On the way to my physical therapy session Thursday morning, I listened to the news, just in case something important happened in the world, besides the covid-19 pandemic, suspension of NBA’s season, and the stock market crash. Later, walking on the treadmill in traction, I chose to concentrate on our passage and was rewarded with God’s soothing peace and insights. Who knows what the Lord’s purpose is through covid-19 and all its ramifications? Only God. But we get to choose how we live, what we focus on, and how we’ll react to something that threatens our material wellbeing, comfort, convenience, health, and control. Crises and imagined crises do not excuse us from meditating on and applying any of the Bible’s doctrines and statutes; during these times, we need them to counteract cultural trends toward negativity, fear, and pessimism. So let’s give our attention to a passage about how love binds all Christian fruit and virtues for harmony in a disorderly, dark world. As usual, God is counter-cultural, offering balance instead of chaos, love instead of blame, and patience instead of panic. Paul reminds us of our ability to choose: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 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. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12-14) Christ’s love is the perfect, harmonizing binder for Christian virtues and forgiveness. As his disciples, we are called to love others intentionally and sincerely.
In Colossians 3, Paul reminded us of who we are in Christ, that our lives are hidden in him, and that we will appear with him in glory. He then instructed us to kill off that which is sinful and provokes God’s wrath, our old selves, with its ungodly nature. In Colossians 3:12-14, our passage under consideration, the apostle tells us what to put on, having taken off that which is abysmal to Christ. We redress ourselves because we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” (v. 12a) “We must become what we already are, and we need guidance in this because sin’s presence continues to color our idea of what it means to be human. Jesus Himself reveals what a true person looks like, and Paul shows us real humanity as well in his list of the qualities that we must put on as God’s chosen people…Jesus never said that following Him would be easy, and being His disciples—the new humanity—means that we are compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient even when it is costly.” (1) Today pastors are taking heat for keeping their churches open, and missionaries are staying put in places where covid-19 is excessive because they know that they belong to Christ. Our security is not in this world, but in God, we are the beloved objects of his abundant grace. As those given to Christ by the Father (John 17), we have already received Christ’s robe of righteousness in our justification and are receiving his attributes increasingly through our sanctification. =
The only reason we can be sincerely compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient is because we have Christ, and he has us. (v. 12) But don’t we tend to reduce verses such as this to a list that we then try to perform? Most of the commentators I consulted reduce verse 12 as a list of separate Christian virtues. But, I propose that we see we treat these characteristics as one picture of the “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:10) After all, is it even possible to have a compassionate heart without mercy, or kindness? And what happens when we show kindness or mercy without compassion? Doesn’t it merely become a way to soothe a guilty conscience or fulfill self-righteousness? Being gentle (meek) is the way some people avoid conflict and may nothing to do with mercy, compassion, or kindness. Humility for the sake of preserving a self-image is the sin of pride but combined with compassion, kindness, and gentleness, ministers to a hurting soul. Finally, we come to patience, the fifth virtue listed in verse 12. Oh, well, if you’re patient at the Apple store, or in line at the grocery store, of what value is that? However, if you are patiently faithful during the pandemic or falling stock market values, trusting God to provide, you will probably also be compassionate, kind, merciful, and gentle during these turbulent times.
But wait, there’s another Christian virtue mentioned in Colossians 3:13—that of forgiveness. We are described as “…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.” Here is a bridge between Christ’s love and our virtuous new selves—the forgiveness that we have received supplies the loving fruit we offer to others. Because we are God’s holy, chosen ones who have compassionate, kind, merciful, gentle, and patient hearts and attitudes, we forgive. We don’t blame, criticize, or shame. Through Christ, we put ourselves in the shoes and lives of others, appreciating their challenges, seeing things as they might, with empathy and respect. Can we hope to be forgiving people otherwise? And still, the picture is not yet complete. We must put on Christ’s love intentionally and sincerely to successfully live the Christian life. “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (v. 14)
[Love] “is the upper garment that covers all the rest…whereby a disciple of Christ is visible, and distinguished, and is known to be what he is; this is like a strait and upper garment, keeps close all that is under it, and within it…” (2) Sounds like a girdle or corset, which is precisely Gill’s intent. I was walking on the treadmill tightly strapped into a harness, to keep some of gravity’s effects from harming my healing back. It’s the kind of contraption that resembles the gear skydivers wear, and the therapist uses tremendous pressure to get it as tight as possible around my midsection. Yesterday, I realized that when the harness is working correctly, I feel secure, protected, and light on my feet. Without the harness, I cannot walk o without back pain these days, so I don’t walk for exercise. I feel pain, not peace, as I do with the harness binding me to the weights. Without love as the binding power for our Christian character, we are unprotected and vulnerable, as are others with whom we interact. Gill continues, “… this is like a strait and upper garment, keeps close all that is under it, and within it: and it is called the bond of perfectness…for this is the bond of union between them, which knits and cements them together, so that they are perfectly joined together, and are of one mind and one heart: it is the bond of peace among them, of perfect unity and brotherly love.” (3)
What is a compassionate heart without love, but material generosity? Loveless humility is religious legalism, and meekness without love may just be low self-esteem or shame. Patience without love is what we do when we have no control and no choice in the matter. We won’t boldly share the gospel if we are afraid of being insulted or offended, but if we’re truly meek and patient, not fearing offense, taking it as Christ did, we will be more courageous about witnessing for him, with compassionate hearts. When we quietly submit to the will of God in all adverse dispensations of providence, patiently bearing what he is pleased to lay on us, including crises, we can also practice patience and forgiveness. Love binds our character, protecting us with Christ’s security—his steadfast love. “Love is primary because it is the impetus for the kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness to which we are called…It was love that moved the triune God to provide a way for human beings to be forgiven and reconciled to Him, and if love drove Him to absolve us, nothing less can make us extend true forgiveness to others…Kindness, meekness, patience, and so forth are praiseworthy only if they are not merely outward qualities but are the very disposition of the heart. Anyone can show kindness or patience externally while inwardly hating the object of one’s good will, but it takes love to ensure that the virtues we display outwardly match the thoughts and desires that no one but God can see.” (4)
Instead of becoming weary of hearing news reports, will you “put on” love, forgiveness, kindness, patience, gentleness, mercy, and a compassionate heart for your neighbors in prayer, on the phone, in emails, text messages or actual hand-written notes? How might you envision putting on this Christian fruit as you get dressed in the morning? Aren’t we less effective as imitators of God because we doubt his love for us or ours for him at times? Will you pray for more patience, compassion, and forgiveness if you are inclined to worry about yours or others’ health, finances, and activities? Will you be a calming, loving presence in your community for Christ? “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)
(1) “Faith and the Means of Grace,” a Ligonier devotion on Colossians 3:12-13, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/faith-and-means-grace-2/)
(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Colossians 3:14, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/colossians-3.html
(3) Gill, Ibid.
(4) “Love and the Peace of Christ,” a devotion on Colossians 3:14-15 at https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/love-and-peace-christ/)
March 13, 2020