Yes, all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for our instruction and growth in Christ. No text is any more inspired than another. At the same time, some passages seem to have been written in bold print, in a different font, so to speak. They come across as if highlighted at every turn with exclamation points. One feels as if they are crying out more loudly than others, demanding our undivided attention and analysis.
“Don’t simply read me,” they seem to say. “Feast on me! Meditate! Ruminate! Saturate your spirit! Let my words wash over your soul like the refreshing waters of a cool mountain stream. Hear them again and again. May they be permanently embedded in your brain, shaping how you think and live and relate to one another. Don’t be satisfied with a surface scan. Dig deeply. Unpack me, word upon word, line upon line.”
For whatever reason, Colossians 3:16 has this effect on me. Perhaps it’s because this is one of the rare passages in the New Testament that provides us with a glimpse of how the early church worshipped. Given the controversy today over how to “do church,” as well as the “worship wars” that continue to rage, this passage is remarkably relevant for us in the twenty-first century. Then there is its literary and theological complexity. The grammatical options are numerous and the consequences of our decisions on how to render it in English are far-reaching.
Needless to say, I’m compelled to spend several lessons meditating on its truths. I do run the risk, however, of focusing so precisely on the many words and phrases that we lose sight of the forest for having analyzed the trees. I don’t want to break it up into so many individual parts that we lose sight of the majestic whole or lose sight of its place in the larger context of the epistle. So the task ahead is a difficult one, but ever so important.
Here is the ESV translation of Colossians 3:16. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). For the sake of our study, I would like to suggest an alternative rendering that I believe more accurately reflects what Paul is saying. The differences are minor in appearance, but not insignificant: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom by means of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; singing in your hearts to God with thanksgiving.”
My translation is to some extent shaped by the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:18-19. There Paul exhorted the church. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” What Paul meant by “addressing” or “speaking” in Ephesians 5:19 is defined as “teaching and admonishing” in Colossians 3:16.
As a way of getting started, let’s focus on what Paul means by the phrase, “the word of Christ.” Although some have said it means “the word spoken by Christ,” I’m not convinced. I don’t think Paul is referring to words that Jesus might speak directly into the hearts of individual Christians. Rather, this is “the word about Christ,” that is to say, all the truth that has been revealed and is now in Scripture concerning him.
Most likely “the word of Christ” is identical to what Paul wrote in Colossians 1:5 where he spoke of “the word of the truth, the gospel.” The “word of Christ”, therefore, is the totality of biblical revelation concerning Jesus: who he is, his mission, his life, his redemptive work, his character and will and ways.
At the core of our individual and corporate experience as God’s people must be the person and work of Jesus. The importance of this for today is easily seen with a quick glance at the predominant themes in our pulpits and on our platforms. Christ is largely absent! That’s not an overstatement. Obsessive preoccupation with self has usurped the place of Jesus in the life and ministry of countless churches.
If you listen closely to what is being proclaimed on Sunday mornings, you will discern two dominant themes: conquering and coping. How can I conquer my world? How can I enter into my destiny? How can I triumph over my enemies and claim my inheritance? How can I better cope with life’s daily struggles? How can I relate more effectively with my peers and co-workers? If Christ is mentioned, and he usually is, he exists to aid us in our search for significance. He is important only so far as he awakens us to our importance. We talk about him so we can feel good about ourselves. Need I go on?
No, I’m not saying that “conquering and coping” are unimportant or should be ignored in the ministry of the church. In fact, Paul will address a number of these practical issues in the latter half of Colossians 3. But in virtually every instance he grounds the responsibility or task in our prior relationship with Christ. If wives are to submit to their husbands it is because such “is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18). Although not explicit in Colossians, in Ephesians 5 the responsibility of husbands to love their wives is patterned after the love Christ has for his church and his sacrifice in giving “himself up for her” (Eph.5:25). Slaves are to obey their masters, “fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22). They are to work heartily, “as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). Indeed, they are “serving the Lord Christ” and will receive their inheritance “from the Lord” (Col. 3:23). Masters must treat their servants justly, knowing that they “also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1).
Paul’s point is that every human relationship, every human responsibility, whether it entails “conquering” some obstacle or enemy or “coping” with yet another problem or person, must be seen in light of the person and work of Christ and be governed by it as a controlling principle. The redemptive suffering of Christ for his church, his dominion as Lord and his authority as the judge of all things, all have a direct and practical impact on how we function on a daily basis. If the “word of Christ” is not allowed to exert this formative influence on our beliefs and behavior, whatever “conquering” and “coping” skills we develop will not be pleasing to God or honoring of Christ himself.
This “word of Christ”, says Paul, must “dwell” in us “richly.” The word Paul uses translated “dwell” should not be taken as some sort of inert or static presence. It has a dynamic force and envisions an operative and transformative and powerful force within and among us. I say “within and among us” because Paul likely has in view more than simply an individual experience. Given the contextual emphasis on the corporate reality of the “one body” and our obligations one to another (see vv. 11-15), the “word of Christ” must dwell “among us”, that is to say, in our midst as the body, exercising its authority and power within the life of the gathered community of God’s people.
Thus, Paul’s point is that we must grant the “word of Christ” the highest priority and place in the corporate experience of the church. It must be preached, proclaimed, explained, and applied. Whatever use is made of drama, multi-media displays, or other forms of communication, “the word of Christ” should be the focus. It should dwell “in us” individually and “among us” corporately (by the way, either of these is a legitimate rendering of the Greek), not haphazardly or insignificantly, but “richly”! In other words, let the truth about Jesus be taught and known and obeyed in all its glory and beauty and richness. Give it full sway. Let its intrinsic power and splendor do its work in and for you.
Would that we might leave every church service and every small group gathering saying, “The word of Christ dwelt richly among us here today! All that we know of him governed what we said and sang and did by way of ministry.” To the extent that we do reveals how clearly we understand Paul’s counsel and how committed we are to implementing it in church life.
Submitting and centering all to the word of Christ!