Epistles: New Clothes for New People (Colossians 3:12-25)

How should we live? “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness7 and patience” (4:12). Since God has already chosen us, we should respond with these five virtues. These behaviors cannot make us worthy of salvation, but they are part of “a life worthy of the Lord” (1:10).

We are to be like Christ, and we should treat others the way he has treated us: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (3:13).

The chief virtue, the umbrella term that includes all good behavior, is love — which is also the one-word description of God’s nature. “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (3:14).

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful” (3:15). It is hard to be angry and thankful at the same time. When we remember that we are a barbarian saved by grace, it is hard to be angry at the Scythian who is also saved by grace.

Paul concludes with more general exhortations: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs8 with gratitude in your hearts to God” (3:16). As we speak to each other and worship together, the message of Christ should dominate our thoughts. He has changed our identity, and that should change everything else.

“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17). All of life, both words and deeds, are done in Christ, because he is our life. Verses 15, 16, and 17 all end on a note of thanks. Praise God for what he has done for us in Christ!

Christian households

Paul includes brief comments for Christian marriages: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh9 with them” (3:18-19). Paul’s advice for women is typical for that time and culture, but his advice for husbands is unusual: It calls the men to self-sacrifice and puts limits on their authority.10

Greek philosophers sometimes gave similar comments for wives, children and slaves11—these are called “household codes.” The husband, father, and master were usually the same person; Paul gives instructions for him according to these three roles.

Paul’s next set of instructions is also brief: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (3:20-21). Paul addresses the children as morally responsible people who care about their relationship with the Lord. Fathers, who had primary responsibility for discipline, are warned to be careful in their role, and to consider the emotions of their children.

Paul’s advice for slaves is much more extensive12: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (3:22).

Paul does not really mean “in everything.” If the masters told the slaves to stop believing in Christ, Paul would not want them to obey! He is speaking in generalities here, just as he did for wives and children. Repeatedly, Paul connects his commands with the Lord. For slaves he says, “with…reverence for the Lord.” Our Master has something to say about the way we function in society.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (3:23). Slaves should work sincerely, not reluctantly, whether or not the master sees them. Their station in life, although far from ideal, is a way in which they can serve Christ. Paul does not publicly call for an immediate end to slavery—that would only invite persecution for something that was then politically impossible. But his teachings paved the way for eventual abolition.13

Although our society is far different, the advice Paul gives here is often relevant to modern employment. Even if we feel trapped in an unpleasant job, we should be a good worker, because we are servants of Christ. But we show him no disloyalty if we look for a better job.

Reliable workers are often rewarded in this life, but there is an even more significant reward for Christians: “since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (3:24). In the Roman Empire, slaves could not inherit anything. But in Christ’s kingdom, they do. We belong to him, work for him, and are rewarded by him.

Paul next says, “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism” (3:25). Paul is apparently referring to the rewards (or penalties) of the final judgment. Misconduct will be viewed negatively—and this applies to slave masters as well as slaves.14

Paul addresses the masters directly: “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (4:1). Masters should realize that they are slaves of Christ,15 and this should affect the way they treat their slaves. They should conform to what is right and fair. In time, Christians would ask whether slavery itself was fair—and when they had the freedom to campaign against it, they led the way in eliminating this immoral practice.

Things to think about

  • What happens if I don’t put on the clothing that Paul describes? (v. 12)
  • In my congregation, do we teach and admonish one another? (v. 16)


[7] “Lindemann defines it as the power which, in a situation of conflict, enables us to criticize another’s conduct so that they experience it as help and not as condemnation” (Garland, 211).

[8] We do not know how these three types of songs differ from one another. One plausible suggestion is that they refer to Old Testament psalms, Christian hymns, and spontaneous singing.

[9] “The verb…is in the passive voice and may be translated, ‘Do not become embittered [or resentful] toward her.’ Anyone can refrain from harsh treatment of others; Christians must do more, however. They must refrain from being flushed with rage or petulant when others treat them or respond to them in ways that irritate them. This directive addresses the eventuality that the wife might not always be properly submissive” (David Garland, Colossians and Philemon [Zondervan, 1998], 245).

[10] Ephesians 5 includes much more detailed instructions for wives and husbands (see the study of that chapter here). Some scholars have suggested, based on differences in early manuscripts of Ephesians, that Ephesians was a circular letter designed to be sent to numerous cities in Asia Minor. Some then speculate that it is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16) that Paul wanted the Colossians to read. This would explain why the advice for families is so brief in Colossians—Paul expected them to get the longer instructions in the letter we now call Ephesians.

[11] “Comparable instructions from other literature usually address only the male, adult, and free person” (Garland, 258, citing Eduard Schweizer, 213-14).

[12] Paul may have dealt with a runaway slave from this area: Onesimus. Similarities between the people mentioned in Colossians and Philemon indicate that the letters were sent to the same area at about the same time. It is possible that the letter to Philemon was sent first, and he freed his slave, who then went back to Paul with a report about the false philosophy that was affecting the believers in Colosse.

[13] Slaves were an important part of the social and economic structure of the Roman Empire, and sudden abolition would have created social chaos. If Paul and his team of evangelists advocated the overthrow of slavery, the government would have taken quick action to silence them.

[14] This verse may “function both as a warning to slaves and as a reassurance to them. Not only if they do wrong, but also if they are treated wrongly, they can know that there will be an impartial judgment” (A.T. Lincoln, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XI, p. 658).

[15] Since all Christians are slaves of Christ, the exhortation to slaves “is able to represent most adequately the relation of all Christian of Christ” (M. Gielen, cited by Lincoln, p. 657).

Michael Morrison, 2007. If you’d like to learn more about the Bible, consider Grace Communion Seminary. It’s affordable, accredited, and all online. www.gcs.edu.

Author: Michael Morrison


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