It just finished storming. Your son has a soccer game in an hour. You dread the game because you know that the rec field is a mess already, let alone washed out and muddy by now. And sure enough, the mud gets everywhere and stains the uniform. The blue and white stripes on the uniform are now brown and green.
You know none of the other parents will probably clean any of the other uniforms thoroughly for the next game tomorrow, but you want your son to look good, so you throw just the uniform into the wash and set the load to extra large, extra soil, extra long, with copious amounts of detergent.
After a couple of washes, it comes out clean!
As you get to the same rec field, dryer than it was yesterday, you notice that most parents made a half hearted attempt at cleaning the uniform, but you can really notice your son and the vibrancy of the blue and shine of the white on his uniform. It’s almost impossible to ignore him because he just stands out.
And this metaphor—the taking off and putting on—is what Paul uses to describe the redemptive process Christians undergo. They take off like soiled clothing and put on new clothing. In this post, we will explore what Paul calls us to put off like dirty rags and what to put on as Christ followers.
Taking Off (Colossians 3:5-11)
Therefore put to death the members—the things on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustful passion, evil desire, and the greediness which all is idolatry because of which God’s wrath came upon the sons of disobedience. In which you all formerly walked when you lived in these. But now you all also take off all things—anger, rage, wickedness, slander, abusive language from your mouths, not lying to one another, stripping off the old man with his practices, and putting on the new which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of his creator. Where there is not Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free—but Christ is all and in all.—Colossians 3:5-11, my translation
Based on Paul’s argument in the previous post, he gives a new command to the Colossian church.
Since they are a transformed people, they are to put to death the way of life that looks like the world. The sins which the world pursues are idolatry because they do not honor God and his ethic. The world, thinking it knows better, take it upon itself to indulge their passions.
However, before anyone gets too prideful, Paul reminds his readers that they formerly walked in this way of life. For a redeemed people, we sometimes do not understand how people can indulge their sins in the way they do. As a result, we can be tempted to view ourselves as better than them. Paul reminded this church that they, too, walked in this way of life so before we judge those who sin, we should take a moment and remember that we were committing those very sins not too long ago. By remembering our past, we can effectively minister to those who need it.
Then, Paul gives another series of practices that the church is to put off. This section focuses more on actions that could tear apart a community, specifically actions that come from speech. It seems that these unnecessary rules and obligations were causing hatred in the Colossian church. The community was being pressured to adhere to a set of rules they found burdensome but believed they had to follow the rules anyways in order to be a true, Christ-follower. Eventually, their anger turned into slander by talking about their fellow brothers and sisters behind their backs, spreading lies in order to tear down others.
These practices do not reflect the ethic of Christianity. Instead, we are to take off the old man like a piece of soiled clothing and put on the new man, like clothes that just came out of the laundry. This process is not easy because it strikes down our pride. Oftentimes, we simply do not have the power to rage war against the old man. The Father, through his Spirit, will empower us to take off the old man and put on the new man which is continually being transformed to look more and more like Christ.
Now, we don’t know what they were saying specifically as they let anger and lies consume their speech. But, based on Paul’s next reminder, it seems that their speech caused divisions in their life together. They divided along class lines, whether it be socio-economic, ethnicity, or other group-defining feature.
Paul reminds his readers that dividing over these features is not the character of Christian community because Jesus is King over all and all things are subject to him. Therefore, we should not isolate ourselves over differences, but instead embrace these differences and come together to serve each other and our King.
Putting On (Colossians 3:12-17)
Therefore, put on as God’s elect—holy and loved—affection, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another if anyone has complaint against anyone. Just as also the Lord forgave you, thus also you all should forgive one another. But above all these put on love, which is perfection’s bond. And let the peace of Christ rule over you in your hearts, to which also you all were called into one body, and be thankful. Let Christ’s word abundantly dwell in you, in all wisdom teaching and instructing one another, singing in thankfulness in your heart to God psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. And whatever you all speak or do, speak and work in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.—Colossians 3:12-17, my translation
While it is good and right to take off sinful passions and actions, we need to fill those passions and actions with something else. If we don’t, then the very things we took off will reenter our lives and make their roots deeper.
Therefore, instead of being embittered against one another and trying to tear each other down, Paul calls his readers to put on love and patience. By letting love rule in our lives, we will no longer express anger towards others. As a result, we will be patient with other Christians—who sin along with us still—instead of turning around and tearing down their character.
In short, for the church to thrive and to be a light to the nations in this world, we need to have peace. The church is comprised of many peoples from many tribes, tongues, and nations. This diversity alone can make it difficult for the church—a unified body—to get along with each other. Not to mention that the Scriptures mention that the church will be made up of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation which will only make our unity harder. In an age characterized by our differences, we need to seek for our commonalities and have patience with those who are different from us.
The primary source we can learn about this unity comes from the Scriptures—Christ’s words. The Word contains a transforming power that will shape the life of God’s people. Therefore, as we read the Scriptures daily by meditating on the Word and digging into the text, God will shape us into the likeness of Christ through the Spirit.
As we take in from the deep wells of God’s Word, we will pour ourselves out to others by seeking their flourishing. We will take what we have learned from God’s Word and seek to disciple others so that they, too, can reflect Christ more and more. This stands in stark contrast to the previous passage where Paul rebuked the church for discipling others to look more like their way of life rather than reflecting Christ.
No matter what, the work we do in this sphere matters to the Lord. As we seek to grow in Christ’s likeness and help lead others along this path, we should do it as those who have been redeemed by the power of Christ.
Living as Exiles
As we live in this world, we should be a light to all those around us of the gospel. As I opened with the story earlier, you will really notice who the clean soccer player is versus those who aren’t because they have taken off the old uniform and put on the new.
This is the same with Christians, too. While we don’t actually change our clothes to look visibly different to the world, we do take off the old creation and put on the new creation. As a result, we will noticeably look and sound different to the world and from them.
The clearest way to do this is to follow what Paul commands above. It will take time to obey these commands, but slowly and surely over the years you will notice the sanctification. However, it’s important to remember that you cannot follow the Christian ethic according to your own power and you will fail. Therefore, may we rely on the Holy Spirit to enable us to follow these commands and to bestow grace when we fail.
One of the ideas I talked about in this post was that if we don’t fill the void we’ve created when we removed sin, more and more sin will enter our lives. That is why we need to “take off” practices and “put on” practices together. This idea came from Thomas Chalmers and his seminal work called The Expulsive Power of a New Affection which you can read freely.