In any culture people make judgments about right and wrong (ethics). And the judgments they make will be in the light of the personal religion or ideology they have adopted. They may not call their personal faith a religion, but it is easy to identify what is important to them by asking three typically religious questions. What would you attain if you had perfect success in what you are trying to do in life? (Goal) What hinders you from moving in that direction? (Sin) How do you propose to move from your present situation to your goal? (The Way, see God of Many Names, chapters 2 & 3).
The answers people give to these questions will give us a clue to their judgments about most questions of right and wrong. And it is important to note how their answers differ from the religion they have been raised in, and/or the accepted religion or ideology of the culture around them (see God of Many Names 2 & 3).
In the Epistle to the church in Colossae Paul is concerned that many in that church have been persuaded to change to another religion. And with that change their judgments about what is right and wrong are also changing.
We should also note that every religion or ideology will have legalists who try to make their judgments of right and wrong into universal rules that are meant to be obeyed in all circumstances.
Legalism is very different from the voluntary adoption of rules for our particular purpose. A woman who has freely chosen the challenge of mountain climbing knows there are rules to be learned and strictly obeyed. "This is the way you knot the rope . . . Never put your weight on it till you have tested the anchor . . . check your oxygen level before the climb." In that sense every discipline that we adopt has its own rules. There are rules for cooking, piano playing, gardening, raising children, minding a pet, etc.
Similarly there are rules that belong to every form of religion and ideology. In each case we adopt the rules because we choose to engage in that particular activity. But legalism goes wrong when it makes general rules for others to obey in every kind of situation.
What about the ten commandments? In the first chapter of Adultery : An Exploration of Love and Marriage we show that the ten commandments are really categories of moral judgment. They give us very little by way of content. But people of all religions or no religion make judgments for themselves and others under each of those heads. Among the Inuit of the Arctic circle the rules of private property, and what are cases of stealing, are very different from what is needed for a capitalist society on Wall Street in New York. Everybody agrees that murder is always wrong, but the rules for using a gun are different for a hunter, a police officer, and a soldier in battle.
This distinction is very important in grasping the point of the rules which are given in the New Testament Epistles. They are given specifically for Christian congregational life. In the Middle Ages there was a dictum that there is no salvation outside the Church. But nowhere in the Bible does it say we go to hell if we do not belong to a Christian church congregation. Jesus the Messiah invites us to take part in the work of his kingdom. And when we enrol to join him in this, the Holy Spirit makes us a member of the Messiah's body, and assigns us a function in a local church congregation (1 Corinthians 12:11-13). Some of us are called into the world-wide bloodstream of the universal church (see The Church: An Organic Picture). But whether we share in the work of the body in our local church or in the Messiah's wider mission, we do it voluntarily because we think it is of glorious importance. It is a privilege and a joy, not a condition for our own salvation.
But once we choose to take part in the organic life of our local church congregation, or in the world-wide bloodstream of the universal Church, there are tough-minded rules for that kind of life. These rules make no sense unless we understand the purpose the Messiah has in mind. In the last chapter we saw how every kind of family and social relationship is to be perfected in God's kind of love. This cosmic reconciliation is through the universal church which the Messiah is building (Colossians 1:20). Jews and Greeks, and then people of all tribes and nations are to be reconciled to love one another. It is an astonishing agenda, but that is what heaven must eventually include (Revelation 21:24, 26, 22:2). In this chapter we wonder how each of the rules Paul makes for the members of the church in Colossae fit into that long term purpose.
There was a sign outside a church : Don't let worry kill you: let the church help. And in our day many Christians prefer to keep clear of the messy squabbles of church congregational life. Working with the pettiness of others is too stressful. Better love the Lord and a neighbor or two on your own. But the Epistle to the Colossians makes clear that the freedom to be uncommitted has a price. A boy who wants to be free to throw a ball around on his own, when and where he chooses, can never play for a team. We cannot be involved in the cosmic reconciling work of the Messiah if we refuse to relate to others as members of the body. So the rules that Paul gives are to help us function joyfully in the stresses and worries of congregational life.
3:1-2 - In one sense the other religion pursued a form of enlightenment, but the outcome would be a wisdom for this life only. For Paul what is "above" is the Messiah reigning both as King in our world and also as Head of his body, the church (1:16-18, Ephesians 1:20-23).
3:3-4 - When the Colossians came to faith they obviously had not died physically. They had died to, and so been freed from, the systems of right and wrong that belonged to the Roman Empire and to their own Jewish traditions. The meaning of what they were doing was at present invisible to the people around them, and so it was "hidden with the Messiah" in God's purposes. It would be revealed when they shared in the glory of his coming (see Advent Comings of the Lord Among the Nations).
3:5 - The putting to death is part of the dying to the old (3:3). It is not the beating down of the flesh (asceticism) recommended by the false teachers (2:21-22). Rather it is the adoption of a quite different way of looking at what is important in life. So Paul gives us five examples of attitudes that will change when we become part of what the Messiah is doing:
Fornication - The Greek word porneia means prostitution type behavior. We could call it sleeping around, or using sex to have fun. In the body of the Messiah the purpose of sex is to unite a man and a woman for a life of mutual submission to each other (as in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16). That means that sexual intimacy is not a plaything, but the sacred means of beginning and nourishing a marriage.
Paul went so far as to teach that half an hour with a prostitute sets up a brief marriage relationship which is immediately aborted. "Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, 'The two shall be one flesh . . . Shun fornication. Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself" (1 Corinthians 6:16-18).
Such a high view of the sacredness of sexual intercourse had no meaning in the other religion that had invaded the church in Colossae. And that view of sex makes little sense to young people, and older people, who are gripped by one of the religions of this world in our day.
Impurity - As opposed to the sacredness of sexual intercourse, many take pleasure in degrading it. Young people are mocked and humiliated if they do not join in "what everyone else is doing." Paul's solution is to "put to death" what everyone else is doing by adopting the vision of our mutual submissions in the body of the Messiah.
Passion - Without that vision of our place in the church of which the Messiah is the head, we easily fall madly in love with people and causes and entertainments that for a time seem terribly important to us. A characteristic of Paul's world, and our own, is this restless instability of our passions. It is in stark contrast to the steady commitment of genuine love.
Evil Desire - There is a strange obsession among people who delight in every form of perversion. And many people might not admit to engaging in inhuman and anti-social behavior, but it is celebrated in plays and films and novels. In the false religion that invaded the church in Colossae, as in many parts of the Roman Empire, the pursuit of enlightenment often went with the enjoyment of degradation in the plays and entertainment of the day.
Greed - The tenth commandment spoke of greedily desiring what other people possessed. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife . . . or donkey (in our days a car !) or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exodus 20:17). This commandment does not refer to stealing or committing adultery, which are already forbidden in the seventh and eighth commandments. Covetousness or greed is a continuous pursuit of more than one needs, and once it takes hold of us it is insatiable.
3:6 - There is no example in the Old Testament of wrath meaning eternal punishment in hell. It always referred to the bad consequences of ungodly behavior. And wrath was always with a view to bringing people back to the perfection and love that God had in mind. It is easy to see that the five attitudes that Paul has listed in the previous verse all have disastrous long term results in the lives of individuals and society.
3:7-8 - In the ancient world, and in ours, it was taken for granted that one could vent anger and threats, harbor a grudge, tell lies about others, and use abusive language to express one's feelings. The modern expression is "Let everything hang out." Such behavior is a cancer in the body of the Messiah. As we have seen, our human body would soon fly apart if the various organs engaged in angry abusive language instead of working together for the common good.
3:9-10 - The absolute of the ninth commandment was that it was never right to bear false witness (usually in a court of law) against another (Exodus 20:16). The Bible does not give an absolute prohibition of lies, as for example the use of deception in war, or what we call white lies, which are designed to protect rather than harm others. But in speaking to one another in the body Paul says "Do not lie to one another." In our human body millions of bits of information are exchanged every day. "I need this wound repaired . . . I have been attacked by a virus . . . this tooth needs calcium." There is no room for the members of the body of the Messiah to tell lies about the situation.
The reason Paul gives is that the new creation (as in 2 Corinthians 5:17) of which we are a part is being perfected in the image of God. That was God's original intention for humans. "Let us make humankind in our image" (Genesis 1:26-27).
3:11 - We have already noted that after the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was able to unite men and women, then Jews and Greeks to share at the one communion table in one church. Soon people from all sorts of barbarian tribes were included, as well as those from all social classes, including slaves.
3:12 - In the work of the body of the Messiah we are "holy" (set apart for God's purpose). Our Lord loves everyone, but he has a special love relationship with us as we work closely together with him in the task of reconciliation.
Every lifestyle and occupation has appropriate clothing to be worn. A motor mechanic may put on a Tuxedo for a wedding. And our appropriate clothing is compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.
3:13 - In any body there is constant wear and tear that needs to be mended. In themselves the members of the body of the Messiah are no better than other people, and they often hurt one another. When a person joins one of our congregations, nothing in his past can ever count against him. He is forgiven. And having become a member, when she fails the sin is also to be absorbed, forgiven, and forgotten, as we ourselves were forgiven so very much more (see the forgiveness parable in Matthew 18:21-25).
3:14 - Christian faith begins with the fact that God is love (1 John 4:7). The three Persons of the Trinity are very different in their functions, but they are eternal held together by the love which is greater than any force we can imagine. It is that same power of love which is the life force of the body of the Messiah, and it "binds everything together in perfect harmony."
3:15 - Shalom (peace) is not just a greeting, but an attitude of mind that involves peace making (Matthew 5:9), blessing (praying for God's peace on others), and peace in our own hearts. "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:6-7). Peace "rules" in the sense that it acts as a barometer or pressure gauge. When we lack peace we immediately look to the Holy Spirit to correct what has gone wrong.
3:16 - The word of the Messiah (John 1:1-4) speaks to us especially when we gather together to "teach and admonish (instruct in the sense of teaching a skill) one another in all wisdom." Which suggests that it is impossible to function in the body of the Messiah if we do not meet with other members of the body.
The heart of Christian worship is gratitude (thanksgiving, see 3:17), and it is expressed in psalms (as in the books of Psalms), hymns (praise), and spiritual songs (love and devotion) addressed to God. The impressive thing is that these three forms of congregational singing have found expression in the music of every tribe and nation throughout the world.
3:17 - In the ancient world "name" expressed character. So all Christian congregational ethics is based on asking how Jesus would have behaved in that situation, and how he would want his body to deal with the current crisis or problem in the church. That is the best cure for the legalism that could so easily turn us into bigots.
Appendix A .....