Although the precise problems facing the community addressed by the Letter to the Colossians are obscure, the principal issue seems clear enough. Paul—or if Colossians is pseudonymous someone writing in the name of Paul—seeks to persuade the Colossians of the sufficiency of salvation afforded by the Christ event. Indeed, near the conclusion of our passage we find a verse that is emblematic of the so-called realized eschatology that permeates the entire letter. Referencing God, the author declares that: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13). Apparently, not a few in the Colossian community had trouble incorporating this liberating message into their lives. Otherwise, Paul would not have felt it necessary to emphasize this message as frequently as he does throughout the remaining three chapters of the letter (2:12; 3:1).
Terms like “realized eschatology” and “sufficiency of salvation” are, however, not entirely helpful when it comes to appreciating what is at the heart of the matter addressed in Colossians. For all the emphasis that Paul places on the cosmic significance of Christ, Colossians is a letter that focuses above all else on the practical challenges of living out a new and counter-cultural identity centered on Christ within a culture that both then and now celebrated competing ideas of desirable behavior. Clues to this practical dimension are found already in 1:10, where Paul gives expression to his hope that the community might “lead lives worthy of the Lord.” Later in the same chapter Paul rephrases this practical goal by referencing the goal of maturity that the community should aspire to (1:28). Thus, while it is certainly true that Paul encourages the Colossians to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (3:2), his message of transcendence leads immediately to a reflection on concrete relationships with others in community (3:5-17). For Paul maturity is a decidedly communal reality as opposed to a matter of the emotional aggrandizement of the individual, typically at the expense of others.
The behaviors that Paul encourages the Colossians to embody especially in 3:5ff are rooted in the life and narrative of Christ who embodied them first. Paul desires nothing less than that the Colossians cultivate the disposition of Christ that prompted Jesus to live a life of service for others (Phil 2:5-8; Mk 10:45). Put another way, when Paul encourages the Colossians in 3:5 to “put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly,” his guiding behavioral rubric—though unstated—is the pattern of selfless regard for others that Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry on earth. Paul’s use of phrases such as a “new self” (3:10) and the “peace of Christ” (3:15) hint at something Paul discusses more fully in a letter like Galatians. In that letter Paul emphasizes that the Galatian Christians are a new creation in Christ (Gal 6:15) summoned to live according to the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). As a result of their participation in Christ both the Galatians and the Colossians are called to renew their behavior in counter-cultural ways. We see here the defining characteristic of what we might describe as Paul’s spirituality, namely: cruciform behavior in light of the cross of Jesus and the selfless love for others represented by the cross (Gal 2:20).
It is revealing that Paul includes among his list of vices in Colossians 3:5-8 behaviors that are characteristic of typical reality TV shows that are so popular today. Indeed, one could argue that “anger,” “wrath,” “malice,” “slander,” and “abusive language” (3:8) are the guiding rubrics for behavior considered commendable by the protagonists in these programs. In these shows maturity amounts essentially to competitive triumph over others. The person who is mature is precisely the one who outmaneuvers others often in ways humiliating to the “loser.” Paul provides in Colossians a vision of a different kind of maturity that is rooted not in own personal narratives but in the transcendent narrative of Christ. What makes this particular narrative for Paul something more than a misguided idealism or hopeless disregard for the way the world really works is the resurrection of Jesus. For Paul the faith commitment that God raised Jesus to renewed life serves as the ultimate validation of the countercultural existence both embodied by, and made possible by, Jesus.
Kevin B. McCruden, Gonzaga University