Colossians 3:1-17

We have looked twice already at this paragraph, first to notice the typical way in which Paul outlines the practice of the Christian life: first as the outgrowth or emanation of God’s gracious salvation and our union with Christ in his work — past, present, and future — and second as, once again, a double action: the putting of sin to death and the bringing to expression the new principles of our life in Christ; mortification and vivification, killing sin and practicing righteousness. We mentioned in passing that the greater emphasis is always on the latter rather than the former. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” [In Metaxas, 486] We find that emphasis front and center here in Paul’s general description of the Christian life. He will follow this general description with more specific instructions for Christians in their particular callings: husbands and wives, parents and children, and so on.

In any case, as we read this exhortation to become like Christ himself, let’s remember what an extraordinary thing is being said to us. Here is C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (53):

“The call is…to a reflection of the divine life, a creaturely participation in the divine attributes which is far beyond our present desires. We are bidden to ‘put on Christ,’ to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little.”

Text Comment

We will read again the section from v. 1 but continue through the few verses of this section we have not yet read, that is vv. 15-17.

These various categories reveal the sort of social friction and alienation that the gospel had to overcome in the first century. There has never been a time, including our own, when there has not been such social friction to overcome: whether racial, ethnic, educational, economic, or sexual. Proud and insecure human beings can always find new ways to look down on people.

By the way, I didn’t mention this before, but there is a special emphasis on kindness and forgiveness here, perhaps because, as one commentator suggests, “the whole of Colossians is more or less overshadowed by Paul’s concern about Onesimus.” [John Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul, 35] Onesimus, you remember, the subject of Paul’s little letter Philemon, a letter written and sent at the same time as Colossians, was the runaway slave, now a Christian, whom Paul was returning to his master, the Philemon for whom the letter is named. He wanted both kindness and forgiveness for his friend Onesimus. It helps to remember that Philemon, a member of the Colossian church would have heard Colossians read with the rest of the congregation!

The peace of Christ — the peace that comes from knowing him — is to be the umpire in our hearts, settling conflicts and providing sure direction. [Moule, 124]

Apparently Paul did not share P.G. Wodehouse’s opinion that the peace that passeth all understanding can only be experienced by the man who has given up golf!

Take “word of Christ” as a synonym for the teaching about to be mentioned, supremely the teaching of the gospel, the good news, the great message of salvation by the love of God and the sacrifice of his Son with all of its implications for life.

The phrase “in all wisdom” was used of Paul’s teaching and preaching in 1:28. It is not enough to teach the right things, one must teach and admonish the right way, with love, respect, balance, sympathy, insight into people, and so on. Do it skillfully is the idea.

The participle the ESV translates as “admonishing” is nouthetountes, from which Jay Adams famously derived his term “nouthetic” counseling, a method of counseling he regarded as more biblical than the various therapeutic forms of psychological practice made common in the modern era.

The Greek of the second half of v. 16 can be read in one of two different ways. We can take the “singing psalms, etc.” with what goes before, as the NIV did, making the singing the way in which we teach and admonish one another. To be sure, there is a rich source of both teaching and exhortation in the psalms and hymns of the Christian church, and, as well, in an age before books, singing the psalms and hymns was a great way to learn the faith, but it is not an entirely natural thought that we are to teach and admonish one another in our singing in church. We read in 1:28 that Paul regularly teaches and admonishes in his ministry, but not by singing a hymn. Still, in Ephesians 5:19, in the parallel passage, there is no doubt that Paul says, “Speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…” Or we can take the words about singing with what follows as the ESV does. The verse would then mean: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs…” The teaching and admonishing is one thing, the singing another.

Though it has been claimed by a few of our own men from time to time that the three termssongs, hymns and spiritual songs — are all separately a reference to the biblical Book of Psalms, in fact hardly anyone nowadays denies that each of them can refer to any song, whether taken from the canonical Psalter, taken from some other text of Scripture, or later hymns of Christian composition, some specimens of which we find already in the New Testament.

Greek style typically emphasizes a thought by putting it first in the sentence. Greek is not a word order language like English or French. You can put words in lots of different places in the sentence and you know what role they play in the sentence by the spelling of the word, by its inflection. But this left word order as a means of emphasizing a word.  Greek style typically emphasized a thought by putting it at the front of a sentence. Here the first thing in this sentence is “everything,” a point further emphasized by its repetition in the next line [Clark, 121] and still further emphasized by the addition of “in word or deed,” a phrase meant to include everything a person does. [O’Brien, 211] And notice the central place of Jesus Christ here at the climax of this description of the Christian life, central as he has been in all that has been said so far. Note the references to “Lord” in v. 13, “Christ,” in v. 15, “Christ” again in v. 16, and now the “Lord Jesus” in v. 17. It would not have been inappropriate to say “God” in any of these places, but Paul says “Christ” or “Lord Jesus.”

With these verses Paul concludes his general description of the Christian life, such a description as we find in Romans 12, in Ephesians 4 and the first half of chapter 5, in the first half of Philippians 4, and in other shorter passages in Paul’s letters. None of those passages is exactly like any other for it is possible to describe the Christian life in general terms in any number of ways. Jesus did it in a variety of ways himself if you remember. In every case, however, it is a matter of living in a way that is a fit response to what Jesus Christ has done for us and given to us and shown us in his own life. The Christian life here in Colossians 3:1-17, as everywhere else, is a person living as he obviously should to whom such great love has been showed, for whom such a great sacrifice has been offered, and to whom such great promises have been made, a life lived in imitation of Jesus’ own.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” sums it up. Ponder what you have learned of God and Christ, of Christ’s cross and resurrection, of his second coming, of heaven itself; ponder it, mull it over, remember it every day, and as you do let your heart fill up with peace and thanksgiving, and then demonstrate Christ’s love for you in your words and deeds every day.

Paul obviously hasn’t said everything he might have said, even in summing up the Christian faith. He hasn’t said anything about prayer, or about Sunday worship, or about bearing our Christian witness to others, or about giving, or using our gifts, and so on. But one must make an end somewhere, so he concludes with a comprehensive summary statement that includes everything that the Bible ever teaches us about living the Christian life:

“…whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…”

It is one of those very general exhortations such as we have often in the Law of Moses: “be holy for I am holy.” But what does it mean precisely? What does it mean to do something in the name of the Lord Jesus? How does one do something in Jesus’ name? The phrases “in the name of the Lord” in the OT and “in Jesus name” in the New Testament are very common and have a variety of nuances to be sure. But clearly here and in many other uses they mean very simply to do something for Jesus’ sake or on Christ’s behalf. When we give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name, when the disciples worked miracles in Jesus’ name the phrase means obviously that we are doing something in Jesus’ stead, on his behalf, for his sake. He’s not here; we are here and we’re doing what he would do were he here and we’re doing it on his behalf, for his sake. In a similar statement in another of Paul’s letters, in 1 Cor. 10:31 we read, again as the conclusion of another section devoted to Christian living,

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Surely the meaning here in Col. 3:17 can’t be far from the meaning in 1 Cor. 10:31. To do something in Jesus name or to do it to the glory of God must be nearly the same thing, however different the nuance may be. In either case, what we do we are to do for the Lord, on his behalf, for his sake, to serve and to please him, and to further his interest in ourselves and others.

So what Paul is saying is that in our lives there should be this vivid, practical recognition of Jesus Christ in all we do; we ought to have his honor and pleasure before us as we make one decision after another, we ought to judge our behavior according to how it serves the pleasure, the cause, and the reputation of Jesus Christ and how it expresses our gratitude to him and love for him.

We have only to say these words to cause our souls to cringe. We know how often we would fail the test if our words and our deeds were held to that standard: that they are to be done for the name of the Lord Jesus? No indifferent religiosity here; no half-hearted going through motions; not even real commitment but only from time to time and only with regard to certain things. Whether at home or at work, with our wives and children or among unbelievers, our words and deeds are to be consciously chosen precisely because they would please Jesus and serve him.

You are familiar with the composer Josef Haydn, the contemporary and benefactor of Mozart, of whom Mozart once said, “He alone has the secret of making me smile and touching me at the bottom of my soul.” Haydn was a devout man and his work as a composer he saw as an exercise of Christian devotion. Each of Haydn’s manuscript scores begins with the words “In nomine Domini” — “In the name of the Lord,” just what we have here in Col. 3:17 — and each ends with the words “Laus Deo,” “praise to God.” It was Haydn’s way of fulfilling the mandate Paul lays down here to do all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God the father through him. Haydn strove to compose in that way.

Well, you are not composers, most of you, but you live under the same mandate. Over your words and your deeds you are to write “In nomine Domini” and “Laus Deo.” How can I speak to the honor of the Lord, to the credit of his name, in the service of his kingdom, in that way that will give him pleasure and bring down his blessing? How can I speak that way to my wife, to my children, to my neighbor, to my Christian brother; how can I speak “in the name of the Lord” at work? And the more you ask that question and seriously try to answer it, the better you will get at doing it, at speaking in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Or think of managing relationships. How can I be a friend, a Christian brother or sister in this particular relationship? How do I encourage, how do I correct, how do I sympathize, how do I support in the name of the Lord Jesus? How do I maintain Christ’s peace and love when sin threatens to divide and antagonize? If only we were always asking that question, all of us, no matter what side of a disagreement we might find ourselves on! What a difference it would make. What a difference the right words can make. I remember Mark Twain’s observation. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. That’s what we’re looking for, the right name, the right words, and surely it’s a right word that’s spoken in the name of the Lord Jesus.

In A.D. 361, in Antioch, two bishops were appointed to the same office. One was named Meletius and the other Paulinus. Each appointment represented the effort of a party in the church to put their man in charge, and each party suspected the other of being heretics. But on subsequent examination it was determined that both men were orthodox and both were qualified for the office. Two governments and two congregations would have been a scandal when the church is under her Master’s orders to preserve peace and unity and to show that unity to the world. Meletius proposed, in the interest of peace, that he would serve with Paulinus in a joint bishopric and that after the death of one of them the other would become the sole bishop. Paulinus refused the offer and continued to insist on his own appointment as having been made more strictly according to the rules. Do you know what the church did? Because Paulinus seemed more committed to himself than the honor of the Lord, more committed to his promotion than the peace of the church, the church judged him unfit and by the agreement of both parties  Meletius, who had offered to share the office, was made the sole possessor of it. Meletius acted in the name of the Lord Jesus and the Lord rewarded him for it and blessed the church because of it.

And such things should be happening all the time and will be if we are both speaking and doing in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the father through him. You may be thinking that a terrific lot of work, never to open your mouth, never to do anything without considering how to speak or how to act in the name of the Lord Jesus. Well, Paul never said it was easy to live a Christian life. But, then, the more it is done, the more natural it becomes and, after all, however difficult, it is the life that you are going to want to have lived when you are finished living in this world.

When we went to Scotland in 1975, Florence and I met in church a lovely couple, Gordon and Myrtle Anderson-Smith. Myrtle worked in the University Library and so I would see her day by day. Gordon was working on his own Ph.D. in New Testament at Manchester University in England, though living in Aberdeen. By the time we got to know them, Gordon was already suffering with the brain tumor that would take his life in March of 1980 at the age of 39. He had had surgery for a cyst in his brain years before, but now the tumor had returned with a vengeance. Very interestingly, the onset of his final illness followed closely on his completing a series of sermons on Ephesians 6:10-18, the famous passage regarding the armor of the Lord, in a Manchester church, another text in which, in effect, Paul says to let the Word of God dwell in us richly, exhorts us to be strong in the Lord Jesus; another text in which the gospel of peace, and the word of God, and the proclamation of the gospel and teaching of it also figure prominently in a summary of the Christian life.

Gordon was a young man with a great deal of drive. He believed that he had been called to be a minister and he was committed to the best possible preparation for that calling. He loved books and was building a great library. I remember one day finding him in an Aberdeen bookstore that was having a sale, having a minor argument with Myrtle over the number of books he intended to buy! Before I knew him, he had both completed his divinity studies in Scotland and studied at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia for a year. And now he was engaged in his Ph.D. studies under F.F. Bruce in Manchester. Interestingly, his thesis was to be a study of the spiritual forces of evil, “the principalities and powers” in the writings of the Apostle Paul. As the demonic realm featured in the teaching of the visitors in Colossae and in misleading and destructive ways, I thought of Gordon’s work.  My pastor, Mr. Still, who was also Gordon’s pastor, wondered out loud in a sermon whether the devil was attacking Gordon in particular to keep him from exposing him in a church that had largely forgotten about spiritual powers and the reality of the Christian’s contest with the evil one. Gordon was devoted to his studies. But illness continued to derail him. He was in and out of hospitals; he lost much of the use of one eye, suffered paralyzing headaches and, finally, began to have trouble even writing legibly. His writing reverted to that of a child. Sinclair Ferguson, a friend of Gordon, wrote a short memoir of him entitled Undaunted Spirit, published in 1988.

Among Gordon’s papers was found a brief survey that he himself had written of some of the last years of his life, from 1971-1979. This is all he wrote:

1971-1972 Westminster (he is, of course, speaking of his year of study at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia)
1973 Marriage – good year
1974 Operation
1975 Sickness
1976 Bereavement (his mother died that year)
1977 Bereavement (his father died that year) [Gordon had a particularly close and affectionate relationship with his godly parents.]
1978 Mental seize-up
1979 Depression

In some ways, how sad a description of a young man’s last ten years. But, then, underneath that list, in letters “as child-like in shape as they [were] in size” he wrote this comment: “GOD HAS UNDERTAKEN.”

His was a difficult and short life. He worked and worked over his later years on a PhD dissertation that his illness prevented him from completing. He was both physically and mentally damaged by his disease in the later years of his life. But, the fact is, as all who knew him could attest, and as Paul put it here in introducing his description of the Christian life, “his life was hidden with Christ in God.” He had Christ’s life in him and so the hope that when Christ who is his life appears, he also will appear with him in glory.

In a sermon he once preached on Ephesians 6 Gordon commented on Paul’s reference to the “helmet of salvation” in his list of the pieces of the Christian’s armor. “What does that mean? [He asked]? I think it means this: ‘A mind preoccupied with thoughts of our great salvation.'” [Sinclair Ferguson, Undaunted Spirit, 119] Well, that is virtually the same thing as what Paul says here. Here too he tells us to put something on, love in this particular instance, and peace. But elaborates that thought by saying “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” Isn’t that the same thing as exhorting us to have a mind preoccupied with thoughts of our great salvation and our great Savior? That is how the Christian life is lived, brothers and sisters, by taking God’s great salvation to heart and thinking and living accordingly! That is what it means to speak and to act in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the father through him.

Some truth is seen more clearly when concentrated in the circumstances of a person’s life and when displayed against the backdrop of tragedy. I have thought much differently about my mother’s life since she died six weeks ago. I know many of you have had this experience as well. One can see and know a life better when it is over and one can see it as a whole. Hers was not, like Gordon Anderson-Smith’s, a life of tragedy, though she certainly passed through some very deep waters in the course of her many years. But think about your own life in that way. Most of us have more than once thought about how we want to live and what we want our Christian lives to have been when they are over. But the days and weeks and months and years pass, we are distracted by many things, tomorrow never fails us, showing up on time as it always does, and here we are these years later and we are not nearly as far as we thought we would be years ago. So much has not been done; so much awaits to be done or even really to be attempted; so much of what we aspire to be and do is yet unfulfilled in us.

The story of a life like Gordon’s sends a shiver down our spine. What if I were to live but for 39 years or what if my life were to end tomorrow or next year? How disappointing that I did not make more of my life! Certainly I can rejoice in the forgiveness of my sins, but nothing can be clearer in the Bible than that we are never, ever to make the righteousness of Christ an excuse for a lackadaisical life.

Look again at these 17 verses. Run your eye over them quickly. What a grand life is here described. A life worthy of God and of Jesus Christ our Savior. A life of doing death to sin and of bringing more and more to life everything good and holy that Christ, by his Spirit, has placed if only as longings in our hearts. A life of humility, compassion, and kindness; a life of love, forgiveness freely given, and peace; a life of useful speaking to others, of worship and witness; a life obviously, visibly given over to the service, the honor, and the credit of Jesus Christ. That is to be our life, yours and mine! That and nothing less. That’s the standard against which we are to measure our thoughts, words and deeds every single day. But such will not be our life unless, it will not be to the degree that it should and might be, unless we embrace the commandments of the Word of God as Paul has given them to us in this beautiful and memorable section of Colossians. Unless we embrace this summons. Not listen to it only, but embrace it, and set out to do what we are here summoned to do and do it with a vengeance!

A great painter, knowing how easy it was for him to get stopped and how hard to get started again, had for his motto: nulla dies sine linea, no day without a mark or a stroke. Every day something on the canvas. And so for us: nulla dies sine linea; no day without the effort made to speak in the name of the Lord Jesus, no day without the intention to do something that I do in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God the father through him.

In some way, at the beginning of every day, write “In nomine Domini” over your life so that you can write “Laus Deo” at the end of the day. Or, even better than Haydn, think of J.S. Bach, an even more devout Christian. His work as a composer is an even better example for us as we contemplate the application of Col. 3:17 to our lives. He would write at the top of his manuscript scores either the letters I.N.D, that is “in the name of the Lord,” as here in 3:17, or the letters J.J, which stood for (Jesu Juva, that is Jesus help me). And at the bottom of each score he would write the letters S.D.G, that is, soli deo Gloria, to God alone the glory. But to that add this thought. Bach was never satisfied with his compositions. He worked on them endlessly, making corrections even to established works with every new performance. No work, even his greatest masterpieces, was in final form until he was no longer present to improve it.

Now, you and I have been reminded how we are to live our life, what is supremely to characterize it, all of which can be summed up by saying that we are to do whatever we do, in word or in deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus. You and I haven’t mastered that life, not by a long shot. But that is alright, so long as we are aspiring to master it and working to master it and growing in our mastery of it.

Make sure your Christian friends can see this text in you; make sure your wife or husband, above all make sure your children can see Colossians 3:1-17 in you: see you reaching for such a life, see you loving and admiring that life and no other; see you unhappy at every failure to attain to it, see you determined to do better at speaking and doing in the name of the Lord Jesus.