Colossians 3:12-17


Verses 1-4 of this chapter are a sort of summary statement of the Christian's life. Verses 5-17 are an elaboration of these four verses. Verses 5-11 speak of the works of the flesh and also of the new man. Our text, verses 12-17, speaks specifically of the virtues of the new man. Note that the three sections (verses 1-4, 5-11, 12-17) each begin with "therefore." Each section grows out of that which precedes.

This text is very fitting for the first Sunday after Christmas. Christmas is usually a time of joy for all ages. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day people lay aside their differences and usually treat each other with more love than usual. But it should not be temporary. Verses 12-17 speak about the corporate life of Christians. They can live with each other in harmony, love, and peace because of what Christ has done for them. The motivation for Christian living is found everywhere in this text. And so Christmas I is a good occasion for the preaching of sanctification which grows out of the Gospel.

Colossians 3:12 Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

As in verse 5 so here we have an aorist imperative. In both instances it denotes decisive action. The text is addressed to people who already know and believe in Christ. In Galatians 3:27 the verb "to clothe self" was used of justification. Here it is used of sanctification.

The words "as elect of God, holy and beloved" give us the motivation for Christian virtuous living. Eternal election in Christ includes Christian living in time. Look at Ephesians 1:3-14. The fact that I am now a child of God is proof that such was God's gracious will in Christ from all eternity. In eternity God purposed my justification and sanctification. Look at Romans 8:28-30.

God did the electing. This is THE motive for Christian living. Whether we consider "holy" and "dearly loved" as adjectives of nouns makes little difference. In any case they further explain the word "chosen." "Holy" means "set aside for a specific purpose." And note that "dearly loved" is perfect passive, denoting a state of being. From eternity God has set me aside for a specific purpose. From eternity God has loved me in Christ Jesus. This adjective does not denote affection but God's saving attitude toward the elect. On the word "loved" compare Romans 8:28 where it also denotes a relationship, not simply affection. And on "chosen" look at Romans 8:33. No one can ever accuse God's elect of anything because God justifies them. Very comforting. On the words "elect, holy, beloved" O'Brien remarks:

O'Brien: These descriptions are important since they are designated of Christ. Look at Luke 1:35; Matthew 3:17.

Now there follow the five Christian virtues with which Christians have the ability to clothe themselves since they are God's holy and beloved elect. Three of these five are listed at Galatians 5:22 as fruits of the Spirit.

Bruce: Those qualities, as we consider them, are seen to be the qualities which were preeminently displayed in the life of Christ. See Luke 1:78; Matthew 11:29-30; Luke 6:36; Ephesians 2:7.
Kretzmann: He calls the believers 'elect of God,' thereby indicating the source and fountain of all the spiritual blessings of God. God has chosen the Christians in Christ before the foundation of the world . . . . A result of this election is that we are holy, cleansed, sanctified by the blood of the Lamb. . . . These facts are the strongest possible inducements toward a holy life on our part.
Lenski: The three terms (elect, holy, beloved) are synonymous, each casting light upon the other. The virtues here listed by Paul pertain to the second table of the law. Our relation and our devotion to God ever shows itself in our attitude and conduct toward our brethren and our fellow men. 1 John 4:20-21.
Thomas: Kindness, the opposite of harshness and severity . . . Meekness and longsuffering, the very opposite of conduct that is rude and overbearing.
O'Brien: Christ's action in humbling himself is the pattern for believers who, in humility are to esteem others better than themselves and to be concerned about others' welfare . . . There is to be a consideration for others and a willingness to waive one's rights. 'Longsuffering' endures wrong and puts up with the exasperating conduct of others rather than flying into a rage or desiring vengeance.

Colossians 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

NIV and AAT consider verses 12-14 as one paragraph and verses 15-17 as another. That makes sense. Verses 12-14 speak of Christian virtues and verses 15-17 speak primarily of the peace of Christ and the Word of Christ. Verse 13 speaks of the forgiveness of Christians toward Christians. Two participles of attendant circumstance describe this forgiveness. No stronger statement on forgiveness can be found in Scripture.

"Bear" means "to put up with" and takes its object in the genitive. Mutual forgiveness is stressed. These notes suggest that the first colon of this verse amounts to a present general condition: "Always put up with one another, always graciously forgive each other, if ever anyone has a complaint against anyone." The apodosis covers mutual forbearance of present situations and mutual forgiveness of past sins. The protasis covers all complaints, whether real or not, and no matter against whom.

Apology, IV, Justification (Tappert 141,240): If any dissensions arise they should be quieted and settled by calmness and forbearance. Dissensions, it says, grow because of hatred, as we often see the greatest tragedies come from the most trifling offenses.

In the final colon of this verse we have Christ Himself as our standard of forgiveness. Note the correlative "forgive -- forgave." His forgiveness knows no bounds and He told us that ours should be likewise (seventy times seven). "Lord" here refers specifically to Christ.

Kretzmann: We can at the worst speak only of complaints on account of insults in comparison with the unspeakably great mass of guilt which is charged against every person before God.
Bengel: Christ had the greatest cause of complaint against us.
Lenski: Paul says, the moment you have a complaint against anyone, graciously forgive. Bury it at once in genuine forgiveness.
Bruce: The teacher of unlimited forgiveness had taught His lesson by example and not only by precept.
Carson: Even if there is a reasonable cause for complaint (a quarrel), this does not justify a refusal to forgive.

On the close connection between divine forgiveness and our mutual forgiveness look at Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4.

Colossians 3:14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Here we come to the final, the seventh, Christian virtue in our text, "love." This verse involves us in three problems:

  1. Do we repeat "virtues" from verse 12 as do KJV, NKJV, RSV, NASB, and NIV or leave it as is (NEB, AAT)?
  2. Does "and" mean "in addition to" or "as a crowning summary"? 
  3. Does "bind together" mean "that which binds all virtues together" or "that which yields Christian completeness"? 

We suggest RSV: "And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." The genitive "perfect unity" is difficult. It has variously been analyzed as possessive, attributive, subjective, objective, appositional. In any case it does not mean moral perfection but rather spiritual maturity.

On "love" look at 1 Corinthians 13:13 and Romans 13:9,10. If one takes verse 13 seriously, verse 14 will cause no problems. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Gospel. Forgiveness lies at the heart of sanctification.

There is an excellent paragraph in Apology, IV, Justification, (Tappert 139,231) on this verse. It summarizes the battle between Rome and Wittenberg. We quote snatches:

Paul is obviously discussing love of our neighbor . . . . If it is love that makes men perfect, Christ, the propitiator, will be unnecessary . . . . He is talking not about personal perfection but about fellowship in the church. He says that love is a bond and unbroken chain linking the many members of the church with one another.
Kretzmann: Without love all the other Christian virtues and works are useless and vain.
Bengel: Love comprehends the whole range of the virtues, 2 Peter 1:7.
Lenski: Paul has a cluster of seven in 12:13; he crowns it with love . . . The Lord awards the prize to those who have this completeness.
Bruce: Here 'perfect unity' is the full expression of the divine life in the Community, devoid of bitter words and angry feelings, and freed from the ugly defects of immorality and dishonesty. The argument is a parallel to that of Matthew 5:43-48.
O'Brien: If each of the graces previously mentioned was seen to be characteristic of God or Christ then this is preeminently so of 'love.'

It hardly need be said that this passage speaks of forgiving love, not condoning permissiveness.

Colossians 3:15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

About half the versions translate the first Greek word of this verse as "and." The others skip it. Bengel suggests "and so" but that can hardly be the case. Perhaps it simply introduces a new thought. KJV, NKJV, RSV, NASB render the verb with "rule." NEB has "be arbiter." AAT: "decide things for you." 

Kretzmann: This peace, therefore, should rule in our hearts, be the governing principle in our lives in love.
Bengel: The verb could be explained as 'to regulate a person running until he reaches the goal.'
Lenski: The peace of Christ comes through no regulations about material things but through Christ's ransoming and remission of sins (1:14), through his reconciliation effected in the body of his flesh by means of his death (1:22).
Bruce: When hostile forces have to be kept at bay, the peace of God garrisons the believer's heart as in Philippians 4:7.
Thomas: It may be said without much fear of contradiction that peace is the deepest need of man. This may be noted throughout Scripture, Leviticus 3:1-11; Numbers 6:26; Psalm 29:11; Proverbs 3:19; Luke 1:70; 2:14; John 14:27; Acts 10:36; and all through the Epistles.

The prepositional phrase "rule in your hearts" denotes that the Gospel (peace) effects the very inner personality of the believer for Christian living, ruling him and causing him to make the right choices. The clause beginning with "since" denotes that to which a person is brought in conversion. "Called" rules out all and any synergism. It denotes the effective call of the Gospel. "As members of one body" denotes the corporate unity of believers. AAT reads: "as one body." 

Bruce: It was not to strife but to peace that God called them in the unity of the body of Christ. In a healthy body harmony prevails between the various parts.

At this time of year we think of Luke 2:14.

That brings us to the final clause in verse 15. The translation is very simple: "And be thankful." Thankfulness is mentioned again in verse 17 below. To be thankful to God means to recall His great deeds of mercy in Christ toward us. And such remembrance is motivation for Christian living.

Bruce: Christian behavior can be viewed as the response of gratitude to the grace of God . . . . The pagan did not give thanks, Romans 1:21.
O'Brien: The regular offering of thanks to God is almost synonymous with being a Christian.
Carson: A spirit of humble gratitude to God has its effect on relationships with other people.

Thankfulness toward God shows itself in thankfulness toward people. It is a constant attitude.

Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

The terms "the Word of the Lord," "the Word of God," "the Word of Christ," or simply "the Word" are all synonymous and interchangeable. It covers all of Scripture but denotes especially the Gospel here. The verse directs our attention to the Gospel, the means of our salvation.

There is no such thing as a thankless Christian. "Richly" means that the Word is a constant principle in our lives. Assuming that "with all wisdom" modifies the participle we are reminded that all Christian teaching and admonishing (Gospel and Law) must be done wisely. If one uses the Word unwisely one can do much harm. That is not the fault of the Word.

All our versions take "one another" as reciprocal (one another) and not as reflexive (yourselves). The commentaries point out that the words "psalms, hymns, spiritual songs" cannot now be differentiated as separate types of songs. But surely corporate, congregational singing is indicated. But the words "in your hearts" indicate inaudible singing of the heart. By the way, one need not be musical to do what this verse says.

The abiding Word of Christ rules the remainder of the verse. Note "to God" at the end of the verse. This verse is saying that as we are dealing with one another we are also dealing with God.

Kretzmann: The abundant comfort and strength of the Gospel should be used abundantly, not only by the pastor in the pulpit and in the homes, but also by every individual Christian.

The whole book of Psalms is an interesting commentary on this verse.

Colossians 3:17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

This verse speaks of everything we say or do to others. "Word or deed" are adverbial, denoting manner. The sentence is a conditional relative clause on the analogy of a present general condition. It holds true at all times. Words and deeds indicate our attitude toward Christ as Savior and example. Here look at 1 Corinthians 10:31.

Bengel: 'In the name' means so that it may be just the same as if Christ were doing it.
Bruce: For His reputation is at stake in the lives and conduct of His known followers.
Thomas: 'Whatsoever ye do' is a searching phrase found three times in the New Testament, see also verse 23 and 1 Corinthians 10:31.
Carson: This verse is primarily a general summary of the preceding verses, but ultimately its basis is the main theme of the Epistle, namely the pre-eminence of Christ.
O'Brien: There are few exhortations in the New Testament which are as comprehensive as this one, compare 1 Corinthians 10:31.

Note how often thankfulness is mentioned in these verses. Thankfully recalling what God in Christ has done and still does for us is strong motivation for Christian living.

Again, as at the end of verse 16, we have "to God" but this time "Father" is added. This reminds us of Mark 14:36 where Jesus prays: "Abba, father!" and also of Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6. The phrase "through him" at the end of verse 17 reminds us that Jesus is our only Mediator. Not through Mary, not through saints, not through angels. Only through Christ. All else is idolatry.

It is remarkable that in this verse Paul mentions only words and deeds. Thoughts are not mentioned. Perhaps it indicates that people can judge only our words and deeds, not our thoughts. From what we say and do they can judge whether we are doing and saying everything "in the name of the Lord Jesus." 


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays Epistle Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1987, pp. 22-25. Used with permission.

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