True Godly Character
Love and Wisdom; God and You
(This message is begun wearing dirty, torn or worn clothes ... shirt, scarf, shoes, socks, jewelry ... and in the middle changed into a nicer suit. This should be done in a quite non-provocative way, no pants or revealed skin in the change-over. Amusing; not alarming.)
This passage is directly connected to the previous passage. Paul relieves our anxiety about rules and warns us against pagan influence, but he does not leave us hanging. The Colossians were seeking for true wisdom, and Paul cannot say what it is not, without clarifying what it is.
So, if the true path to spiritual wisdom is not in strictly following rules or seeking out the spiritual wisdom of the world, where is it? Paul says it is not in the details, but in the development of a character that is rightly oriented. The specific actions of a person reveal our innermost concerns. So, we look at our actions, not to see if we are in compliance, but to see if our inner person is being transformed. This approach is less measurable, but in the end, more reliable.
Paul uses two images to clarify his ideas: Life / death, and dressing / undressing.
Life is found in Jesus, not in our earthly nature
How do we seek the things above? Paul says it is in thinking about them. The beauty of it is, that when he begins clarifying, the only "thing" above that Paul can recommend is Christ himself. He is risen and living, sitting at God’s right hand. Jesus is the source and the keeper of your life, which will find its fullness not here and now, but later, in eternity.
Jesus is our life. So, think about Jesus. There is more to it than that, but it is an incredible start.
On the other hand, we should put to death the things inside us that draw us back to this earth. Paul generalizes in his examples of things of this earth which we should put to death:
• sexual immorality
• shameful passion
• evil desire
• and greed which is idolatry
Paul often begins lists of evil things with sexual sin. It is clear that he thought this was a prominent problem for many people. If you have problems with it, don’t be shocked, so do many others. Other than this one item, he is more general.
• Do you have mixed motives? That is impurity.
• Are you passionate about things that are better not spoken of? That is a shameful passion.
• Do you secretly or openly desire evil things?
Look carefully at greed. When we desire things to the point of unsatisfiable grasping at more and more, we are making those things we want god and placing them in the highest position of our lives. We may as well melt it all down, mold it into an idol, and worship it every day. We are reembracing our own death instead of killing the deeds of darkness.
Don’t forget, when you let your heart return to these motivations, you are realigning yourself with the very things that are going to be judged in God’s wrath. When you aligned yourself with Christ, you killed these things inside you. However, like a rusty sculpture, you can clear the rust away, but when it rains you will have to touch it up. These are things we have to kill within us, not once, but every day.
What are you wearing?
Now Paul shifts his image from life and death and looks instead at an image that suggests clothing. He says that when we readmit these dark impulses, it is like wearing old, dirty, worn out clothes. He wants them to divest themselves of:
• abusive language
There is an appropriate sequence to things. You can’t wear a suit over your work shirt. You can’t wear a gown over your coveralls. Before virtue can be put on, vice must be taken off.
When he speaks of taking off vices he addresses things that are more obvious, mostly associated with speaking or violence. Anger, rage, and malice speak of the hatred that we are capable of harboring and exhibiting. Slander, abusive language, and lies are the tools we use to dismantle the reputations, the personal peace, and the integrity of others. Paul is addressing a very obvious bitterness. These are vices that somebody at Colossea was wearing on their sleeve.
But the Colossians and all disciples are being inducted into a new life and identity. This new identity is the original form in which man was made, a redemption of the lost humanity of Adam. It is a renewal of the image of God, the best dignity, beauty, and integrity in humanity. Those characteristics we should "wear" and show to the world are those features that are like Christ.
Nobody has an advantage here. Paul emphasizes the two main groups he is addressing: Jews and Greeks (meaning Greek speaking Roman citizens). Certainly the Jews among them may have felt a sense of superiority. The Gentiles may have felt that others were outsider immigrants, but Paul’s says neither has a right to feel this way.
After that, he lists the most outlandish gathering he can describe with the most obvious, socially problematic combinations. No extremity of differences can divest true believers of their primary identity and commonality in Christ. That always comes first.
Barbarians were the tribal peoples beyond the reach of the empire, people in places like northern Briton and Germany ... horrors! Sythians were the filthy, violent, ultra-barbaric tribes to the far North who drank human blood using human skulls for their cup. But on a more practical level, for the Colossians, even if one man could be claimed as property and another could do the claiming, the only thing that matters is Christ, the one on the throne beside God the Father and the One who is present in all believers, regardless of their backgrounds.
Now that Paul’s hearers have divested themselves of the clothing of death, he encourages them to get dressed up in the beautiful clothes of life.
This list is very similar to Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit. These virtues flow from Christ who lives in the inner person. They should increasingly become visible trademarks.
Two virtues gain special notice. One is patience. Paul directly associated patience with forgiveness. When we have a complaint against someone, we cannot claim to be truly patient with them if we cannot forgive them the way Jesus forgave us. So, when you see your brothers and sisters against whom you have something, are you truly patient with them or are you harboring a hidden bitterness? Are you wearing your old rags beneath your formal?
Love also gains special attention. It is the virtue that binds all the rest together. Without love; patience, kindness, gentleness and mercy are all a show, a put-on, a cheap costume. This is how John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Antioch in the third century put it:
"All those things fall apart, unless they are done with love. This is the love that binds them all together. Whatever good thing it is you mention, if love be absent, it is nothing, it melts away. ... in a body, though the bones be large, if there be no ligaments, they are of no service.
The letter to the Colossians is about wisdom and it is about love. The two are woven together seamlessly. If we are not loving we are not wise. If we are not wise, we could be more loving.
Notice how the virtues we put on directly contrast the destructive vices we are meant to take off:
• Instead of raging at someone, be kind to them
• Instead of being angry when you are wronged, be merciful
• Instead of harboring hatred, humbly place yourself beneath that person
• Instead of slandering someone, treat them with gentleness
• Instead of inflicting abusive language, be patient and forgiving
• Don’t lie to or about people, love them
The contrast is so stark as to be shocking. It inspires disbelief that the same person could appear so incredibly different.
How do we do it?
The answer is simple, according to Paul.
What are we thinking about?
Keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Keep thinking about things above, not things on the earth ...
How can we tell if we are accomplishing the goal?
There is a scientific method used to see if children are generally cooperative or disruptive in a classroom, and to make sure the teacher is not biased against him in some way. The teacher is meant to set a discrete timer, and every time the timer gets her attention, she is meant to look at the child and ask: Is the child being good or bad? If they randomly check 12 times in a day, and 9 out of 12 times they are being good, they are probably an ok kid.
Do it for your own benefit. Pick a day this week. On that day, every time you hear a machine start up (an air conditioner, a car, a refrigerator, a TV or radio, an alarm, a phone or beeper ... you get the picture ... when a machine makes a noise that gets your attention, ask yourself the question:
What was I thinking about?
Ideally, make a note of it. Scribble down the details on a card in your pocket. If you can’t do that, make a quick check list:
Things above Things of the earth
At the end of the day honestly review yourself. What were you most thinking about at random times during the day? When you add it all up, are you thinking about things of this earth or things above more often?
You may think this isn’t fair. When you are at work, you are meant to concentrate on your job. In fact, if you didn’t you would not be exercising the kind of integrity that is right and good and expected by God.
An average person reads or speaks a few hundred words a minute, but thinks thousands of words a minute. Even when we are concentrating, our minds are multi-tasking. They can’t help it.
It’s like weighing your load. You account for the weight of the truck. If you are generally focused upon a task, take that into account. For purposes of this study, disregard it. Without a doubt, your mind was dwelling on more than one thing. What were the other things? Were the things of God anywhere in the equation? If they were, give yourself credit.
You will find one of two things by the end of the day:
• You are thinking of the things of God
• Or you are not so much
If not, your path is clear. If you are, take your analysis to the next level. Are the things of God that occupy your mind wrapped in love for others: kindness, gentleness, patience, humility? If they are not, they should be.
If you get done with the study and find that you seem to be doing ok, before you start patting yourself on the back, do another study with that question in mind:
Things of earth Things above With love
I will not be collecting this assignment. It will not affect your "church grade." Grade it yourself and find ways to do better. Paul suggests some at the end of this passage: pursuing peace, thankfulness, godly music.
You may want to show your results to someone ... a spiritual mentor or prayer partner. That would be good. Talk about it. Find out what you could do better.
• We all have ways we could grow
• We all have cleaner, newer clothes we could wear
• God has given us His own infinite self to think about
• The more we think about Him and the things He values
The more we are living wise, loving spiritual lives