Put to death
1. The law and the flesh
2. Put to death, put them all away, put off
The characteristics of the old life
4. Evil desire
5. Covetousness and idolatry
6. Anger and wrath
9. Foul talk
The wrath of God is coming
The old versus the new
Christ is all
It was difficult to know where to divide the passage in two to restrict the length of this web page to something more manageable and accessible. The most natural division sees a line being drawn under Col 3:7 where the apostle seems to pause for breath - but this has the effect of dividing the list of the characteristics of the old life into two (Col 3:5,8) so that a compilation in one place becomes impossible.
A division after Col 3:8 seemed a much better option but, because Paul goes on to discuss the contrasts of the two ways in Col 3:9-10, it seemed to be more logical a subject to include here with one specific aspect of it being drawn out of it before it’s mentioned (Col 3:5-8).
The only other division possible seems to be after Col 3:10 - but this would have had the effect of making Col 3:11 into a separate web page which seems unwarranted.
Therefore, the passage needs to stand as one complete unit even though there are good reasons why a division somewhere in the midst of the verses is more practical.
This passage is based securely on the foundation of what’s preceded it, hence the ‘therefore’ of the opening verse which directs the reader’s attention back. We saw that the ‘therefore’ of Col 3:1 didn’t appear to be too logical in its inclusion, seeing as it more rightly related back to Col 2:12-13 but, here in Col 3:5, the outworking of Col 3:1-4 is the perfect context in which to understand Paul’s words.
The apostle has been building up doctrine and theology (two words which have suffered in the hands of modern believers) in order to arrive at a place where he can explain the practical expressions of what the Father has done through Jesus Christ and, from Col 3:5 until the end of Col 4:6, he gives clear instructions as to what they should be doing. Theology is not the be-all-and-end-all as many fellowships would like to make out, but only the starting point to right living and conduct - it’s entirely possible that you could have all the doctrines in place and yet be devoid of any application of them to your own life.
The power of ‘religion’, then, is not to be seen in correct forms of words (leading us on to think about all manner of credal statements) but in the demonstration of both doctrine and theology in the believer’s life. One without the other is to lose sight of the way of Christ - to have theology only is mind-knowledge and a self-imposed lifestyle is a trait of legalism, but the two combined gives a sure foundation for the believer which is the basis for all they both live out and experience from God’s hand.
The forsaking of the old way of life, then, is based upon the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and of the believer’s union with Him. Now that the old has been killed off (Col 3:3 - as we’ll see below) and the believer has been raised with Christ - not only in the resurrection but in the ascension also (Col 3:1-2) - there’s a need to live out the reality into the earth, forsaking what was their experience before they came to know Jesus and adhering to the manner of life which has been implanted within them.
This is an important point to realise for Paul has already attacked those who would seek to stumble them for their ‘self-abasement’ (Col 2:18), their observance of man-made regulations (Col 2:21) and of those commandments which were clearly laid out in the OT (Col 2:16). In short, he’s standing opposed to any legalistic observance of a moral code - whether accepted as being from God or men, whether oral or written - and condemning it for what it is.
Religion - if defined as man’s attempt at pleasing God - is being rejected for the way of Jesus Christ through the cross, resurrection and ascension so that when Paul speaks about forsaking old ways of living and, rather, starting to live out those things which are more fitting, he’s not asking them to change themselves in their own strength. Instead, he’s urging his readers, in the words of Rom 8:13 (see also Gal 5:24) to
‘...by the Spirit...put to death the deeds of the body...’
so that the power at work within them is seen to nullify the effects of the old nature while the new nature - which had been implanted within them when they first began to follow Jesus - can find a freedom of expression through them as they chose the way of the Spirit (Gal 5:25) and crucify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16), for the two are opposed to one another (Gal 5:17).
These two different ways of living can very often be mistaken for one and the same thing and the differentiation is difficult to define beyond speaking in characteristics of the new life in contrast to the way of the old. Some men and women have iron wills that they employ to bring about change in their own lives that others can witness - but what Paul’s talking about is not self-determination devoid of the Holy Spirit, but a crucifixion of the old nature by God’s power and a releasing of the new nature, empowered by God’s Spirit that the believer might reflect the character of God and Christ into all the world.
Put to death
Before we go on to look at the phraseology that Paul employs here to speak of the removal of the old way of life, we need to note at the outset that such a way of living is what’s naturally resident within all men and women.
Jesus had already commented on this set up in Mtw 15:1-20 when he was approached by the Pharisees and scribes who’d come to Him from Jerusalem and who were questioning why His disciples weren’t following the decisions as to the Mosaic Law’s interpretation.
I’ve already dealt with this subject extensively on a previous web page (under the heading ‘What was Jesus teaching?’) so just a few words in conclusion need to be noted. Jesus doesn’t see man as fundamentally clean and free from any offence before God - rather, he sees the main problem with mankind being that which lies within him and which overflows through his life to produce actions which are unacceptable to the Father.
Such is the problem with the Pharisees’ insistence of external rules and regulations for they can’t cut away at the root of the problem and deal with the inner nature. All that ‘religion’ can do (as defined in the introduction above) is to put a band aid on the problem to mask the situation in which man lives.
Jesus, however, observes the true nature of the problem and, in the cross, does something about the source of disobedience to God which stimulates mankind from the heart to go their own way (the set up can be seen in the first diagram in my notes on Baptism under section 2bii - the second diagram shows the solution that the cross effected) as their own freewill chooses the suggestions that are offered.
The problem isn’t that man has somehow been affected negatively by external stimuli which need to be removed from him - he isn’t disobedient to God because he lives in an unclean environment or that his circumstances are so problematical that, from a child, he’s unable to choose the right way and refuse the wrong.
Rather, men are the product of choice not circumstance. In a new advertising campaign which hit the UK about half a year ago, the media promote their choice of mobile phone by insisting that
‘You’re every one-to-one you’ve ever had’
That is, man is the collective sum of each relationship they’ve had through conversation. This is far from the truth, of course, but it’s a nice way to sell mobile phones and encourage people to spend money chatting to their friends. But man is who he is at heart and the choices that he makes when he feels stimuli exerting their will on him - reactions to conversations will certainly shape the man or woman who has them, but the attitude of the heart will be what’s primary in shaping character.
Jesus observed the problem, therefore, that man has a central, internal problem that needs resolving and that no amount of external circumstances - whether positive or negative - would ever be sufficient to put that right. This is the foundation upon which Paul launches into his insistence that the old life is put to death (Col 3:5) where his thoughts are directed towards the basis of a human life and the radical approach which Jesus has brought, rather than in the externals of Law or man-made regulations which can only attempt to mask the problem.
1. The law and the flesh
As such, Paul mentions this contrast between the two ways of serving - or of attempting to serve God - on a few occasions in the NT and the contrast can be set as the choice between ways of living which are unacceptable to God with ways and attitudes which flow out from the new nature which has been implanted within at conversion - this is the way that the main parallel passage with Col 3:5-17 is laid out (Gal 5:13-26) but there are more places in the NT where the contrast of the two ways of living are described in various ways (Rom 6:1-14, 7:4, 8:12-13, Gal 2:19-20, II Tim 2:11), sometimes by a simple statement which makes the reader think that the concept was already well-known by the recipients of the letter.
While we may conceive of these two ways as being indicative of two lifestyles, where we could well add to the list of negative traits that are offered at certain points in the NT (see below under ‘lists’) and see clearly the reasons for the positive aspects of a believer’s life also being recorded, we often fail to note that the mention of ‘Law’ is often not very far away from the early Church’s thoughts.
This might take the form of man-made rules and regulations or of the Mosaic Law as a specific point of observance but, even so, that wrong lifestyle should be equated with obedience to a written code normally strikes us as peculiar - especially when we look at our own lives and see how we’ve conformed our own way of life to what we’ve read in the pages of the Bible and how, to a great many people, being pleasing to God is a matter of being careful to observe everything that’s written.
But the way of the flesh is so closely linked with the observance of law that we need to sit up and take notice. In Col 2:22-23, for example, as we saw here, Paul speaks about rules and regulations and writes that these things
‘...lead...to the excesses of the flesh’
where we aren’t just thinking about legal observance as allowing the flesh to dominate so long as it operates outside the accepted practices which self-justify the religious person, but that they stimulate the way of life to find expression and free vent through the will of the man involved. This is also expressed in Rom 7:4-6 in the middle of the three verses.
The first verse, however, contrasts the observance of law with the bearing of fruit for God (in language reminiscent of Gal 5:22) by stating that the believer has
‘...died to the law through the body of Christ...’
and then goes on to comment (my italics) that
‘While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death’
and states that the believer serves God
‘...not under the old written code [that is, the law] but in the new life of the Spirit’
So, both bearing fruit for God and living in the new life of the Spirit are set in opposition to the way of legal observance and living in the flesh. This is again found in Rom 8:1-17 where the apostle uses the labels ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ to denote the two ways of living on the earth and seems to compare the former with the observance of Law. With a simple logic, he writes (Rom 8:5) that
‘...those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit’
and goes on to note that one leads inevitably to spiritual death and is hostile to God while the other guarantees life. This idea of two ways of living is again tied up with right living where the man who is displeasing to God is the one who tries to please Him by law observance but the one who is acceptable to God is the one (Rom 8:13) who
‘...by the Spirit...put[s] to death the deeds of the body...’
Again, the teaching is of the contrast between the human observance of law and right conduct - as it is also in his letter to the churches of Galatia. Paul goes on at some length to point out the insufficiency of the observance of the Law and asks his readers (Gal 3:3)
‘Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?’
We may have been mistaken for thinking that all he’s concerned about is to remove them from the observance of the Mosaic Law - and the rules and regulations which were placed upon it - and to transfer them to the teaching of the Gospel which we would tend to interpret with a whole range of concepts depending upon our religious background.
But the apostle takes care to define the issue with regard to lifestyle in Gal 5:16-26 so that observance of the Law can be seen to allow for the manifestation of the flesh, and liberty in Jesus Christ is equated with putting to death such attitudes and, rather, demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit.
We should note carefully the conclusion of Paul’s considerations between the way of the flesh and the Spirit in Gal 6:8 for he writes that
‘...he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life’
for he shows once more that legal observance is a matter of spiritual life or death for the follower of Christ rather than an incidental which really does no harm and which can be tolerated. Fellowships which rely upon the observance of either man-made rules and regulations or commands from Scripture and apply them without the leading and empowering of the Spirit have slipped back into a way of life which is none other than the way that existed before conversion.
And, even more than this, any observance of a written code - whether the Mosaic Law, regulations which have been drawn from it or rules which are simply based upon nothing recognised from God but the product of a man’s mind - should be forsaken, for it only promotes a manifestation of the sinful nature. Rather, the believer is exhorted to ‘throw the rule book away’, to put to death what’s of the old age, of the flesh, and to live out the reality of the new age in which not only the believer is considered righteous because of Christ but in which they allow the new nature to cause themselves to be righteous.
Even in secular, every day life, one can witness the moral codes which exist in even the most atheistic of societies. Everyone has their own moral code that they consider is the bottom line for acceptance - even in the prisons of the UK, criminals won’t tolerate paedophiles and rapists and some will even go about trying to remove them from the earth.
For them, their moral code justifies their own lifestyle but allows their flesh to manifest itself through acts of aggression and murder towards people who they consider to be the real ‘evil force’ within society. So, even if the rules and regulations are entirely self-conceived, there’s still opportunity for the flesh to express itself through the will of a man outside the bounds that have been set for it.
These two ways are diametrically opposed to one another and the way of religious observance is set against the life which is lived for God (Gal 2:19). In one of the earliest fellowships I was in, I recall one of the leaders trying to teach on the Sermon on the Mount and saying that it represented a ‘higher law’ than the OT Law was under Moses.
The problem with such a position is that it makes service to God identical to that which Jesus came to oppose and which Paul vehemently set himself against - and religious observance, instead of restricting the manifestation of the life of the flesh, actually stimulates its freer expression through a life outside the restrictions which are seen to placate God and to nullify His anger.
2. Put to death, put them all away, put off
As soon as one starts talking about the believer not being under law or religious obligation, the charge will be levelled at the teaching that what’s being advocated is some form of freedom which will tend to lead only to excessive liberty and licentiousness which will be as immoral as those traits which can be clearly perceived in the world.
It was the same sort of question that Paul envisaged as being asked as he also began noting the believer’s freedom from law (Rom 6:15), answering his own question with the words (Rom 6:16-18)
‘Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness’
Paul sees the believer still engaged in a fight even though the freedom which is theirs has often been misunderstood to provide a way for a would-be believer to follow on living out his own will, thinking that God’s grace in Christ will be sufficient so that he doesn’t have to concern himself with right conduct. In Rom 8:12-13, Paul explains that it’s
‘...by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body...’
so that the believer isn’t left bereft of a way to deal with the old way of life - rather, he now has the means at his disposal to overcome the desires which come upon him and which are the result not of satan’s input but of the continued operation of the old nature (again, see my notes and charts on ‘Baptism’ under section 2bii).
The believer must see his old way of life as being nailed to the cross with Christ (Rom 6:6), of being circumcised or cut away from that old manner of conduct (Col 2:11) so that, as Jesus was raised from the dead in the newness of life, the believer might also consider himself to have finished with the old, earthly way of living and to turn round to live out what’s been implanted within and which comes from Heaven (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10).
This has also been the subject of Col 3:2 where Paul has urged his readers not to be concerned with earthly matters but to set their minds on heavenly things where they sit with Christ. If the believer has been raised with Jesus through both the resurrection and ascension into the heavenly places, the ways of life of earth should pale into insignificance before the new life which has been imparted from and is being empowered by Heaven.
The new life is a matter of position - if following Christ is solely a matter of doing one’s best under the circumstances of the flesh, God couldn’t judge any man for failing to achieve but, as it is, the believer has been raised up into a position where he’s over the circumstances of earth and is expected to live in the context of where he’s been transferred.
The believer, then, is empowered by the Holy Spirit not only to put down those ways which still spring up from the old nature, but to hold fast to the expressions of the new which have been implanted within. These new desires don’t point towards the need to observe a written code, but show the believer the right actions and reactions, the right attitudes and lifestyle which are pleasing to God - because the new nature is a reflection of the Person of Jesus Christ and is granted power to follow through with everything that’s required.
We’ll look at the new nature on the next web page and a contrast of the old with the new in a few sections’ time but, for now, we need to briefly look at the three expressions which Paul uses to describe the rejection of the way of the flesh.
Firstly, in Col 3:5, the RSV renders the opening phrase as
‘Put to death...what is earthly in you...’
where the AV’s translation is the more literal at this point and should be noted. It translates it
‘Mortify therefore your members [or ‘parts’] which are upon the earth...’
This isn’t a new concept to the letter but a logical outworking of the work of Christ which has already been described in Col 2:11. There, the believer is spiritually circumcised through the death of Christ and has ‘put off’ the old nature - here a word occurs (Strongs Greek number 555) that’s of the same word group as the one employed in the third of Paul’s phrases.
What Jesus has already achieved and applied to them, they’re now called to kill off (just as they’re told to put it off in the previous verse). The apostle doesn’t mention how this might be achieved and one is tempted to think of believers struggling against their own desires with the natural resources at their disposal. But, in Rom 8:13, we read the observation that it’s
‘...by the Spirit [that] you put to death the deeds of the body...’
so that, even though Jesus Christ has begun the work, the believer isn’t left alone to oppose it’s continued expression. Rather, the Spirit of God is given that the old might be disposed of, that the new might be lived out.
We’ve already noted this above and we needn’t comment on it further. The concept of death and dying is one which would be expected in Paul if other places are considered. In Rom 6:1-14, he uses the concept extensively to show how the believer has ended his previous existence without God in the world and that now he must experience the new life, outwardly expressed in being baptised in water. The concept of death also bleeds over into a consideration of the Law in Rom 7:1-6 where he expresses it that
‘...you have died to the law through the body of Christ...’
We saw above the correlation that seems to have existed in Paul’s mind between written commandments and the outworkings of the flesh and how both seem to be joined together as two stems of the same plant. Both are put to death that the empowering of God’s Spirit might be employed by the believer in bringing about the reality of Christ’s death. Colbrien observes that this ‘dying’
‘...has to do with a transformation of the will, a new attitude of mind...’
and goes on to quote Moule as observing that it means
‘...a radical shifting of the very centre of the personality from self to Christ, such that death to selfishness is by no means too strong a description’
Even though Paul doesn’t talk about the will in this passage, the idea of a change of determination in the believer to live now for God rather than for the free expression of his own desires must incorporate the will for it’s only in a change of purpose and direction that the believer would want to forsake their old lifestyle.
The AV’s translation of the verse speaks about putting to death ‘your members’ or ‘parts’ which are upon the earth, an echo of his previous teaching in Col 3:1-3 (note the ‘therefore’ of Col 3:5). If the believer has had the old way of life killed off so that he follows Jesus’ journey from earth to Heaven through the death, burial, resurrection and ascension, then those things which belonged to the old way of living become superfluous and irrelevant to the life that’s no longer being experienced. And, more than this, they actually oppose it and undermine its free expression.
The apostle’s choice of the Greek word for ‘members’ gives substance to the traits and expressions of the old nature which follow and, perhaps, offers a fair enough explanation of Jesus’ words in Mtw 18:8 which has often been understood that Jesus is advocating literal hands and feet being removed from the body. Jesus’ meaning there, however, is actually to show that the source of temptation should be removed from oneself whereas here it’s the sins themselves which are being put to death.
Therefore such earthly actions and reactions need to be killed off by the power of Heaven that the new nature might be allowed to shine through the believer into all the world. They might still live and breathe upon the earth, but he has a direct union with Heaven and it’s this life which they must be careful to express - the old age is still in existence but the new one should be bursting out from Jesus’ followers to bear witness to the imminence of God’s Kingdom being fully and finally established on earth.
The second phrase Paul uses (Col 3:8) is one which describes the believer’s need to
‘...put them all away...’
where the word translated ‘now’ adds some immediacy to the action which could be misconstrued as being for a time to come (such as the establishing of the Kingdom on earth upon Jesus’ return) rather than for an immediate outworking.
In the third, Paul speaks about the believers who (Col 3:9)
‘...have put off the old nature...’
where the thought is of something which has already been done. When the verse is read into the next, it can be seen that Paul is contrasting the disposal of the old way with the reception of the new so that the intention of his words is different.
But it’s difficult to see the difference in meaning between the individual words employed by Paul in these two places that causes translators to insist on different English words for their occurrence. The first, the RSV renders ‘to put away’ (Strongs Greek number 659) while the second is translated ‘to put off’ (Strongs Greek number 554) but both seem to carry with them the meaning of putting off something.
Kittels observes that the latter word (my italics) means to ‘fully put off’ (Colbruce describes the word as ‘forceful’) which seems to be a clear reference to the death of Christ having been applied to their own lives while the former would be taken as a reference to the on going action required by the believers in forsaking the old to be united to the new.
In both, however, the word picture is of casting one’s garments to the side as if they’re no longer needed (the first word is used with this meaning in Acts 7:58) - perhaps Colcar’s description of them as ‘filthy rags’ and ‘soiled clothes’ is a little too strong as literal meanings of the words but, for the believer, the description makes good sense.
In the next section, we’ll simply list together five of the most extensive lists of descriptions of the ‘flesh’ or ‘earthly life’ of the NT so that the reader can see how widely divergent these are. For the early Church, it wasn’t necessary to bring together a comprehensive list in one place as to all the manifestations of the old way of life which could be studied and compared with one’s own new life - rather, they served the compiler or speaker for the purpose in which they were being written or spoken.
That the lists speak of a wide variety of actions and attitudes should make us realise that, when we consider the old nature, we shouldn’t think that we’ve ever come to grips with every way in which it will make itself known. There are always ‘surprises’ just round the corner where actions one thought weren’t possible are found as desires coming from within which must be put to death for the sake of being obedient to Jesus Christ
Mtw 15:19, Mark 7:21-22, Gal 5:19-21, Col 3:5,8,9, Rom 1:29-31
I’ve chosen five ‘major’ lists to compare in table form where it seems that the ‘life of the flesh’ is being described (Colbrien also includes I Cor 5:9-11, 6:9-10 and I Peter 4:3 as three places where ‘lists’ occur but these don’t specifically mention the ‘flesh’ and I’ve chosen - for brevity’s sake - not to include them. Colbrien also includes other places where both positive and negative aspects stand together in a section where he considers the possibility of there having been ‘moral lists’ which were circulating in the early Church - something which is almost certainly disproved by the wide range of differing traits that are scattered in the various places).
These lists aren’t all preceded by a clear statement that they refer to the ‘flesh’ but, if the context in which they occur is considered carefully, it can be seen that there’s little other interpretation which can be placed upon them.
The first two Scripture references (Mtw 15:19, Mark 7:21-22) are to a parallel passage in the life of Christ and the list refers to Jesus’ description of those things which are present within a man which defile him. This, therefore, must refer to the state of natural man before the work of salvation is done within him.
The second two (Gal 5:19-21, Col 3:5,8,9) are references in Paul’s letters to the works of the flesh where the apostle is urging his readers to put those attitudes and actions to one side in order that they might put on the new nature which has been put within them at their initial conversion.
The fifth passage (Rom 1:29-31) refers to a list of attitudes of those people who (Rom 1:28)
‘...did not see fit to acknowledge God’
and should probably be taken to be the fullest list of the evils of men and women. However, there are some notable omissions from the list such as a total lack of a reference to sexual sin which is consistently present in each of the other four (though he does deal with this as a consequence of the rejection of the image of God in Rom 1:26-27) if the RSV’s source for the underlying Greek text is accepted as closer to the original than the AV’s (Rom 1:29-31 is not easy, either, to assign word numbers to because the translation in the AV and RSV appears to be somewhat jumbled at the beginning).
Perhaps all we can say is that it’s the ‘longest’ list!
It certainly appears that there was no ‘credal’ formula or accepted list in the early Church for the types of evil that were generally regarded to be a part of the ‘old life’ and which had to be killed off in the new. Paul’s three lists show that he possibly dictated a list of those things that were either most on his mind or which came to mind at that point in his letter.
There’s probably very little value in studying a comparison of the lists in any great detail because most men and women know what’s both wrong and right if they’re genuinely saved and are wanting to follow after God. Where the believer falls down, however, is either in thinking that it’s only the ‘extremes’ of the characteristics listed which God abhors or in their failure to apply the words to their own lives and assess the attitudes of their own hearts and actions as being applicable.
The numbers in the following chart refer to the Strongs Greek number so that the reader can determine whether the same word is being used as the underpinning of the English translation. Some of the words are related to others in the list but I haven’t tried to identify which ones. I’ve also put the English translations into alphabetical order.
||not in RSV
||not in RSV
|Disobedient to parents
'an evil eye'
||not in RSV
|Haters of God
|Inventors of evil
||not in RSV
One of the observations that I want to make before we move on is that the concepts of ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’ - in short, those things which the present day believer would lump together as ‘mental health problems’ - are not once mentioned in any of these lists.
I don’t have a definitive explanation why this should be so - especially as the concept of anxiety was certainly known by Jesus and spoken against as being the product of a life which hadn’t come to terms with trusting God for provision (Mtw 6:25-34) and we could probably take a number of passages elsewhere and infer depression or stress.
All that we might be right in saying is that mental health problems of this type were seen to be more a product of the mind’s reaction to the desires of the flesh than the items themselves. That is, depression was seen to occur when the centre of a man or woman’s intellect reacted incorrectly against those desires which were being presented to them through the work of the flesh or when external actions received an incorrect response.
There doesn’t appear to be any indication that such a state of mind was considered to originate in satanic possession or oppression - though spiritual bondage can take many forms and shouldn’t be restricted to only those situations which are clearly described in Scripture.
The characteristics of the old life
We need to take a little time to define the characteristics of the old way of life that are here listed by Paul in these two places. It may be well for most of us to gloss over these English words as being unremarkable and half-expected, but we’d do well to think carefully as to their implications for, as has been the case very often for believers, it’s too easy to define the words used in translation to only describe the really ‘bad’ excesses of the word and so to bring about a self-justification which deceives rather than liberates us.
Colwright sees each of these two lists as dealing with a specific group of traits rather than for them to be considered as simply random. He writes that the first relates to ‘sexual sin’ while the other deals primarily with ‘sins of anger’.
The reader will, no doubt, be able to take each of the English words in the first list (Col 3:5) and be able to apply them to the header which he provides for them - though, perhaps the last of these (covetousness) needs to be explained as used in the tenth of the Mosaic commandments (Ex 20:17) - and how idolatry is an accurate interpretation of this is not easily discernible unless thought through carefully. Some of these words are also more commonly used of sexual practices and such related concepts in the NT than they are of anything else that it’s difficult to pull away from such an assessment of the list totally.
But the second set of words (Col 3:8) seem to have to be a little contrived to make them all fit under the banner of ‘anger’ - especially ‘slander’ and ‘foul talk’. We’ll look at the underlying meanings of each of these words in a moment but it’s not easy to see how anger has to be the foundation from which they spring.
It seems better, therefore, to allow the words to speak for themselves and, if they point in that direction, a conclusion can be drawn once their aspects have been considered. But to start from this standpoint would hinder our discussion.
Commentators observe that the three lists - two of negative traits (Col 3:5,8) and one of positive (Col 3:12) are arranged in groups of five for whatever reason Paul deemed necessary. This isn’t exactly true, however, and there needs to be some interpretation of the groups for it to be made to seem this way.
Therefore, the explanation that covetousness is idolatry (Col 3:5) must be taken as one and the same trait, the additional instruction not to lie to one another (Col 3:9) must be taken as being the start of a new thought and the characteristics which follow Col 3:12 must also be removed from the main thrust of the apostle’s teaching (Col 3:13).
It seems best, then, not to insist that the lists are in three groups of five.
All that we need to do now is to take each of the traits in the order in which they appear and try to both define the word and apply that definition to give us a better understanding of what it is that Paul is meaning his readers to see are expressions of the earthly, sinful way of life.
Strongs Greek number 4202
‘Fornication’ is one of the important sins in the NT that’s frequently spoken against. In the table above where we compared five passages where ‘negative’ traits occurred in lists, we saw that the Greek word was used in four while the AV used it in the fifth where the translators of the RSV believe it not to be part of the original manuscript - even so, the concept of sexual sin is closely related to the passage.
When the early Church met to decide the relationship of the new Gentile converts to the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:1-35), one of the limited number of commands they gave them was to refrain from ‘unchastity’ (Acts 15:29) where the RSV translates the same word as used here in Col 3:5 with one that obscures the Greek.
Dictionary definitions of our English word ‘fornication’ are interesting. ORS defines the verb as meaning to ‘have sexual intercourse’ but it precedes its definition with the words
‘of people not married to each other’
to show that adultery is not considered to be the general meaning conveyed. Chambers (in the References page, it’s listed under ‘Dictionary’), on the other hand, lists its meaning as
‘...voluntary sexual intercourse of the unmarried, sometimes extended to cases where only one of the pair concerned is unmarried’
and then goes on to suggest that, in the Bible, the word means ‘adultery’. Kittels’ definition of the term is informative and should be carefully considered. They note that in later Judaism, the definition of the word
‘...broadens out to include not only fornication or adultery but incest, sodomy, unlawful marriage and sexual intercourse in general’
and it seems best to take the word as a label which was used to summate all kind of sexual practices which were opposed to the will of God, rather than to limit it to definitions which are in keeping with the modern dictionary definitions. Colwright understands the word to mean
‘...any intercourse outside marriage’
but the nature of the act must also be considered. Jesus showed that adultery (and, therefore, all sexual sin) was a matter of the heart (Mtw 5:27-30, 15:18) which could and did manifest itself out through an individual into the world around him. We should, therefore, think about the internal nature of this sin and how the temptation to think this way or to live out one’s thoughts is rooted in the fallen nature.
Paul’s intention in his letter, however, seems to be to show how the actions of the physical body need to be killed off, that outward expressions of the inward desire should be put to death by the power of the Holy Spirit, but his preceding words that these traits were ‘in’ them is enough to make us realise that the apostle also saw the problem with man as being an internal and not an external one.
God only knows the development of the desires of the flesh which goes on within the believer - but that men and women who have the name of ‘believer’ have thrown off the clear teaching of the Bible to co-habit temporarily and to experience sexual intercourse with different partners (even the established church’s greater insistence in some quarters that homosexual relationships in which both partners are committed to one another is just as legitimate a relationship as a heterosexual relationship) is a clear indication that the understanding that what’s within must be killed off in order that Jesus might be served has been either forsaken, ignored or disbelieved.
‘Fornication’, then, summates all manner of sexual sin within the boundaries of its meaning and shouldn’t be glossed over. That it’s a predominant word in the lists of expressions of the fallen nature should alert us to the fact that it was also the most prevalent one by which early believers were tempted and, if Colbruce’s statements concerning the Greek and Roman worlds is accepted, it was one of the most widely accepted ‘sins’ in the ancient world which went uncondemned by various cultures.
Strongs Greek number 167
If we take this list of the five characteristics of the flesh as Colwright does and see in them descriptions only of sexual practices, we would have to equate this word to sexual relationships within marriage and interpret it narrowly as referring to the necessity for purity, of right conduct, in sexual intercourse. Colcar gives the meaning of the word as ‘perversion’ and Colbruce as ‘the misuse of sex’ but, without specific examples of what’s both right and wrong, husbands and wives may wonder at what exactly this means for them. But, as we’ve seen on numerous occasions, the provision of God under the new covenant is that what God requires from them is written upon their hearts (Jer 31:33) and that the Spirit is given as their guide to show them all that God expects from them (John 14:26, 16:13).
Perhaps it’s best to take Colwright’s definition which sees the first expression of the flesh as what produces this one under discussion. He writes that
‘Impurity highlights the contamination of character effected by immoral behaviour’
so that sexual desire and, subsequently, outward sin is seen as an influence which destroys what purity might have been lived out in a commitment to God. Perhaps this is going too far - even though it may well be correct - for the words aren’t obviously listed as consequential upon what precedes them.
We needn’t limit the word to be speaking only about this one area of the believer’s experience (of sexual sin) for it’s equally applicable to the need for pure motives, of unselfish ambition and of singleness of purpose in serving God.
The Greek word is only used ten times in the NT but, even here, it seems to have a wide range of applications. It’s used in Mtw 23:27 to describe the uncleanness of the scribes and Pharisees’ hearts where one specific sin isn’t in mind but of the general state that they stand in before God.
In other places, the context seems to demand an interpretation which hints at sexual impurity (Rom 1:24, II Cor 12:21, Gal 5:19) but a couple of these may be to more general attitudes within the individual as they are in other places (Rom 6:19, Eph 4:19, 5:3, I Thess 2:3, 4:7).
Perhaps the easiest definition is to retain the ideas of both ‘uncleanness’ and ‘impurity’ in the word rather than to limit it to speak of one at the detriment of the other. Both words speak of the need to make sure that there’s a singleness of purpose and a repudiation of any element of both thought and action which would be opposed to the new nature.
While believers demonstrate their commitment to do the work of God, it’s very easy to begin to allow parallel thoughts and motives to creep in. To give a personal example, when I was travelling round England working for one of the UK’s denominations many years ago, it was only second nature to think of reward - after all, we were unpaid servants who were being sent to different fellowships that required us and we were wholly reliant upon their goodwill to support us.
It was very common to see the time of our departure drawing near and to allow one’s thoughts to drift onto the gift that might be given. Even as we worked, it was all too easy to consider oneself as ‘earning’ an indeterminable sum (and judging by some of the gifts we were given, we weren’t thought very much of!) rather than as serving God and looking to Him to supply our need in whatever way He chose.
Singleness of purpose wasn’t always our experience and we often got hung up on the monetary side of things - I must say, though, that even though we made sure we said ‘goodbye’ to those we’d helped while we were amongst them, I always hated such times because it always seemed to me like I was saying
‘Remember what I’ve done here - now where’s my gift?’
I also don’t like saying goodbye in fellowships where I preach for the very same reason - I have no trouble if I’ve agreed a figure before I arrive, but shaking hands is always something I hate because it’s well-known that ‘little packets’ are passed from one to another this way (someone once told me it was called a ‘Pentecostal Handshake’).
As followers of God, motives must be pure and sincere. There’s no point thinking of reward and yet announcing to all that the provision of the Gospel is being freely given - God knows that there’s a duality of belief and, if we’re honest to what’s going on inside, we should be able to condemn it as well.
Impurity, then, covers the entire life - but internally. The desires of the heart mustn’t be allowed to flavour our motives with those things which conflict with a sincerity of service to God.
Strongs Greek number 3806
The Greek word occurs only three times in the NT (Rom 1:26, Col 3:5, I Thess 4:5) and is derived from another word meaning ‘to suffer’. The underlying meaning seems to be that of experience (as Kittels) though Vines goes on to note that the concept is best defined as
‘an affection of the mind, a passionate desire’
which places more in the sphere of an internal emotion rather than have to be interpreted as being accompanied by an external outworking. The word is actually neutral and needn’t convey either positive or negative aspects of a man or woman’s life except by the context in which it lies.
In the NT, however, it’s only ever used for the latter. In the first instance, Rom 1:26 has to define the content of the word ‘passion’ by ‘dishonourable’ to show the aspect being identified (even though this descriptor is largely redundant by its context). Here, Paul is speaking about sexual relations between similar sexes and concluding that it stands as a conclusion to the greatest sin of all - the rejection of what truth can be clearly perceived about God in the Creation.
I Thess 4:4-5 (my italics) also relates the word to sexual sin where the meaning of the passage sees Paul insisting that a wife should be taken
‘...in holiness and honour, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God’
It seems fairly reasonable to suggest that there are sexual connotations being implied in the use of the word in Col 3:5 even though there’s no context - except its presence in the list - to suggest that this is Paul’s intention. Kittels explains its use here as being indicative of ‘erotic passion’, Colcar uses the description ‘illicit passion’ which widens the application not just to sexual desire and Colwright explains it as ‘uncontrolled sexual urges’.
These seem the best interpretations but one has to understand that such passion or desire is only a part of the concept of the Greek word transliterated ‘eros’ (the world’s ‘love’) which we discussed on the web page dealing with the ‘Love of God’.
Eros was seen to have two specific elements - the first and most important was the finding of something attractive in another object while the second was a desire to possess the object of one’s affection. Though this is ultimately demonstrated positively in sexual intercourse between a husband and wife (it also has morally neutral applications in the desire to possess an elegant vase or a beautiful painting), it’s this sort of outworking of passion or sexual desire that’s the stimulus which results in fornication, the first word in the list of expressions of the flesh in Col 3:5.
I would prefer to think of the occurrence of this word to be speaking about experience rather than to take it - as ‘passion’ indicates - that a desire of the heart is all that’s being described. It seems best, then, to initially see the word as relating to sexual experience but, more than this, to all manner of experiences which come about through the evil desires of the heart which overflow through a man or woman and by stimulating the will so that an action in or reaction to circumstances is performed. Both desire and its outworking are therefore being described.
It may seem strange to us that ‘desire’ is placed only third in the list of expressions of the flesh by Paul seeing as it appears to be upon this basis that the first concept of ‘fornication’ takes place but, as we also saw, the concept of sexual sin was so important a point to warn against that it seems to have been placed first in the list.
4. Evil desire
Strongs Greek number 2556 and 1939
Strangely, the Greek word here translated ‘desire’ is deemed by Paul to be necessary of the descriptor ‘evil’ in order for it not to be misunderstood. We saw in the last section that the Greek word there used could have both a positive or negative implication depending on context but that it was always used in the NT to denote that which was against the will of God.
It seems, then, that so was this word understood in the early Church and that, even though it remained neutral, it was only applied to desires which were expressions of the fallen nature. Here, though, the word is defined by Paul because even he would use it to speak of a godly or purely neutral desire (Phil 1:23) as it’s used elsewhere by a different author (Luke 22:15).
But, normally, it’s used in a negative sense and can be the word employed to summate all the expressions of the flesh as in the phrase ‘the desires of the flesh’ (Gal 5:16), ‘to gratify the [flesh’s] desires’ (Rom 13:14) or, more simply, ‘their passions’ (Rom 6:12).
If there was ever one word which could be used to describe what the flesh does, then this is it - even without the preceding word translated ‘evil’. Vines defines the word simply as ‘strong desire’ (but in some other contexts, it doesn’t appear to have to denote a ‘strong’ desire) in contrast to our last word which we saw had an element of ‘experience’ associated with it, while Kittels asserts that it can be used for
‘...desire, especially for food or sex’
but that the desire is
‘...morally neutral at first...’
There’s nothing wrong with ‘desire’ and it can be seen to be in operation, for example, in the feelings of hunger that any man or woman feels after a time without food - sometimes within a very short space of time, too, if you’re anything like me. Where the problem exists for mankind is in its refusal to oppose those desires which lead astray and which oppose the purpose for which they were created.
We should, perhaps, limit the implications of this word to ‘desire’ and allow the contrast with the previous word to point towards the interpretation we considered of indicating an experiential outworking. These two words sit side by side in I Thess 4:5 where the RSV renders them as
‘the passion of lust’
and it may be taken to mean the experiencing of the pagan desire to possess through sexual intercourse, the full and final outworking of the concept of the transliterated ‘eros’ (see here).
But, in summary, there isn’t an obvious implication of sexual sin here which would be necessary for Colwright’s thesis that this first list all has to do with such. Although it may be applied in this way, the concept behind the word is more far-reaching and shouldn’t be restricted in application.
Again, we might wonder at why Paul puts desire after an external action (‘fornication’) but, as I noted above, the early Church seems to have used the Greek word underlying the act as almost a definition to indicate what was considered to be abhorrent sin - this would have the effect of always seeing it being placed towards the beginning of random ‘immorality’ lists which is what we find (Mtw 15:19 [4th of 7], Mark 7:21-22 [2nd of 13], Gal 5:19-21 [1st of 15], Col 3:5 [1st of 5], Rom 1:29-31 [1st of 22 - in the AV only]).
5. Covetousness and idolatry
Strongs Greek number 4124 and 1495
When one approaches this and takes the words used at face value, it’s difficult to instantly perceive how covetousness (the desire for the possession of something which doesn’t belong to the person or the desire to retain something which is considered by the person to be of too much value to let go or give away) and idolatry (the worship or service of false gods, forming a god out of material substances or the crafting of an image to represent God or a god) could ever have been thought of by Paul as being so close in meaning that the latter is said to be not like the former but it is the former.
Before we look at these two words’ interrelation, it will be best if we try and define their general NT meaning.
The first of these words, covetousness, means literally according to Vines
‘a desire to have more’
while Kittels expands its meaning to also include the meanings of ‘receiving more’ and ‘wanting more’. The word is employed 10 times in the NT, appearing in three of our five lists, but also in other places where it stands alone with other descriptive words which don’t help to define its meaning (Mark 7:22, Rom 1:29, Eph 5:3 [where three of the five words employed in the current passage are used together], Col 3:5).
This desire to have is seen clearly in other places where it’s used. For example, when one of the crowd comes to Jesus and asks that He might command his brother to divide the inheritance with him (Luke 12:13), He responds to the crowds after addressing the individual (Luke 12:15)
‘Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’
The word can also be employed to indicate something approaching greed and it’s translated this way in Eph 4:19, I Thess 2:5, II Peter 2:3 and 2:14 where it’s the first verse cited which is the best to read for it speaks of the Gentiles (or ‘unbelievers’) as being
‘...greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness’
where the idea of possession is foremost alongside an insatiability to continue in everything that stands opposed to God. In one other place, the idea behind the word is of giving willingly to those of the brethren who are in need and not to offer something into the collection which is reluctantly being given. So Paul speaks (II Corinthians 9:5 - the italicised word is the translation of our Greek one) of thinking it necessary
‘...to urge the brethren to go on to you before me, and arrange in advance for this gift you have promised, so that it may be ready not as an exaction but as a willing gift’
Even here, though, there’s present the thought of hanging on to something which doesn’t want to be given over into the possession of another. It was this sort of attitude which also lay behind the decision of Ananias and Sapphira to withhold a part of the proceeds from the sale of the land while still declaring that they’d submitted the full amount (Acts 5:1-2).
We should note that the word goes back to the earliest of lists of commandments in Ex 20:17 as the tenth of the categorical points of the Mosaic Law where God commanded that
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s’
Although there are definitely sexual connotations in the desire to possess another’s wife, it could hardly be levelled to be wholly so when we read about houses, oxen and asses (though, for some, it might be). It seems best to take the mention of covetousness here in Col 3:5 to be indicative of a life which looks at what another has and eyes it with the desire to possess it for oneself, a trait which all too easily is witnessed within the world and, to a slightly lesser extent, within the Church.
James also noted the problem of covetousness within the fellowships he knew and wrote (James 4:2-3) that
‘You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war’
seeing that the desire to have could all too easily develop into open hostility between brothers when the object of one’s desire becomes such a prize to be possessed that no limits are put on its acquisition. Even asking God for such an object goes unanswered because, as he goes on
‘...you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions’
where the last word used here isn’t the one we’ve looked at earlier.
The second word translated ‘idolatry’ occurs just four times in the AV and means, literally, the ‘service of an image’. It occurs alone in three lists (Gal 5:20, Col 3:5, I Peter 4:3) and in one is prefixed by the word ‘lawless’ (I Peter 4:3). Paul also uses the concept of idolatry at the conclusion of a short discussion on standing against temptation (I Cor 10:6-13) commenting that they should (I Cor 10:!4)
‘...shun the worship of idols’
before going on to show the impossibility of the believer participating in the service and worship of both God and idols because of the diametrically opposed sources of each. Apart from this, the word is one which is used fairly commonly elsewhere to denote the service of false gods - Kittels notes that the word is the opposite of another Greek word meaning ‘service’ and from which this compound word is constructed.
The matter of idolatry also figures as the second of the ten commandments (Ex 20:4-5) where we read that the nation was not to
‘...make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them...’
The problem for the reader, however, is to attempt to perceive how the second and tenth commandments could somehow be linked together by Paul as being indicative of one and the same expression of the flesh.
The commentators are quite soundly divided on the matter and apply the twin words to a range of concepts. Some, like Colcar, are limited in scope for he’s been applying each of the words in a sexual context and so comes up with the conclusion here that
‘It is characteristic of sexual indulgence [greed] that it leads to an unhealthy, and ultimately perverted, obsession [idolatry]. This can be seen not only on an individual level but also in a community. When godliness is rejected and the lust of the flesh encouraged, it is not long before sex is worshipped instead of God’
One can’t deny the truth of these observations but they seem to be too limited in scope, confining Paul’s words only to the one aspect of covetousness and idolatry that’s being perceived as being spoken against. Colwright thinks of ‘covetousness’ as being indicative of
‘...unchecked hunger for physical pleasure...’
which is a much better idea for he goes on to see that
‘...greed [covetousness] places at the centre of one’s attention and devotion that which is not God’
If a person goes after obtaining the object of their own desire, so satisfying the appetites which come from within, they’re serving something which is opposed to the character of God. Indeed, the individual concerned becomes the object and centre of devotion and commitment and service to God is either compromised or rejected outright. As Jesus pointed out in Mtw 6:24
‘You cannot serve God and [material riches]’
for both are ‘gods’ which demand the service of the life of the follower and each denies the right of the other to co-exist alongside.
It’s a direct conflict between that which is of Heaven and that which belongs to the old way of the life on earth (Col 3:2). Christ in Heaven becomes not the object of one’s desire but an added extra who may even be petitioned to increase the material wealth of the individual concerned.
Covetousness, then, is idolatry for it either replaces the service of God with the service of self or it conforms God into an image where covetousness is justified. This latter problem is the basis of the ‘God wants us to love ourselves’ belief that to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Mtw 22:39) means that one should have a good self-image.
A few words of conclusion need to be added here as we draw to a close the first list of five expressions of the flesh. If we accept that the first word ‘fornication’ is meant to be representative of all types of sexual sin committed in the body, it’s important to realise that the remaining four-fifths are about internal desires of the heart rather than external actions.
In other words, even though a man may aim at the observance of an external written code, the real problem lies at the heart of a man and it’s here that the work of Christ must be applied by putting to death the old way of life in the power of the Spirit - as we’ve previously seen.
6. Anger and Wrath
Strongs Greek number 3709 and 2372
With ‘anger’, we begin the second of the two word lists which Colwright sees as being a fivefold list which all deal with the ‘sins of anger’ whereas the former (Col 3:5) dealt with ‘sexual sin’. I’ve already noted above that this is the wrong point to start from and, as we’ve worked through the first list, we saw that there were words which had to be restricted in their application in order for this to be held true.
It’s far better to allow the words here their full meaning and that no limits be placed upon the scope of their relevance to the expressions of the flesh.
The reader, having gone through the entire passage under consideration here, may have noted that the word ‘wrath’ occurs as the second word in this list and is also used in Col 3:6 to describe a characteristic of God.
However, the Greek word underlying both is different and, strangely enough, is confused by the RSV (and AV) which renders the Greek which describes God’s reaction to expressions of the flesh as ‘anger’ in Col 3:8. So, instead of ‘wrath’ corresponding with ‘wrath’, it’s actually the word ‘anger’ which is identical!
A classic case of rendering the same word differently so as to make the reader not confuse the varying use but of actually misleading him by translating a different word in identical fashion.
That ‘anger’ and ‘wrath’ are two very similar concepts to man has caused me to decide to bring both of them together here in an attempt to draw out the differences which Paul seems to be wanting his readers to grasp. The Greek underlying both ‘anger’ (orge) and ‘wrath’ (thumos) can be used interchangeably in the NT just as the Hebrew words for ‘make’ (asah) and ‘create’ (bara) can be in the old, but it’s their employment side by side which should wake us up to the fact that the author intends his readers to contrast the distinctive underlying meaning of both words.
Colbrien, however, sees them as having very little difference in meaning but that they could be employed to express different types of anger is surely significant and their contrasts should be thought of as being intended to be conveyed by Paul.
Vines is the best to read at this point, for he contrasts the differing concepts well. He writes that
‘...thumos indicates a more agitated condition of the feelings, an outburst of wrath from inward indignation, while orge suggests a more settled or abiding condition of mind, frequently with a view to taking revenge. Orge is less sudden in its rise than thumos but more lasting in its nature. Thumos expresses the inward feeling, orge the more active emotion...[Thumos] quickly blazes up and quickly subsides...’
Colcar, however, doesn’t envisage so much the internal measure of the words and comments that
‘[orge] speaks of the settled attitude while [thumos] is the passionate outburst’
But, as I’ll note below, orge is more likely to be demonstrated in the overflow of a build up of emotion (where Colwright calls it ‘smouldering or seething hatred’) whereas thumos is a sudden surge of anger which had no premeditation.
Paul, therefore, covers both aspects of the wrath of man in his choice of using the two words together (as, indeed, both words can be used of God to signify the different qualities of His anger directed towards sin - or just used interchangeably to express its sum total) and allows no justification for anyone who might have insisted that there was a loophole here in which it could be claimed that what was being demonstrated was outside the scope of the apostle’s instructions (though it should be noted that nowhere in the other four lists which we used to compile the table above do both these Greek words co-exist).
The flesh can express both a sudden outburst of anger where a single incident seems to have provoked the reaction in the twinkling of an eye and a more lasting reaction of anger where the offences of a few hours, days or a lifetime have been building up until the ‘final straw’ when the overflow of the emotion is inevitable and has more lasting consequences.
For example, if someone should stab you on the hand with a pin, you may well shout and bawl your objections - such a reaction wouldn’t have had an underlying foundation upon which it was being launched for it was in that one momentary action that the anger was being stimulated. Therefore, forgiveness and reconciliation should be the more easy to give because there’s nothing which needs to be dealt with within the individual concerned.
If, however, the offences were being allowed to build up over a period of time, while some form of relationship was still being outwardly maintained, there may not be a very easily discernible recognition that the anger within the person was building up a fair head of steam until, in one often minor incident in the broad scheme of things, the anger erupts into the open, often souring relationships for a long time simply because there’s an underlying root cause which needs to be dealt with and which had been ‘implemented’ at the moment of the outburst.
It’s both types of anger, then, that Paul notes are a part of the earthly way of living.
But why should both anger and wrath be considered not to be a relevant part of a man’s life and yet the wrath of God is never condemned as being equally wrong? Or, to put it more simply, why is man’s anger sinful and God’s righteous?
The simple answer is that man’s anger is often not the product of righteous indignation or of the reaction against sin - a man or woman might consider that they’ve been wronged and react negatively against the person performing the action but, very often, anger and wrath are demonstrated only when there’s a perceived offence which, even more often, the person who’s been offended is actually committing against someone else and who would try to justify such actions if confronted.
If only I could have a ten pound note for every time I’ve heard my work colleagues condemn the actions of someone they know and then go on to justify their very same reactions to someone else! And often within the space of a few short minutes! Man’s anger, then, isn’t normally a reaction to sin but to a perceived offence which impinges upon the individual’s own life - it is, therefore, more personal in nature.
God’s wrath can be seen to be a reaction to sin in Rom 1:18 (orge) where Paul speaks about the present expression of God’s wrath throughout the earth in having to withdraw His presence from mankind because of the
‘...ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth’
and, in Col 3:6 (orge), Paul follows up his first list of five characteristics by noting that it’s
‘On account of these the wrath of God is coming’
thus demonstrating again that God’s anger isn’t capricious but predictable.
But, more than this, God’s wrath is tempered by His love (see here) and, all the while God’s anger burns against those who disobey Him, He’s still trying to find a way and an opportunity for them to be led back into His presence to receive forgiveness and healing. So, speaking of the cross, John writes (I John 4:10) that
‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [the averting of God’s anger] for our sins’
That men and women can experience the anger of God against sin seems a logical inference from seeing the reason for Christ coming as bringing men and women into a place where they might become like Him in all aspects of His character. Even Eph 4:26 surprisingly has Paul tell the churches
‘Be angry but do not sin...’
and there are enough places in the Book of Acts and in Paul’s letters in which ‘anger’ could be inferred (Acts 13:9-10, I Cor 4:19-21) and as a reaction to sin, so that we can maintain that anger and wrath which display God’s character are integral parts of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
The problem that believers have, however, is in justifying the anger and wrath which is an expression of the old way of life as being ‘righteous indignation’ - something which I’ve heard claimed on a number of occasions (and which I’ve probably done myself, too). It’s man’s anger which has nothing to do with God - as James wrote in James 1:19-20
‘...Let every man be...slow to anger for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God’
and the believer has been confronted at the very beginning of this chapter (Col 3:1-4) with forsaking those things which are of the earth for the demonstration of the new nature implanted within them at conversion.
Strongs Greek number 2549
The Greek word used here seems to defy a definitive meaning and has been variously interpreted by commentators. Kittels sees it as being indicative of
‘the principle of evil’
so that it’s application could be taken as extremely wide and varied. However, it’s use in Mtw 6:34 (my italics) where Jesus instructs His disciples that they’re not to be anxious about tomorrow but, rather to
‘...let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day’
demonstrates to us that the word doesn’t have to have any connotations of sin or evil associated with it - all that Jesus is saying is that trouble comes in each and every day that needs resolving and sorting out and that it’s best to deal with what’s to hand rather than to be anxious about what might come about at a future time.
Having said this, the word’s employed in a few places where some sort of general ‘evil’ is being described that would make us understand Kittels’ definition as being the best in these contexts. So, Paul talks about Jesus having become our Passover and that believers are now to celebrate (I Cor 5:8)
‘...not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil...’
and goes on in the same letter to urge the fellowship (I Cor 14:20 - my italics. See also I Peter 2:16) to
‘...be babes in evil...’
It also appears in a few ‘lists’ (Rom 1:29, Eph 4:31, Col 3:8, Titus 3:3, James 1:21, I Peter 2:1) and can even be used of a single act of evil rather than as indicative of a principle to be avoided (Acts 8:22).
Having said all this, commentators attempt to tie down its meaning to a more specific interpretation than simply a principle. So Colbruce defines it in a footnote as
‘...the attitude that wishes or does harm to another’
along with Colwright who writes that, according to the context (what context?) in Col 3:8, it carries the meaning
‘evil intended to cause hurt’
Colcar, however, looks at the words which occur around it and sees that they have to do with speech (though ‘anger’ and ‘wrath’ aren’t restricted to speech - as we saw in the previous section, a settled attitude of anger towards someone may not have too much in the way of verbal expression and an outburst of sudden anger may be more a demonstration of physical violence than of verbal abuse), so going on to define it as being a reference to
There’s more to this than meets the eye for the final phrase of this verse ‘from your mouth’ seems to be redundant if it’s taken as being only a reference to ‘foul talk’ (how can ‘foul talk’ be anything other than an emanation from the mouth?) and may well be understood to be a description of the very first command to ‘put them all away’. Even so, it’s difficult to see how anger and wrath wouldn’t have been understood to mean outbursts which didn’t have to be expressed through words.
Colbrien opts for the best of both worlds, however and goes along with Colbruce’s definition but insists that it’s seen as being outworked in
‘...evil speech such as slander and abusive language’
If we were to attempt to draw some consistency of grouping of these five words by Paul, we might say that anger and wrath are the start of the settled evil which is directed towards someone’s hurt, consequently expressed verbally in both slander and foul talk, but the connections - although there - are a bit too weak to insist upon.
Rather, it’s best to see the Greek word underlying the RSV’s ‘malice’ as being a settled resignation to devise evil against men and women that springs from the fallen nature and which needs to be put to death.
Strongs Greek number 988
The AV transliterates this word as ‘blasphemy’ rather than attempt to take the word and understand what is meant by the Greek in the context of the group of words here presented. The word can mean ‘blasphemy’, however, and in the majority of places where it’s used, it seems the best translation of the word (Mtw 12:31, 26:65 [second occurrence], Mark 2:7, 3:28, 14:64, Luke 5:21, John 10:33, Rev 13:1, 13:5, 13:6, 17:3) but, when it occurs in lists and other more straightforward verses, the translation seems wholly unjustified (Mtw 15:19, Mark 7:22, Col 3:8, Rev 2:9).
Some of the translators, however, did go with a more reasonable translation on occasions (Eph 4:31, I Tim 6:3-4, Jude 9).
In my notes on Leviticus 24:10-23 I noted the difference in usage of the word in the NT and wrote that
‘...the type of blasphemy that we find levelled against Christ in the NT is in sharp distinction from that of the OT, the latter being, if between humans, a case of libel or slander - a statement or declaration that was inaccurate and which tarnished their good name or reputation. But the charge of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (Mtw 12:22-32) would carry with it an Old Testament concept - namely, of attributing evil to a work of the Holy Spirit when it was obvious that what had transpired was a work of God’
These two attributions of meaning aren’t very far apart but, because the concept of ‘blasphemy’ has been attributed to something theological or doctrinal, we often lose an understanding of what it’s all about. Whether a reference to affairs between men or of men directed towards God, the underlying principle seems to be the same - namely that a negative interpretation is being attributed to an action which is positive or, at worst (?), neutral.
Vines comments that the more literal translation of the compound Greek word is ‘speech injury’ and this says in an economy of words nearly everything that needs to be.
The RSV’s ‘slander’ is, therefore, a good translation and interpretation of the word as it stands here and we could very well see it as springing from a settled attitude of anger which begins to demonstrate actions of harm (malice) towards an individual or group of people. Colwright understands it to be
‘...speech which puts malice into practical effect...’
The point is not that what’s being said is correct and accurate - and that such things shouldn’t be announced. But that what’s being proclaimed is a deliberately incorrect interpretation of events which have transpired or a statement which is uttered and which is based upon no known facts or even an invented action.
That such a manner of life should occur in the world is not surprising - after all, the apostle has been careful to note that such actions are merely the response of the fallen nature - but that such expressions should take place within the Church is tantamount to spiritual suicide and an undermining of the advance of the Kingdom.
Whenever what’s good is announced as being evil - whether an action or a person - characters are blackened and the future demonstration of the presence of God is restricted in its acceptance through the person concerned.
The translation ‘blasphemy’ may well have been chosen by the translators of the AV because they felt that doctrinal consistency was of more importance because it concerned a sin directly against God. But ‘blasphemy’ doesn’t have to do with such issues as we’ve seen above and is, rather, the attribution of evil to what’s either neutral or righteous in God’s eyes.
There’s no reason to think that a repudiation of God’s work as being evil is here intended so the RSV’s ‘slander’ is by far the better translation.
9. Foul talk
Strongs Greek number 148
The Greek word used occurs only here throughout the NT and is a compound one formed from two others. It seems strange that Paul should have deemed it necessary to add the description ‘from your mouth’ to the end of the word because it’s difficult to imagine how ‘foul talk’ could have been understood to have been expressed any other way.
But, nevertheless, it serves to emphasise the apostle’s point and may, as previously noted, be intended to be understood as a description of the opening command of this verse where Paul has told them to ‘put them all away’.
As we previously noted, however, both ‘anger’ and ‘wrath’ are unlikely to have been taken only as a reference to what came out from the mouth and it’s not impossible that the apostle has included the last clause for emphasis - or, simply, like I do, unknowingly (though my wife picks up on the redundancies when she occasionally proofs the notes).
It’s difficult to be certain about the meaning of the word unless the context of the other words in the list are allowed to point in one direction or the other. Outside the NT, there’s a twin application of the word, which Colbrien (along with Colbruce) observes is either
‘...obscene speech or abusive language...’
Commentators opt for either one or the other of these depending on the way they see Paul’s thoughts advancing through the list. So, for Colcar, he states that the word
‘...covers not only obscenity but also the innuendoes and suggestive expressions which cover an underlying impurity’
and seems to leave aside the idea of abuse directed towards members of the Body of Christ. Because of the context in which the word is employed here - coming immediately after a word which speaks about blackening the character of someone and preceding the command not to lie to a fellow brother (Col 3:9) - it seems more likely that the concept of abuse was originally intended by the apostle but the meaning of ‘shameful’ or ‘obscene’ talk shouldn’t be denied and thought not to be a relevant concept from the old way of life which needs dealing with.
‘Abuse’ is fairly straightforward in it’s interpretation but the alternative isn’t so easy to define simply because different cultures have their own levels at which ‘shock’ is imparted through the words which are being used. Even within England itself - and within the same city in which I live! - I could tell you of people you can use a word in conversation with and them not take offence and others who’d be mortally wounded by even the thought of such a sound.
Perhaps it’s best to see the content of the words uttered to be more to the point, then, if no absolute list of ‘words not to be used’ can be defined. This certainly seems more relevant to our discussion though it, again, has a wide range of limitations depending on where one is both within the Church and in the world.
Paul’s comments in Eph 5:3-4 (my italics throughout) are about the closest that we get to a definition of verbal content but, even here, there’s some leeway for the believer. He begins by stating that
‘...fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you as is fitting among saints’
which seems conclusive enough. But then he immediately goes on to command that
‘...there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting...’
In other words, there may come a time when what is spoken needs to be responded to in either similar tones or with an equally strong pronouncement. It appears, then, that the simple compilation of either a list of words which shouldn’t be used or a list of subjects that should be avoided is impossible, but that the believer must still forsake those ways which are expressions of the old life and which are incompatible with the outworking of the new nature within.
This doesn’t mean that, on occasions, strong language won’t be used or that subjects won’t be discussed which would otherwise be avoided - but in these instances, the advancement of the Kingdom will be uppermost in the believer’s mind.
But, returning to Col 3:8, it would appear that ‘abuse’ is the better concept to take as being Paul’s meaning which undermines relationships and divides the work of God. We should, perhaps, see this concept as coming about as a natural consequence of ‘slander’ when what’s been uttered turns into a reaction against the person who’s been heard.
This can happen both within and without the Church, so there’s no need to restrict it’s expression solely to someone who’s a fellow believer - all followers of Christ must take care to forsake the old way of life and this means not to express abuse towards any man or woman.
Strongs Greek number 5574
The two lists of five characteristics of the old life have finished but Paul goes on to instruct the Colossian believers not to
‘lie to one another’
and we should, perhaps, take this as the eleventh of the complete list that the apostle wants to bring to their attention to put to death and to put away from their own experience. The Greek word is used eleven times in the NT but only once in Col 3:9 as an appeal to followers of Christ to be honest to one another.
Paul appears to use it when he writes something which he considers might not be accepted by those to whom he’s writing - a sort of spiritual ‘Honest, guv!’ that draws the attention to the truth of his words rather than to any doubt which may be present (Rom 9:1, II Cor 11:31, Gal 1:20, I Tim 2:7). It’s also used of lying to God (Acts 5:3-4,) and of lying in general whether it’s understood to be a confession from the mouth or an attitude which is demonstrated by the life (James 3:14, I John 1:6, Rev 3:9). It can also be used of false testimony against a believer (Mtw 5:11) and, in the negative, of the fact that God cannot lie or be proved false (Heb 6:18).
The employment of this word in Col 3:9, then, is unique - and quite difficult to interpret as to application. After all, if your wife asks if she looks fat, what are you to say? Are you to think
‘Deceit is of the old life so I’d best state the truth?’
and so wreck the relationship or do you think
‘It’s only a white lie if I say she’s like Kate Moss [substitute the name of the most well-known super-model of your own culture at this point]’
and undermine honesty? Perhaps Paul was never confronted with such difficult decisions that had to be made in his ministry to the Church but these are the sorts of considerations which men and women struggle with (only kidding).
Although light-hearted, the scenario represents a point which needs consideration - that is, how far should his words be taken as being an expression of the old way of life that needs to be removed? After all, drawn out of this command, Paul notes that the reason not to lie is that
‘...you have put off the old nature with its practices’
Lying undermines relationships - what would you think of the person who says
‘I have nothing to give you’
and then buys a replacement three piece suite the following week? Far better to take some time to explain the situation when first asked than to announce something which can all too easily be seen to be incorrect. But lying has a sinister side to it as well for it can spread a deception that isn’t easily uncovered and a man or woman who attends a fellowship regularly and who always portrays what a believer should do in the meeting may be seen outside to be living differently in the world or to be so full of problems and burdens that it would have been nice for the brethren to have been able to try and deal with them for him or her.
So, lying doesn’t have to be a verbal response to a direct question - and there are some questions which shouldn’t be asked unless a slap in the face is what’s being expected as a response. The problem is that we shouldn’t expect answers to everything we want to ask and a person who cites this Scripture to expect to gain knowledge from someone when they have no right to that knowledge is probably already moving in the old way of life and using commands to make it appear as if they’re spiritual.
When a believer deliberately moves into a place where commitment to God is compromised, lying is a sure enough expression of the fallen nature. If a leader (and I use this example from personal experience) is committing adultery or some other sexual sin, there’s no point asking them directly whether such a thing is taking place and expecting that the response can be believed.
If there’s no sin, you’ll be delighted to hear them affirm they’re pure before God - if there is sin, you’ll also be delighted to hear them affirm they’re pure before God. In such situation, one can only observe and watch, offer counselling for whatever might be troubling them with no specifics being mentioned, pray like mad and wait. As Paul instructed Timothy (I Tim 5:24)
‘The sins of some men are conspicuous, pointing to judgment, but the sins of others appear later’
The bottom line of Paul’s command, though, is deceit and probably in the context of either gaining an advantage over another or of making oneself out to be better than one is. Honesty in the things of God is vitally important if a fellowship is to maintain and promote good inter-personal relationships.
And, if revival is ever to happen in a land, honesty before God about the state of the Church is also necessary for, how can God revive a fellowship that thinks it’s serving God and going His way? Only when a truthful assessment is made will men and women ever be in a position to receive from God the solution to the problems.
The wrath of God is coming
The first thing to decide before the two verses are attempted to be interpreted is the correct reading, for the RSV omits an entire phrase at the close of the first verse, rendering the pair as
‘On account of these [the previous list of five expressions of the flesh] the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, when you lived in them’
The phrase ‘upon the sons of disobedience’ (which is, more literally, ‘disobedient people’ and taken by most commentators to be a borrowed phrase from Hebrew) is consigned to a footnote with little indication of the probability of it being original. Colcar, however, observes that there’s
‘...overwhelming manuscript attestation in favour of the retention of the phrase’
but it does appear that some of the witnesses omit it while some of the early Church fathers seem to quote the verse in its original form and leave the phrase out. If the shorter version is original, it appears as if a copyist duplicated the phrase from Eph 5:6 which runs
‘Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience’
perhaps because he had in his own mind the entire sentence and accidentally attributed it to a later epistle. Personally, I don’t feel there’s enough evidence to remove the phrase so it should be retained. This has the effect of altering some of the backward references (I’ve italicised them in the following quote) in Col 3:7, however, and Colcar is right in noting that the two verses should then be read as
‘On account of these the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience. Among whom you once walked, when you lived in these [things]’
where the first must be taken to refer to the believers’ prior membership of rebellious humanity and the second to the expressions of the flesh which have been set out in the first of the two lists. Eph 2:1-3 should also be considered here for Paul speaks about the believers having once lived by
‘...following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience’
and then goes on to begin Eph 2:3 with the same construction as we find in Col 3:7 which we saw above is better translated ‘among whom’. Here in the earlier letter, the phrase naturally refers back immediately to the ‘sons of disobedience’ of the previous verse - the same Greek phrase as occurs in the missing phrase of Col 3:6.
Paul again is speaking about the believers’ prior existence amongst the world but expands his description to include their living
‘...in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind...’
equating the idea of God’s wrath resting upon the disobedient with the phrase ‘children of wrath’. In Colossians, the idea is focused on the reaction of God to the actions of mankind whereas, in Ephesians, it’s what their own desires have caused them to become that’s in view.
It’s not that God decides to execute judgment upon men and women who live in a tainted world and who, through no fault of their own, have become soiled by association, but that they’ve gone after those desires which are opposed to Him and so have birthed in themselves the fruit that must be reaped at the appropriate time - both in the present and future.
We also need to come to terms with a couple of other possibilities. The Greek word for ‘wrath’ here is the same as that which underlies the word ‘anger’ in Col 3:8 (and not ‘wrath’ as one would have supposed) and, as we saw above, the placing of the two Greek words side by side in that later verse had the effect of lumping together the two different types of ‘anger’ that could be an expression of the earthly life.
The question remains as to whether we’re to understand Paul’s use of ‘orge’ here as a deliberate attempt to define the wrath of God in terms of a slow and settled anger which is directed towards men and women. Unfortunately, the usage of the word in itself isn’t conclusive and we should note that it largely depends on whether we understand the verse to be speaking of a future outpouring of wrath (as in the final judgment) or of a present demonstration of wrath on earth as detailed in Rom 1:18.
But, even here, the text is worthy of more than one interpretation. Colcar insists that
‘The present tense [of ‘is coming’] suggests that judgment is not a future event but a present reality’
but Colwright sees the use of the present tense to represent both present and future manifestations of God’s anger so that neither can be denied. Other commentators see the mention of God’s wrath as being wholly future with no intended application to the present by the apostle.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that there will be different - and sometimes conflicting - views. The verses which surround the verses also speak of both a future time (Col 3:4) and a present one (Col 3:5) so that it’s not unreasonable to think of Paul looking towards the final conclusion of sin and God’s ultimate dealing with it.
My own view is that there’s justification in other places in the NT to accommodate both interpretations and that it’s best to accept the verses as speaking about both simultaneously. I’ve already dealt with the concept of propitiation (the aversion of a person’s anger) in my notes on the subject and shown how Jesus’ work on the cross has become the means whereby God’s anger is satisfied and His mercy received.
In my second notes on Yom Kippur within the ‘Festivals’ series, I commented that there still remained a future fulfilment of the festival even though the Book of Hebrews looks at it from the aspect of the believer and of what Jesus has achieved. For, although the Day of Judgment is settled once and for all time for those who follow Jesus, there still remains the final outworking of God’s anger in judgment upon all who have lived lives in rebellion to Him.
Not only must passages such as Rom 1:18 be taken seriously when they note that God’s anger already rests upon men and women because of their refusal to acknowledge what can be plainly seen about God all around them (see also John 3:36, Eph 2:3), it must also be accepted that there remains the need for the full and final satisfying of God’s anger towards those who have refused to accept the propitiatory sacrifice.
And such a judgment isn’t here defined as being that which comes upon the murderers, rapists and paedophiles - but upon those who allow desire to have it’s expression through them (Col 3:5). External actions are too easy for us to condemn when we ourselves don’t commit them but, when the source of enmity with God lies at the heart of man, it brings all men under condemnation that God might be merciful to as many as turn from their own ways to the provision in Christ and who persist in following Him by forsaking the old way of life for the new nature that’s planted within.
But the Colossians were amongst those who had forsaken a lifestyle which was displeasing to God and, with a degree of perception, Paul reminded his readers that such a short list of expressions (Col 3:5) epitomised their lifestyle even a short while before. Reminded of their old way of living, then, they’re being encouraged to press on to fully experience the new and to absolutely repudiate the old.
The old versus the new
The idea of not lying to one another serves Paul as the stimulus which propels him into speaking about the two different ways of living before God. Col 3:5-9a could well be said to be details concerning the old, Col 3:9b-10 to be a transitional sentence which moves the reader on from the old to the new and Col 3:12-17 the details of the new being outworked in practice.
Col 3:11 serves more of a parenthesis around the main thrust of Paul’s argument and seems inspired by his mention in the preceding verse of the ‘image of [the new nature’s] Creator’.
We’ve already noted that contrasts of the two ways of life in other places of the NT as well as here often have the equation that the way of the flesh is the way of Law and not just the way of wrong ways of living and attitudes. Paul’s twofold statement in Col 3:9-10 emphasises the point for, had he been thinking about a new set of rules which the believer was now serving under, we might not have expected him to speak about ‘putting off’ the old nature with its expressions of rebellion against God and certainly couldn’t have imagined that he would speak about a new nature which was being ‘renewed in knowledge’.
Rather, we should have been reading words which exhorted the recipients to observe the commandments that he’d just written and to set their wills to obey the rules and regulations which were about to follow. But he does neither - because the new covenant has nothing to do with legalism but is about allowing and encouraging the way of the Spirit to flow out from the believer by the power of the Spirit into all the world. And this as an expression of the new nature that’s implanted within.
This contrast between the old and new, of dying and being reborn into both new life and a new way of life, occurs in several other places in the Scriptures (Rom 6:1-14 esp v.8, 7:4-6, 8:12-13, II Cor 5:14-15, Gal 2:19-20, 5:13-26, II Tim 2:11) and we’ve already seen above the importance of understanding the two ways of life as being incompatible with one another.
Little needs to be said about Col 3:9 as most of the description of ‘the old nature with its practices’ has been outlined in considerable detail above. Paul speaks about their present state which has come about through their prior ‘putting off’ or ‘putting away’ of the old nature and this verse serves as a good conclusion or summation of his appeal to them to continue to live out the reality of that work.
What we want to do here is to concentrate on Paul’s second introductory phrase which speaks of the new nature and how it’s being (Col 3:10)
‘...renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator’
for the phrase seems difficult to comprehend at face value. There are five main passages which need dealing with - or at least mentioning in passing - and which use three different words to describe a type of renewal which occurs in the life of the believer.
The first (Strongs Greek number 341) means literally ‘to new again’ and, therefore, ‘to make new’ or ‘to renew’ and occurs in Col 3:10 and II Cor 4:16. The second is the noun of this verb (Strongs Greek number 342) and it occurs only in Rom 12:2 and Titus 3:5 and it means much the same as the verb.
The third is a different word which seems to be unrelated to the first two (Strongs Greek number 365) and is used just the once in Eph 4:23 where the parallel with Colossians appears to be striking in the overall content of Paul’s argument. This word means literally ‘to recent again’ and so ‘to make new’ or ‘to make young’ and, even though it differs from the above, there seems to be no reason to expect there to be a widely different meaning intended.
Finally, there’s a word which is used side by side the one in Titus 3:5 (Strongs Greek number 3824) and which we won’t be looking at here. It occurs only twice in the NT and is first employed on the lips of Jesus in Mtw 19:28. It means literally ‘birth again’ and therefore ‘new birth’ or ‘rebirth’ but the RSV translates it as ‘regeneration’ in Titus 3:5 and, inexplicably, ‘new world’ in Mtw 19:28 where the AV’s ‘regeneration’ is to be preferred.
It’s interesting to note that both what believers experience and what will eventually be outworked on the earth are spoken of in the same language and it gives more substance to the truth of the NT that believers only experience now in part what they will ultimately experience fully in the future - the establishing of the visible new Kingdom on earth at a future date shouldn’t take believers by surprise because they have the first fruits of that new age in their own lives in the here and now.
Going through these handful of Scriptures, we can dispense with II Cor 4:16 fairly briefly. Paul writes that
‘...our outer nature is wasting away [but] our inner nature is being renewed every day’
without giving any clear indication of how this is being achieved. His words stand as a ‘fact’ which is stated without any reason or basis for justification but he does note that it happens on a daily basis - that is, he doesn’t envisage God the Father leaving the believer on his own for extensive periods of time after which he suddenly steps in and does a work within. Rather, we have a picture of a farmer who tends the crop that’s been planted so that it has the best opportunity to yield the greatest harvest.
It’s interesting to note, however, that he goes on to speak of ‘things that are unseen’ and the believers striving after them while they forsake those ‘things that are seen’ (II Cor 4:18) in language reminiscent of Col 3:2. It’s because the ‘outer nature’ is decaying that such an attitude of mind is necessary for it’s logically obvious that one shouldn’t be investing in an object that will soon be nothing more than dust and dirt once more.
Paul’s thoughts, then, are being duplicated here for the recipients of another letter. Titus 3:3-7 can also be dealt with speedily for it appears to be dealing with a past event in the conversion of the individual in which they’re washed by
‘...regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit’
The same initial act that has occurred, then, is also a type of the one which continues to take place in the believer’s life as they grow more into and like Jesus Christ.
The problem that’s left to us is whether we should consider the last three passages as being describing one and the same event in the believer’s experience whereby the inner nature is being consistently and persistently renewed.
The passage which points in this direction more than the other is Eph 4:22-24, even more so because commentators make much of the similarities to the point of suggesting that they were written at about the same time.
Col 3:9-10 follows the order that the old nature is observed as having already been put off, the new nature as having already been put on and, finally, the observation about it being renewed is made. In Eph 4:22-24, however, Paul urges his readers to put off the old nature and ends with the exhortation to put on the new, while the statement about renewal appears sandwiched in the middle.
It may not be sufficient to simply point out that Colossians assumes that the work has been done while Ephesians encourages the believers to make it a reality but Eph 4:23 which exhorts the believers to
‘...be renewed in the spirit of your minds’
is definitely different from Colossians 3:10 which notes the continuing renewal of the inner nature
‘...in knowledge after the image of its Creator’
That is, the command in Ephesians is tied up with a consequence of the casting aside of the old nature whereas in Colossians it’s an observation concerning the continuing edification of the new nature. As such, we shouldn’t imagine that the equation
renewed in the spirit of the mind = renewed in knowledge
is applicable here. Rom 12:2 is also a case in point for it provides the reader with a command or encouragement (the Greek is best taken as ‘let yourselves be transformed’ rather than as a command ‘be transformed’ which again points to the agency of God, as Romhen points out) rather than an observation which explains the continued renewing of the new nature. The statement there is also contrasted with the exhortation not to be conformed to the present world and the renewal is spoken of in terms reminiscent of a perception of the mind as to what the will of God is for the individual.
It seems that such a phrase as occurs here is more insistent upon a ‘change of mind’ or a ‘change of thought processes and desires’ that the new should bring whereby the mind which was once set on the ways of the world should now be transformed by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit (incidentally, the ‘spirit’ in Rom 12:2 and Eph 4:23 is taken not to be a reference to God’s Spirit) to think upon those things which are in harmony with the new life.
This makes all the more sense when the charts on my previous web page (under ‘Evil thoughts and the solution’) are considered for it shows how the desires presented to the mind by the flesh must be dealt with differently now that the believer has committed his life to Jesus Christ. A change of mind is vitally necessary if the follower of Christ isn’t to go after those things that spring up from the earthly way of life. As Rommor observes
‘The believer, whose life is that of the new age, does not think like an unbeliever’
Whatever similarities there may be between the three passages, then, it’s best that we allow Col 3:10 to stand on its own and not be interpreted by the other two passages which are often spoken of as ‘parallel’. However, this leaves us with a verse which is difficult to interpret with no other defining passage but which needs careful exposition so as not to plunge into the pitfalls of what the word ‘knowledge’ can mean to different people.
Colcar seems to see the increase in knowledge to be a necessary requirement for the conscience to be able to function properly for
‘...it is impaired because the facts upon which the conscience must base its decision are themselves unreliable, in that they are the product of spiritual ignorance’
but he then proceeds to speak of the need for
‘...a renewal of moral and spiritual discernment’
which appears to be paralleled with Paul’s idea of ‘knowledge’. Of course ‘knowledge’ isn’t ‘discernment’ in the strictest sense of the word and one wonders why Paul didn’t speak of such a need rather than confuse the issue with a word which would automatically be taken as a reference to something else. This association is, therefore, not one which we should accept as being Paul’s intention.
Colwright points out that the preposition ‘in’ which precedes ‘knowledge’ actually gives the sense ‘into’ and that
‘...the renewal spoken of is to result in the true knowledge of God...’
where his last phrase is also interpretative, for ‘knowledge’ of itself doesn’t automatically mean ‘knowledge of God’. This seems the best way to understand the sentence where the renewal isn’t meant to be thought as coming about by the acquisition of knowledge but that it has as its target knowledge which is related to the operation of the new nature within them.
Therefore, we aren’t being told how the new nature is renewed by God (that is, that man must make sure that he edifies what’s within by his acquisition of knowledge - or that God implants knowledge within, which would be less likely) but why God does it so that it might function more fully to point towards right action and, perhaps, that the mind might be given the true knowledge of what represents a desire of the flesh.
‘Knowledge’, therefore, is seen as the ammunition of the new nature whereby it directs the believer in right conduct and lifestyle. There’s a very real danger that we might think that the believer need not acquire knowledge himself and is here being encouraged to remain ignorant - but this is far from the meaning. What we’re looking at is knowledge which is useful to the new nature and not knowledge which is stored in the mind.
All believers should make it their aim to increase both in knowing God by experience and in knowing about God (II Peter 1:5) and there’s only a handful of believers who would find the latter to be impossible to achieve - but even mind knowledge must be rightly interpreted into action by the new nature and not used as a weapon of the flesh to inspire wrong conduct.
Finally, Paul speaks about the new nature being renewed
‘...after the image of its Creator’
where it’s best to read it as
‘...according to the image of its Creator’
so that the renewal can more easily be seen to be aiming towards the image of God because it’s true knowledge for the benefit of the individual. We’ve already sufficiently discussed ‘the image’ on a previous web page (mainly under ‘The perfect similarity’) where we saw that the image in which mankind was created (Gen 1:26) is the same as the image of Christ (Col 1:15) and it’s this image which men and women are growing ‘into’ through the renewal of the new nature within themselves. As I Cor 15:49 also observes
‘Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of Heaven’
The new nature will always grow in its outworking through the believer’s life and it will always grow in more Christlikeness - not in less - because it increases in accordance with the image of the One who created it.
Christ is all
Col 3:11 Pp Gal 3:28
Col 3:11 serves the reader as almost a parenthesis around the statements of Paul about the old and new natures and the transition from the former to the latter that Col 3:9-10 has brought about, before he goes on to speak of the new way of the believer (Col 3:12-17).
But it also shows that, because the image of Christ implanted within the believer is what’s of utmost importance in the life of the follower, acceptance before Him isn’t on the basis of earthly considerations but upon heavenly ones.
That is to say, God the Father accepts all who come to Him through Jesus’ work on the basis of that work and because the transformation which has taken place within them is that which has been completed by a work of God. The rich, therefore, are equally acceptable as the poor, as Jews and Gentiles, as paedophiles and church-goers and as politicians and ordained ministers (have I woken you up, yet?) - but, if in a state of sin, they shouldn’t stay as they were before they came to know Jesus. And this because
‘...Christ is all [or ‘all that matters’ as Colbrien] and in all’
and not through man’s achievement, social status or any other earthly criteria. After all, the believer is to (Col 3:2) set their minds
‘...on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’
and a person who regards one brother more favourably than another is still living in the flesh and a slave to assessments which are devoid of Heaven’s pronouncements on the matter. As Colcar notes
‘...[Jesus] so dominates the whole order of being that persons and things have significance not so much in their relation to each other as in their relation to Him’
and the words need to be applied not to the world order but to those who are in Christ. Therefore Colwright’s insistence to interpret the last phrase as meaning ‘in all people’ and to say that
‘Wherever one looks, one sees Christ’
is misleading. He seems to go on to apply it only to the Church but the translation is worthy of more than one interpretation and should be ignored. Outside Christ there are, indeed, distinctions but, in Him, they become superfluous because Jesus is both everything to everyone and personally in everyone.
The list of distinctions which are consumed in Christ as being irrelevant isn’t complete and shouldn’t be thought of as such. There may be some justification for Paul understanding some of the sections within the fellowship from Epaphras (Col 1:7-8) and of using them in his compilation here but he uses other defining words in other places and so shows that he could have probably gone on for many verses if he’d expounded all the distinctions which were superfluous to their new position (Col 3:1).
There are eight labels which Paul uses here of which six may easily be seen as being contrasts (the first, second and last pair) while ‘barbarian’ and ‘Scythian’ seem to stand apart as individual labels which could very well have been types of people which the local fellowship weren’t in the habit of looking upon very favourably. Colcar notes that the former label
‘...would suggest a foreigner who was an alien to Greek culture...’
though Colwright speaks of the label as being ‘contemptuous’ and
‘...used by Greeks for anyone who did not speak their language...’
Just as the Jews divided the world into themselves and Gentiles so, it would appear, the Greek divided the world up into Greeks and barbarians, Scythians being what the Greek would regard as being indicative of an even more primitive race of people than ‘barbarians’ (Colwright labels them as ‘little better than savages’ in Greek thought) and the Jew might remember, according to Colcar, the
‘...savagery of the Scythian invasion of the eighth century BC’
Josephus (Against Apion 38) seems to echo the hatred that the Jews held them in when he comments that they
‘...take a pleasure in killing men, and differ but little from brute beasts’
Colbruce also notes that the Scythians were employed as policemen in Athens and that they became
‘...figures of fun in Attic comedy because of their uncouth ways and speech’
a further application which we might take as being indicative of society’s grouping together of culturally identifiable people to be the butt of their jokes. We may well be justified in selecting sections within our own society that are equally despised or thought of as worthless and applying the concept of unity of standing in Christ to them, for the two terms are so far removed from our own culture as to, perhaps, become meaningless.
This breaking of the barrier between Gentile and Jew is spoken of elsewhere in the NT (Rom 10:12, I Cor 12:13, Gal 3:28, Eph 2:11-16) as is circumcision and uncircumcision (I Cor 7:19, Gal 5:6, Eph 2:11-16 - though we might assume that these first two distinctions are none other than two ways of saying the same thing, Colcar thinks of them as defining proselyte and non-proselyte because of their existence side by side with Jew and Gentile) and slave and free (Gal 3:28, I Cor 12:13 - Paul will go on to give slaves and masters specific reminders as to behaviour in Col 3:22-4:1).
But, in Gal 3:28, the additional distinction (or lack of it in Christ) between male and female is mentioned in Paul’s list as being necessary - even today, women can still be thought of as second-class believers through the attitudes directed towards them and the tasks which are seen to be only for them to perform.
While I don’t want to get into a discussion here of the function and role of women in the leadership and ministry of the Church, one has to note that the issue is totally different from standing in Christ and women believers must be given equal recognition within the Body. It isn’t enough for a fellowship to teach it if it isn’t willing to practice it - something which has all too often been the case.
The discarding of distinctions in Christ isn’t meant to destroy the structures of the world which have ‘slaves’ and ‘masters’ and which need such divisions. Neither is it meant to remove natural barriers such as male and female with all its implications for sexuality and positions within the Church. Rather, they’re removed solely here for the purpose of showing that acceptance before God isn’t on the basis of earthly consideration but upon the new birth and the implantation of the new nature. All, therefore, are one in Christ as regards standing before God - all are equal in Him and not outside Him - all are equally acceptable to Him because the foundation of the matter is upon a work of God and not upon the achievements of men and women.
And because Christ dwells in all, He becomes all that’s necessary for the upholding of their life (Col 1:17-18). Outside Christ, however, there will always be racial divisions and wars between the sexes but, in Christ, such matters should be forsaken for the perception of Christ’s work and, more importantly, for the realisation that to make such distinctions and to advance such teaching is to be still living ‘according to the earth’ and, consequently, in opposition to God.
There can be no such thing as ‘christian racism’, ‘christian sexism’ or ‘christian denominationalism’ - even though some of these such labels wouldn’t be taken upon themselves by their adherents - for they all proclaim division and measures of acceptability or rejection before God.
The bottom line is that a believer cannot make distinctions as to status before God (that is, who and who can’t be saved) - if he or she does, then they’re in rebellion to both the new nature implanted within them and to God Himself who’s caused the new order to come about.
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