God’s chosen ones
The characteristics of the new life
Tuesday 11th September 2001
1. Forbearing one another
2. Forgiving each other
All the commentators (all four that I read, that is) take Col 3:12-17 to be one complete unit and don’t divide the passage into two as I’ve done. They do, however, note the clear difference between the first and last three verses and I’ve decided to opt for two separate web pages not just because I feared that the size of one might be equally as large as the last web page!
The first three verses begin and end with the concept of ‘putting on’, even though the RSV has added ‘put on’ to Col 3:14 when it’s not in the Greek. It is, however, needed from the opening of Col 3:12 to give the verse sense.
Col 3:13 appears explanatory of the five previous expressions of the new nature listed in Col 3:12 (and, perhaps, flow more out of the last one) and should be taken more of a parenthesis than a change in tack by the author. Provoked by his fivefold list, he opts to take a line or two to expound an application which he feels is particularly relevant before returning once more to the theme of ‘putting on’ by his mention of ‘love’.
After these, Col 3:15-17 moves on to outline ways of living which come from the new nature - but they don’t follow the same sort of wording as occurs in the first three verses, the apostle going on to speak of specific examples of conduct which are fitting for the saints. None of these are capable of being prefixed by the opening ‘put on’ and they have their own verbs which go with the outward expressions of the new nature.
Therefore, a division after Col 3:14 seems purely natural so long as it’s remembered that the divisions are only used to make the passage more manageable.
If Col 3:5-11 is taken as the negative aspect of the work of Christ, Col 3:12-17 should be taken as the positive (Colwright speaks of the change as being ‘like coming out of fog into the sunlight’). Paul has taken time to point out that the old nature must still be guarded against and killed off in all its different aspects with which it tries to tempt the believer to go a way that’s opposed to the new nature and which is still in harmony with the old life of earth - but he doesn’t leave the believer ‘empty’ of expression.
Rather, he draws to their attention the way of the new nature which has been implanted within and the ways in which it seeks to express itself through them, out into the world. Too often we think of ourselves ‘dead’ and forget the new life which comes through the resurrection. In fact, those more ‘reserved’ believers who can accept that Jesus died on the cross but who can’t come to terms with the resurrection through rationality are the most to be pitied for it’s impossible for them to be able to taste the new birth, the new nature and the new way of life.
If they take Paul’s words seriously that they’ve been crucified with Christ and so must consider themselves dead to their old life, what can they possibly be saved into? Saved from - yes. But their lives are in a sort of spiritual state of limbo which is of no use to either themselves or God.
We must remind ourselves that the list of characteristics of the new life aren’t commands to be observed as one might have expected. Paul has already taken time to show that rules and regulations are of no worth in serving Jesus (Col 2:16-23) and that, rather, they only stimulate the flesh to operate within the boundaries that are defined for it.
Instead, Paul sees these as natural expressions or outworkings of the new nature which should become easier for the believers to practice than ever before. The power which is at work within them to put to death the old nature (Rom 8:13) is the same power which causes them to walk in the way of Jesus Christ (Rom 7:6, Gal 5:16, Eph 3:20).
Before we move on, we should note just two other points. Firstly, Paul is quite willing to use the same Greek word to describe both a negative and positive aspect. In Col 2:18 and 2:23, the apostle has already employed a Greek word (Strongs Greek number 5012) to speak of ‘self-abasement’ in the context of a legalistic type of religion and he’ll here use the same word in a positive aspect as the overflow of the new nature (the RSV translates it as ‘lowliness’).
What we should note is that it’s entirely possible that other words can be used with both sorts of application and we shouldn’t think that the same word, used by the same author - even in the same letter - should be always held to bear the same meaning.
This calls for a careful consideration of each of the words, the context and what might be gleaned from other places where the word’s employed in the NT.
Finally, we mentioned on the previous web page that it’s asserted that the three lists of ‘morals’ each contain five descriptions. We saw that this didn’t necessarily hold true because the first used another descriptor (‘which is idolatry’) after the fifth to explain it (Col 3:5) and the second seemed to continue into the following verse where a new idea was added (‘Do not lie to one another...’) to also make it more like a group of six (Col 3:9).
Here, also, there are six rather than five because Col 3:13 is a parenthesis explaining what’s preceded but the apostle then goes on to speak about ‘putting on’ (the words are borrowed from the opening of Col 3:12 to give the verse sense) love.
It seems better to speak of three lists of six, therefore, rather than five.
The first thing to note is the ‘therefore’ which is a little obscured by the RSV’s choice of rendering the word as ‘then’. It has the effect of causing the reader to cast their minds back to what’s just preceded this new statement - and before the parenthesis of teaching which has occurred in Col 3:11 about all being one in Jesus Christ.
Col 3:9-10 has seen Paul conclude his statements about the old nature and to observe that the Colossians have already put it off from themselves, going on to note that they’ve also put on the new. It’s because they have the new that Paul now goes on to describe what can be expected to be characteristic of it.
In one sense, there’s no real need to give specifics because he’s already noted the generalisation that it’s renewed (Col 3:10)
‘...according to the image of its Creator’
and a reflection upon God’s nature, Christ’s image (Col 1:15), should be sufficient for them to perceive the way in which God will be wanting to move through them by the power of the Spirit and in accordance with what’s been implanted within.
Even though the same Greek word is employed in both Col 3:10 and 3:12 (Strongs Greek number 1746), the meaning is a little different in each case. In the first, Paul has already observed that the new nature has been put on - here, the apostle urges his readers to begin to put on those characteristics of the new nature which would be expected.
We can see, then, that it’s possible to speak both of having put the new nature on and of the need to put on those expressions of that new nature and that the latter is not an inevitable consequence of the former - there still needs to be a choice of the will and a determination in the believer’s life which causes the new to have pre-eminence at the expense and destruction of the old.
The idea of ‘putting on’ is one which uses the idea of a garment which is wrapped around oneself, and the word (Strongs Greek number 1746) is used literally this way in a number of places in the NT (for example, Mtw 6:25 and 27:31) and it continues the idea which was hinted at in the ‘put them all away’ (Col 3:8) and ‘put off’ (Col 3:9) which we saw on the previous web page had to do with discarding a garment.
By using the imagery of a garment, Paul may well describe the internal attitudes of the heart and mind - which need first killing, if from the flesh, and then encouraging, if from the new nature - but clothing is predominantly able to be seen by those around us so that an outward demonstration of what’s on the inside can’t be very far away from his thought. It isn’t sufficient, therefore, for the Colossians to consider that they’re being commanded to lock themselves away in seclusion and to cultivate inward attitudes which are pleasing to God if those expressions of the new nature aren’t to be demonstrated through their own lives and out into the world.
The internal workings of a man are what find expression through him - it’s important to realise that the new nature must be allowed to display the character of Christ if the ultimate fulfilment of putting him on is to take place.
Finally, if the new nature is nothing other than the image of Christ (Col 1:15, Col 3:10), then it makes just as much sense to speak of putting on Christ as it does of putting on the new nature. Therefore Gal 3:27 speaks of being baptised into Christ (where a spiritual action is being described rather than a water ceremony) as being the same thing as having ‘put on Christ’. Rom 13:14 is also significant here for it has Paul contrasting the two ways of living before God. He writes
‘...put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires’
where we can see plainly that to ‘put on’ the new nature is the same as to ‘put on’ Jesus Christ. Again, Jesus becomes of central importance to the NT believer for not only is He the source of all their provision (Col 1:18), but He’s also the perfect expression of all that they should become (Rom 8:29).
God’s chosen ones
Paul speaks of the Colossians here with three labels which need our attention before we move on to consider the expressions of the flesh which follow. Each of them substantiate and affirm their position in Jesus Christ and their relationship to the Father so that what they’re being expected to do has this foundation underlying it. In other words, the exhortation isn’t devoid of relationship as if God had commanded that such things must now take place through the believer and had stood back to watch their progress with little emotional involvement.
Rather, it’s because of the pronouncements of God upon them that they find themselves called to demonstrate the new nature which belongs to the new age. In such circumstances, the believers aren’t the enslaved but the privileged, the ones who are beginning to taste those things of the new world order which is about to be fully and finally established upon the earth and of which they’re an integral part of the outworking both in the present and future.
The author first speaks about the believers as being God’s chosen ones where ‘chosen’ (Strongs Greek number 1588) is a compound meaning literally ‘picked out from’ or ‘gathered from’ and occurs 23 times in the NT (Mtw 20:16, 22:14, 24:22, 24:24, 24:31, Mark 13:20, 13:22, 13:27, Luke 18:7, 23:35, Rom 8:33, 16:13, Col 3:12, I Tim 5:21, II Tim 2:10, Titus 1:1, I Peter 1:2, 2:4, 2:6, 2:9, II John 1, 13, Rev 17:14). Kittels notes the meaning as inferring choice and observes that, in the papyri of the secular Greek world it’s often applied
‘...to things of the best quality’
Sometimes it’s obvious that God is the subject of the choosing even when it isn’t stated in as many words and these make up the majority of occasions where it’s found. Surprisingly, the word is rarely used of Jesus as being God’s chosen and it’s first found on the lips of the religious rulers who mock Jesus as He hangs on the cross (Luke 23:35) but used by Peter in his first letter (I Peter 2:4,6) where he also uses the word to be indicative of the believers themselves (I Peter 2:9).
Paul, however, never uses it this way although he does employ it to describe certain angels (I Tim 5:21). The point of the word in Col 3:12 is in God’s choice and in the selection that God has already made in granting the believers to be able to respond to Christ. So, in Mtw 22:14, Jesus observes that
‘many are called, but few are chosen’
where the context shows that in-between the calling and the selection (Mtw 22:1-13), there’s the need for a correct response by individuals. This is an important concept to grasp (see my notes on ‘Foreknowledge, Freewill and Predestination’) for, standing alone, Mtw 22:14 might seem as if it’s pointing towards solely divine election to salvation with no response necessary.
God may have called the Colossians to follow Jesus Christ but it was their response to the message of salvation preached to them (Col 1:6) that prompted the Father to make the choice. These first two actions lie in the past, however, and Paul isn’t concerned to concentrate on them.
Rather, he looks to God’s personal selection and brings home to his readers the special relationship in which they stand. It isn’t that they’ve gone searching for something to believe in and that they’ve arbitrarily opted for ‘christianity’ (although some in this present day have done just that) but that they have been selected by God Himself for a special purpose on earth.
This idea of selection bleeds over once more in the second of the words Paul uses (Strongs Greek number 40) which the RSV renders ‘holy’. We must note, however, that it’s generally accepted that the second and third descriptions of the believers are words which are employed to explain the choice of the apostle’s ‘chosen ones’ - that is, as Colbrien writes
‘...His choice souls are those whom He has set apart for Himself and placed His love upon them...’
These words do, however, deserve to be considered as standing alone and this is what will be done here rather than as explanations of the previous description. As we’ll go on to see, all three words bear a very close association.
We’ve already discussed one of the other words in this group elsewhere (under the heading ‘Saints in Christ’). We quoted Vines who commented that the word
‘...fundamentally signifies “separated” (among the Greeks, dedicated to the gods) and hence, in Scripture in its moral and spiritual significance, separated from sin and therefore consecrated to God, sacred’
This idea of separation is also present here because the context in which it sits has already been talking about casting off the old to be united with the new, of separating oneself from the desires of the flesh in order that one might be separated to the new nature and its expression through them.
Therefore the word is perfect in its immediate context of the battle of old and new and because the first word referring to God’s choice as it does must naturally imply a response of separation to God through both His calling and choice of the believers.
As we pointed out on the previously cited web page, however, we should be careful in finding much consolation in being called ‘the separated ones’ (that is, the saints) because the Pharisees also seem to have taken on themselves such a distinction by translation of their name! It may be a great privilege to be called ‘God’s separated ones’ but it carries with it a great responsibility that must be fulfilled.
So, too, here. God’s people are ‘holy’ because they have an obligation to live out the expressions of the new nature through themselves and not just so that they can sit around in front of the telly in ease and comfort, waiting til the Kingdom will be established.
Separation to God implies commitment to the things of God and the label isn’t rightly used of believers if there isn’t a response from them to live in its reality.
The third label put on the Colossian fellowship is ‘beloved’ (Strongs Greek number 25), a word which is also used of Jesus (Eph 1:16) and of Jerusalem (Rev 20:9 - if my interpretation of this verse is correct). It implies that God Himself has set them apart to be objects of His own love - not just because God loves all men of which they’re a part but because, being in Christ, they’re His special possession throughout the earth and in whom He gets His will done.
The word may have spring out of a passage in Hosea (Hosea 2:23) which Paul quotes in Rom 9:25 as being the voice of God saying that
‘...her who was not beloved I will call “My beloved”’
a clear reference to the Gentiles as taken by the early Church (the original seems to be referring to the Israelites as being ‘not beloved’ because of their sin so that the Gentiles who stood in an equal position can be reasoned to fall also into the description of being a people who can find God’s love towards them even when they weren’t loved because of their sin).
In the fulfilment of OT prophecy, therefore (though the OT text as it stands seem difficult to be pressed to yield such a quote on its own because the Hebrew word means something more akin to ‘pity’), God is seen to love the unlovely, to bestow His favour upon them in Christ.
When I dealt with the subject of the ‘Love of God’, it was important for me to simply define the different concepts or types of ‘love’ and to go on to show how it was that God ‘loved’ all men in the sending of His Son to die for them. We should note that this doesn’t appear to be the main emphasis which lies at the heart of Paul’s description in Col 3:12 (though the idea of being loved by God and of receiving the provision of the cross even when they were God’s enemies can’t be far from his thoughts) but that he’s explaining how God’s special favour now rests upon them through both His choice and His separation of them to Himself.
The three descriptions, then, should be understood to be aspects of the believer’s life in Jesus that form the basis for the calling upon them to live out the new nature both in and through them. Man’s freewill response is wholly consumed in the apostle’s words here that he might bring out the truth of God’s selection in the believer’s position.
Finally, we should note Colwright who points out that all three descriptors are used of Jesus in the NT while Colbrien applies this to be indicative of the One who the believers in Colossae are called to be like. This may well be a good exegetical point but one wonders whether such an association would have been made by the recipients of the letter when Paul hasn’t been careful to bring out these points with any great openness.
While it’s true that, to us, they represent a good example of how Jesus is paralleled in the life of the Church and how, therefore, Jesus is expected to be lived out through her, I’m not certain that such a meaning would have been immediately understandable by the original hearers of the letter.
The characteristics of the new life
As we did with the two lists of negative traits, of expressions of the old life, we need to take a little time to attempt definitions of the characteristics here outlined by Paul as being those things which the Colossians should be aiming towards.
Some of these words are already well defined by modern day society - words such as ‘compassion’, ‘patience’ and ‘love’ - but what we understand by them within our present culture is not always the same understanding that the NT writers gave them and some, as we’ll see, are the incorrect word to translate the Greek.
For example, is ‘love’ meant to encompass gooey feelings or of morals that are decidedly against Paul’s previous observation that all types of sexual sin are a manifestation of the old way of life? For the believer it seems obvious which option would be chosen but use the word ‘love’ in the hearing of an unbeliever and there may be misunderstanding.
And there are others - such as ‘lowliness’ and ‘meekness’ - which are seldom used in society and the concepts of which have gone well out of fashion. Our heroes certainly aren’t meek by even the remotest stretch of the imagination and spend most of their time telling us just how great they are - almost the antithesis of ‘lowliness’.
These brief definitions, then, should change our own attitudes to reject what’s acceptable in the world and to hold fast instead to the expressions of the new nature which Paul is encouraging the believers to be put on and to be witnessed in their midst.
The application of the words in Col 3:13-14 should also alert us to the possibility that the expression of the new nature is primarily intended to be shown towards the followers of Jesus Christ. Of course, a believer can’t turn on and off the new nature and choose to operate in the flesh at times and not at others - that would be to refuse to accept the apostle’s words. But the witness of the two verses cited shows that Paul thought of the application as being directed to believers that the community of the saints might be seen to be empowered by and representative of God.
I’ve taken the list to have a total of six descriptors even though I might have included both found in Col 3:13 and numbered them as eight. But these middle two were consigned to a separate section because the verb ‘put on’ isn’t able to be applied to them and they serve as more of an explanation and outworking of the previous five expressions of the new life than ones which stand on their own.
Strongs Greek number 4698 and 3628
The RSV’s translation ‘compassion’ is the rendering of two words in the Greek text which the AV translates ‘bowels of mercies’. The problem with the first translation is that it leaves the first word uninterpreted but the RSV’s rendering lumps the two words together into the one which is better reflected in the totality of meaning of the word translated ‘bowels’.
Neither of these two translations, it would seem, is sufficiently accurate for them to be accepted and it hasn’t yet been shown that the phrase was a well-known Greek phrase which meant something different to the literal parts.
As to the first word (used eleven times in the NT), it’s literal translation is indeed ‘bowels’ or ‘inward parts’ where the thought is of the organs at the lower end of the abdomen. Such a meaning is seen in the Apocryphal II Maccabees 9:5-6 where it’s said that Antiochus was judged by YHWH with an incurable disease of the bowels because he’d inflicted tortures on others in the same part of the body.
It also occurs literally in Acts 1:18 where it’s recorded concerning Judas that he
‘...bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out’
However, in IV Maccabees 14:13, the writer comments on
‘...a mother’s love for her children, which draws everything toward an emotion felt in her inmost parts’
Here, the idea is of a deep-seated feeling being experienced (I guess that the word ‘bowels’ is used because deep-seated feelings are meant to move you [only kidding]). Kittels observes that
‘In transferred usage, the term denotes “impulsive passions” (anger, desire, etc), then the “seat of feelings and sensibilities”...in pre-christian Greek, the term does not denote pity or compassion’
We should fairly quickly discard the idea of impulsiveness if, by the word, only the attitudes of anger and desire are demonstrable of such a statement for we’ve already seen in Col 3:5,8 that these two characteristics are condemned as being expressions of the old nature and which need to be killed off. It’s better to understand the word as indicative of the centre of a person’s emotions.
Vines gives the contrast between the Greeks and the Jews and, whether the statement is wholly accurate or not, it does show that it would have been the more Jewish side of the word’s use that seems to have been meant to be taken as inferred in Col 3:12. He writes that the bowels
‘...were regarded by the Greeks as the seat of the more violent passions, by the Hebrews as the seat of the tender “affections”...’
This is the same meaning as comes across not only in the NT but in the OT as well. For example, the RSV renders Is 16:11 as
‘...my soul moans like a lyre for Moab, and my heart for Kirheres’
but the AV retains the more literal rendering
‘...my bowels shall sound like an harp for Moab, and mine inward parts for Kirharesh’
(see also Job 30:27, SofS 5:4, Is 63:15, Jer 4:19 all in the AV - some of these are really rather strange renderings to our modern day ears, especially the second. One can hardly imagine a woman’s bowels being moved when she hears the approach of her lover - but it could be determined by what she’d eaten the night before, I guess). Zondervan notes the contrast in Hebrew thought between different internal organs when they write that
‘...the heart was regarded as the seat of intelligence, will and purposiveness [sic?], the bowels were considered as the locale of the deepest emotions, especially pity or sympathy...’
though, in the present Western world, it would be the heart that’s regarded more as the place where emotional responses are ‘felt’ and, if we pulled away from our scientific interpretation of assigning everything to a function of the brain, we might well have considered the heart as being the source of our emotive responses.
The word ‘bowels’ is certainly a wholly insufficient word to use in translation in modern versions of the Scriptures but the translator is often stumped by the way that the word is best translated. For example, it’s given the meaning ‘tender’ to prefix ‘mercy’ in Luke 1:78, seemingly to strengthen the emotional nature of the second word being used.
When it occurs on its own, it can carry with it the sense of ‘affection’ (II Cor 6:12, Phil 1:8, 2:1) and, because of the Western idea of the emotional source, it’s also rendered ‘heart’ (II Cor 7:15, Philemon 7,12,20, I John 3:17). But the main problem in Col 3:12 is to decide whether it needs to be translated in its own right or whether it can be hidden within the translation of the next word.
In Phil 2:1, both Greek words occur which are found in the Colossian phrase and are rendered ‘affection and sympathy’ where each word is given its own independent meaning. The reason here, though, is that the Greek word for ‘and’ appears between them which separates them into two different concepts.
More to the point is Luke 1:78 which we considered briefly above. Here, no word for ‘and’ exists and the ‘bowels’ are used to either strengthen or to define the subsequent word. This is how the construction is in Col 3:12 so that something more than the meaning of the second word is being meant but which we must be careful to recognise.
Perhaps ‘tender’ is the wrong word - ‘affectionate’ might be better - ‘emotional’ would be too open to a wrong interpretation. The word we need to search for is one that emphasises the strength of the following word that’s ‘felt’ rather than performed with no inward feeling. Perhaps the word ‘heartfelt’ (which I noted that Colbrien opted for after struggling to find my own word to reflect the meaning. Great minds, huh?) might be the best way to render the concept seeing as most people would understand the idea of ‘feeling’ by the word.
We need to note before moving on that one of the word group (Strongs Greek number 4697) is used only in the Gospels to denote the compassion of Jesus in feeling the frailties and sorrows of those He met while on earth. The word which occurs in Col 3:12, however, seems not to convey such a meaning as discussed above and is better thought to be a defining word to the one which follows, the intensity of the expression of the new nature being what’s emphasised.
But what is this second concept which needs to be understood as being echoed strongly from within? This word is employed only five times in the NT (Rom 12:1, II Cor 1:3, Phil 2:1, Col 3:12, Heb 10:28) and is rendered by the word ‘mercy’ or ‘mercies’ each time in the AV. The RSV is more liberal and uses the AV’s translation three times while ‘sympathy’ and ‘compassion’ are used elsewhere once each.
Simply taking the context of the passages and allowing them to define the word for us does us no good, either. There are a few words which could be used in these sentences which would make just as much sense as ‘mercy’ or ‘compassion’. What we can definitely say, however, is that the characteristic is one which God also demonstrates (as we’d expect) for it’s used this way on occasions (Rom 12:1, II Cor 1:3) before it could ever be expected to be seen in those who follow after Him (Phil 2:1, Col 3:12).
Vines defines the word as meaning
‘...pity, compassion for the ills of others...’
while Kittels notes that, in the LXX and in Judaism as a whole
‘The meaning is always sympathy or pity...’
Unfortunately, some of these translations just don’t ‘feel’ right. ‘Heartfelt pity’ conjures up in my own mind no outward action which is a necessary part of its demonstration, along with ‘heartfelt sympathy’ which is more of a state of mind than something which is seen as a stimulus towards a rectification of what’s wrong. ‘Heartfelt compassion’ appears to have more going for it but, as I noted above, it’s the first word group which is more correctly used to describe the compassion of Jesus in His dealing with the people He encountered while on earth - and I also find it peculiar that Paul could have used the word employed in the Gospels but he chose not to.
Personally, I prefer ‘heartfelt mercy’ because the latter word is difficult to conceive of as anything other than a word of action - if a person shows mercy to someone, we naturally think that there’s been some demonstrable action involved which has outworked the feeling within. And the origin of such a merciful action is seen as being internal and from the new nature because of the adjective ‘heartfelt’ which occurs with it.
It’s this inner origin that’s important - and that the mercy which comes from within is something which is ‘felt’ rather than ‘thought’. Therefore Colcar describes the phrase as having
‘...an inner yearning which feels deeply for another’
and Colwright that it speaks of
‘...a deep sensitivity to the needs and sorrows of others...’
and that it
‘...affects one’s innermost being’
If we truly had ‘heartfelt mercy’ for one another, we’d find a Church that didn’t criticise others for their failings, who were willing to help brothers put matters right when they went wrong and who were active in settling disputes when they arose within the body of believers. And that would also bleed over into the lives they lived when not together with their fellow believers.
The phrase doesn’t mean that there’s an overlooking of problems or that the believer tries to call for a truce when difficulties arise. Rather, they ‘feel’ in their own being the problem that exists and seek to solve it by forsaking judgment and exhibiting mercy into the situation.
Strongs Greek number 5544
This word occurs just 8 times in the NT and, like the one which precedes it, there appears to be little context with which to define it. Indeed, as one approaches this short list of five or six words, one can’t help but wonder at the general difficulty the reader has at not only getting to the root meaning of the word but of understanding how it might be seen through them.
We can much more easily understand the ‘negatives’ which flow from the old nature, probably because we’ve lived with them for a great many years before they’re killed off in Christ but ‘being good’ and allowing the new nature to flow out through us is difficult to define - not least because the words we use are vague concepts.
All that can be said, I guess, is that the witness of the Holy Spirit should confirm or condemn the actions which flow from within so that the believer isn’t left wondering which is to be followed and which rejected but will be guided into every response that is ‘of God’ and ‘of the new nature’.
‘Kindness’, however, is another word which we seem to be aware of but which we have difficulty describing in any real depth. As the previous word in the list showed, the concept is one which flows naturally from God (Rom 2:4, 11:22, Eph 2:7, Titus 3:4) and which, therefore, should flow naturally from the inner nature which has been created after His likeness (II Cor 6:6, Gal 5:22, Col 3:12). In its one other use, it’s translated as ‘good’ by the RSV in Rom 3:12 as a quote from the OT by Paul in which he observes that all mankind have turned aside and that no one does ‘good’.
The AV is torn between ‘good/goodness’ and ‘kindness’ in the majority of its translations with one rendering of ‘gentleness’ in Gal 5:22. It appears, then, that the root meaning of the word was as difficult for some of the first translators to define as it is for us today. The problem not only for the translator but for the meaning which should be given to the word is seen in Kittel’s defining of the adjective (Strongs Greek number 5543) about which he writes that
‘When used of people, the term means “worthy”, “decent”, “honest”, morally “upright” or “good”...Other meanings are “kind”, “gentle”, “clement”, “good-hearted” and even “simple”’
and, when the noun is employed in Secular Greek (the word used in Col 3:12), the word has such meanings as
‘...“honesty”, “respectability”, “worthiness” and...“kindness”, “friendliness”, “clemency”’
Confronted by such a great cloud of interpretation, I’m inclined to go along with the simpler translation ‘goodness’ and let the reader decide for themselves what exactly that means (sitting on the fence, I know) because it seems to me that an expression of the nature of the new man within should necessarily be a demonstration of God’s own goodness in being disposed to look favourably upon men and women who were living in opposition to and as enemies of Himself.
This idea occurs in Luke 6:35 where the adjective is used on the lips of Jesus in the instruction
‘...love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish’
God’s goodness is displayed, then, in His actions towards even those who are unresponsive to Him and just downright nasty pieces of work. Therefore, the word becomes not so much an ethereal concept as a virtue in action. Therefore Vines is correct to define it as ‘goodness’ and to explain that it’s
‘...not merely goodness as a quality, rather it is goodness in action, goodness expressing itself in deeds...’
‘Kindness’ limits the expansive nature of the word, I feel, whereas ‘goodness’ speaks of the character of God in every facet of His being as He works within society to reconcile men and women to Himself by grace. Colcar sees the word as speaking of
‘...the desire for another’s good’
and, even though he seems to prefer the translation ‘kindness’, it’s important to put hedges around such a concept for we might as well apply the concept even when ‘kindness’ assessed by the world’s standards is also ‘tainted by sin’ or, perhaps better, not a reflection of God’s goodness - for example, is buying an alcoholic a bottle of whiskey when they’ve run out of money really a kindness (we might say it’s ‘kind’ but it’s certainly not ‘good’ for the alcoholic - and neither does it necessarily reflect the goodness of God)? Or is it better to display the goodness of God in removing the addiction by God’s power and of making a way for them to be restored into a relationship with God (Rom 2:4 uses the noun to show how God’s goodness is meant to lead to a man’s repentance)?
The example is fraught with indeterminable possibilities, of course, because the alcoholic may have asked God for a sign He exists by giving him a bottle of whiskey - you may think that strange but God will demonstrate His existence to men and women within their own limits of understanding even if it seems rather peculiar to ourselves that such a thing is possible.
So, in conclusion, ‘goodness’ or ‘kindness’ must always reflect the character and nature of God just as the new nature from which it springs has also been created in His image (Col 3:10) - and it’s also a word which denotes an action rather than a passive mental state.
Strongs Greek number 5012
The Greek word appears just seven times in the NT (Acts 20:19, Eph 4:2, Phil 2:3, Col 2:18,23, 3:12, I Peter 5:5), three of which are in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. One might perhaps think that we would find at least one place in this letter that might expand the meaning for us but the problem is that the word is used in a negative sense twice, long before it appears in this list (Col 2:18,23). The meaning of the word can only be determined by context, therefore, and there isn’t too much of this in the NT - as will be seen, the word ‘humility’ is, perhaps, the best word with which to render the Greek.
The word occurs in only two lists (Eph 4:2, Col 3:12) and one aspect of it’s meaning is probably best understood from Phil 2:3 (my italics) where the apostle writes that they’re to
‘Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves’
To this end, the AV’s translation of the word in Colossians as ‘lowliness of mind’ is interpretative rather than strictly correct. But it seems a true one, nevertheless, for humility, although flowing from the inner nature, must also settle as a state of the mind directed towards individuals.
We shouldn’t regard ‘humility’ here as an attitude of the heart which refuses to accept the truth about oneself and so elevates others into positions of respect that they aren’t really fitted for - if we did this sort of thing, the Church would have the predominantly proud in leadership and the real followers of God would only be those who make up the numbers of the congregation and who seldom would push themselves forward (uncanny, huh?).
No. Even the leaders must regard the men and women in the congregation as better than themselves by an outworking of their own humility (I Peter 5:5). On a personal note, there are many men and women who are better at dealing with people’s problems than me, who seem to be able to do without sleep and achieve more for God than me and who always seem to have that ‘word’ for someone which removes the burden from off their back.
And all I can do is teach and play the guitar!
But others should hold me as better than themselves in these areas, even as I hold others as better than me in others in order that there might be mutual submission and respect. Without such an attitude, not only would men and women strut around the fellowships with pride in themselves rather than in God but it could be a breeding ground for jealousy and envy where ministries and talents wouldn’t so much be encouraged and enjoyed when they were in others but put down and criticised whenever they were seen.
The teachers who had a settled ministry wouldn’t make way for the new teachers by opening the pulpit to them - simply because they either represented a threat to the unique way in which others regarded themselves or because their position within the fellowship was beginning to be threatened. In this sort of set up, it’s very common for the ‘new leaders’ to be labelled as ‘usurpers of authority’, especially when they begin to experience frustration and voice their opinions. Obviously not in subjection to the leadership, they need to spend the next ten years learning what humility is.
Humility, then, is a great antidote to pride, jealousy and envy. But only a humility which is truthful and honest. There is a humility which undermines even one’s own position by counting others as better than oneself when they’re not - there’s a need for sober judgment that a person’s relationship with God might not be hindered and even that the trait of pride might not be encouraged to take root.
In one fellowship I was in, the musicians so elevated one of the guitar players that you could see his head visibly swell. I wouldn’t have minded but he wasn’t all that great a player even though he imagined that he was by the time that the others had done with him.
In Luke 18:9-14, we can read what happens when humility both is and isn’t applied to oneself. The Pharisee assessed himself by criteria which were not acceptable to God at all. He observed how he wasn’t like others who he believed were living against the purposes of God and justified himself by recourse to his fasting and giving of tithes.
The tax collector, however, was honest about his own spiritual state before God and implored God for mercy. Jesus’ conclusion is significant here for He observed (my italics - the Greek word of Col 3:12 isn’t used here) that
‘...[the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted’
also echoed in Peter’s words in 1 Peter 5:5 where he concludes that
‘...God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’
Humility (or ‘lowliness’ as translated by the RSV), then, is both a word of action and also a word of honesty. There’s ‘false humility’ described in Col 2:18,23 which is an expression of the old nature, but there’s also a humility that’s false and prevalent in the Church today which doesn’t correctly perceive and discern situations, so that those who should never be in authority are elevated there by the people who have humbled themselves to the point of helplessness.
Humility is about mutual subjection - not about individual dominance - and is expressed when those who are obviously better than oneself in areas are preferred ahead of oneself, even to the point of the individual’s personal loss.
Strongs Greek number 4236
This word occurs nine times in the AV (I Cor 4:21, II Cor 10:1, Gal 5:23, 6:1, Eph 4:2, Col 3:12, I Tim 6:11, II Tim 2:25, Titus 3:2), each time being translated by the word ‘meekness’. The RSV, however, seems torn between the concepts of ‘meekness’ (three times) and ‘gentleness’ (four times) even translating it as the former when a different word for the latter (Strongs Greek number 1932) is used in conjunction with it (II Cor 10:1). It’s once translated as ‘courtesy’ in Titus 3:2.
Like the former words in the list, the concept meant to be conveyed by its use is difficult to determine from the context alone in which it’s used and it also appears in a number of lists which do nothing to define the boundaries of its intent (II Cor 10:1, Gal 5:23, Eph 4:2, Col 3:12, I Tim 6:11).
Kittels defines the word as meaning
‘mild and gentle friendliness’
but, as this can imply an easy-going attitude that has nothing intrinsically dynamic about it, they go on to note that the ancient Greeks
‘...value this virtue highly so long as there is compensating strength’
That is, we shouldn’t think of the word as denoting an attitude which has no power with which to meet the situations that confronts the person who displays it. Vines notes that the word can be defined negatively as
‘...the opposite to self-assertiveness and self-interest; it is equanimity of spirit that is neither elated nor cast down, simply because it is not occupied with self at all’
This is an important concept to grasp for the thoughts of the truly meek in Christ aren’t self-centred but are committed towards One who’s looked to with confidence for all that’s necessary. Vines precedes these comments with the observation that
‘The common assumption is that when a man is meek it is because he cannot help himself; but the Lord was meek because [or, rather ‘even though’] He had the infinite resources of God at His command’
so that what’s perceived as being an attitude of self-resignation is actually a commitment into the hands of One who’s much stronger and able to control and protect their own interests. It means that meekness isn’t seen in authoritarian leadership which strives to maintain its own position but in the acceptance of threats to its own importance (excepting where those threats are demonstrably satanic) because it recognises that it’s God alone who’s able to move in the situation to protect their interests if He so wills.
It isn’t the case that Jesus is unable to do what He wants that He describes Himself as ‘meek’ (Mtw 11:29, 21:5 - another place where a characteristic of God in Christ is reflected in the new nature) but that He chooses to entrust His safety and mission into the hands of the Father and so is able to ‘relax’ to a great extent for the provision that’s needed.
So anxiety over one’s needs is actually evidence that a believer isn’t meek (Mtw 6:25-34) because it shows that a man or woman is trusting in his own ability (or lack of it) to provide for themselves. Colcar defines the concept as being
‘...a spirit of quiet submission as exemplified in Christ who did not insist on His own rights or comforts but submitted to the will of God’
In the first few years of my ‘christian life’, there was much being made of claiming one’s rights through prayer - of running your finger along a verse of Scripture and insisting that the believer’s rights were fulfilled to you by God Himself. This does tend to undermine a position of meekness, however, for Jesus had the right to summon large numbers of angels to deliver Him from the trial of the cross (Mtw 26:53) and yet He chose not to do so because He knew it was the Father’s will.
So, claiming ‘rights’ is anathema to following Jesus Christ and is an indication that the concept of meekness, of a reliance upon God for everything, is not yet the experience of the individual concerned.
We’ve centred ‘meekness’ in a total reliance upon God and a subsequent reaction in one’s own life not to be concerned about one’s own affairs insofar as God will look after His own people. But it must also be outworked as a positive reaction towards other men and women where one’s own ‘rights’ aren’t insisted upon.
There’s a sense in which God’s interests must always be upheld and established but a believer does have that uncanny knack of being able to turn his or her own interests into God’s even though they’re often very far removed from them.
In the passage where Moses is announced as being ‘very meek’ (Num 12:3), we find Aaron and Miriam speaking against Moses and undermining his unique relationship to God and before His people (Num 12:1-2). Yet it isn’t Moses who stands against the objectors but God who steps into the breach and rebukes those who have thought it wise to undermine the position of His leader (Num 12:9-10), Moses even needing to petition God for Miriam’s healing (Num 12:13) - something that you or I might well have not been inclined to do.
But meekness allows God to defend one’s own interests - and even sees the need for the restoration of one’s enemies when their annihilation might be more appropriate to safeguard oneself against a further attack. Commenting on the OT concept of ‘meekness’ and how it was the poor who had no real rights who were labelled as such, Colbrien writes that
‘...Yahweh is the God of those without rights’
and it seems to be insightful that we might say that, in the NT, the meek are those who voluntarily forsake what rights they have in order for God to be the One who fights for them. In the new, it isn’t that believers don’t have natural power but that they’re concerned to allow the Father to be the sole source of their justification.
It seems also to have shades of meaning of ‘gentleness’ in a person’s dealing with others - hence the RSV’s translation in some places. Colbrien notes the forsaking of personal rights but goes on to define a second meaning as
‘a consideration for others’
something which can be seen in a handful of Scriptures (I Cor 4:21, Gal 6:1, II Tim 2:25, Titus 3:2). It’s because the meek are confident for their defence from God that they can take animosity and slander directed at them and respond in a manner which would be surprising in the world’s eyes.
Strongs Greek number 3115
The Greek word occurs fourteen times in the NT (Rom 2:4, 9:22, II Cor 6:6, Gal 5:22, Eph 4:2, Col 1:11, 3:12, I Tim 1:16, II Tim 3:10, 4:2, Heb 6:12, James 5:10, I Peter 3:20, II Peter 3:15) and is again included in lists where no context can be used to give the word any meaning (Rom 2:4, II Cor 6:6, Gal 5:22, Eph 4:2, Col 1:11, Col 3:12, II Tim 3:10). The word is also used as a characteristic of God Himself (Rom 2:4, 9:22, I Tim 1:16, I Peter 3:20, II Peter 3:15).
The word has already occurred in the letter to Colossae before and we’ve devoted a section to the use and meaning of the word on that previous web page - we’ll do little more than revise and expand those notes for inclusion here.
On that page, we saw that there was a marked contrast between the words ‘endurance’ and ‘patience’ where the former more naturally was used of situations but the latter was directed towards individuals. Therefore Colwright commented (my italics) that ‘patience’ was an attribute directed towards
‘...an apparently impossible person’
The special characteristic of the Greek word in being employed to relate to people is quite correct but, once again, we must note that Paul and Timothy envisaged patience as being a product of the empowering of the individual by the power of God in Col 1:11 whereas here in Col 3:12 we can see that Paul declares it to come out from the new inner nature that reflects the character of God Himself.
Both aspects of Paul’s statements are, of course, correct. The new nature reflects the image of God but is itself empowered by the Spirit of God that desire might be established with potency. In Is 11:2, one of the pairs of empowering upon YHWH’s servant was that of ‘counsel and might’ where the resolve of the mind (the counsel) is necessarily linked with the ability to bring one’s purposes to completion (the power).
There’s no contradiction here, therefore, because empowering needs to be granted the believer that the leadings of the new nature might be followed at the expense of the old way of living.
Of the fourteen occurrences of the word in the text of the AV, four clearly direct patience towards someone rather than a trial or time of tribulation (Rom 2:4, 9:22, I Tim 1:16, I Pet 3:20) while other words in the group can also be used in this manner (for example, Mtw 18:26) and, therefore, in the NT application, the word can be shown to be specially used with its object as men and women. There is at least one occasion, however, when the word is used of a time through which believers must go in order to inherit the promises of God (Heb 6:12 and probably James 5:10) and it’s difficult to see how a person who was trying the patience wouldn’t also be seen to be bringing with them a time of tribulation or testing.
Vines (echoed by Colcar) is possibly best followed here when he explains the word as being
‘...that quality of self-restraint in the face of provocation which does not hastily retaliate or promptly punish’
Patience is more an attitude of the heart directed at people when similar situations arise though, more especially, in every facet of life when people are encountered who begin to grate on the believer’s peace. Colcar observes that
‘Whereas the natural instinct is to retaliate, whether by bitter word or by act of revenge, the christian is to aim rather at that quiet spirit which was exemplified by Him who in the moment of extreme provocation prayed “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”’
while Barclay (as Colbrien) mirrors the characteristic of the believer by describing it as a ‘great obligation’ that
‘...he must be as patient with his fellow men as God has been with him’
The characteristic is seen outworked in the believer’s life in his dealings with men and women more than his attitude in tribulations, even though it can be applied to these. And, as everyone’s aware, some people are impossible to be patient with unless there was some super-human resource upon which they can draw - I could give you names...
So, God’s great patience directed towards those who live in opposition towards His will (Rom 9:22) is echoed as being a necessary attitude in teaching (II Tim 4:2) where I can vouch for some people’s slowness in spiritual matters and the need to be determined to persistently repeat oneself until that time when the light is suddenly switched on inside them.
Perhaps such people are actually a blessing sent from God to perfect the teacher in patience?!
But we all have our slowness of understanding and are all in need of another’s patience towards us in some matters so that we shouldn’t see the patience we display as being one-sided but mutually shared - just the same as each of the expressions of the new nature can be.
Strongs Greek number 26
The sixth and final expression of the new nature which can be understood as needing to be ‘put on’ is love. Indeed, the verb doesn’t exist in this verse at all and is simply borrowed from Col 3:12 because the context and construction makes it necessary to regard this verse as an extension of the first five words recorded.
I don’t want to go into a lengthy definition of the concept of ‘love’. I’ve already done this on my web page which dealt with the ‘Love of God’ and the reader should turn there for a full explanation both of what the love of God is and isn’t and the Scriptures which demonstrate the concept in action through the cross.
I noted there the difference in the Greek words employed both in the NT and in secular Greek and how the NT writers seemed to take the word group which includes the transliterated ‘agape’ and ‘agapao’ and gave it a special meaning which interpreted the love of God in sending His Son to reconcile mankind to Himself on the cross. Alford is cited in Colcar as observing that the Greek word in Col 3:14 is preceded by the definite article which, according to the author is
‘...an allusion to the specific, well-known love which should characterise the christian’
Even though there’s an overflow of meaning between the different Greek words translated by the English ‘love’, I defined the ‘agape’ word group as having two specific characteristics. First and foremost, it was love which was bestowed upon a person or group of people regardless of any considered merit in those people by the subject. That is to say, God demonstrates His love towards sinners, enemies and exiles - all people who live in opposition to His will and who are actively opposed to doing His will.
Jesus, then, died not for God’s buddies but for His adversaries.
Secondly, in the love described, there was a desire to give to the object of one’s love rather than to possess the object of one’s desire. Therefore, when Jesus dies on the cross, it’s more the point that the Father was giving men and women the fulness of His resources (that is, giving them Himself) rather than He was bringing about the possibility that He might possess a people for His own purpose.
This latter concept is true, of course, but when it comes to the outworking of God’s love, we need to see God’s work as being performed to give Himself away.
We also saw on the web page that a man cannot react properly either in obeying what God wants him to do, in loving God or loving the brethren unless he is first transformed by the love of God in Christ. The work of the cross and its application to the believer is an important cornerstone in the believer’s life from which true love comes.
In Col 3:12,14, we see the source of love coming from the new nature - but it’s equally correct to see and maintain that, unless a man receives God’s love, he won’t be in a position to reflect that love towards his fellow man or woman.
It may be the love directed towards fellow believers that’s particularly being described in Col 3:14 but the vagueness of Paul’s statement that love
‘...binds everything together in perfect harmony’
or, perhaps better and more literally
‘...is the bond of completeness’
points towards an application which leaves nothing outside love’s control and influence. That the concept is here noted as being the most important of all (the ‘above all else’) should be understood in the context of Paul’s command to ‘put on’ the expressions of the new nature. The phrase at the beginning of the verse doesn’t imply, however, that ‘love’ is being considered as the most important of all the expressions which have been listed but, rather, is indicating the supreme importance of demonstrating love.
Some commentators observe that having love as the ‘supreme’ expression of the inner nature (a sort of ‘hierarchy’ of virtues) is purely in keeping with thoughts borrowed from the Greek world - and there’s also an example of such a parallel in I Cor 13:13) - but the idea here is of the importance of adorning oneself with love and not of the importance of love itself.
Colwright notes the possibility that ‘love’ would be envisaged as the
‘...outer garment holding the others together or simply a brooch or clasp which does the same job’
where Kittels notes the root meaning of the word translated ‘bond’ (Strongs Greek number 4886) as
‘...the middle thing that serves as a link’
Colbrien, however, doesn’t see this concept as worthy of acceptance and notes the alternative that
‘...love is the bond that leads to perfection’
rather than it being the glue that joins and holds together either the expressions of the new nature in Col 2:12-13 (and, perhaps also, the believers themselves). As there’s no reference to ‘them all’ as the NIV translates, the verse is left hanging ambiguously as to what it is that’s ‘bound together’. Colwright goes too far in stating that
‘The other virtues, pursued without love, become distorted and unbalanced’
because it leads the believer to think that the expressions of the new nature aren’t sufficient in themselves to demonstrate the character of God. It needs to be lessened its force just a little for Paul seems to be saying something similar to Gal 5:6 where he places both circumcision and uncircumcision to one side and then declares that all that’s important is
‘...faith working [made effective] through love’
That is, each of the virtues is seen to be an expression of love and, as such, come together as the totality of God’s character only when love works alongside, through and in them. Hence the reason for the same word being used in another place in Colossians (as noted above under ‘Lowliness’) in a negative sense because in that passage the vacuum created by the absence of love causes mankind to follow after an expression which is devoid of the presence of the God who’s love itself (I John 4:16).
Colwright is correct in thinking that the expressions of the new nature find their perfect and complete expression when love operates alongside but he goes too far to think of them becoming ‘distorted and unbalanced’ by its absence.
All Paul says here is that, for the perfection of expression of the new nature, love must operate through the believers which has the effect of bringing together everything into a unity and which is seen as being from God. The verse must also apply to the unity of the followers of Christ but, primarily, the expressions of the new nature is what’s in mind because the context dictates it so.
Tuesday 11th September 2001
The reader will probably wonder what a fairly recent date (depending on when you read it) as a header is doing in the midst of a commentary on the ancient letter to Colossae. It was on this day that most of the world was shocked by the events in America in which thousands lost their lives in the four hijackings of planes and the subsequent targets that they were crashed into.
The least said about the details of the tragedy, the better.
But the last three sections were all written during this time when I was torn between watching CNN Europe to see what the newest information was and trying to concentrate on the Biblical subjects at hand.
Today, Thursday, I’m also torn between tuning in to the news since I went to work and putting some thoughts down here and how it relates to what’s preceded this section. Whatever else might be gleaned from the events - and there will be apocalyptic pronouncements as well as calls for ‘non-retaliation’ or, at the least, ‘limited retaliation’ - one thing is sure and certain.
That is, the new nature is the only solution for what’s inside the heart of the men and women of the world. Let each man show the heartfelt mercy, goodness, humility, meekness, patience and love as flowing from within them and out to men and women throughout the world, and events like this - and a multitude of others - would never take place.
I’m not advocating the doctrine that there will ever be a ‘perfect’ world before Jesus returns but, rather, that the solution to the world’s problems isn’t aggression in whatever form it takes but in the new birth. Only the new birth transforms the individual to bear the character of God and encourages them to use the power now at their disposal to put to death the old life.
Law sorts out nothing - even religious law - because the same old man is rooted inside everyone and it can’t be dealt with without the work of Christ. The bottom line is that unless the Gospel is preached and is allowed to have its full effect in converting men and women and transforming them to be like Christ, lasting peace can never come to any society because there will always be others who don’t hold with the traditional moral values that the society holds dear.
One of our newspapers here in the UK bore the headline
‘The Day the World Changed’
on its front page with a scene from the World Trade Centre and the flames spewing out from it in bright orange and red. But man’s changes to the world aren’t for the better very often - they may change living conditions and bring prosperity but they seldom do something about relationships and what’s inside. The real day that points to a change in the world was around two thousand years ago in the resurrection when life came from death and hope was reborn in the world that announced that God had done something about man’s problem.
It’s only the solution of the cross which remedies mankind and we’re continually doomed to repeat our mistakes unless we allow ourselves to be changed from within, to put to death the old nature and to fuel the new as it seeks to express itself through us.
Whatever might come from this day, nothing can ever solve the hatred and fear that’s come into people’s lives and which wasn’t there before - except, of course, the cross and the new birth.
Paul appears to be catapulted from the mention of ‘patience’ into a direct appeal to the Colossians to ‘forbear one another’ and, then, moved on once more to speak about the need for forgiveness.
This is only a parenthesis, however, for Paul will return to the idea of ‘putting on’ the new nature in Col 3:14 (see above) where he’ll develop the all important concept of love as the uniting force in the believer’s life.
1. Forbearing one another
I must admit that I found this characteristic detailed by Paul as rather surprising and almost humorous - not that Paul was trying to crack a joke or that he was writing something tongue-in-cheek but because there’s almost a betrayal of his own thoughts on christian relationships by urging believers to ‘tolerate’ or ‘forebear’ others when he’ll go on in almost the next breath to speak of ‘love’ and the perfect unity that it brings in all things (Col 3:14).
So, forbearance is a strange concept for a believer to be directed towards when love seems to be the aim of following after God the Father. In a rather light-hearted way, we might draw out the contrasts between the two differing concepts in a series of statement (not meant to be taken too literally, I hasten to add):
Love accepts men and women as they are, forbearance puts up with them.
Love seeks out people who don’t fit in and puts its arm around them, forbearance smiles at them and hopes they don’t come any nearer.
Love wants to get involved in the trials of the unlovely, forbearance asks them how they are and hopes they don’t take the question seriously or take too long in answering.
Love loves the unlovely, forbearance stifles a cough when it smells them.
Love reaches out a hand to touch the unclean, forbearance puts out a hand even though it wishes it’d remembered its gloves.
Love draws together the diverse into a unity, forbearance praises God for men’s diversity.
We could also, perhaps, see forbearance at the starting point of a believer’s life and relationship with others. So Paul can say (Rom 12:18) that
‘If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all’
where he seems almost to concede that there might be frictions between men and women that can’t be resolved. He’s certainly speaking about believer/non-believer relationships in Romans and we shouldn’t try and insist that the apostle thought of the existence of animosity between brothers as existing for very long (indeed, in the next phrase of Col 3:13, he’ll go on to remind his readers of the need to forgive).
The believer, though, is to (Rom 14:19)
‘...pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding’
where the brethren who have wildly different views about incidentals are concerned. The pursuit of harmony or unity is the aim of the believer in these circumstances and a toleration may be required that there will come some sort of ‘truce’ between believers who should know better. Unfortunately, the history of the Church has often been witness to the fact that we don’t and that we enjoy creating divisions amongst ourselves by justifying our actions in spiritual language. Rather, the writer to the Hebrews urges his readers (Heb 12:14) to
‘Strive for peace with all men...’
where the non-believer must also be in mind. Here in Col 3:13, though, the idea is predominantly that believers might have to put up with one another. After all, we didn’t choose that weird guy in the corner who’s got long hair and who talks about God being ‘cool’. And the woman in the front row who keeps putting her hands up to God at every given opportunity and doesn’t cover her head is a real problem who can’t be rationalised. Perhaps, even, the guy at the back needs to meet the woman the front - they could certainly turn out to be the perfect couple. And perhaps as a couple they might be called by God to worship God somewhere else...
We aren’t talking about those who sin against another brother for that needs to be dealt with in a totally different way, but there appears to be an acceptance that there may be personality clashes that aren’t easy to overcome.
I have to say that Paul seems to accept that there’ll be ‘strange people’ to us (and strange people to you - perhaps you might even consider me as strange if you met me) - that there’ll be people who just seem to grate no matter how we try to accept them. We’ll get used to them in the end, no doubt, but for the present, we have to ‘forbear’.
2. Forgiving each other
These notes are based upon and reworked from those on the web page here in ‘Appendix 1 - The forgiveness of man’s sin’
One of the great fundamental truths of the message of the Gospel is that, in Christ, God has made a way to forgive individuals for all those things which they’ve done against His will for their lives - whether they be sins which were committed deliberately or actions which were shunned and refused to be performed. But the Gospel doesn’t stop here for this must develop into the forgiveness of the brethren for whom Jesus also died on the cross.
Therefore Paul’s command here that they’re to forgive one another is immediately justified by the observation that
‘...as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also [must forgive]’
the last two words being added only to give the statement the sense of the apostle’s meaning. Man’s forgiveness of man and the importance of such a concept to our walk with Jesus is an important reaction to the work of the cross but there’s still a determination of the will involved.
There’s no one, I expect, who’s not at some point or other - and, more than likely, on a regular basis - found an individual committing sin against them. Whether this be directly, in the form of stealing, adultery and the like, or indirectly, such as actions that bring consequences to bear upon us, there are two possible reactions to being wronged. We should remember, however, as we go on to look at these two reactions that Paul’s words are primarily dealing with offences or considered offences which come from the believer, not from those outside and the unsaved.
Firstly, there’s unforgiveness as exemplified in the life of Lamech in Gen 4:23-24 where he avenges himself 70x7 times, a figure which is more symbolic for wholeness and completion than it’s meant to be taken literally.
The result of Lamech’s unforgiveness in the passage quoted channelled itself into an act of murder. Indeed, unforgiveness imparts death whether physical, spiritual or emotional. That may take the form of inward death, where we become dead to the life of God, or real death when we declare war on the person who’s sinned against us and seek vengeance - also, as a consequence, finding that we begin to grow dead to the movings of God around us.
While anger burns in our hearts, there’s always the possibility that it may overspill from within and find expression in actions that, though they may stop short of murder, are certainly not actions based upon love (Mtw 5:21-26).
Because Lamech didn’t choose reconciliation with the one who wounded him, the only course of action left open to him was one of retaliation and vengeance which he pursued speedily.
The second option is forgiveness shown in Luke 17:3-4 (Pp Mtw 18:21-22) where forgiveness is shown to be full by the same use of the numerical number 70x7. Jesus’ instructions to His disciples were to forgive those who sinned against them (Mtw 6:12). The end result of forgiveness is reconciliation and healing - it imparts life and release into situations that are bound up through bitterness.
Forgiveness calms the anger that burns within when we feel we’re wronged and pacifies the hatred that can so easily spill over into our dealings with the one who’s wronged us.
That’s why forgiveness is so important and urged upon His followers by Jesus. If we’re aflame with anger then we can’t be full of love and cannot therefore reach out effectively to others who are continually sinning against us - and it’s only love that’s a reflection of the character of God into the world.
These are the two responses that we can give to the personal sin problem as I’ve noted above - one leads to death, the other to life. But two further points need to be considered that qualify the above statements.
Firstly, the forgiveness of sins is always to be bestowed upon those who offend us - but notice that Paul refused to take Mark with him (Acts 15:36-40) because he’d withdrawn from the work that they were engaged in. What we need to ask ourselves is
‘Was Paul bitter towards Mark?’
‘Had Paul allowed unforgiveness to remain undealt with?’
The answer to both questions need not be anything other than ‘No’. Paul refused to take Mark with him not because he continued to remember the action against him as a sin and hadn’t dealt with it but because, in his assessment of Mark’s character, there continued to be a weakness that meant he wasn’t the ideal person to select for furthering the work.
An assessment of a brother’s weakness must continue for his own salvation, to avoid him stumbling (as in the case of the weak brother - Rom 14:1-15:3) and it’s not the same as holding unforgiveness in one’s heart against someone.
Therefore, though we’re commanded to forgive all who sin against us in order that we may not grow bitter against such individuals, there are still considerations to be made if that individual turns to be forgiven by us.
Secondly, it’s not possible to bestow forgiveness upon a brother if he’s not repentant. There must be an acknowledgement of sin in the individual’s life before forgiveness can be received. Notice Luke 17:3-4 above which talks about a brother who acknowledges his sin. The parallel Mtw 18:21-22 omits this detail, but the need for repentance qualifies the passage as is shown by the parable that follows in Mtw 18:23-35.
If there’s no acknowledgement, the forgiveness ‘works’ for us only, not for the unrepentant transgressor. We are ‘released’ from any bitterness or hardness of heart - that is, spiritual death - and so can continue to serve the Lord in purity.
This seems to be the meaning behind Paul’s words here in Col 3:13 where no statement that forgiveness is conditional upon a brother’s confession exists and the previous words about forbearance seem to point toward the possibility that he had in mind situations where either resentments or grudges might have existed.
Perhaps Paul is concerned to guard against these possibilities rather than to allow for them to occur. So the believer who has a ‘hard time’ with the eccentricity of a brother is encouraged to forgive and to use God’s forgiveness of them as their example. That a believer might have a just complaint against a brother is immaterial - simply because God had a far greater complaint against each one of us and He chose to make a way that it could be remedied.
But, having said that, a person cannot receive forgiveness unless he’s repentant.
This entire subject of ‘forgiveness’ of men and women is a tricky one and one that we’re all probably going to struggle with for the rest of our lives.
Who can honestly say that they feel confident that they could forgive the grossest sin committed against them without in the least feeling any bitterness or anger towards that individual? Even considering how God lives out the reality of what He tells us to do (while at the same time knowing that God will judge everyone at some future day), makes it no easier for us.
But forgiveness is where we must aim and turn to God for help in this area. That may sound a glib answer (and I admit that it sounds that way to me, also - and I wrote it!) but it’s the only way that we’re going to find ourselves remaining unembittered in our dealings with the world.
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