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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Colossians 3

 

 


Verses 1-4

Chapter 3

THE PRESENT CHRISTIAN LIFE A RISEN LIFE

Colossians 3:1-4 (R.V.)

We have now done with controversy. We hear no more about heretical teachers. The Apostle has cut his way through the tangled thickets of error, and has said his say as to the positive truths with which he would hew them down. For the remainder of the letter, we have principally plain practical exhortations, and a number of interesting personal details.

The paragraph which we have now to consider is the transition from the controversial to the ethical portion of the Epistle. It touches the former by its first words, "If ye then were raised together with Christ," which correspond in form and refer in meaning to the beginning of the previous paragraph, "If ye died with Christ." It touches the latter because it embodies the broad general precept, "Seek the things that are above," of which the following practical directions are but varying applications in different spheres of duty.

In considering these words we must begin by endeavouring to put clearly their connection and substance. As they flew from Paul’s eager lips, motive and precept, symbol and fact, the present and future are blended together. It may conduce to clearness if we try to part these elements. There are here two similar exhortations, side by side. "Seek the things that are above," and "Set your mind on the things that are above." The first is preceded, and the second is followed by its reason. So the two laws of conduct are, as it were, enclosed like a kernel in its shell, or a jewel in a gold setting, by encompassing motives. These considerations, in which the commandments are embedded, are the double thought of union with Christ in His resurrection, and in His death, and as consequent thereon, participation in His present hidden life, and in His future glorious manifestation. So we have here the present budding life of the Christian in union with the risen, hidden Christ; the future consummate flower of the Christian life in union with the glorious manifested Christ; and the practical aim and direction which alone are consistent with either bud or flower.

I. The present budding life of the Christian in union with the risen, hidden Christ.

Two aspects of this life are set forth in Colossians 3:1 and Colossians 3:3 -"raised with Christ," and "ye died, and your life is hid with Christ." A still profounder thought lies in the words of Colossians 3:4, "Christ is our life."

We have seen in former parts of this Epistle that Paul believed that, when a man puts His faith in Jesus Christ, he is joined to Him in such a way that he is separated from his former self and dead to the world. That great change may be considered either with reference to what the man has ceased to be, or with reference to what he becomes. In the one aspect, it is a death; in the other, it is a resurrection. It depends on the point of view whether a semicircle seems convex or concave. The two thoughts express substantially the same fact. That great change was brought about in these Colossian Christians, at a definite time, as the language shows; and by a definite means- namely, by union with Christ through faith, which grasps His death and resurrection as at once the ground of salvation, the pattern for life, and the prophecy of glory. So then, the great truths here are these; the impartation of life by union with Christ, which life is truly a resurrection life, and is, moreover, hidden with Christ in God.

Union with Christ by faith is the condition of a real communication of life. "In Him was life," says John’s Gospel, meaning thereby to assert, in the language of our Epistle, that "in Him were all things created, and in Him all things consist." Life in all its forms is dependent on union in varying manner with the Divine, and upheld only by His continual energy, The creature must touch God or perish. Of that energy the Uncreated Word of God is the channel-"with Thee is the fountain of life." As the life of the body, so the higher self-conscious life of the thinking, feeling, striving soul, is also fed and kept alight by the perpetual operation of a higher Divine energy, imparted in like manner by the Divine Word. Therefore, with deep truth, the psalm just quoted, goes on to say, "In Thy light shall we see light"-and therefore, too, John’s Gospel continues: "And the life was the light of men."

But there is a still higher plane on which life may be manifested, and nobler energies which may accompany it. The body may live, and mind and heart be dead. Therefore Scripture speaks of a threefold life: that of the animal nature, that of the intellectual and emotional nature, and that of the spirit, which lives when it is conscious of God, and touches Him by aspiration, hope, and love. This is the loftiest life. Without it, a man is dead while he lives. With it, he lives though he dies. And like the others, it depends on union with the Divine life as it is stored in Jesus Christ- but in this case, the union is a conscious union by faith. If I trust to Him, and am thereby holding firmly by Him, my union with Him is so real, that, in the measure of my faith, His fulness passes over into my emptiness, His righteousness into my sinfulness, His life into my death, as surely as the electric shock thrills my nerves when I grasp the poles of the battery.

No man can breathe into another’s nostrils the breath of life. But Christ can and does breathe His life into us; and this true miracle of a communication of spiritual life takes place in every man who humbly trusts himself to Him. So the question comes home to each of us-am I living by my union with Christ? do I draw from Him that better being which He is longing to pour into my withered, dead spirit? It is not enough to live the animal life the more it is fed, the more are the higher lives starved and dwindled. It is not enough to live the life of intellect and feeling. That may be in brightest, keenest exercise, and yet we-our best selves-may be dead-separated from God in Christ, and therefore dead-and all our activity may be but as a galvanic twitching of the muscles in a corpse. Is Christ our life, its source, its strength, its aim, its motive? Do we live in Him, by Him, with Him, for Him.? If not, we are dead while we live.

This life from Christ is a resurrection life. "The power of Christ’s resurrection" is three fold-as a seal of His mission and Messiahship, "declared to be the Son of God, by His resurrection from the dead"; as a prophecy and pledge of ours, "now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept"; and as a symbol and pattern of our new life of Christian consecration, "likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be indeed dead unto sin." This last use of the resurrection of Christ is a plain witness of the firm, universal, and uncontested belief in the historical fact, throughout the Churches which Paul addressed. The fact must have been long familiar and known as undoubted, before it could have been thus moulded into a symbol. But, passing from that, consider that our union to Christ produces a moral and spiritual change analogous to His resurrection. After all, it is the moral and not the mystical side which is the main thing in Paul’s use of this thought. He would insist that all true Christianity operates a death to the old self, to sin, and to the whole present order of things, and endows a man with new tastes, desires, and capacities, like a resurrection to a new being. These heathen converts-picked from the filthy cesspools in which many of them had been living, and set on a pure path, with the astounding light of a Divine love flooding it, and a bright hope painted on the infinite blackness ahead-had surely passed into a new life. Many a man in this day, long familiar with Christian teaching, has found himself made over again in mature life, when his heart has grasped Christ. Drunkards, profligates, outcasts, have found it life from the dead; and even where there has not been such complete visible revolution as in them, there has been such deep-seated central alteration that it is no exaggeration to call it resurrection. The plain fact is that real Christianity in a man will produce in him a radical moral change. If our religion does not do that in us, it is nothing. Ceremonial and doctrine are but means to an end-making us better men. The highest purpose of Christ’s work, for which He both "died and rose and revived," is to change us into the likeness of His own beauty of perfect purity. That risen life is no mere exaggeration of mystical rhetoric, but an imperative demand of the highest morality, and the plain issue of it is: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body." Do I say that I am a Christian? The test by which my claim must be tried is the likeness of my life here to Him who has died unto sift, and liveth unto God.

But the believing soul is risen with Christ also, inasmuch as our union with Him makes us partakers of His resurrection as our victory over death. The water in the reservoir and in the fountain is the same; the sunbeam in the chamber and in the sky is one. The life which flows into our spirits from Christ is a life that has conquered death, and makes us victors in that last conflict, even though we have to go down into the darkness. If Christ live in us, we can never die. "It is not possible that we should be holden of it." The bands which He broke can never be fastened on our limbs. The gates of death were so warped and the locks so spoiled, when He burst them asunder, that they can never be closed again. There are many arguments for a future life beyond the grave, but there is only one proof of it-the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, trusting in Him, and with our souls bound in the bundle of life with our Lord the King, we can cherish quiet thankfulness of heart, and bless the God and Father of our Lord who hath begotten us again into a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This risen life is a hidden life. Its roots are in Him. He has passed in His ascension into the light which is inaccessible, and is hidden in its blaze, bearing with Him our life, concealed there with Him in God. Faith stands gazing into heaven, as the cloud, the visible manifestation from of old of the Divine presence, hides Him from sight, and turns away feeling that the best part of its true self is gone with Him. So here Paul points his finger upwards to where "Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God," and says-We are here in outward seeming, but our true life is there, if we are His.

And what majestic, pregnant words these are! How full, and yet how empty for a prurient curiosity, and how reverently reticent even while they are triumphantly confident! How gently they suggest repose-deep and unbroken, and yet full of active energy! For if the attitude imply rest, the locality-"at the right hand of God"-expresses not only the most intimate approach to, but also the wielding of the Divine omnipotence. What is the right hand of God but the activity of His power? and what less can be ascribed to Christ here, than His being enthroned in closest union with the Father, exercising Divine dominion, and putting forth Divine power. No doubt the ascended and glorified bodily manhood of Jesus Christ has a local habitation, but the old psalm might teach us that wherever space is, even there "Thy right hand upholds," and there is our ascended Lord, sitting as in deepest rest, but working all the work of God. And it is just because He is at the right hand of God that He is hid. The light hides. He has been lost to sight in the glory.

He has gone in thither, bearing with Him the true source and root of our lives into the secret place of the Most High. Therefore we no longer belong to this visible order of things in the midst of which we tarry for a while. The true spring that feeds our lives lies deep beneath all the surface waters. These may dry up, but it will flow. These may be muddied with rain, but it will be limpid as ever. The things seen do not go deep enough to touch our real life. They are but as the winds that fret, and the currents that sway the surface and shallower levels of the ocean, while the great depths are still. The circumference is all a whirl; the centre is at rest.

Nor need we leave out of sight, though it be not the main thought here, that the Christian life is hidden, inasmuch as here on earth action ever falls short of thought, and the love and faith by which a good man lives can never be fully revealed in his conduct and character. You cannot carry electricity from the generator to the point where it is to work without losing two thirds of it by the way. Neither word nor deed can adequately set forth a soul; and the profounder and nobler the emotion, the more inadequate are the narrow gates of tongue and hand to give it passage. The deepest love can often only "love and be silent." So, while every man is truly a mystery to his neighbour, a life which is rooted in Christ is more mysterious to the ordinary eye than any other. It is fed by hidden manna. It is replenished from a hidden source. It is guided by other than the world’s motives, and follows unseen aims. "Therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not."

II. We have the future consummate flower of the Christian life in union with the manifested, glorious Christ.

The future personal manifestation of Jesus Christ in visible glory is, in the teaching of all the New Testament writers, the last stage in the series of His Divine human conditions. As surely as the Incarnation led to the cross, and the cross to the empty grave, and the empty grave to the throne, so surely does the throne lead to the coming again in glory. And as with Christ, so with His servants, the manifestation in glory is the certain end of all the preceding, as surely as the flower is of the tiny green leaves that peep above the frost-bound earth in bleak March days. Nothing in that future, however glorious and wonderful, but has its germ and vital beginning in our union with Christ here by humble faith. The great hopes which we may cherish are gathered up here into these words-"shall be manifested with Him." That is far more than was conveyed by the old translation-"shall appear." The roots of our being shall be disclosed, for He shall come, "and every eye shall see Him." We shall be seen for what we are The outward life shall correspond to the inward. The faith and love which often struggled in vain for expression and were thwarted by the obstinate flesh, as a sculptor trying to embody his dream might be by a block of marble with many a flaw and speck, shall then be able to reveal themselves completely. Whatever is in the heart shall be fully visible in the life. Stammering words and imperfect deeds shall vex us no more. "His name shall be in their foreheads"-no longer only written in fleshly tables of the heart and partially visible in the character, but stamped legibly and completely on life and nature. They shall walk in the light, and so shall be seen of all. Here the truest followers of Christ shine like an intermittent star, seen through mist and driving cloud: "Then shall the righteous blaze forth like the sun in the kingdom of My Father."

But this is not all. The manifestation is to be "with Him." The union which was here effected by faith, and marred by many an interposing obstacle of sin and selfishness, of flesh and sense, is to be perfected then. No film of separation is any more to break its completeness. Here we often lose our hold of Him amidst the distractions of work, even when done for His sake; and our life is at best but an imperfect compromise between contemplation and action; but then, according to that great saying, "His servants shall serve Him, and see His face," the utmost activity of consecrated service, though it be far more intense and on a nobler scale than anything here, will not interfere with the fixed gaze on His countenance. We shall serve like Martha, and yet never remove from sitting with Mary, rapt and blessed at His feet.

This is the one thought of that solemn future worth cherishing. Other hopes may feed sentiment, and be precious sometimes to aching hearts. A reverent longing or an irreverent curiosity may seek to discern something more in the far off light. But it is enough for the heart to know that "we shall ever be with the Lord"; and the more we have that one hope in its solitary grandeur, the better. We shalt be with Him "in glory." That is the climax of all that Paul would have us hope. "Glory" is the splendour and light of the self-revealing God. In the heart of the blaze stands Christ; the bright cloud enwraps Him, as it did on the mountain of transfiguration, and into the dazzling radiance His disciples will pass as His companions did then, nor "fear as they enter into the cloud." They walk unshrinking in that beneficent fire, because with them is one like unto the Son of man, through whom they dwell, as in their own calm home, amidst "the everlasting burning," which shall not destroy them, but kindle them into the likeness of its own flashing glory.

Then shall the life which here was but in bud, often unkindly nipped and struggling, burst into the consummate beauty of the perfect flower "which fadeth not away."

III. We have the practical aim and direction which alone are consistent with either stage of the Christian life.

Two injunctions are based upon these considerations-"seek," and "set your mind upon," the things that are above. The one points to the outward life of effort and aim; the other to the inward life of thought and longing. Let the things above, then, be the constant mark at which you aim. There is a vast realm of real existence of which your risen Lord is the centre and the life. Make it the point to which you strive. That will riot lead to despising earth and nearer objects. These, so far as they are really good and worthy, stand right in the line of direction which our efforts will take it we are seeking the things that are above, and may all be stages on our journey Christwards. The lower objects are best secured by those who live for the higher. No man is so well able to do the smallest duties here, or to bear the passing troubles of this world of illusion and change, or to wring the last drop of sweetness out of swiftly fleeting joys, as he to whom everything on earth is dwarfed by the eternity beyond, as some hut beside a palace, and is great because it is like a little window a foot square through which infinite depths of sky with all their stars shine in upon him. The true meaning and greatness of the present are that it is the vestibule of the august future. The staircase leading to the presence chamber of the king may be of poor deal, narrow crooked, and stowed away in a dark turret, but it has dignity by reason of that to which it gives access. So let our aims pass through the earthly and find in them helps to the things that are above. We should not fire all our bullets at the short range. Seek ye first the kingdom of God-the things which are above.

"Set your mind on" these things, says the Apostle further. Let them occupy mind and heart-and this in order that we may seek them. The direction of the aims will follow the set and current of the thoughts. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." How can we be shaping our efforts to reach a good which we have not clearly before our imaginations as desirable? How should the life of so many professing Christians be other than a lame creeping along the low levels of earth, seeing that so seldom do they look up to "see the King in His beauty and the land that is very far off"? John Bunyan’s "man with the muckrake" grubbed away so eagerly among the rubbish because he never lifted his eyes to the crown that hung above his head. In many a silent, solitary hour of contemplation, with the world shut out and Christ brought very near, we must find the counterpoise to the pressure of earthly aims, or our efforts after the things that are above will be feeble and broken. Life goes at such, a pace today, and the present is so exacting with most of us, that quiet meditation is, I fear me, almost out of fashion with Christian people. We must become more familiar with the secret place of the most High, and more often enter into our chambers and shut our doors about us, if in the bustle of our busy days we are to aim truly and strongly at the only object which saves life from being a waste and a sin, a madness and a misery-"the things which are above, where Christ is."

"Where Christ is." Yes, that is the only thought which gives definiteness and solidity to that else vague and nebulous unseen universe; the only thought which draws our affections thither. Without Him, there is no footing for us there. Rolling mists of doubt and dim hopes warring with fears, strangeness, and terrors wrap it all. "I go to prepare a place for you" - a place where desire and thought may walk unterrified and undoubting even now, and where we ourselves may abide when our time comes, nor shrink from the light nor be oppressed by the glory.

"My knowledge of that life is small,

The eye of faith is dim,

But ‘tis enough that Christ knows all,

And I shall be with Him."

Into that solemn world we shall all pass. We can choose whether we shall go to it as to our long sought home, to find in it Him who is our life; or whether we shall go reluctant and afraid, leaving all for which we have cared, and going to Him whom we have neglected and that which we have feared. Christ will be manifested, and we shall see Him. We can choose whether it will be to us the joy of beholding the soul of our soul, the friend long loved when dimly seen from afar; or whether it shall be the vision of a face that will stiffen us to stone and stab us with its light. We must make our choice. If we give our hearts to Him, and by faith unite ourselves with Him, then, "when He shall appear, we shall have boldness, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming."


Verses 5-9

Chapter 3

SLAYING SELF THE FOUNDATION PRECEPT OF PRACTICAL CHRISTIANITY

Colossians 3:5-9 (R.V.)

"Mortify therefore"-wherefore? The previous words give the reason. Because "ye died" with Christ, and because ye "were raised together with Him." In other words, the plainest, homeliest moral teaching of this Epistle, such as that which immediately follows, is built upon its "mystical" theology. Paul thinks that the deep things which he has been saying about union with Christ in His death and resurrection have the most intimate connection with common life. These profound truths have the keenest edge, and are as a sacrificial knife, to slay the life of self. Creed is meant to tell on conduct. Character is the last outcome and test of doctrine. But too many people deal with their theological beliefs as they do with their hassocks and prayer books and hymn books in their pews-use them for formal worship once a week, and leave them for the dust to settle on them till Sunday comes round again. So it is very necessary to put the practical inferences very plainly, to reiterate the most commonplace and threadbare precepts as the issue of the most recondite teaching, and to bind the burden of duty on men’s backs with the cords of principles and doctrines.

Accordingly the section of the Epistle which deals with Christian character now begins, and this "therefore" knits the two halves together. That word protests against opposite errors. On the one hand, some good people are to be found impatient of exhortations to duties, and ready to say, Preach the gospel, and the duties will spring up spontaneously where it is received; on the other hand, some people are to be found who see no connection between the practice of common morality and the belief of Christian truths, and are ready to say, Put away your theology; it is useless lumber, the machine will work as well without it. But Paul believed that the firmest basis for moral teaching and the most powerful motive for moral conduct is "the truth as it is in Jesus."

I. We have here put very plainly the paradox of continual self-slaying as the all-embracing duty of a Christian.

It is a pity that the R.V has retained "mortify" here, as that Latinised word says to an ordinary reader much less than is meant, and hides the allusion to the preceding context. The marginal alternative "make dead" is, to say the least, not idiomatic English. The suggestion of the American revisers, which is printed at the end of the R.V, "put to death," is much better, and perhaps a single word, such as "slay" or "kill" might have been better still.

"Slay your members which are upon the earth." It is a vehement and paradoxical injunction, though it be but the echo of still more solemn and stringent words-"pluck it out, cut it off, and cast it from thee." The possibility of misunderstanding it and bringing it down to the level of that spurious asceticism and "severity to the body" against which he has just been thundering, seems to occur to the Apostle, and therefore he hastens to explain that he does not mean the maiming of selves, or hacking away limbs, but the slaying of the passions and desires which root themselves in our bodily constitution. The eager haste of the explanation destroys the congruity of the sentence, but he does not mind that. And then follows a grim catalogue of the evil doers on whom sentence of death is passed.

Before dealing with that list, two points of some importance may be observed. The first is that the practical exhortations of this letter begin with this command to put off certain characteristics which are assumed to belong to the Colossian Christians in their natural state, and that only afterwards comes the precept to put on (Colossians 3:12) the fairer robes of Christlike purity, clasped about by the girdle of perfectness.

That is to say, Paul’s anthropology regards men as wrong and having to get right. A great deal of the moral teaching which is outside of Christianity, and which does not sufficiently recognise that the first thing to be done is to cure and alter, but talks as if men were, on the whole, rather inclined to be good, is for that very reason perfectly useless. Its fine precepts and lofty sentiments go clean over people’s heads, and are ludicrously inappropriate to the facts of the case. The serpent has twined itself round my limbs, and unless you can give me a knife, sharp and strong enough to cut its loathsome coils asunder, it is cruel to bid me walk. All men on the face of the earth need, for moral progress, to be shown and helped first how not to be what they have been, and only after that is it of the slightest use to tell them what they ought to be. The only thing that reaches the universal need is a power that will make us different from what we are. If we are to grow into goodness and beauty, we must begin by a complete reversal of tastes and tendencies. The thing we want first is not progress, the going on in the direction in which our faces are turned, but a power which can lay a mastering hand upon our shoulders, turn us right round, and make us go in the way opposite to that. Culture, the development of what is in us in germ, is not the beginning of good husbandry on human nature as it is. The thorns have to be stubbed up first, and the poisonous seeds sifted out, and new soil laid down, and then culture will bring forth something better than wild grapes. First-"mortify"; then-"put on."

Another point to be carefully noted is that, according to the Apostle’s teaching, the root and beginning of all such slaying of the evil which is in us all, lies in our being dead with Christ to the world. In the former chapter we found that the Apostle’s final condemnation of the false asceticism which was beginning to infect the Colossian Church, was that it was of no value as a counteractive of fleshly indulgence. But here he proclaims that what asceticism could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, union with Jesus Christ in His death and risen life will do; it will subdue sin in the flesh. That slaying here enjoined as fundamental to all Christian holiness, is but the working out in life and character of the revolution in the inmost self, which has been effected, if by faith we are joined to the living Lord, who was dead and is alive for evermore. There must, however, be a very vigorous act of personal determination if the power of that union is to be manifested in us. The act of "slaying" can never be pleasant or easy. The vehemence of the command and the form of the metaphor express the strenuousness of the effort and the painfulness of the process, in the same way as Paul’s other saying, "crucify the flesh," does. Suppose a man working at some machine. His fingers get drawn between the rollers or caught in some belting. Another minute and he will be flattened to a shapeless bloody mass. He catches up an axe lying by and with his own arm hacks off his own hand at the wrist. It takes some nerve to do that. It is not easy nor pleasant, but it is the only alternative to a horrible death. I know of no stimtilus that will string a man up to the analogous spiritual act here enjoined, and enjoined by conscience also, except participation in the death of Christ and in the resulting life.

"Slay your members which are upon the earth" means tears and blood and more than blood. It is easier far to cut off the hand, which after all is not me, than to sacrifice passions and desires which, though they be my worst self, are myself. It is useless to blink the fact that the only road to holiness is through self-suppression, self-annihilation; and nothing can make that easy and pleasant. True, the paths of religion are ways of pleasantness and paths of peace, but they are steep, and climbing is never easy. The upper air is bracing and exhilarating indeed, but trying to lungs accustomed to the low levels. Religion is delightsome, but self-denial is always against the grain of the self which is denied, and there is no religion without it. Holiness is not to be won in a moment. It is not a matter of consciousness, possessed when we know that we possess it. But it has to be attained by effort. The way to heaven is riot by "the primrose path." That leads to "the everlasting bonfire." Forever it remains true that men obtain forgiveness and eternal life as a gift for which the only requisite is faith, but they achieve holiness, which is the permeating of their characters with that eternal life, by patient, believing, continuous effort. An essential part of that effort is directed towards the conquest and casting out of the old self in its earthward looking lusts and passions. The love of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of His renewing spirit make that conquest possible, by supplying an all-constraining motive and an all-conquering power. But even they do not make it easy, nor deaden the flesh to the cut of the sacrificial knife.

II. We have here a grim catalogue of the condemned to death.

The Apostle stands like a jailor at the prison door, with the fatal roll in his hand, and reads out the names of the evil doers for whom the tumbril waits to carry them to the guillotine, It is an ugly list, but we need plain speaking that there may be no mistake as to the identity of the culprits. He enumerates evils which honeycombed society with rottenness then, and are rampant now. The series recounts various forms of evil love, and is so arranged as that it starts with the coarse, gross act, and goes on to more subtle and inward forms. It goes up the stream as it were, to the fountain head, passing inward from deed to desire. First stands "fornication," which covers the whole ground of immoral sexual relations, then "all uncleanness," which embraces every manifestation in word or look or deed of the impure spirit, and so is at once wider and subtler than the gross physical act. Then follow "passion" and "evil desire"; the sources of the evil deeds. These again are at once more inward and more general than the preceding. They include not only the lusts and longings which give rise to the special sins just denounced, but all forms of hungry appetite and desire after "the things that are upon the earth." If we are to try to draw a distinction between the two, probably "passion" is somewhat less wide than "desire," and the former represents the evil emotion as an affection which the mind suffers, while the latter represents it as a longing which it actively puts forth. The "lusts of the flesh" are in the one aspect kindled by outward temptations which come with terrible force and carry men captive, acting almost irresistibly on the animal nature. In the other aspect they are excited by the voluntary action of the man himself. In the one the evil comes into the heart; in the other the heart goes out to the evil.

Then follows covetousness. The juxtaposition of that vice with the grosser forms of sensuality is profoundly significant. It is closely allied with these. It has the same root, and is but another form of evil desire going out to the "things which are on the earth." The ordinary worldly nature flies for solace either to the pleasures of appetite or to the passion of acquiring. And not only are they closely connected in root, but covetousness often follows lust in the history of a life just as it does in this catalogue. When the former evil spirit loses its hold, the latter often takes its place. How many respectable middle-aged gentlemen are now mainly devoted to making money, whose youth was foul with sensual indulgence? When that palled, this came to titillate the jaded desires with a new form of gratification. Covetousness is "promoted vice lust superannuated."

A reason for this warning against covetousness is appended, "inasmuch as (for such is the force of the word rendered ‘the which’) it is idolatry." If we say of anything, no matter what, "If I have only enough of this, I shall be satisfied; it is my real aim, my sufficient good," that thing is a god to me, and my real worship is paid to it, whatever may be my nominal religion. The lowest form of idolatry is the giving of supreme trust to a material thing, and making that a god. There is no lower form of fetish worship than this, which is the real working religion today of thousands of Englishmen who go masquerading as Christians.

III. The exhortation is enforced by a solemn note of warning: "For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh upon the children of disobedience." Some authorities omit the words "upon the children of disobedience," which are supposed to have crept in here from the parallel passage, Ephesians 5:6. But even the advocates of the omission allow that the clause has "preponderating support," and the sentence is painfully incomplete and abrupt without it. The R.V has exercised a wise discretion in retaining it.

In the previous chapter the Apostle included "warning" in his statement of the various branches into which his Apostolic activity was divided. His duty seemed to him to embrace the plain stern setting forth of that terrible reality, the wrath of God. Here we have it urged as a reason for shaking off these evil habits.

That thought of wrath as an element in the Divine nature has become very unwelcome to this generation. The great revelation of God in Jesus Christ has taught the world His love, as it never knew it before, and knows it now by no other means. So profoundly has that truth that God is love penetrated the consciousness of the European world, that many people will not hear of the wrath of God because they think it inconsistent with His love-and sometimes reject the very gospel to which they owe their lofty conceptions of the Divine heart, because it speaks solemn words about His anger and its issues.

But surely these two thoughts of God’s love and God’s wrath are not inconsistent, for His wrath is His love, pained, wounded, thrown back upon itself, rejected and compelled to assume the form of aversion and to do its "strange work"-that which is not its natural operation-of punishment. When we ascribe wrath to God, we must take care of lowering the conception of it to the level of human wrath, which is shaken with passion and often tinged with malice, whereas in that affection of the Divine nature which corresponds to anger in us, there is neither passion nor wish to harm. Nor does it exclude the coexistence of love, as Paul witnesses in his Epistle to the Ephesians, in one verse declaring that "we were the children of wrath," and in the next that God "loved us with a great love even when we were dead in sins."

God would not be a holy God if it were all the same to Him whether a man were good or bad. As a matter of fact, the modern revulsion against the representation of the wrath of God is usually accompanied with weakened conceptions of His holiness, and of His moral government of the world. Instead of exalting, it degrades His love to free it from the admixture of wrath, which is like alloy with gold, giving firmness to what were else too soft for use. Such a God is not love, but impotent good nature. If there be no wrath, there is no love; if there were no love, there would be no wrath. It is more blessed and hopeful for sinful men to believe in a God who is angry with the wicked, whom yet He loves, every day, and who cannot look upon sin, than in one who does not love righteousness enough to hate iniquity, and from whose too indulgent hand the rod has dropped, to the spoiling of His children. "With the froward Thou wilt show Thyself froward." The mists of our sins intercept the gracious beams and turn the blessed sun into a ball of fire. The wrath "cometh." That majestic present tense may express either the continuous present incidence of the wrath as exemplified in the moral government of the world, in which, notwithstanding anomalies, such sins as have been enumerated drag after themselves their own punishment and are "avenged in kind," or it may be the present tense expressive of prophetic certainty, which is so sure of what shall come, that it speaks of it as already on its road. It is eminently true of those sins of lust and passion that the men who do them reap as they have sown. How many young men come up into our great cities, innocent and strong, with a mother’s kiss upon their lips and a father’s blessing hovering over their heads! They fall among bad companions in college or warehouse, and after a little while they disappear. Broken in health, tainted in body and soul, they crawl home to break their mothers’ hearts-and to die. "His bones are full of the sins of his youth, which shall lie down with him in the dust." Whether in such extreme forms or no, that wrath comes even now, in plain and bitter consequences on men, and still more on women who sin in such ways.

And the present retribution may well be taken as the herald and prophet of a still more solemn manifestation of the Divine displeasure, which is already as it were on the road, has set out from the throne of God, and will certainly arrive here one day. These consequences of sin already realised serve to show the set and drift of things, and to suggest what will happen when retribution and the harvest of our present life of sowing come. The first fiery drops that fell on Lot’s path as he fled from Sodom were not more surely precursors of an overwhelming rain, nor bade him flee for his life more urgently, than the present punishment of sin proclaims its sorer future punishment, and exhorts us all to come out of the storm into the refuge, even Jesus, who is ever even now "delivering us from the wrath which is" ever even now "coming" on the sons of disobedience.

IV. A further motive enforcing the main precept of self-slaying is the remembrance of a sinful past, which remembrance is at once penitent and grateful. "In the which ye also walked aforetime, when ye lived in them."

What is the difference between "walking" and "living" in these things? The two phrases seem synonymous, and might often be used indifferently; but here there is evidently a well marked diversity of meaning. The former is an expression frequent in the Pauline Epistles as well as in John’s; as for instance, "to walk in love" or "in truth." That in which men walk is conceived of as an atmosphere encompassing them; or, without a metaphor, to walk in anything is to have the active life or conduct guided or occupied by it. These Colossian Christians, then, had in the past trodden that evil path, or their active life had been spent in that poisonous atmosphere-which is equivalent to saying that they had committed these sins. At what time? "When you lived in them." That does not mean merely "when your natural life was passed among them." That would be a trivial thing to say, and it would imply that their outward life now was not so passed, which would not be true. In that sense they still lived in the poisonous atmosphere. In such an age of unnamable moral corruption no man could live out of the foul stench which filled his nostrils whenever he walked abroad or opened his window. But the Apostle has just said that they were now "living in Christ," and their lives "hid with Him in God." So this phrase describes the condition which is the opposite of their present, and may be paraphrased, "When the roots of your life, tastes, affections, thoughts, desires were immersed, as in some feculent bog, in these and kindred evils." And the meaning of the whole is substantially 'Your active life was occupied and guided by these sins in that past time when your inward being was knit to and nourished by them.' Or to put it plainly, conduct followed and was shaped by inclinations and desires.

This retrospect enforces the main exhortation. It is meant to awaken penitence, and the thought that time enough has been wasted and incense enough offered on these foul altars. It is also meant to kindle thankfulness for the strong, loving hand which has drawn them from that pit of filth, and by both emotions to stimulate the resolute casting aside of that evil in which they once, like others, wallowed. Their joy on the one hand and their contrition on the other should lead them to discern the inconsistency of professing to be Christians and yet keeping terms with these old sins. They could not have the roots of half their lives above and of the other half down here. The gulf between the present and past of a regenerate man is too wide and deep to be bridged by flimsy compromises. "A man who is perverse in his two ways," that is, in double ways, "shall fall in one of them," as the Book of Proverbs has it. The attempt to combine incompatibles is sure to fail. It is impossible to walk firmly if one foot be down in the gutter and the other up on the curbstone. We have to settle which level we shall choose, and then to plant both feet there.

V. We have, as conclusion, a still wider exhortation to an entire stripping off of the sins of the old state.

The whole force of the contrast and contrariety between the Colossian Christians’ past and present lies in that emphatic "now." They as well as other heathen had been walking, because they had been living, in these muddy ways. But now that their life was hid with Christ in God; now that they had been made partakers of His death and resurrection, and of all the new loves and affinities which therein became theirs; now they must take heed that they bring not that dead and foul past into this bright and pure present, nor prolong winter and its frosts into the summer of the soul.

"Ye also." There is another "ye also" in the previous verse-"ye also walked," that is, you in company with other Gentiles followed a certain course of life. Here, by contrast, the expression means "you, in common with other Christians." A motive enforcing the subsequent exhortation is in it hinted rather than fully spoken. The Christians at Colossae had belonged to a community which they have now left in order to join another. Let them behave as their company behaves. Let them keep step with their new comrades. Let them strip themselves, as their new associates do, of the uniform which they wore in that other regiment.

The metaphor of putting clothing on or off is very frequent in this Epistle. The precept here is substantially equivalent to the previous command to "slay," with the difference that the conception of vices as the garments of the soul is somewhat less vehement than that which regards them as members of the very self. "All these" are to be put off. That phrase points back to the things previously spoken of. It includes the whole of the unnamed members of the class, of which a few have been already named, and a handful more are about to be plucked like poison flowers, and suggests that there are many more as baleful growing by the side of this devil’s bouquet which is next presented.

As to this second catalogue of vices, they may be summarised as, on the whole, being various forms of wicked hatred, in contrast with the former list, which consisted of various forms of wicked love. They have less to do with bodily appetites. But perhaps it is not without profound meaning that the fierce rush of unhallowed passion over the soul is put first, and the contrary flow of chill malignity comes second; for in the spiritual world, as in the physical, a storm blowing from one quarter is usually followed by violent gales from the opposite. Lust ever passes into cruelty, and dwells "hard by hate." A licentious epoch or man is generally a cruel epoch or man. Nero made torches of the Christians. Malice is evil desire iced.

This second list goes in the opposite direction to the former. That began with actions and went up the stream of desire; this begins with the sources, which are emotions, and comes down stream to their manifestations in action.

First we have anger. There is a just and righteous anger, which is part of the new man, and essential to his completeness, even as it is part of the image after which he is created. But here of course the anger which is to be put off is the inverted reflection of the earthly and passionate lust after the flesh; it is, then, of an earthly, passionate, and selfish kind. "Wrath" differs from "anger" in so far as it may be called anger boiling over. If anger rises keep the lid on, do not let it get the length of wrath, nor effervesce into the brief madness of passion. But on the other hand, do not think that you have done enough when you have suppressed the wrath which is the expression of your anger, nor be content with saying, "Well, at all events I did not show it," but take the cure a step further back, and strip off anger as well as wrath, the emotion as well as the manifestation. Christian people do not sufficiently bring the greatest forces of their religion and of God’s Spirit to bear upon the homely task of curing small hastinesses of temper, and sometimes seem to think it a sufficient excuse to say, "I have naturally a hot disposition." But Christianity was sent to subdue and change natural dispositions. An angry man cannot have communion with God, any more than the sky can be reflected in the storm-swept tide; and a man in communion with God cannot be angry with a passionate and evil anger any more than a dove can croak like a raven or strike like a hawk. Such anger disturbs our insight into everything; eyes suffused with it cannot see; and it weakens all good in the soul, and degrades it before its own conscience.

"Malice" designates another step in the process. The anger boils over in wrath, and then cools down into malignity-the disposition which means mischief, and plans or rejoices in evil. falling on the hated head. That malice, as cold, as clear, as colourless as sulphuric acid, and burning like it, is worse than the boiling rage already spoken of. There are many degrees of this cold-drawn, double-distilled rejoicing in evil, and the beginning of it in a certain faint satisfaction in the misfortunes of those whom we dislike is by no means unusual.

An advance is now made in the direction of outward manifestation. It is significant that while the expressions of wicked love were deeds, those of wicked hate are words. The "blasphemy" of the Authorised Version is better taken, with the Revised, as "railing." The word means "speech, that injures," and such speech may be directed either against God, which is blasphemy in the usual sense of the word, or against man. The hate blossoms into hurtful speech. The heated metal of anger is forged into poisoned arrows of the tongue. Then follows "shameful speaking out of your mouth," which is probably to be understood not so much of obscenities, which would more properly belong to the former catalogue, as of foul-mouthed abuse of the hated persons, that copiousness of vituperation and those volcanic explosions of mud, which are so natural to the angry Eastern.

Finally, we have a dehortation from lying, especially to those within the circle of the Church, as if that sin too were the child of hatred and anger. It comes from a deficiency of love, or a predominance of selfishness, which is the same thing. A lie ignores my brother’s claims on me, and my union with him. "Ye are members one of another," is the great obligation to love which is denied and sinned against by hatred in all its forms and manifestations, and not least by giving my brother the poisoned bread of lies instead of the heavenly manna of pure truth, so far as it has been given to me.

On the whole, this catalogue brings out the importance to be attached to sins of speech, which are ranked here as in parallel lines with the grossest forms of animal passion. Men’s words ought to be fountains of consolation and sources of illumination, encouragement, revelations of love and pity. And what are they? What floods of idle words, foul words, words that wound like knives and sting and bite like serpents, deluge the world! If all the talk that has its sources in these evils rebuked here were to be suddenly made inaudible, what a dead silence would fall on many brilliant circles, and how many of us would stand making mouths but saying nothing.

All the practical exhortations of this section concern common homely duties which everybody knows to be Such. It may be asked-does Christianity then only lay down such plain precepts? What need was there of all that prelude of mysterious doctrines, if we are only to be landed at last in such elementary and obvious moralities? No doubt they are elementary and obvious, but the main matter is-how to get them kept. And in respect to that, Christianity does two things which nothing else does. It breaks the entail of evil habits by the great gift of pardon for the past, and by the greater gift of a new spirit and life principle within, which is foreign to all evil, being the effluence of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.

Therefore the gospel of Jesus Christ makes it possible that men should slay themselves, and put on the new life, which will expel the old as the new shoots on some trees push the last year’s lingering leaves, brown and sere, from their places. All moral teachers from the beginning have agreed, on the whole, in their reading of the commandments which are printed on conscience in the largest capitals. Everybody who is not blind can read them. But reading is easy, keeping is hard. How to fulfil has been wanting. It is given us in the gospel, which is not merely a republication of old precepts, but the communication of new power. If we yield ourselves to Christ He will nerve our arms to wield the knife that will slay our dearest tastes, though beloved as Isaac by Abraham. If a man knows and feels that Christ has died for him, and that he lives in and by Christ, then, and not else, will he be able to crucify self. If he knows and feels that, by His pardoning mercy and atoning death, Christ has taken off his foul raiment and clothed him in clean garments, then, and not else, will he be able, by daily effort after repression of self and appropriation of Christ, to put off the old man and to put on the new, which is daily being renewed into closer resemblance to


Verses 9-11

Chapter 3

THE NEW NATURE WROUGHT OUT IN NEW LIFE

Colossians 3:9-11 (R.V.)

IN previous chapter we were obliged to break the close connection between these words and the preceding. They adduce a reason for the moral exhortation going before, which at first sight may appear very illogical. "Put off these vices of the old nature because you have put off the old nature with its vices," sounds like, Do a thing because you have done it. But the apparent looseness of reasoning covers very accurate thought which a little consideration brings to light, and introduces a really cogent argument for the conduct it recommends. Nor do the principles contained in the verses now under examination look backward only to enforce the exhortation to put aside these evils. They also look forward, and are taken as the basis of the following exhortation, to put on the white robes of Christlikeness-which is coupled with this section by "therefore."

I. The first thing to be observed is the change of the spirit’s dress, which is taken for granted as having occurred in the experience of all Christians.

We have already found the same idea presented under the forms of death and resurrection. The "death" is equivalent to the "putting off of the old," and the "resurrection" to "the putting on of the new man." That figure of a change of dress to express a change of moral character is very obvious, and is frequent in Scripture. Many a psalm breathes such prayers as, "Let Thy priests be clothed with righteousness." Zechariah in vision saw the high-priestly representative of the nation standing before the Lord "in filthy garments," and heard the command to strip them off him, and clothe him in festival robes, in token that God had "caused his iniquity to pass from him."

Christ spoke His parable of the man at the wedding feast without the wedding garment, and of the prodigal, who was stripped of his rags stained with the filth of the swine troughs, and clothed with the best robe. Paul in many places touches the same image, as in his ringing exhortation- clear and rousing in its notes like the morning bugle-to Christ’s soldiers, to put off their night gear, "the works of darkness," and to brace on the armour of light, which sparkles in the morning sunrise. Every reformatory and orphanage yields an illustration of the image, where the first thing done is to strip off and burn the rags of the new comers, then to give them a bath and dress them in clean, sweet, new clothes. Most naturally dress is taken as the emblem of character, which is indeed the garb of the soul. Most naturally habit means both costume and custom.

But here we have a strange paradox introduced to the ruining of the rhetorical propriety of the figure. It is a "new man" that is put on. The Apostle does not mind hazarding a mixed metaphor, if it adds to the force of his speech, and he introduces this thought of the new man, though it somewhat jars, in order to impress on his readers that what they have to put off and on is much more truly part of themselves than an article of dress is. The "old man" is the unregenerate self; the new man is, of course, the regenerate self, the new Christian moral nature personified. There is a deeper self which remains the same throughout the change, the true man, the centre of personality; which is, as it were, draped in the moral nature, and can put it off and on. I myself change myself. The figure is vehement, and, if you will, paradoxical, but it expresses accurately and forcibly at once the depth of the change which passes on him who becomes a Christian, and the identity of the person through all change. If I am a Christian, there has passed on me a change so thorough that it is in one aspect a death, and in another a resurrection; in one aspect it is a putting off not merely of some garb of action, but of the old man, and in another a putting on not merely of some surface renovation, but of a new man-which is yet the same old self.

This entire change is taken for granted by Paul as having been realised in every Christian. It is here treated as having taken place at a certain point of time, namely when these Colossians began to put their trust in Jesus Christ, and in profession of that trust, and as a symbol of that change, were baptised.

Of course the contrast between the character before and after faith in Christ is strongest when, like the Christians at Colossae, converts have been brought out of heathenism. With us, where some knowledge of Christianity is widely diffused, and its indirect influence has shaped the characters even of those who reject it, there is less room for a marked revolution in character and conduct. There will be many true saints who can point to no sudden change as their conversion; but have grown up, sometimes from childhood, under Christian influences, or who, if they have distinctly been conscious of a change, have passed through it as gradually as night passes into day. Be it so. In many respects that will be the highest form of experience. Yet even such souls will be aware of a "new man" formed in them which is at variance with their own old selves, and will not escape the necessity of the conflict with their lower nature, the immolation and casting off of the unregenerate self. But there are also many people who have grown up without God or Christ, who must become Christians by the way of sudden conversion, if they are ever to become Christians at all.

Why should such sudden change be regarded as impossible? Is it not a matter of everyday experience that some long ignored principle may suddenly come, like a meteor into the atmosphere, into a man’s mind and will, may catch fire as it travels, and may explode and blow to pieces the solid habits of a lifetime? And why should not the truth concerning God’s great love in Christ, which in too sad certainty is ignored by many, flame in upon blind eyes, and change the look of everything? The New Testament doctrine of conversion asserts that it may and does. It does not insist that everybody must become a Christian in the same fashion. Sometimes there will be a dividing line between the two states, as sharp as the boundary of adjoining kingdoms; sometimes the one will melt imperceptibly into the other. Sometimes the revolution will be as swift as that of the wheel of a locomotive, sometimes slow and silent as the movement of a planet in the sky. The main thing is that, whether suddenly or slowly, the face shall be turned to God. But however brought about, this putting off of the old sinful self is a certain mark of a Christian man. It can be assumed as true universally, and appealed to as the basis of exhortations such as those of the context. Believing certain truths does not make a Christian. If there have been any reality in the act by which we have laid hold of Christ as our Saviour, our whole being will be revolutionised; old things will have passed away-tastes, desires, ways of looking at the world, memories, habits, pricks of conscience, and all cords that bound us to our God-forgetting past- and all things will have become new, because we ourselves move in the midst of the old things as new creatures with new love burning in our hearts and new motives changing all our lives, and a new aim shining before us, and a new hope illuminating the blackness beyond, and a new song on our lips, and a new power in our hands, and a new Friend by our sides.

This is a wholesome and most needful test for all who call themselves Christians, and who are often tempted to put too much stress on believing and feeling, and to forget the supreme importance of the moral change which true Christianity effects. Nor is it less needful to remember that this resolute casting off of the garment spotted by the flesh, and putting on of the new man, is a consequence of faith in Christ and is only possible as a consequence. Nothing else will strip the foul robes from a man. The moral change comes second, the union with Jesus Christ by faith must come first. To try to begin with the second stage is like trying to begin to build a house at the second story.

But there is a practical conclusion drawn from this taken-for-granted change. Our text is introduced by "seeing that"; and though some doubts may be raised as to that translation and the logical connection of the paragraph, it appears on the whole most congruous with both the preceding and the following context, to retain it and to see here the reason for the exhortation which goes before-"Put off all these," and for that which follows-"Put on, therefore," the beautiful garment of love and compassion.

That great change, though taking place in the inmost nature whensoever a heart turns to Christ, needs to be wrought into character, and to be wrought out in conduct. The leaven is in the dough, but to knead it thoroughly into the mass is a life-long task, which is only accomplished by our own continually repeated efforts. The old garment clings to the limbs like the wet clothes of a half-drowned man, and it takes the work of a lifetime to get quite rid of it. The "old man" dies hard, and we have to repeat the sacrifice hour by hour. The new man has to be put on afresh day by day. So the apparently illogical exhortation, Put off what you have put off, and put on what you have put on, is fully vindicated. It means, Be consistent with your deepest selves. Carry out in detail what you have already done in bulk. Cast out the enemy, already ejected from the central fortress, from the isolated positions which he still occupies. You may put off the old man, for he is put off already; and the confidence that he is will give you strength for the struggle that still remains. You must put off the old man, for there is still danger of his again wrapping his poisonous rags about your limbs.

II. We have here the continuous growth of the new man, its aim and pattern.

The thought of the garment passes for the moment out of sight, and the Apostle enlarges on the greatness and glory of this "new man," partly as a stimulus to obeying the exhortation, partly, with allusion to some of the errors which he had been combating, and partly because his fervid spirit kindles at the mention of the mighty transformation.

The new man, says he, is "being renewed." This is one of the instances where minute accuracy in translation is not pedantic, but clear gain. When we say, with the Authorised Version, "is renewed," we speak of a completed act; when we say with the Revised Version, "is being renewed," we speak of a continuous process; and there can be no question that the latter is the true idea intended here. The growth of the new man is constant, perhaps slow and difficult to discern, if the intervals of comparison be short. But like all habits and powers it steadily increases. On the other hand, a similar process works to opposite results in the "old man," which, as Paul says in the instructive parallel passage in the Epistle to the Ephesians, [Ephesians 4:22] "waxeth corrupt, after the lusts of deceit." Both grow according to their inmost nature, the one steadily upwards; the other with accelerating speed downwards, till they are parted by the whole distance between the highest heaven and the lowest abyss. So mystic and awful is that solemn law of the persistent increase of the true ruling tendency of a man’s nature, and its certain subjugation of the whole man to itself! It is to be observed that this renewing is represented in this clause as done on the new man, not by him. We have heard the exhortation to a continuous appropriation and increase of the new life by our own efforts. But there is a Divine side too, and the renewing is not merely effected by us, nor due only to the vital power of the new man, though growth is the sign of life there as everywhere, but is "the renewing by the Holy Ghost," whose touch quickens and whose indwelling renovates the inward man day by day. So there is hope for us in our striving, for He helps us; and the thought of that Divine renewal is not a pillow for indolence, but a spur to intenser energy, as Paul well knew when he wove the apparent paradox, "work out your own salvation, for it is God that worketh in you."

The new man is being renewed "unto knowledge." An advanced knowledge of God and Divine realities is the result of the progressive renewal. Possibly there may be a passing reference to the pretensions of the false teachers, who had so much to say about a higher wisdom open to the initiated, and to be won by ceremonial and asceticism. Their claims, hints Paul, are baseless; their pretended secrets a delusion; their method of attaining them a snare. There is but one way to press into the depths of the knowledge of God-namely growth into His likeness. We understand one another best by sympathy. We know God only on condition of resemblance. "If the eye were not sun like how could it see the sun?" says Goethe. "If thou beest this, thou seest this," said Plotinus. Ever, as we grow in resemblance, shall we grow in knowledge, and ever as we grow in knowledge, shall we grow in resemblance. So in perpetual action and reaction of being and knowing, shall we draw nearer and nearer the unapproachable light, and receiving it full on our faces, shall be changed into the same image, as the moonbeams that touch the dark ocean transfigure its waves into silver radiance like their own. For all simple souls, bewildered by the strife of tongues and unapt for speculation, this is a message of gladness, that the way to know God is to be like Him, and the way to be like Him is to be renewed in the inward man, and the way to be renewed in the inward man is to put on Christ. They may wrangle and philosophise who will, but the path to God leads far away from all that. It may be trodden by a child’s foot, and the wayfaring man though a fool shall not err therein, for all that is needed is a heart that desires to know Him, and is made like Him by love. Half the secret lies in the great word which tells us that we shall be like Him, for "we shall see Him as He is," and knowledge will work likeness. The other half lies in the great word which tells us that "blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," and likeness will work a more perfect knowledge.

This new man is being renewed after the image of Him that created him. As in the first creation man was made in the image of God, so in the new creation. From the first moment in which the supernatural life is derived from Christ into the regenerated spirit, that new life is like its source. It is kindred, therefore it is like, as all derived life is. The child’s life is like the father’s. But the image of God which the new man bears is more than that which was stamped on man in his creation. That consisted mainly, if not wholly, in the reasonable soul, and the self-conscious personality, the broad distinctions which separate man from other animals. The image of God is often said to have been lost by sin, but Scripture seems rather to consider it as inseparable from humanity, even when stained by transgression. Men are still images of God, though darkened and "carved in ebony." The coin bears His image and superscription, though rusty and defaced. But the image of God, which the new man bears from the beginning in a rudimentary form, and which is continually imprinting itself more deeply upon him, has for its principal feature holiness. Though the majestic infinitudes of God can have no likeness in man, however exalted, and our feebleness cannot copy His strength, nor our poor blind knowledge, with its vast circumference of ignorance, be like His ungrowing and unerring knowledge, we may be "holy as He is holy"; we may be "imitators of God as beloved children, and walk in love as He hath loved us": we may "walk in the light as He is in the light," with only the difference between His calm, eternal being, and our changeful and progressive motion therein; we may even "be perfect as our Father is perfect." This is the end of all our putting off the old and putting on the new. This is the ultimate purpose of God, in all His self-revelation. For this Christ has come and died and lives. For this the Spirit of God dwells in us. This is the immortal hope with which we may recreate and encourage our souls in our often weary struggles. Even our poor sinful natures may be transformed into that wondrous likeness. Coal and diamond are but varying forms of carbon, and the blackest lump dug from the deepest mine may be transmuted by the alchemy of that wondrous transforming union with Christ, into a brightness that shall flash back all the glory of the sunlight, and gleam forever, set in one of His many crowns.

III. We have here finally the grand unity of this new creation.

We may reverse the order of the words as they stand here, and consider the last clause first, inasmuch as it is the reason for the doing away of all distinctions of race, or ceremony, or culture, or social condition.

"Christ is all." Wherever that new nature is found, it lives by the life of Christ. He dwells in all who possess it. The Spirit of life in Christ is in them. His blood passes into their veins. The holy desires, the new tastes, the kindling love, the clearer vision, the gentleness and the strength, and whatsoever things beside are lovely and of good report, are all His-nay, we may say, are all Himself.

And, of course, all who are His are partakers of that common gift, and He is in all. There is no privileged class in Christ’s Church, as these false teachers in Colossae had taught. Against every attempt to limit the universality of the gospel, whether it came from Jewish Pharisees or Eastern philosophers, Paul protested with his whole soul. He has done so already in this Epistle, and does so here in his emphatic assertion that Christ was not the possession of an aristocracy of "intelligence," but belonged to every soul that trusted Him.

Necessarily, therefore, surface distinctions disappear. There is triumph in the roll of his rapid enumeration of these clefts that have so long kept brothers apart, and are now being filled up. He looks round on a world the antagonisms of which we can but faintly imagine, and his eye kindles and his voice rises into vibrating emotion, as he thinks of the mighty magnetism, that is drawing enemies towards the one centre in Christ. His catalogue here may profitably be compared with his other in the Epistle to the Galatians. [Galatians 3:28] There he enumerates the three great distinctions which parted the old world: race (Jew and Greek), social condition (bond and free), and sex (male and female). These, he says, as separating powers, are done away in Christ. Here the list is modified, probably with reference to the errors in the Colossian Church.

"There cannot be Greek and Jew." The cleft of national distinctions, which certainly never yawned more widely than between the Jew and every other people, ceases to separate, and the teachers who had been trying to perpetuate that distinction in the Church were blind to the very meaning of the gospel. "Circumcision and uncircumcision" separated. Nothing makes deeper and bitterer antagonisms than differences in religious forms, and people who have not been born into them are usually the most passionate in adherence to them, so that cleft did not entirely coincide with the former. "Barbarian, Scythian," is not an antithesis, but a climax-the Scythians were looked upon as the most savage of barbarians. The Greek contempt for the outside races, which is reflected in this clause, was largely the contempt for a supposed lower stage of culture. As we have seen, Colossae especially needed the lesson that differences in culture disappeared in the unity of Christ, for the heretical teachers attached great importance to the wisdom which they professed to impart. A cultivated class is always tempted to superciliousness, and a half cultivated class is even more so. There is abundance of that arrogance born of education among us today, and sorely needing and quite disbelieving the teaching that there are things which can make up for the want of what it possesses. It is in the interest of the humble virtues of the uneducated godly as well as of the nations called uncivilised, that Christianity wars against that most heartless and ruinous of all prides, the pride of culture, by its proclamation that in Christ, barbarian, Scythian, and the most polished thinker or scholar are one.

"Bondman, freeman" is again an antithesis. That gulf between master and slave was indeed wide and deep; too wide for compassion to cross, though not for hatred to stride over. The untold miseries of slavery in the old world are but dimly known; but it and war and degradation of women made an infernal trio which crushed more than half the race into a hell of horrors. Perhaps Paul may have been the more ready to add this clause to his catalogue because his thoughts had been occupied with the relation of master and slave on the occasion of the letter to Philemon which was sent along with this to Colossae.

Christianity waged no direct war against these social evils of antiquity, but it killed them much more effectually by breathing into the conscience of the world truths which made their continuance impossible. It girdled the tree, and left it to die-a much better and more thorough plan than dragging it out of the ground by main force. Revolution cures nothing. The only way to get rid of evils engrained in the constitution of society is to elevate and change the tone of thought and feeling, and then they die of atrophy. Change the climate, and you change the vegetation. Until you do, neither mowing nor uprooting will get rid of the foul growths.

So the gospel does with all these lines of demarcation between men. What becomes of them? What becomes of the ridges of sand that separate pool from pool at low water? The tide comes up over them and makes them all one, gathered into the oneness of the great sea. They may remain, but they are seen no more, and the roll of the wave is not interrupted by them. The powers and blessings of the Christ pass freely from heart to heart, hindered by no barriers. Christ founds a deeper unity independent of all these superficial distinctions, for the very conception of humanity is the product of Christianity, and the true foundation for the brotherhood of mankind is the revelation in Christ of the fatherhood of God. Christ is the brother of us all; His death is for every man; the blessing of His gospel is offered to each; He will dwell in the heart of any. Therefore all distinctions, national, ceremonial, intellectual, or social, fade into nothingness. Love is of no nation, and Christ is the property of no aristocracy in the Church. That great truth was a miraculous new thing in that old world, all torn apart by deep clefts like the grim canyons of American rivers. Strange it must have seemed to find slaves and their masters, Jew and Greek, sitting at one table and bound in fraternal ties. The world has not yet fully grasped that truth, and the Church has woefully failed in showing it to be a reality. But it arches above all our wars, and schisms, and wretched class distinctions, like a rainbow of promise, beneath whose open portal the world shall one day pass into that bright land where the Wandering peoples shall gather together in peace round the feet of Jesus, and there shall be one fold because there is one Shepherd.


Verses 12-14

Chapter 3

THE GARMENTS OF THE RENEWED SOUL

Colossians 3:12-14 (R.V.)

We need not repeat what has been already said as to the logic of the inference, You have put off the "old man," therefore put off the vices which belong to him. Here we have the same argument in reference to the "new man" who is to be "put on" because he has been put on. This "therefore" rests the exhortation both on that thought, and on the nearer words, "Christ is all and in all." Because the new nature has been assumed in the very act of conversion, therefore array your souls in vesture corresponding. Because Christ is all and in all, therefore clothe yourselves with all brotherly graces, corresponding to the great unity into which all Christians are brought by their common possession of Christ. The whole field of Christian morality is not traversed here, but only so much of it as concerns the social duties which result from that unity.

But besides the foundation for the exhortations which is laid in the possession of the "New Man," consequent on participation in Christ, another ground for them is added in the words, "as God’s elect, holy and beloved." Those who are in Christ and are thus regenerated in Him, are of the chosen race, are consecrated as belonging especially to God, and receive the warm beams of the special paternal love with which He regards the men who are in some measure conformed to His likeness and moulded after His will. That relation to God should draw after it a life congruous with itself-a life of active goodness and brotherly gentleness. The outcome of it should be not mere glad emotion, nor a hugging of oneself in one’s happiness, but practical efforts to turn to men a face lit by the same dispositions with which God has looked on us, or as the parallel passage in Ephesians has it, "Be imitators of God, as beloved children." That is a wide and fruitful principle-the relation to men will follow the relation to God. As we think God has been to us, so let us try to be to others. The poorest little fishing cobble is best guided by celestial observations, and dead reckoning without sun or stars is but second best. Independent morality cut loose from religion will be feeble morality. On the other hand, religion which does not issue in morality is a ghost without substance. Religion is the soul of morality. Morality is the body of religion, more than ceremonial worship is. The virtues which all men know are the fitting garments of the elect of God.

I. We have here then an enumeration of the fair garments of the new man. Let us go over the items of this list of the wardrobe of the consecrated soul.

"A heart of compassion." So the Revised Version renders the words given literally in the Authorised as "bowels of mercies," an expression which that very strange thing called conventional propriety regards as coarse, simply because Jews chose one part of the body and we another as the supposed seat of the emotions. Either phrase expresses substantially the Apostle’s meaning.

Is it not beautiful that the series should begin with pity? It is the most often needed, for the sea of sorrow stretches so widely that nothing less than a universal compassion can arch it over as with the blue of heaven. Every man would seem in some respect deserving of and needing sympathy, if his whole heart and history could be laid bare. Such compassion is difficult to achieve, for its healing streams are dammed back by many obstructions of inattention and occupation, and dried up by the fierce heat of selfishness. Custom, with its deadening influence, comes in to make us feel least the sorrows which are most common in the society around us. As a man might live so long in an asylum that lunacy would seem to him almost the normal condition, so the most widely diffused griefs are those least observed and least compassionated; and good, tenderhearted men and women walk the streets of our great cities and see sights-children growing up for the gallows and the devil, gin shops at every corner-which might make angels weep, and suppose them to be as inseparable from our "civilisation" as the noise of wheels from a carriage or bilge water from a ship. Therefore we have to make conscious efforts to "put on" that sympathetic disposition, and to fight against the faults which hinder its free play. Without it, no help will be of much use to the receiver, nor of any to the giver. Benefits bestowed on the needy and sorrowful, if bestowed without sympathy, will hurt like a blow. Much is said about ingratitude, but very often it is but the instinctive recoil of the heart from the unkind doer of a kindness. Aid flung to a man as a bone is to a dog usually gets as much gratitude as the sympathy which it expresses deserves. But if we really make another’s sorrows ours, that teaches us tact and gentleness, and makes our clumsy hands light: and deft to bind up sore hearts.

Above all things, the practical discipline which cultivates pity will beware of letting it be excited and then not allowing the emotion to act. To stimulate feeling and do nothing in consequence is a short road to destroy the feeling. Pity is meant to be the impulse toward help, and if it is checked and suffered to pass away idly, it is weakened, as certainly as a plant is weakened by being kept close nipped and hindered from bringing its buds to flower and fruit.

"Kindness" comes next-a wider benignity, not only exercised where there is manifest room for pity, but turning a face of good will to all. Some souls are so dowered that they have this grace without effort, and come like the sunshine with welcome and cheer for all the world. But even less happily endowed natures can cultivate the disposition, and the best way to cultivate it is to be much in communion with God. When Moses came down from the mount, his face shone. When we come out from the secret place of the Most High we shall bear some reflection of His great kindness whose "tender mercies are over all His works." This "kindness" is the opposite of that worldly wisdom, on which many men pride themselves as the ripe fruit of their knowledge of men and things, and which keeps up vigilant suspicion of everybody, as in the savage state, where "stranger" and "enemy" had only one word between them. It does not require us to be blind to facts or to live in fancies, but it does require us to cherish a habit of good will, ready to become pity if sorrow appears, and slow to turn away even if hostility appears. Meet your brother with kindness, and you will generally find it returned. The prudent hypocrites who get on in the world, as ships are launched, by "greasing the ways" with flattery and smiles, teach us the value of the true thing, since even a coarse caricature of it wins hearts and disarms foes. This "kindness" is the most powerful solvent of ill will and indifference.

Then follows "humility." That seems to break the current of thought by bringing a virtue entirely occupied with self into the middle of a series referring exclusively to others. But it does not really do so. From this point onwards all the graces named have reference to our demeanour under slights and injuries-and humility comes into view here only as constituting the foundation for the right bearing of these. Meekness and long suffering must stand on a basis of humility. The proud man, who thinks highly of himself and of his own claims, will be the touchy man, if anyone derogates from these.

"Humility," or lowly mindedness, a lowly estimate of ourselves, is not necessarily blindness to our strong points. If a man can do certain things better than his neighbours, he can hardly help knowing it, and Christian humility does not require him to be ignorant of it. I suppose Milton would be none the less humble, though he was quite sure that his work was better than that of Sternhold and Hopkins. The consciousness of power usually accompanies power. But though it may be quite right to "know myself" in the strong points, as well as in the weak, there are two considerations which should act as dampers to any unchristian fire of pride which the devil’s breath may blow up from that fuel. The one is, "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" the other is, "Who is pure before God’s judgment seat?" Your strong points are nothing so very wonderful, after all. If you have better brains than some of your neighbours, well, that is not a thing to give yourself such airs about. Besides, where did you get the faculties you plume yourself on? However cultivated by yourself, how came they yours at first? And, furthermore, whatever superiorities may lift you above any men, and however high you may be elevated, it is a long way from the top of the highest molehill to the sun, and not much longer to the top of the lowest. And, besides all that, you may be very clever and brilliant, may have made books or pictures, may have stamped your name on some invention, may have won a place in public life, or made a fortune-and yet you and the beggar who cannot write his name are both guilty before God. Pride seems out of place in creatures like us, who have all to bow our heads in the presence of His perfect judgment, and cry, "God be merciful to me a sinner!"

Then follow "meekness, long suffering." The distinction between these two is slight. According to the most thorough investigators, the former is the temper which accepts God’s dealings, or evil inflicted by men as His instruments, without resistance, while the latter is the long holding out of the mind before it gives way to a temptation to action, or passion, especially the latter. The opposite of meekness is rudeness or harshness; the opposite of long suffering, swift resentment or revenge. Perhaps there may be something in the distinction, that while long suffering does not get angry soon, meekness does not get angry at all. Possibly, too, meekness implies a lowlier position than long suffering does. The meek man puts himself below the offender; the long suffering man does not. God is long suffering, but the incarnate God alone can be "meek and lowly."

The general meaning is plain enough. The "hate of hate," the "scorn of scorn," is not the Christian ideal. I am not to allow my enemy always to settle the terms on which we are to be. Why should I scowl back at him, though he frowns at me? It is hard work, as we all know, to repress the retort that would wound and be so neat. It is hard not to repay slights and offences in kind. But, if the basis of our dispositions to others be laid in a wise and lowly estimate of ourselves, such graces of conduct will be possible, and they will give beauty to our characters.

"Forbearing and forgiving" are not new virtues. They are meekness and long suffering in exercise, and if we were right in saying that "long suffering" was not soon angry, and "meekness" was not angry at all, then "forbearance" would correspond to the former and "forgiveness" to the latter; for a man may exercise forbearance, and bite his lips till the blood come rather than speak, and violently constrain himself to keep calm and do nothing unkind, and yet all the while seven devils may be in his spirit; while forgiveness, on the other hand, is an entire wiping of all enmity and irritation clean out of the heart.

Such is the Apostle’s outline sketch of the Christian character in its social aspect, all rooted in pity, and full of soft compassion; quick to apprehend, to feel, and to succour sorrow; a kindliness, equable and widespread, illuminating all who come within its reach; a patient acceptance of wrongs without resentment or revenge, because a lowly judgment of self and its claims, a spirit schooled to calmness under all provocations, disdaining to requite wrong by wrong, and quick to forgive.

The question may well be asked-is that a type of character which the world generally admires? Is it not uncommonly like what most people would call "a poor spiritless creature"?

It was "a new man," most emphatically, when Paul drew that sketch, for the heathen world had never seen anything like it. It is a "new man" still; for although the modern world has had some kind of Christianity-at least has had a Church-for all these centuries, that is not the kind of character which is its ideal. Look at the heroes of history and of literature. Look at the tone of so much contemporary biography and criticism of public actions. Think of the ridicule which is poured on the attempt to regulate politics by Christian principles, or, as a distinguished soldier called them in public recently, "puling principles." It may be true that Christianity has not added any new virtues to those which are prescribed by natural conscience, but it has most certainly altered the perspective of the whole, and created a type of excellence, in which the gentler virtues predominate, and the novelty of which is proved by the reluctance of the so-called Christian world to recognise it even yet.

By the side of its serene and lofty beauty, the "heroic virtues" embodied in the world’s type of excellence show vulgar and glaring, like some daub representing a soldier, the sign post of a public house, by the side of Angelico’s white-robed visions on the still convent walls. The highest exercise of these more gaudy and conspicuous qualities is to produce the pity and meekness of the Christian ideal. More self command, more heroic firmness, more contempt for the popular estimate, more of everything strong and manly, will find a nobler field in subduing passion and cherishing forgiveness, which the world thinks folly and spiritless, than anywhere else. Better is he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.

The great pattern and motive of forgiveness is next set forth. We are to forgive as Christ has forgiven us; and that "as" may be applied either as meaning "in like manner," or as meaning "because." The Revised Version, with many others, adopts the various reading of "the Lord," instead of "Christ," which has the advantage of recalling the parable that was no doubt in Paul’s mind, about the servant who, having been forgiven by his "Lord" all his great debt, took his fellow servant by the throat and squeezed the last farthing out of him.

The great transcendent act of God’s mercy brought to us by Christ’s cross is sometimes, as in the parallel passage in Ephesians, spoken of as "God for Christ’s sake forgiving us," and sometimes as here, Christ is represented as forgiving. We need not pause to do more than point to that interchange of Divine office and attributes, and ask what notion of Christ’s person underlies it. We have already had the death of Christ set forth as in a very profound sense our pattern. Here we have one special case of the general law that the life and death of our Lord are the embodied ideal of human character and conduct. His forgiveness is not merely revealed to us that trembling hearts may be calm, and that a fearful looking for of judgment may no more trouble a foreboding conscience. For whilst we must ever begin with cleaving to it as our hope, we must never stop there. A heart touched and softened by pardon will be a heart apt to pardon, and the miracle of forgiveness which has been wrought for it will constitute the law of its life as well as the ground of its joyful security.

This new pattern and new motive, both in one, make the true novelty and specific difference of Christian morality. "As I have loved you," makes the commandment "love one another" a new commandment. And all that is difficult in obedience becomes easier by the power of that motive. Imitation of one whom we love is instinctive. Obedience to one whom we love is delightful. The far off ideal becomes near and real in the person of our best friend. Bound to him by obligations so immense, and a forgiveness so costly and complete, we shall joyfully yield to "the cords of love" which draw us after Him. We have each to choose what shall be the pattern for us. The world takes Caesar, the hero; the Christian takes Christ, in whose meekness is power, and whose gentle long suffering has been victor in a sterner conflict than any battle of the warrior with garments rolled in blood.

Paul says, "Even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye." The Lord’s prayer teaches us to ask, Forgive us our trespasses, as we also forgive. In the one case Christ’s forgiveness is the example and the motive for ours. In the other, our forgiveness is the condition of God’s. Both are true. We shall find the strongest impulse to pardon others in the consciousness that we have been pardoned by Him. And if we have grudgings against our offending brother in our hearts, we shall not be conscious of the tender forgiveness of our Father in heaven. That is no arbitrary limitation, but inherent in the very nature of the case.

II. We have here the girdle which keeps all the garments in their places.

"Above all these things, put on love, which is the bond of perfectness."

"Above all these" does not mean "besides," or "more important than," but is clearly used in its simplest local sense, as equivalent to "over," and thus carries on the metaphor of the dress. Over the other garments is to be put the silken sash or girdle of love, which will brace and confine all the rest into a unity. It is "the girdle of perfectness," by which is not meant, as is often supposed, the Perfect principle of union among men. Perfectness is not the quality of the girdle, but the thing which it girds, and is a collective expression for "the various graces and virtues, which together make up perfection." So the metaphor expresses the thought that love knits into a harmonious whole, the graces which without it would be fragmentary and incomplete.

We can conceive of all the dispositions already named as existing in some fashion without love. There might be pity which was not love, though we know it is akin to it. The feeling with which one looks upon some poor outcast, or on some stranger in sorrow, or even on an enemy in misery, may be very genuine compassion, and yet clearly separate from love. So with all the others. There may be kindness most real without any of the diviner emotions and there may even be forbearance reaching up to forgiveness, and yet leaving the heart untouched in its deepest recesses. But if these virtues were thus exercised, in the absence of love they would be fragmentary, shallow, and would have no guarantee for their own continuance. Let love come into the heart and knit a man to the poor creature whom he had only pitied before, or to the enemy whom he had at the most been able with an effort to forgive, and it lifts these other emotions into a nobler life. He who pities may not love, but he who loves cannot but pity; and that compassion will flow with a deeper current and be of a purer quality than the shrunken stream which does not rise from that higher source.

Nor is it only the virtues enumerated here for which love performs this office: but all the else isolated graces of character, it binds or welds into a harmonious whole. As the broad Eastern girdle holds the flowing robes in position, and gives needed firmness to the figure as well as composed order to the attire; so this broad band, woven of softest fabric, keeps all emotions in their due place and makes the attire of the Christian soul beautiful in harmonious completeness. Perhaps it is a yet deeper truth that love produces all these graces. Whatsoever things men call virtues, are best cultivated by cultivating it. So with a somewhat similar meaning to that of our text, but if anything, going deeper down, Paul in another place calls love the fulfilling of the law, even as his Master had taught him that all the complex of duties incumbent upon us were summed up in love to God, and love to men. Whatever I owe to my brother will be discharged if I love God, and live my love. Nothing of it, not even the smallest mite of the debt will be discharged, however vast my sacrifices and services, if I do not.

So end the frequent references in this letter to putting off the old and putting on the new. The sum of them. all is, that we must first put on Christ by faith, and then by daily effort clothe our spirits in the graces of character which He gives us, and by which we shall be like Him.

We have said that this dress of the Christian soul which we have been now considering does not include the whole of Christian duty. We may recall the other application of the same figure which occurs in the parallel Epistle to the Ephesians, where Paul sketches for us in a few rapid touches the armed Christian soldier. The two pictures may profitably be set side by side.

Here he dresses the Christian soul in the robes of peace, bidding him put on pity and meekness, and above all, the silken girdle of love

"In peace, there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility But when the blast of war blows in our ears,"

then "put on the whole armour of God," the leathern girdle of truth, the shining breastplate of righteousness, and above all, the shield of faith-and so stand a flashing pillar of steel. Are the two pictures inconsistent? must we doff the robes of peace to don the armour, or put off the armour to resume the robes of peace? Not so; both must be worn together, for neither is found in its completeness without the other. Beneath the armour must be the fine linen, clean and white- and at one and the same time, our souls may be clad in all pity, mercifulness, and love, and in all the sparkling panoply of courage and strength for battle.

But both the armour and the dress of peace presuppose that we have listened to Christ’s pleading counsel to buy of Him "white raiment that we may be clothed, and that the shame of our nakedness do not appear." The garment for the soul, which is to hide its deformities and to replace our own filthy rags, is woven in no earthly looms, and no efforts of ours will bring us into possession of it. We must be content to owe it wholly to Christ’s gift, or else we shall have to go without it altogether. The first step in the Christian life is by simple faith to receive from Him the forgiveness of all our sins, and that new nature which He alone can impart, and which we can neither create nor win, but must simply accept. Then, after that, come the field and the time for efforts put forth in His strength, to array our souls in His likeness, and day by day to put on the beautiful garments which He bestows. It is a lifelong work thus to strip ourselves of the rags of our old vices, and to gird on the robe of righteousness. Lofty encouragements, tender motives, solemn warnings, all point to this as our continual task. We should set ourselves to it in His strength, if so be that, being clothed, we may not be found naked-and then, when we lay aside the garment of flesh and the armour needed for the battle, we shall hear His voice welcoming us to the land of peace, and shall walk with Him in victor’s robes, glistening "so as no fuller on earth could white them."


Verses 15-17

Chapter 3

THE PRACTICAL EFFECTS OF THE PEACE OF CHRIST, THE WORD OF CHRIST, AND THE NAME OF CHRIST

Colossians 3:15-17 (R.V)

There are here three precepts somewhat loosely connected, of which the first belongs properly to the series considered in our last chapter, from which it is only separated as not sharing in the metaphor under which the virtues contained in the former verses were set forth. In substance it is closely connected with them, though in form it is different, and in sweep is more comprehensive. The second refers mainly to Christian intercourse, especially to social worship; and the third covers the whole field of conduct, and fitly closes the series, which in it reaches the utmost possible generality, and from it drops to the inculcation of very special domestic duties. The three verses have each a dominant phrase round which we may group their teaching. These three are, the peace of Christ, the word of Christ, the name of the Lord Jesus.

I. The Ruling Peace of Christ.

The various reading "peace of Christ," for "peace of God," is not only recommended by manuscript authority, but has the advantage of bringing the expression into connection with the great words of the Lord, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you." A strange legacy to leave, and a strange moment at which to speak of His peace! It was but an hour or so since He had been "troubled in spirit," as He thought of the betrayer-and in an hour more He would be beneath the olives of Gethsemane; and yet, even at such a time, He bestows on His friends some share in His own deep repose of spirit. Surely "the peace of Christ" must mean what "My peace" meant; not only the peace which He gives, but the peace which lay, like a great calm on the sea, on His own deep heart; and surely we cannot restrict so solemn an expression to the meaning of mutual concord among brethren. That, no doubt, is included in it, but there is much more than that. Whatever made the strange calm. which leaves such unmistakable traces in the picture of Christ drawn in the Gospels, may be ours. When He gave us His peace, He gave us some share in that meek submission of will to His Father’s will, and in that stainless purity, which were its chief elements. The hearts and lives of men are made troubled, not by circumstances, but by themselves. Whoever can keep his own will in harmony with God’s enters into rest, though many trials and sorrows may be his. Even if within and without are fightings, there may be a central "peace subsisting at the heart of endless agitation." We are our own disturbers. The eager swift motions of our own wills keep us restless. Forsake these, and quiet comes. Christ’s peace was the result of the perfect harmony of all His nature. All was cooperant to one great purpose; desires and passions did not war with conscience and reason, nor did the flesh lust against the Spirit. Though that complete uniting of all our inner selves in the sweet concord of perfect obedience is not attained on earth, yet its beginnings are given to us by Christ, and in Him we may be at peace with ourselves, and have one great ruling power binding all our conflicting desires in one, as the moon draws after her the heaped waters of the sea.

We are summoned to improve that gift-to "let the peace of Christ" have its way in our hearts. The surest way to increase our possession of it is to decrease our separation from Him. The fulness of our possession of His gift of peace depends altogether on our proximity to the Giver. It evaporates in carrying. It "diminishes as the square of the distance" from the source. So the exhortation to let it rule in us will be best fulfilled by keeping thought and affection in close union with our Lord.

This peace is to "rule" in our hearts. The figure Contained in the word here translated "rule" is that of the umpire or arbitrator at the games, who, looking down on the arena, watches that the combatants strive lawfully, and adjudges the prize. Possibly the force of the figure may have been washed out of the word by use, and "rule" of our rendering may be all that it means. But there seems no reason against keeping the full force of the expression, which adds picturesqueness and point to the precept. The peace of Christ, then, is to sit enthroned as umpire in the heart; or, if we might give a medieval instead of a classical shape to the figure, that fair sovereign, Peace, is to be Queen of the Tournament, and her "eyes rain influence and adjudge the prize." When contending impulses and reasons distract and seem. to pull us in opposite directions, let her settle which is to prevail. How can the peace of Christ do that for us? We may make a rude test of good and evil by their effects on our inward repose. Whatever mars our tranquillity, ruffling the surface so that Christ’s image is no longer visible, is to be avoided. That stillness of spirit is very sensitive and shrinks away at the presence of an evil thing. Let it be for us what the barometer is to a sailor, and if it sinks, let us be sure a storm is at hand. If we find that a given course of action tends to break our peace, we may be certain that there is poison in the draught which as in the old stories, has been detected by the shivered cup, and we should not drink any more. There is nothing so precious that it is worth while to lose the peace of Christ for the sake of it. Whenever we find it in peril, we must retrace our steps.

Then follows appended a reason for cultivating the peace of Christ "to which also ye were called in one body." The very purpose of God’s merciful summons and invitation to them. in the gospel was that they might share in this peace. There are many ways of putting God’s design in His call by the gospel-it may be represented under many angles and from many points of view, and is glorious from all and each. No one word can state all the fulness to which we are called by His wonderful love, but none can be tenderer and more blessed than this thought, that God’s great voice has summoned us to a share in Christ’s peace. Being so called, all who share in it of course find themselves knit to each other by possession of a common gift. What a contradiction, then, to be summoned in order to so blessed a possession, and not to allow it sovereign sway in moulding heart and life! What a contradiction, further, to have been gathered into one body by the common possession of the peace of Christ, and yet not to allow it to bind all the members in its sweet fetters with cords of love! The sway of the "peace of Christ" in our hearts will ensure the perfect exercise of all the other graces of which we have been hearing, and therefore this precept fitly closes the series of exhortations to brotherly affections, and seals all with the thought of the "one body" of which all these "new men" are members.

The very abruptness of the introduction of the next precept gives it force, "and be ye thankful," or, as we might translate with an accuracy which perhaps is not too minute, "become thankful," striving towards deeper gratitude than you have yet attained. Paul is ever apt to catch fire as often as his thought brings him in sight of God’s great love in drawing men to Himself, and in giving them such rich gifts.

It is quite a feature of his style to break into sudden bursts of praise as often as his path leads him to a summit from which he catches a glimpse of that great miracle of love. This interjected precept is precisely like these sudden jets of praise. It is as if he had broken off for a moment from. the line of his thought, and had said to his hearers-Think of that wonderful love of your Father God. He has called you from the midst of your heathenism, He has called you from a world of tumult and a life of troubled unrest to possess the peace which brooded ever, like the mystic dove, over Christ’s head; He has called you in one body, having knit in a grand unity us, Jews and Gentiles, so widely parted before. Let us pause and lift up our voices in praise to Him. True thankfulness will well up at all moments, and will underlie and blend with all duties. There are frequent injunctions to thankfulness in this letter, and we have it again enjoined in the closing words of the verses which we are now considering, so that we may defer any further remarks till we come to deal with these.

II. The Indwelling Word of Christ.

The main reference of this verse seems to be to the worship of the Church-the highest expression of its oneness. There are three points enforced in its three clauses, of which the first is the dwelling in the hearts of the Colossian Christians of the "word of Christ," by which is meant, as I conceive, not simply "the presence of Christ in the heart, as an inward monitor," but the indwelling of the definite body of truths contained in the gospel which had been preached to them. That gospel is the word of Christ, inasmuch as He is its subject. These early Christians received that body of truth by oral teaching. To us it comes in the history of Christ’s life and death, and in the exposition of the significance and far-reaching depth and power of these, which are contained in the rest of the New Testament-a very definite body of teaching. How can it abide in the heart? Or what is the dwelling of that word within us but the occupation of mind and heart and will with the truth concerning Jesus revealed to us in Scripture? This indwelling is in our own power, for it is matter of precept and not of promise-and if we want to have it we must do with religious truth just what we do with other truths that we want to keep in our minds- ponder them, use our faculties on them, be perpetually recurring to them, fix them in our memories, like nails fastened in a sure place, and, that, we may remember them, get them by heart, as the children say. Few things are more wanting today than this. The popular Christianity of the day is strong in philanthropic service, and some phases of it are full of "evangelistic" activity, but it is woefully lacking in intelligent grasp of the great principles involved and revealed in the gospel. Some Christians have yielded to the popular prejudice against "dogma," and have come to dislike and neglect the doctrinal side of religion, and others are so busy in good works of various kinds that they have no time nor inclination to reflect nor to learn, and for others "the cares of this world and the lusts of other things, entering in, choke the word." A merely intellectual Christianity is a very poor thing, no doubt; but that has been dinned into our ears so long and loudly for a generation now, that there is much need for a clear preaching of the other side-namely, that a merely emotional Christianity is a still poorer, and that if feeling on the one hand and conduct on the other are to be worthy of men with heads on their shoulders and brains in their heads, both feeling and conduct must be built on a foundation of truth believed and pondered. In the ordered monarchy of human nature, reason is meant to govern, but she is also meant to submit, and for her the law holds good, she must learn to obey that she may be able to rule. She must bow to the word of Christ, and then she will sway aright the kingdom of the soul. It becomes us to make conscience of seeking to get a firm and intelligent grasp of Christian truth as a whole, and not to be always living on milk meant for babes, nor to expect that teachers and preachers should only repeat forever the things which we know already.

That word is to dwell in Christian men richly. It is their own fault if they possess it, as so many do, in scant measure. It might be a full tide. Why in so many is it a mere trickle, like an Australian river in the heat, a line of shallow ponds with no life or motion, scarcely connected by a thread of moisture, and surrounded by great stretches of blinding shingle, when it might be a broad water-"waters to swim in?" Why, but because they do not do with this word, what all students do with the studies which they love?

The word should manifest the rich abundance of its dwelling in men by opening out in their minds into "every kind of wisdom." Where the gospel in its power dwells in a man’s spirit, and is intelligently meditated on and studied, it will effloresce into principles of thought and action applicable to all subjects, and touching the whole round horizon of human life. All, and more than all, the wisdom which these false teachers promised in their mysteries, is given to the babes and the simple ones who treasure the word of Christ in their hearts, and the least among them may say, "I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my meditation." That gospel which the child may receive has "infinite riches in a narrow room," and, like some tiny black seed, for all its humble form, has hidden in it the promise and potency of wondrous beauty of flower, and nourishment of fruit. Cultured and cared for in the heart where it is sown, it will unfold into all truth which a man can receive or God can give, concerning God and man, our nature, duties, hopes, and destinies, the tasks of the moment, and the glories of eternity. He who has it and lets it dwell richly in his heart is wise; he who has it not, "at his latter end shall be a fool."

The second clause of this verse deals with the manifestations of the indwelling word in the worship of the Church. The individual possession of the word in one’s own heart does not make us independent of brotherly help. Rather, it is the very foundation of the duty of sharing our riches with our fellows, and of increasing ours by contributions from their stores. And so -"teaching and admonishing one another" is the outcome of it. The universal possession of Christ’s word involves the equally universal right and duty of mutual instruction.

We have already heard the Apostle declaring it to be his work to "admonish every man and to teach every man," and found that the former office pointed to practical ethical instruction, not without rebuke and warning, while the latter referred rather to doctrinal teaching. What he there claimed for himself, he here enjoins on the whole Christian community. We have here a glimpse of the perfectly simple, informal public services of the early Church, which seem to have partaken much more of the nature of a free conference than of any of the forms of worship at present in use in any Church. The evidence both of this passage and of the other Pauline Epistles, especially of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (chapter 14) unmistakably shows this. The forms of worship in the apostolic Church are not meant for models, and we do not prove a usage as intended to be permanent because we prove it to be primitive; but the principles which underlie the usages are valid always and everywhere, and one of these principles is the universal though not equal inspiration of Christian men, which results in their universal calling to teach and admonish. In what forms that principle shall be expressed, how safeguarded and controlled, is of secondary importance. Different stages of culture and a hundred other circumstances will modify these, and nobody but a pedant or religious martinet will care about uniformity. But I cannot but believe that the present practice of confining the public teaching of the Church to an official class has done harm. Why should one man be forever speaking, and hundreds of people who are able to teach sitting dumb to listen or pretend to listen to him? Surely there is a wasteful expenditure there. I hate forcible revolution, and do not believe that any institutions, either political or ecclesiastical, which need violence to sweep them away, are ready to be removed; but I believe that if the level of spiritual life were raised among us, new forms would naturally be evolved, in which there should be a more adequate recognition of the great principle on which the democracy of Christianity is founded, namely, "I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh-and on My servants and on My handmaidens I will pour out in these days of My Spirit, and they shall prophesy." There are not wanting signs that many different classes of Christian worshippers have ceased to find edification in the present manner of teaching. The more cultured write books on "the decay of preaching"; the more earnest take to mission halls and a "freer service," and "lay preaching"; the more indifferent stay at home. When the tide rises, all the idle craft stranded on the mud are set in motion; such a time is surely coming for the Church, when the aspiration that has waited millenniums for its fulfilment, and received but a partial accomplishment at Pentecost, shall at last be a fact: "would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!"

The teaching and admonishing are here regarded as being effected by means of song. That strikes one as singular, and tempts to another punctuation of the verse, by which "In all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another" should make a separate clause, and "in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" should be attached to the following words. But probably the ordinary arrangement of clauses is best on the whole. The distinction between "psalms" and "hymns" appears to be that the former is a song with a musical accompaniment, and that the latter is vocal praise to God. No doubt the "psalms" meant were chiefly those of the Psalter, the Old Testament element in the early Christian worship, while the "hymns" were the new product of the spirit of devotion which had naturally broken into song, the first beginnings of the great treasure of Christian hymnody. "Spiritual songs" is a more general expression, including all varieties of Christian poesy: provided that they come from the Spirit moving in the heart. We know from many sources that song had a large part in the worship of the early Church. Indeed, whenever a great quickening of religious life comes, a great burst of Christian song comes with it. The onward march of the Church has ever been attended by music of praise; "as well the singers as the players on instruments" have been there. The medieval Latin hymns cluster round the early pure days of the monastic orders; Luther’s rough stormy hymns were as powerful as his treatises; the mystic tenderness and rapture of Charles Wesley’s have become the possession of the whole Church. We hear from outside observers that one of the practices of the early Christians which most attracted heathen notice was, that they assembled daily before it was light and "sang hymns of praise to one Christus as to a god."

These early hymns were of a dogmatic character. No doubt, just as in many a missionary Church a hymn is found to be the best vehicle for conveying the truth, so it was in these early Churches, which were made up largely of slaves and women-both uneducated. "Singing the gospel" is a very old invention, though the name be new. The picture which we get here of the meetings of the early Christians is very remarkable. Evidently their gatherings were free and social, with the minimum of form, and that most elastic. If a man had any word of exhortation for the people, he might say on. "Every one of you hath a psalm, a doctrine." If a man had some fragment of an old psalm, or some strain that had come fresh from the Christian heart, he might sing it, and his brethren would listen. We do not have that sort of psalmody now. But what a long way we have travelled from it to a modern congregation, standing with books that they scarcely look at, and "worshipping" in a hymn which half of them do not open their mouths to sing at all, and the other half do in a voice inaudible three pews off.

The best praise, however, is a heart song. So the Apostle adds "singing in your hearts unto God." And it is to be in "grace," that is to say, in it as the atmosphere and element in which the song moves, which is nearly equivalent to "by means of the Divine grace" which works in the heart, and impels to that perpetual music of silent praise. If we have the peace of Christ in our hearts, and the word of Christ dwelling in us richly in all wisdom, then an unspoken and perpetual music will dwell there too, "a noise like of a hidden brook" singing forever its "quiet tune."

III. The all-hallowing Name of Jesus.

From worship the Apostle passes to life, and crowns the entire series of injunctions with an all comprehensive precept, covering the whole ground of action. "Whatsoever ye do, in word or deed"-then, not merely worship, specially so called, but everything is to come under the influence of the same motive. That expresses emphatically the sanctity of common life, and extends the idea of worship to all deeds. "Whatsoever ye do in word"-then words are doings, and in many respects the most important of our doings. Some words, though they fade off the ear so quickly, outlast all contemporary deeds, and are more lasting than brass. Not only "the word of the Lord," but, in a very solemn sense, the word of man "endureth forever." Do all "in the name of the Lord Jesus." That means at least two things-in obedience to His authority, and in dependence on His help. These two are the twin talismans which change the whole character of our actions, and preserve us, in doing them, from every harm. That name hallows and ennobles all work. Nothing can be so small but this will make it great, nor so monotonous and tame but this will make it beautiful and fresh. The name now, as of old, casts out devils and stills storms. "For the name of the Lord Jesus" is the silken padding which makes our yokes easy. It brings the sudden strength which makes our burdens light. We may write it over all our actions. If there be any on which we dare not inscribe it, they are not for us.

Thus done in the name of Christ, all deeds will become thanksgiving, and so reach their highest consecration and their truest blessedness. "Giving thanks to God the Father through Him" is ever to accompany the work in the name of Jesus. The exhortation to thanksgiving, which is in a sense the Alpha and the Omega of the Christian life, is perpetually on the Apostle’s lips, because thankfulness should be in perpetual operation in our hearts. It is so important because it presupposes all-important things, and because it certainly leads to every Christian grace. For continual thankfulness there must be a continual direction of mind towards God and towards the great gifts of our salvation in Jesus Christ. There must be a continual going forth of our love and our desire to these, that is to say-thankfulness rests on the reception and the joyful appropriation of the mercies of God, brought to us by our Lord. And it underlies all acceptable service and all happy obedience. The servant who thinks of God as a harsh exactor is slothful; the servant who thinks of Him as the "giving God" rejoices in toil. He who brings his work in order to be paid for it will get no wages, and turn out no work worth any. He who brings it because he feels that he has been paid plentiful wages beforehand, of which he will never earn the least mite, will present service well pleasing to the Master.

So we should keep thoughts of Jesus Christ, and of all we owe to Him, ever before us in our common work, in shop and mill and counting house, in study and street and home. We should try to bring all our actions more under their influence, and, moved by the mercies of God, should yield ourselves living thank offerings to Him, who is the sin offering for us. If, as every fresh duty arises, we hear Christ saying, "This do in remembrance of Me," all life will become a true communion with Him, and every common vessel will be as a sacramental chalice, and the bells of the horses will bear the same inscription as the high priest’s mitre "Holiness to the Lord." To lay work on that altar sanctifies both the giver and the gift. Presented through Him, by whom all blessings come to man and all thanks go to God, and kindled by the flame of gratitude, our poor deeds, for all their grossness and earthliness, shall go up in curling wreaths of incense, an odour of a sweet smell acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.


Verses 18-25

Chapter 3

THE CHRISTIAN FAMILY

Colossians 3:18-25; Colossians 4:1 (R.V.)

This chapter deals with the Christian family, as made up of husband and wife, children, and servants. In the family, Christianity has most signally displayed its power of refining, ennobling, and sanctifying earthly relationships. Indeed, one may say that domestic life, as seen in thousands of Christian homes, is purely a Christian creation, and would have been a new revelation to the heathenism of Colossae, as it is today in many a mission field.

We do not know what may have led Paul to dwell with special emphasis on the domestic duties, in this letter, and in the contemporaneous Epistle to the Ephesians. He does so, and the parallel section there should be carefully compared throughout with this paragraph. The former is considerably more expanded, and may have been written after the verses before us; but, however that may be, the verbal coincidences and variations in the two sections are very interesting as illustrations of the way in which a mind fully charged with a theme will freely repeat itself, and use the same words in different combinations and with infinite shades of modification. The precepts given are extremely simple and obvious. Domestic happiness and family Christianity are made up of very homely elements. One duty is prescribed for the one member of each of the three family groups, and varying forms of another for the other. The wife, the child, the servant are bid to obey; the husband to love, the father to show his love in gentle considerateness; the master to yield his servants their dues. Like some perfume distilled from common flowers that grow on every bank, the domestic piety which makes home a house of God, and a gate of heaven, is prepared from these two simples-obedience and love. These are all. We have here then the ideal Christian household in the three ordinary relationships which make up the family; wife and husband, children and father, servant and master.

I. The Reciprocal Duties of wife and husband-subjection and love.

The duty of the wife is "subjection," and it is enforced on the ground that it is "fitting in the Lord"-that is "it is," or perhaps "it became" at the time of conversion, "the conduct corresponding to or befitting the condition of being in the Lord." In more modern language-the Christian ideal of the wife’s duty has for its very centre-subjection.

Some of us will smile at that; some of us will think it an old-fashioned notion, a survival of a more barbarous theory of marriage than this century recognises. But, before we decide upon the correctness of the apostolic precept, let us make quite sure of its meaning. Now, if we turn to the corresponding passage in Ephesians, we find that marriage, is regarded from a high and sacred point of view, as being an earthly shadow and faint adumbration of the union between Christ and the Church.

To Paul, all human and earthly relationships were moulded after the patterns of things in the heavens, and the whole fleeting visible life of man was a parable of the "things which are" in the spiritual realm. Most chiefly, the holy and mysterious union of man and woman in marriage is fashioned in the likeness of the only union which is closer and more mysterious than itself, namely that between Christ and His Church.

Such then as are the nature and the spring of the Church’s "subjection" to Christ, such will be the nature and the spring of the wife’s "subjection" to the husband. That is to say, it is a subjection of which love is the very soul and animating principle. In a true marriage, as in the loving obedience of a believing soul to Christ, the wife submits not because she has found a master, but because her heart has found its rest. Everything harsh or degrading melts away from the requirement when thus looked at. It is a joy to serve where the heart is engaged, and that is eminently true of the feminine nature. For its full satisfaction, a woman’s heart needs to look up where it loves. She has certainly the fullest wedded life who can "reverence" her husband. For its full satisfaction, a woman’s heart needs to serve where it loves. That is the same as saying that a woman’s love is, in the general, nobler, purer, more unselfish than a man’s, and therein, quite as much as in physical constitution, is laid the foundation of that Divine ideal of marriage, which places the wife’s delight and dignity in sweet loving subjection.

Of course the subjection has its limitations. "We must obey God rather than man" bounds the field of all human authority and control. Then there are cases in which, on the principle of "the tools to the hands that can use them," the rule falls naturally to the wife as the stronger character. Popular sarcasm, however, shows that such instances are felt to be contrary to the true ideal, and such a wife lacks something of repose for her heart.

No doubt, too, since Paul wrote, and very largely by Christian influences, women have been educated and elevated, so as to make mere subjection impossible now, if ever it were so. Woman’s quick instinct as to persons, her finer wisdom, her purer discernment as to moral questions, make it in a thousand cases the wisest thing a man can do to listen to the "subtle flow of silver-paced counsel" which his wife gives him. All such considerations are fully consistent with this apostolic teaching, and it remains true that the wife who does not reverence and lovingly obey is to be pitied if she cannot, and to be condemned if she will not.

And what of the husband’s duty? He is to love, and because he loves, not to be harsh or bitter, in word, look, or act. The parallel in Ephesians adds the solemn, elevating thought, that a man’s love to the woman, whom he has made his own, is to be like Christ’s to the Church. Patient and generous, utterly self-forgetting and self-sacrificing, demanding nothing, grudging nothing, giving all, not shrinking from the extreme of suffering and pain and death itself-that he may bless and help-such was the Lord’s love to His bride, such is to be a Christian husband’s love to his wife. That solemn example, which lifts the whole emotion high above mere passion or selfish affection, carries a great lesson too as to the connection between man’s love and woman’s "subjection." The former is to evoke the latter, just as in the heavenly pattern, Christ’s love melts and moves human wills to glad obedience, which is liberty. We do not say that a wife is utterly absolved from obedience where a husband fails in self-forgetting love, though certainly it does not lie in his mouth to accuse, whose fault is graver than, and the origin of, hers. But, without going so far as that, we may recognise the true order to be that the husband’s love, self-sacrificing and all-bestowing, is meant to evoke the wife’s love, delighting in service, and proud to crown him her king.

Where there is such love, there will be no question of mere command and obedience, no tenacious adherence to rights, or jealous defence of independence. Law will be transformed into choice. To obey will be joy; to serve, the natural expression of the heart. Love uttering a wish speaks music to love listening; and love obeying the wish is free and a queen. Such sacred beauty may light up wedded life, if it catches a gleam from the fountain of all light, and shines by reflection from the love that binds Christ to His Church as the links of the golden beams bind the sun to the planet. Husbands and wives are to see to it that this supreme consecration purifies and raises their love. Young men and maidens are to remember that the nobleness and heart repose of their whole life may be made or marred by marriage, and to take heed where they fix their affections. If there be not unity in the deepest thing of all, love to Christ, the sacredness and completeness will fade away from any love. But if a man and woman love and marry "in the Lord," He will be "in the midst," walking between them, a third who will make them one, and that threefold cord will not be quickly broken.

II. The Reciprocal Duties of children and parents-obedience and gentle, loving authority. The injunction to children is laconic, decisive, universal. "Obey your parents in all things." Of course, there is one limitation to that. If God’s command looks one way and a parent’s the opposite, disobedience is duty-but such extreme case is probably the only one which Christian ethics admit as an exception to the rule. The Spartan brevity of the command is enforced by one consideration, "for this is well pleasing in the Lord," as the Revised Version rightly reads, instead of "to the Lord," as in the Authorised, thus making an exact parallel to the former "fitting in the Lord." Not only to Christ, but to all who can appreciate the beauty of goodness, is filial obedience beautiful. The parallel in Ephesians substitutes "for this is right," appealing to the natural conscience. Right and fair in itself, it is accordant with the law stamped on the very relationship, and it is witnessed as such by the instinctive approbation which it evokes.

No doubt, the moral sentiment of Paul’s age stretched parental authority to an extreme, and we need not hesitate to admit that the Christian idea of a father’s power and a child’s obedience has been much softened by Christianity; but the softening has come from the greater prominence given to love, rather than from the limitation given to obedience.

Our present domestic life seems to me to stand sorely in need of Paul’s injunction. One cannot but see that there is great laxity in this matter in many Christian households, in reaction perhaps from the too great severity of past times. Many causes lead to this unwholesome relaxation of parental authority. In our great cities, especially among the commercial classes, children are generally better educated than their fathers and mothers, they know less of early struggles, and one often sees a sense of inferiority making a parent hesitate to command, as well as a misplaced tenderness making him hesitate to forbid. A very misplaced and cruel tenderness it is to say "would you like?" when he ought to say "I wish." It is unkind to lay on young shoulders "the weight of too much liberty," and to introduce young hearts too soon to the sad responsibility of choosing between good and evil. It were better and more loving by far to put off that day, and to let the children feel that in the safe nest of home, their feeble and ignorant goodness is sheltered behind a strong barrier of command, and their lives simplified by having the one duty of obedience. By many parents the advice is needed-consult your children less, command them more.

And as for children, here is the one thing which God would have them do: "Obey your parents in all things." As fathers used to say when I was a boy-"not only obedience, but prompt obedience." It is right. That should be enough. But children may also remember that it is "pleasing"-fair and good to see, making them agreeable in the eyes of all whose approbation is worth having, and pleasing to themselves, saving them from many a bitter thought in after days, when the grave has closed over father and mother. One remembers the story of how Dr. Johnson, when a man, stood in the market place at Lichfield, bareheaded, with the rain pouring on him, in remorseful remembrance of boyish disobedience to his dead father. There is nothing bitterer than the too late tears for wrongs done to those who are gone beyond the reach of our penitence. "Children, obey your parents in all things," that you may be spared the sting of conscience for childish faults, which may be set tingling and smarting again even in old age.

The law for parents is addressed to "fathers," partly because a mother’s tenderness has less need of the warning "provoke not your children," than a father’s more rigorous rule usually has, and partly because the father is regarded as the head of the household. The advice is full of practical sagacity, How do parents provoke their children? By unreasonable commands, by perpetual restrictions, by capricious jerks at the bridle, alternating with as capricious dropping of the reins altogether, by not governing their own tempers, by shrill or stern tones where quiet, soft ones would do, by frequent checks and rebukes, and sparing praise. And what is sure to follow such mistreatment by father or mother? First, as the parallel passage in Ephesians has it, "wrath"- bursts of temper, for which probably the child is punished and the parent is guilty-and then spiritless listlessness and apathy. "I cannot please him whatever I do," leads to a rankling sense of injustice, and then to recklessness-"it is useless to try any more." And when a child or a man loses heart, there will be no more obedience. Paul’s theory of the training of children is closely connected with his central doctrine, that love is the life of service, and faith the parent of righteousness. To him hope and gladness and confident love underlie all obedience. When a child loves and trusts, he will obey. When he fears and has to think of his father as capricious, exacting, or stern, he will do like the man in the parable, who was afraid because he thought of his master as austere, reaping where he did not sow, and therefore went and hid his talent. Children’s obedience must be fed on love and praise. Fear paralyses activity, and kills service, whether it cowers in the heart of a boy to his father, or of a man to his Father in heaven. So parents are to let the sunshine of their smile ripen their children’s love to fruit of obedience, and remember that frost in spring scatters the blossoms on the grass. Many a parent, especially many a father, drives his child into evil by keeping him at a distance. He should make his boy a companion and playmate, teach him to think of his father as his confidant, try to keep his child nearer to himself than to anybody beside, and then his authority will be absolute, his opinions an oracle, and his lightest wish a law. Is not the kingdom of Jesus Christ based on His becoming a brother and one of ourselves, and is it not wielded in gentleness and enforced by love? Is it not the most absolute of rules? And should not the parental authority be like it-having a reed for a sceptre, lowliness and gentleness being stronger to rule and to sway than the "rods of iron" or of gold which earthly monarchs wield?

There is added to this precept, in Ephesians, an injunction on the positive side of parental duty: "Bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." I fear that is a duty fallen woefully into disuse in many Christian households. Many parents think it wise to send their children away from home for their education, and so hand over their moral and religious training to teachers. That may be right, but it makes the fulfilment of this precept all but impossible. Others, who have their children beside them, are too busy all the week. and too fond of "rest" on Sunday. Many send their children to a Sunday school chiefly that they themselves may have a quiet house and a sound sleep in the afternoon. Every Christian minister, if he keeps his eyes open, must see that there is no religious instruction worth calling by the name in a very large number of professedly Christian households; and he is bound to press very earnestly on his hearers the question, whether the Christian fathers and mothers among them do their duty in this matter. Many of them, I fear, have never opened their lips to their children on religious subjects. Is it not a grief and a shame that men and women with some religion in them, and loving their little ones dearly, should be tongue tied before them on the most important of all things? What can come of it but what does come of it so often that it saddens one to see how frequently it occurs-that the children drift away from a faith which their parents did not care enough about to teach it to them? A silent father makes prodigal sons, and many a grey head has been brought down with sorrow to the grave, and many a mother’s heart broken, because he and she neglected their plain duty, which can be handed over to no schools or masters-the duty of religious instruction. "These words which I command thee, shall be in thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house."

III. The Reciprocal Duties of servants and masters-obedience and justice.

The first thing to observe here is that these "servants" are slaves, not persons who have voluntarily given their work for wages. The relation of Christianity to slavery is too wide a subject to be touched here. It must be enough to point out that Paul recognises that "sum of all villainies," gives instructions to both parties in it, never says one word in condemnation of it. More remarkable still; the messenger who carried this letter to Colossae carried in the same bag the Epistle to Philemon, and was accompanied by the fugitive slave Onesimus, on whose neck Paul bound again the chain, so to speak, with his own hands. And yet the gospel which Paul preached has in it principles which cut up slavery by the roots; as we read in this very letter, "In Christ Jesus there is neither bond nor free." Why then did not Christ and His apostles make war against slavery? For the same reason for which they did not make war against any political or social institutions. "First make the tree good and his fruit good." The only way to reform institutions is to elevate and quicken the general conscience, and then the evil will be outgrown, left behind, or thrown aside. Mould men and the men will mould institutions. So Christianity did not set itself to fell this upas tree, which would have been a long and dangerous task; but girdled it, as we may say, stripped the bark off it, and left it to die-and it has died in all Christian lands now.

But the principles laid down here are quite as applicable to our form of domestic and other service as to the slaves and masters of Colossae.

Note then the extent of the servant’s obedience-"in all things." Here, of course, as in former cases, is there presupposed the limit of supreme obedience to God’s commands; that being safe, all else is to give way to the duty of submission. It is a stern command, that seems all on the side of the masters. It might strike a chill into many a slave, who had been drawn to the gospel by the hope of finding some little lightening of the yoke that pressed so heavily on his poor galled neck, and of hearing some voice speaking in tenderer tones than those of harsh command. Still more emphatically, and, as it might seem, still more harshly, the Apostle goes on to insist on the inward completeness of the obedience-"not with eye service (a word of Paul’s own coining) as men pleasers." We have a proverb about the worth of the master’s eye, which bears witness that the same fault still clings to hired service. One has only to look at the next set of bricklayers one sees on a scaffold, or of haymakers one comes across in a field, to see it. The vice was venial in slaves; it is inexcusable, because it darkens into theft, in paid servants-and it spreads far and wide. All scamped work, all productions of man’s hand or brain which are got up to look better than they are, all fussy parade of diligence when under inspection and slackness afterwards-and all their like which infect and infest every trade and profession, are transfixed by the sharp point of this precept.

"But in singleness of heart," that is, with undivided motive, which is the antithesis and the cure for "eye service"-and "fearing God," which is opposed to "pleasing men." Then follows the positive injunction, covering the whole ground of action and lifting the constrained obedience to the earthly master up into the sacred and serene loftiness of religious duty, "whatsoever ye do, work heartily," or from the soul. The word for work is stronger than that for do, and implies effort and toil. They are to put all their power into their work, and not be afraid of hard toil. And they are not only to bend their backs, but their wills, and to labour "from the soul," that is, cheerfully and with interest-a hard lesson for a slave and asking more than could be expected from human nature, as many of them would, no doubt, think. Paul goes on to transfigure the squalor and misery of the slave’s lot by a sudden beam of light-"as to the Lord"-your true "Master," for it is the same word as in the previous verse-"and not unto men." Do not think of your tasks as only enjoined by harsh, capricious, selfish men, but lift your thoughts to Christ, who is your Lord, and glorify all these sordid duties by seeing His will in them. He only who works as "to the Lord" will work "heartily." The thought of Christ’s command, and of my poor toil as done for His sake, will change constraint into cheerfulness, and make unwelcome tasks pleasant, and monotonous ones fresh, and trivial ones great. It will evoke new powers and renewed consecration. In that atmosphere, the dim flame of servile obedience will burn more brightly, as a lamp plunged into a jar of pure oxygen.

The stimulus of a great hope for the ill-used, unpaid slave is added. Whatever their earthly masters might fail to give them, the true Master whom they really served would accept no work for which He did not return more than sufficient wages. "From the Lord ye shall receive the recompense of the inheritance." Blows and scanty food and poor lodging may be all that they get from their owners for all their sweat and toil, but if they are Christ’s slaves, they will be treated no more as slaves, but as sons, and receive a son’s portion, the exact recompense which consists of the "inheritance." The juxtaposition of the two ideas of the slave and the inheritance evidently hints at the unspoken thought, that they are heirs because they are sons-a thought which might well lift up bowed backs and brighten dull faces. The hope of that reward came like an angel into the smoky huts and hopeless lives of these poor slaves. It shone athwart all the gloom and squalor, and taught patience beneath "the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely." Through long, weary generations it has lived in the hearts of men driven to God by man’s tyranny, and forced to clutch at heaven’s brightness to keep them from being made mad by earth’s blackness. It may irradiate our poor lives, especially when we fail, as we all do sometimes, to get recognition of our work, or fruit from it. If we labour for man’s appreciation or gratitude, we shall certainly be disappointed; but if for Christ, we have abundant wages beforehand, and we shall have an over-abundant requital, the munificence of which will make us more ashamed of our unworthy service than anything else could do. Christ remains in no man’s debt. "Who hath first given, and it shall be recompensed to him again?"

The last word to the slave is a warning against neglect of duty. There is to be a double recompense-to the slave of Christ the portion of a son; to the wrongdoer retribution "for the wrong that he has done." Then, though slavery was itself a wrong, though the master who held a man in bondage was himself inflicting the greatest of all wrongs, yet Paul will have the slave think that he still has duties to his master. That is part of Paul’s general position as to slavery. He will not wage war against it, but for the present accept it. Whether he saw the full bearing of the gospel on that and other infamous institutions may be questioned. He has given us the principles which will destroy them, but he is no revolutionist, and so his present counsel is to remember the master’s rights, even though they be founded on wrong, and he has no hesitation in condemning and predicting retribution for evil things done by a slave to his master. A superior’s injustice does not warrant an inferior’s breach of moral law, though it may excuse it. Two blacks do not make a white. Herein lies the condemnation of all the crimes which enslaved nations and classes have done, of many a deed which has been honoured and sung, of the sanguinary cruelties of servile revolts, as well as of the questionable means to which labour often resorts in modern industrial warfare. The homely, plain principle, that a man does not receive the right to break God’s laws because he is ill-treated, would clear away much fog from some people’s notions of how to advance the cause of the oppressed.

But, on the other hand, this warning may look towards the masters also; and probably the same double reference is also to be discerned in the closing words to the slaves, "and there is no respect of persons." The servants were naturally tempted to think that God was on their side, as indeed He was, but also to think that the great coming day of judgment was mostly meant to be terrible to tyrants and oppressors, and so to look forward to it with a fierce unChristian joy, as well as with a false confidence built only on their present misery. They would be apt to think that God did "respect persons," in the opposite fashion from that of a partial judge-namely, that He would incline the scale in favour of the ill-used, the poor, the down trodden; that they would have an easy test and a light sentence, while His frowns and His severity would be kept for the powerful and the rich who had ground the faces of the poor and kept back the hire of the labourer. It was therefore a needful reminder for them, and for us all, that that judgment has nothing to do with earthly conditions, but only with conduct and character; that sorrow and calamity here do not open heaven’s gates hereafter, and that the slave and master are tried by the same law.

The series of precepts closes with a brief but most pregnant word to masters. They are bid to give to their slaves "that which is just and equal," that is to say, "equitable." A startling criterion for a master’s duty to the slave who was denied to have any rights at all. They were chattels, not persons. A master might, in regard to them, do what he liked with his own; he might crucify or torture, or commit any crime against manhood either in body or soul, and no voice would question or forbid. How astonished Roman lawgivers would have been if they could have heard Paul talking about justice and equity as applied to a slave! What a strange new dialect it must have sounded to the slave owners in the Colossian Church! They would not see how far the principle, thus quietly introduced, was to carry succeeding ages; they could not dream, of the great tree that was to spring from this tiny seed precept; but no doubt the instinct which seldom fails an unjustly privileged class, would make them blindly dislike the exhortation, and feel as if they were getting out of their depth when they were bid to consider what was "right" and "equitable" in their dealings with their slaves.

The Apostle does not define what is "right and equal." That will come. The main thing is to drive home the conviction that there are duties owing to slaves, inferiors, employees. We are far enough from a satisfactory discharge of these yet; but, at any rate, everybody now admits the principle- and we have mainly to thank Christianity for that. Slowly the general conscience is coming to recognise that simple truth more and more clearly, and its application is becoming more decisive with each generation. There is much to be done before society is organised on that principle, but the time is coming-and till it is come, there will be no peace. All masters and employers of labour, in their mills and warehouses, are bid to base their relations to "hands" and servants on the one firm foundation of "justice." Paul does not say, Give your servants what is kind and patronising. He wants a great deal more than that. Charity likes to come in and supply the wants which would never have been felt had there been equity. An ounce of justice is sometimes worth a ton of charity.

This duty of the masters is enforced by the same thought which was to stimulate the servants to their tasks: "ye also have a Master in heaven." That is not only Stimulus, but it is pattern. I said that Paul did not specify what was just and right, and that his precept might therefore be objected to as vague. Does the introduction of this thought of the master’s Master in heaven take away any of the vagueness? If Christ is our Master, then we are to look to Him to see what a master ought to be, and to try to be masters like that. That is precise enough, is it not? That grips tight enough, does it not? Give your servants what you expect and need to get from Christ. If we try to live that commandment for twenty-four hours, it will probably not be its vagueness of which we complain. "Ye have a Master in heaven" is the great principle on which all Christian duty reposes. Christ’s command is my law, His will is supreme, His authority absolute, His example all-sufficient. My soul, my life, my all are His. My will is not my own. My possessions are not my own. My being is not my own. All duty is elevated into obedience to Him, and obedience to Him, utter and absolute, is dignity and freedom. We are Christ’s slaves, for He has bought us for Himself, by giving Himself for us. Let that great sacrifice win our heart’s love and our perfect submission. "O Lord, truly I am Thy servant, Thou hast loosed my bonds." Then all earthly relationships will be fulfilled by us; and we shall move among men, breathing blessing and raying out brightness, when in all we remember that we have a Master in heaven, and do all our work from the soul as to Him and not to men.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Colossians 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/colossians-3.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 25th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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