christ is all things and in all.” In 1 Corinthians 15:28 we have this phrase applied to God, in contradistinction to the office of the Son in His mediatorial kingdom. Here it is in reference to that kingdom that it is used. In it Christ (see Ephesians 1:23) “fills all in all;” and by His universal mediation all “life is hid with Him in God.” He is all that can be needed, and that both “in all things” and “in all persons.” But under both aspects the catholicity of the gospel is equally brought out; here by the direct union of all alike with Christ, there by the resulting unity of all with one another.

Verse 12

(12) Elect of God.—For the description of the election here signified see Ephesians 1:4-6. The name is obviously applied to the whole Church, as “elect to privilege “; it is not opposed to “called” (as in Matthew 20:16), but coincident with it, representing, indeed, the secret act of God’s gracious will, which is openly manifested in calling. (Comp. the other instances of the word in the Epistles, Romans 8:33; Romans 16:13; 1 Timothy 5:21; 2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; Revelation 17:14.)

Holy and beloved.—Of such election there are here two signs. The elect are “holy,” consecrated to God in thought and life; and “beloved,” accepted and sustained in their consecration by His love. Both epithets belong to them as conformed to the image of Christ (Rev. 8:29); for He is “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34), who “sanctifies Himself for us, that we also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19); and He is also the “Beloved,” the “Son of God’s love” (Colossians 1:13; Matthew 3:17; Ephesians 1:16), and we are accepted in Him. The two epithets here seem intended to prepare for the two-fold exhortation following. They are “beloved,” therefore they should love one another (Colossians 3:12-15); they are holy, therefore they should thank God and live to His glory (Colossians 3:16-17).

Verses 12-13

(12, 13) Comp. Ephesians 4:2; Ephesians 4:31; Ephesians 5:1-2. The word “tenderhearted” in those passages corresponds to the “bowels (or, heart) of mercies” here;” kindness” and “forgiveness,” “humility,” “gentleness,” “forbearance,” appear in both. But the enumeration here is more exact in order of idea. St. Paul starts with the natural and universal instinct of compassion or sympathy; he next dwells on “kindliness and lowliness of mind,” which are closely akin, since readiness to oblige others grows naturally out of a self-neglectful humility; from these he passes to “gentleness and long-suffering “in case of injury, ready” to forbear and to forgive; lastly, from these particulars he rises to the general spirit of “love,” ruling under “the peace of God.”

Verse 13

(13) Even as Christ forgave you.—The MS. authority is in favour of the word “Lord” instead of Christ; but since the name “Lord” is specially applied to Christ in these Epistles (see, for example, Ephesians 4:5) there is no real difference. In Ephesians 4:31 we have “God in Christ forgave you,” because there the example of Christ, as Son of Man, is afterwards to be set forth emphatically as an example of self-sacrifice (Colossians 3:2), and hence the free mercy of forgiveness is naturally attributed to “God in Christ.” Here, in accordance with the emphatic exaltation of Christ, as all in all, the simpler phrase “Christ (or, the Lord) forgave you” is employed.

Verse 14

(14) Above all.—Properly, over all—as a bond or cincture to keep all together. Love is the general principle, harmonising all the special graces named above.

The bond of perfectness.—The bond of that harmony of character which is perfection. The phrase is remarkable, apparently suggested by the claim to perfection, set up by the Gnostic teachers. They sought such perfection in knowledge peculiar to the few; St. Paul in the love which is possible to all. For as he elsewhere urges (1 Corinthians 8:1),” Knowledge puffs up, charity builds up;” knowledge gains a fancied perfection, charity a real perfection.

Verse 15

(15) The peace of God.—The true reading is the peace of Christ—that which He gives (John 14:27), that which He is (see Ephesians 2:14). The ordinary reading is, no doubt, borrowed from Philippians 4:7. This verse forms a link between the preceding exhortation to love of man, and the following exhortation to a loving and thankful service of God. The “peace of Christ” is the sense of unity in Him, with our fellow-men and with God. We are “called to it in one Body,” of which He is the Head. (Comp. the fuller treatment of this subject in Ephesians 2:14-22; where, in accordance with the whole character of that Epistle, the unity “in one Body,” here only alluded to, is worked out in vividness and detail.)

Verse 16

(16) The word of Christ.—Here again the definite phrase, “the word of Christ,” takes the place of the commoner phrase, “the word of the Lord,” “the word of God.” It is to “dwell in their hearts.” Hence it is the engrafted word” (James 1:21)—the truth of Christ conceived in the heart, striking root into it, and making it its dwelling-place. It will be observed how all such phrases prepare for the full conception of Him as Himself “the Word of God.”

In all wisdom.—The symmetry of the original, “in all wisdom teaching . . . in grace singing,” suggests the connection of the words with those following, not, as in our version, with those going before. The indwelling Word of God is described as manifesting itself, first, in the wisdom of mutual teaching, next, in the grace of hearty thanksgiving.

Teaching and admonishing . . .—Here again we have at once general identity and special distinction between this and the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:19-20. There, as here, we have the “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” “the singing in the hearts to the Lord,” and the spirit of “thankfulness.” But there the whole is described as a consequence of “being filled with the Spirit,” and, as an outburst of that spiritual enthusiasm, of which the spurious excitement of drunkenness is the morbid caricature. Here the thought starts from “the word of Christ in the soul,” realised through the gift of the Spirit by all our faculties; and it divides itself accordingly into the function of teaching, which bears on the mind; “the singing in grace” of thankfulness, which comes from and goes to the heart; and the “doing all in the name of Christ,” which belongs to the outer sphere of action.

Psalms and hymns.—The ascription to those of an office of “teaching and admonition” describes what is their real, though indirect, effect. In the Church, as in the world, he who “makes a people’s songs” really guides their minds as well as their hearts. For good and for evil the hymns of the Christian Church have largely influenced her theology.

Verse 17

(17) All in the name of the Lord Jesus.—Comp. here the more general exhortation of 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether ye eat or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” This is the first principle of all godly life. The main object of all life, speculative or practical, is declared to be, not our own happiness or perfection, not the good of our fellow-men, but the “glory of God”—the carrying out of His will, and so manifesting His moral attributes. We are taught that if we “seek this first, all the other things shall be added unto us.” But here we have the principle, not only of godly life, but of Christian life. It does all “in the name of Christ,” that is, as conformed to His image, and so being His representative; it looks up thankfully to God our Father, but it is through Him, “having our sonship by adoption” through His all-sufficient mediation. Its desire is, not only that God may be glorified, but that “He may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). Once more we trace here the special and emphatic purpose of the Epistle.

Colossians 3:18 to Colossians 4:1 deals with the three great relations of life—between wives and husbands, children and parents, servants and masters. In this section we have the closest parallelism with the Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 5:22 to Ephesians 6:9). But the treatment of the first relation is far briefer, having nothing to correspond to the grand and characteristic comparison of marriage to the union between Christ and the Church. Even in the second there is somewhat greater brevity and simplicity. The third is dwelt upon with marked coincidence of language, and at least equal emphasis. We can hardly doubt that the presence of Onesimus, the runaway slave, suggested this peculiar emphasis on the right relation between the slave and his master.

[It will only be necessary to note the few points in which this section differs notably from the parallel passage.]

Verse 18

(18) As it is fit in the Lord.—For the explanation of this special fitness “in the Lord,” i.e., in virtue of Christian unity, see the grand description of Ephesians 5:23-24; Ephesians 5:32-33.

Verses 18-25

[6.

Special Exhortation as to the relations of life.

(1)

THE DUTY OF WIVES AND HUSBANDS (Colossians 3:18-19).

(2)

THE DUTY OF CHILDREN AND PARENTS (Colossians 3:20-21).

(3)

THE DUTY OF SLAVES AND MASTERS (Colossians 3:22 to Colossians 4:1).]

Verse 19

(19) Be not bitter.—Properly, grow not bitter, suffer not yourselves to be exasperated. The word is used metaphorically only in this passage, literally in Revelation 8:11; Revelation 10:9-10.

Verse 21

(21) Provoke not . . . to anger.—This, in the text followed by our version, is borrowed from Ephesians 6:4. The true reading is provoke to emulation, as in 2 Corinthians 9:2. What is forbidden is a constant and restless stimulation, “spurring the willing horse;” which will end in failure and despondency.

Verses 22-25

(22-25) Compare throughout Ephesians 6:5-9. The only peculiarity of this passage is the strong emphasis laid on “the reward of the inheritance.” “The reward” is in the original, a perfect recompense or requital. The “inheritance” is exactly that which no slave could receive; only a son could be an heir (Galatians 4:7). Hence the slave on earth is recognised as a son in heaven. He “serves the Lord,” but his service is the perfect freedom of sonship.

Verse 25

(25) He that doeth wrong is clearly here the master (see Ephesians 6:9), though, of course, the phrase cannot be limited to him.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Colossians 3". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/colossians-3.html. 1905.