Colossians 3:12

‘Put on therefore,
as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance…’
(Colossians 3:12)

Compassion, kindness and lowliness etc. are portrayed here as the clothing that should characterise Christians, which some translations bring out more clearly. ‘Put on’ is the same as ‘Put on the whole armour of God’(Ephesians 6:11) in another of Paul’s letters. There he was talking about defence against ‘the wiles of the devil’(Ephesians 6:11), by wearing things like the helmet of salvation and shield of faith, obviously a military picture. Here the image is gentler, perhaps more like our civilian clothing?

It’s a helpful metaphor, since clothing is visible, often the first thing that others notice about us, and typically it reflects our underlying identity too. That’s true generally, but especially so for things like uniforms, or national dress. The latter is perhaps the best picture here, since in the preceding verse Paul has mentioned that our identity shouldn’t be ‘Greek… Jew… Scythian… but Christ’(Colossians 3:11). This metaphorical clothing is to match our new identity in Christ, as ‘God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved’ as he strikingly describes us, a blessed group, called-out from ‘“all nations”’(Matthew 28:19).

So before looking at the detailed designs, it’s important to consider this underlying identity that our clothing is supposed to reflect. We’re the ‘beloved’, who are ‘chosen’, to be ‘holy’, which means set apart and aligned to the standards of God. As Paul explains in more detail elsewhere, God ‘chose us… that we would be holy… in love… for adoption as children through Jesus Christ’(Ephesians 1:4-5), to ‘inherit God’s Kingdom… washed… sanctified… justified in the name of the Lord Jesus’(1 Corinthians 6:10-11), ‘predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son’(Romans 8:29). So our metaphorical clothing should reflect this astonishing image and identity.

First, therefore, all inappropriate clothing like ‘sexual immorality… covetousness… anger… malice’(Colossians 3:5-8) and other evils must be removed, summarised as ‘put off the old man… put on the new’(Colossians 3:9-10) in this passage. So just like with the deeper identity underlying the image above, deep removal of corrupt elements from within our very selves is required, described as the ‘old man’, who must be ‘Put to death’(Colossians 3:5) even, similar to Jesus’ metaphorical advice about parts tending to sin: ‘“cut it off, and throw it away”’(Matthew 5:30), a bit like cutting out the gangrene.

Interestingly, this ruthless deep removal of the old corrupt self, washing, and sanctification, is partly what baptism symbolises. This chapter starts with ‘you died’(Colossians 3:3) and ‘you were raised together with Christ’(Colossians 3:1), which again Paul explains in more detail elsewhere as being ‘buried… with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead… so we also might walk in newness of life… our old man was crucified with Him’(Romans 6:4-6). So it’s as if our sinful corrupt self was crucified and buried (symbolised by lying in the grave / under the water, washed), then we were raised to new life in Christ. Therefore we should consider ourselves ‘dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord’(Romans 6:11), the latter being the equivalent of ‘put on the new man, who is being renewed… after the image of his creator’(Colossians 3:10) here. It’s a deep renovation from within, to restore the ‘image’(Genesis 1:27) of God in us, the ‘new man/woman’ who we were designed to be, i.e. ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’(Romans 13:14).

It should come as no surprise therefore that this clothing resembles the ‘fruit of the Spirit’(Galatians 5:22), because it’s the same thing, i.e. ‘the Spirit of Him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwells’(Romans 8:11) within us, tailoring from the inside. So the ‘heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance’ in this verse, is the ‘love… peace, patience, kindness, goodness… gentleness’(Galatians 5:22-23) of the Holy Spirit, and interestingly the passage continues with ‘love… peace’(Colossians 3:14-15, cf. Galatians 5:22) and even ‘songs’(Colossians 3:16) of ‘joy’(Galatians 5:22).

However, Paul’s exhortations to ‘put off/on’ show that this is an ongoing resurrection, incomplete until our full liberation from ‘decay… redemption’(Romans 8:21-23) to ‘where Christ is’(Colossians 3:1). That’s why we’re given the ‘armour of God’(Ephesians 6:11) as well – it’s a battle. Note however, the ‘sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’(Ephesians 6:17) is the only offensive weapon provided, and it’s for deployment against the ‘the wiles of the devil’(Ephesians 6:11) as mentioned above, who attacks primarily though this residual ‘old man’ within. So we’re to handle this sword more like a scalpel to dissect our own ‘heart’(Hebrews 4:12), removing the anger and malice etc., until it flows gently with love.

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