In the previous verses Paul has reminded these new believers, in the church in Colossae, that they have died and have been raised with Christ. Because of this they are to set their minds on the things that are above, not on earthly things. Paul then continues with these words in Colossians 3:5-7
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them.
Throughout Paul’s writings he often states the deepest of theology but never leaves us there. He then comes back to how it should impact our every day lives. That’s what Paul is doing in these verses and what we should do as well.
Why is Paul instructing them to “put to death what is earthly in you” if they have already died to sin and to the world? Here we find once again an example of positional truth and functional truth. The now and the not yet. At times Paul talked of their position with Christ and at other times Paul talked about how they needed to live because of their position with Christ. They are dead to the world. They now need to live like it.
They, like we, all have our earthly ways, the ways of life that we had grown accustomed to when we did not know Christ. These are at times called our patterns of the flesh. The ways we tried to meet our own needs without Christ. They were our godless habitual ways to responding to or coping with life situations and trying to make life work, but now everything has changed, our need has been met, and we are in Christ. And yet, many times we continue, with our earthly, sinful, ways instead of setting out minds on the things above.
Once a believer had been given new life on the inside it was supposed to also bring about new life on the outside. This was not optional for those in the church in Colossae.
Paul commands the Colossians to “put to death what is earthly in you.” These were strong words, much like other times in scripture. In Matthew 5:29-30 Jesus said,
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”
These words were spoken to communicate how desperately we need to separate ourselves from sin. Sin is not to be trifled with. We are to put to death what is earthly within us.
Those in Colossae who had put their faith in Christ had been forgiven and now were counted righteous before God. They had been changed on the inside. Paul was now telling them that the inside change should bring about an outside change.
Paul then gave them examples of what he was talking about. The Christians in Colossae were to turn away from sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. In reality, all of these are expressions of idolatry. A Christian may not have been bowing down to a pagan god in a pagan temple, but to be involved in these types of sins was evidence that one was not seeking Christ first and that a sinful desire was ruling their heart. When something else has become our chief desire or first love, in place of Christ, that is idolatry.
Many of these new believers had come out of pagan backgrounds and Paul was making it very clear that Christians should have nothing to do with these kinds of sinful behaviors. Paul emphasized that it was because of earthly sins that the wrath of God was coming. Many had lived like this in the past before they came to Christ, but now was the time to put away their former sinful behavior.
You might wonder how people could call themselves Christians and still be involved in some of these sinful behaviors. We must note that some of the false teachers in their church were Gnostics. They taught that the spiritual world where God is, is good, and the material world, where we are, is bad. In their view, one could be involved in sin with their physical body, while being close to God in their spirit. With this in mind, some Gnostics totally separated the spiritual life and the physical life. We might think this does not apply to us because we are not gnostics, but if we are not careful we can find ourselves doing something very similar; living one way on Sunday at church and living another way during the week when we are away from church.
Christ is to be the Lord of our body, soul, and spirit. The inner reality should always express itself in our outer reality.
Paul is calling them to a Christ-like life, but still, they arrive at the same question. Even if they are in total agreement with Paul’s words, how will they ever be able to live like Christ? It is the same question that we face. Like them, we are surrounded by a secular, non-Christian culture. We are tempted by our selfish desires on the inside and from the world on the outside. All our lives, before we came to Christ, we were slaves to sin. Now we have been forgiven and made new in Christ, but how do we actually walk in freedom? Paul continues with the answer to that question in verses 8-10..
“8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
In verse 8 Paul instructs them to put away the sins of the world in which they used to walk. Verse 9 then tells the Colossians how this is possible. Paul uses three phrases, “put off the old self,” “put on the new self,” “be renewed in knowledge.” We see this put off, put on, be renewed, in various places in Paul´s writings. It was the imagery of putting off and putting on clothing.
In these verses, Paul is calling his readers away from sinful behaviors that had grown out of and been supported by their “old self.” The old self was no longer their slave master. The old self, their sinful identity, had now been completely put away. The Colossians were now in Christ and no longer enslaved to sin. Because of this they were now called to put off their old self and put on their new self. For some it must have been difficult to break free from the lifestyle of the past.
It is similar to elephants in the circus who were chained to a stake in the ground when they were still a baby. At that time they tried to pull themselves free, but never could. Now they have grown to be a huge adult elephant. Still, they stand, bound by the stake in the ground. They could easily pull it up and walk free, but because of their failures in the past, they live as if they are still enslaved to the stake and the chain.
Like the elephants, the Colossians must have felt enslaved to their habitual sins of the past, but Paul is declaring to them that their old self of sin and slavery is dead. The stake and the chain no longer bind them. Paul is declaring to them their freedom, and thus their responsibility to walk in righteousness.
The key is putting off their old self and putting on the new self which is Christ.
Paul is using this dressing imagery to communicate something deeper. It would be like a person who in the past had been angry, violent, rebellious, and hateful and dressed like it. Then imagine that that person puts their faith in Jesus. He is now forgiven and at peace with himself and the world. He is hopeful, helpful and loving. You would not expect him to continue to wear clothing that told everyone how angry, violent, rebellious, and hateful he was.
In Christ, they were to do the same. Now that their “inner person” had been made new, their “outer person,” the part that related with the world, needed to show this as well. They no longer were to live in the midst of sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk. They now would live as Christ would have them live since they were now in Him.
The difficulty accomplishing this is because of the “patterns of the flesh” that were mentioned earlier. These are the sinful ways of living that have become life habits for us. So much so that we feel enslaved by these ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
At salvation, we have been given a new life, but most people are not totally transformed instantly. We still struggle with these habitual sins or habitual lies EVEN THOUGH WE NO LONGER NEED THEM. We struggle until God, through His Word and His resources, makes us holy in these areas of our lives.
At salvation we give God ownership of our lives. We are His, but there is still much work to be done to bring each area of our lives fully under His lordship. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ we receive the righteousness of God. At that point, through various experiences relationships, and circumstances in life, God begins to then work out righteousness in each area of our lives.
Part of this process is to put off the old self and its patterns of the flesh. We see it in Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Putting off the old self and its practices is part one of God´s reforming work in our lives.
The Colossians are to put off the old self and its practices that used to characterize their lives. They are then to put on the new self which is Christ. As they do this the new self will be being renewed. This spiritual changing of clothes would directly impact one of the great tensions in the Colossian church.
Paul then refers to the problem in Colossians 3:11.
11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
In the words of William Barclay,
“One of the great effects of Christianity is that it destroys the barriers. . . The Greek looked down on the barbarian, and to the Greek, any man who did not speak Greek was a barbarian, The Greek was the aristocrat of the ancient world, and he knew it. Jews looked down on every nation. He belonged to God's chosen people and the other nations were fit only to be fuel for the fires of hell. The Scythian was notorious as the lowest of the Barbarians; more barbarian than the Barbarians, The Greeks called him little short of being a wild beast, Josephus calls him. He was proverbially the savage who terrorized the civilized world with his bestial atrocities. The slave was not even classified in ancient law as a human being; He was merely a living tool, with no rights of his own. His master could thrash or brand or maim or even kill him at his Caprice. He had not even the right of marriage. There could be no fellowship in the ancient world between a slave and a freeman.”
In the church there were “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ was all, and in all.” There were so many differences among the congregation, but they held three similarities that were important. They all had been sinful and separated from God. They all had turned from their sin and put their faith in Christ. They all would spend eternity together in the presence of God as children of God.
The Gospel has set aside all barriers of nationality or ethnicity. They had been united by the eternal Spirit of Christ, and were to set aside their earthly differences that would fade away as soon as they stepped into eternity.
It destroyed the void between Jew and Gentile allowing any person, from any nation, who was in Christ to become brothers and sisters.
It destroyed the divide between the classes and cultures. The learned Greek could sit by the ignorant barbarian, who sat by the slave, who sat by the widow. In Christ unity was possible and fellowship could be the norm.
Paul wrote this as a fact that was already done by Christ, in Christ. Not something that they needed to achieve. Paul was stating their new individual and corporate identity as Christians, citizens of heaven, sons of God, possessing the same Spirit and the same eternal home.
As Christians they were not to create reconciliation, they were to take hold of it. In Christ they had already been reconciled to one another. Because of this, they were to set aside all cultural and ethnic divides and come together as brothers and sisters of Christ. They could now love one another as God would have them.
Paul then turned his attention to the “putting on” of the Christian life.
12 Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
These first words of chosen ones, holy and beloved had first belonged to the Jews in the Old Testament, but they now applied to all who are in Christ. In these verses Paul describes the outer change that should result from the inner change in the lives of the Colossians. This inner change, resulting in outer change is seen throughout scripture.
A literal story of “putting on” might help here. In the gospels we read the story of a time when Jesus was arriving in a boat in the region of the Gerasenes, on the Sea of Galilee. Immediately he was confronted by a man who was possessed by a number of demons. This man lived amongst the tombs and had gone without clothing for a long time. Mark 5 tells us how “This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” Luke 8:27 even tells us, “For a long time he had worn no clothes.”
Jesus then cast out the demons into a herd of pigs which ran into the sea and died. Scripture then says, “Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.”
This demon-possessed man, who must have put fear in all of the people´s hearts, had met One who was more powerful than he. His inner man had been changed and so naturally his outer man was changed as well. He now was sitting clothed and in his right mind. His outer testimony went beyond his clothing. Scripture tells how the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
Those in the church in Colossae could now put on compassion, kindness, meekness, and forgiveness. This outer display of the fruit of the Spirit would give testimony to the unity that is found in Christ. In the midst of their diversity, they were to put on an overcoat of love that would bind them together in unity.
For example, think of a high school football team. The boys are from all different socio-economic levels, different ethnicities, different family situations, etc. But once they put on that football uniform, at least for the next three hours, they are united in something that is bigger than any one of them. They have put off their own style of self and by putting on the same uniform they have joined together with others and it is displayed by what they have put on. That is what the love of Christ does for us. We are still from different countries and have differences in our lives, but now that we have put on Christ, even in the midst of our differences, we are one. We are wearing the righteousness of Christ. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. What we have in common far outweighs our differences.
We have now looked at putting off and putting on, but there is a third element that brings it all together. We find it in verses 9 and 10.
“. . .You have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
It is interesting that when we look at the original language the “putting off of the old self” and the “putting on of the new self” are assigned to us, but the “being renewed in knowledge” is the work of God.
It is not just thinking God thoughts and spiritual ideas. It is a Christ-like way of life. The renewal of our minds is something that God does to us. God makes us holy so that we may walk in obedience. That is why Paul´s descriptions of putting off and putting on were actions to be taken, not just ideas to be meditated upon. Yes, God is rewriting His truth on our hearts throughout this process, one truth at a time. As we walk by faith and obey, God reveals, convicts and grants discernment that comes through the Holy Spirit.
In Matthew 22:1-14 we find the story of the marriage feast. A king sends his servants out to invite anyone who would come. They gathered “all they found both good and bad. So, the wedding hall was filled with guests.” But when the king arrived he found a man who was not wearing a wedding garment. Because of this the man was cast out into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The symbolism is that he was a man who had not put on Christ. He was still wearing the old self. He had arrived, expecting to enjoy the King´s feast, but in reality, he had never been made new.
Those who are in Christ will be drawn, step-by-step, to put on the new self and to walk in increased obedience. If the continuous, ongoing pattern, of one´s life is to refuse to put off the old self that will be because they are not in Christ.
They may come to church and make comfortable adjustments to their lives, but their hearts are still far from Him. In the words of pastor John Piper,
When the Master says, "Change your clothes," they adjust their collars or shine their shoes, or tuck in their shirts, but they won't take off those cherished habits. They won't strip away those old attitudes of racism, or the love of money, or the addiction to pornography. They want the hope of heaven, but they won't dress for heaven. They won't change their clothes. And Jesus says in the end, "Bind him hand and foot and cast him into outer darkness."
This “putting off and putting on” is an outward confirmation that we are His. It is not optional. Do not be deceived. There is a holiness without which we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
So, is Paul really just saying, “as Christians, we need to stop doing bad things and start doing good things?” Is that really all Paul is saying? No. There is more to this than that. If we are doing good works in our own power then the Spirit is not involved at all. Our minds are not then being renewed because we are working in our flesh like a non-believer could do. But as we humble ourselves and trust God to give us what we need to be able to put off and put on, then God works through our situations and our obedience to reveal Himself more completely. Thus, our minds will be renewed and our knowledge of Christ will be strengthened.
The process then continues over and over again. Through our humble obedience of putting off and putting on, God works in our lives to renew our minds. Even in the midst of failure, we are then strengthened to obey more completely, to be convicted of our sin more clearly, to be convinced of His grace more personally. This then directs to new levels of putting off and putting on. At each level, as we go deeper in our faith, our minds are renewed and we come to experience Christ like never before.
Through all of this God reshapes our attitudes, affections, and desires that He then tells us to put on. He then “works in us to will and to act according to His purpose.”(Phil. 2:13) It is a divine partnership that is utterly impossible without Him. We obey Him in the midst of His workings in us.
As the Apostle Paul said, "I worked harder than any of them, nevertheless, it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10).
We are called to obedience that we are responsible for but that He works in us.
If you will remember in Ephesians 4, the futility of their minds, their darkened understanding, their alienation from the life of God, and their ignorance was all due to their hardness of heart. If we are to live like Christ then our minds must be renewed. This begins with a humble heart and teachable spirit. If you are lacking this today, ask God to give it to you. If you are fully yielded to Him you are well on your way to victory already.
Next we begin to put off our old self, our patterns of the flesh, and anything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Ask God to show you what in your life is keeping you from intimacy with Him. Ask those closest to you to help you see behaviors that you need to put off. As we rely on Christ and succeed at putting things off, our faith will be strengthened. In areas where we fail, we will be humbled and made to understand how much we need God´s help as we seek future victory over our areas of sin.
Next we put on our new self. These are Christ-like characteristics like the fruit of the Spirit and the love of one another. Immersing ourselves in God´s Word, God´s people, and disciplines such as prayer, fasting, worship, generosity, service to others, and evangelism. We should seek to surround ourselves with godly influences. Here, too, we must trust God even when we fail, knowing that as we depend on Him He will work victory in us.
As we obediently put off and put on, with a yielded heart, God will work to renew our minds and our spirits. As we begin to live in a greater knowledge of God He will continue to grant us more faith, reveal more truth, bring more conviction, give us more courage, stir us to greater obedience, and renew our minds so that we may live like Christ in an ever-increasing manner.
Put off. Put on. Be Renewed. Become more like Jesus. Repeat.