The modern American church has traditionally been pretty homogenous in terms of demographics. Especially in the south, in recent decades, many churches have made great strides in developing more diverse congregations. At a church where I speak occasionally, I have a number of black and Latino friends. The church body even includes a few European immigrants and some believers from the pacific isles. It's beautiful to see the growing diversity of the church in America, though no matter how diverse we become in the States, it doesn't hold a candle to the incredibly diverse populations of the Colossian church.
The world of the Colossians was a divided one. There were Jews, but the Jews were at odds with the Romans for imposing pagan religion upon them. The Roman world spoke Greek and later Latin, but the barbarian tribes didn't and lived in constant conflict with their Greek-speaking overlords. The Romans, Greeks, and barbarians were enemies with the Asian tribes of tattooed Scythian nomads. These diverse populations fractured further into slaves and free people. In Colossae, the church was a diverse place.
Diversity is beautiful, but it comes with its challenges. Diverse congregations want to divide into familiar demographic lines. The Romans had warred against the Jews. The Scythians had warred against the Romans. The barbarians had warred against everybody. The slaves of each of these usually hated their masters, who were often from a different group. Imagine the challenge of keeping a church of such diversity unified. None the less, Paul presents this simple concept:
You are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator. In Christ, there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all. (Col. 3:10-11 HCSB)
Believers, who are being renewed by God’s word, are changing into the likeness of their Creator. It’s not by coincidence that Paul mentions the Creator. It’s a reminder that the diversity in the church was invented by the very one the church worships. The Creator loves diversity, and he expects there to be unity among those who come together to worship him.
There were certainly people who were saying things like, “the Scythians are Godless,” or “the barbarians couldn’t be saved.” Paul answers all of those kinds of accusations with a simple statement, Christ is all and in all. Christ is in any person, of any race, who believes in him for eternal life. If Christ is in you, I don’t care what skin color or descent you come from.
Paul instructs them (and us) to have no divisions within the church. Sounds great, but how? He'll reveal the answer as we go along:
Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience… (Col. 3:12)
The aspects that Paul instructs us to put on are famously covered in another passage you may recognize. Here’s what he said in his letter to the Galatians:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22)
He calls the qualities fruits of the Spirit. This means you can’t accomplish this list of heroic characteristics if you don’t have the Spirit involved. In fact, for each act of love, joy, and peace, the Holy Spirit gets the credit. That’s because it’s God’s power that has made you able to accomplish these characteristics.
Paul instructs the Colossians (and us) to put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Paul lists all of the fruits of the Spirit that have anything to do with relationships. This relational fruit is vital to our interactions with each other. We have to rely on the power of the Spirit in order to have healthy relationships. If we’re going to make sure the church isn’t fractured by divisions, we have to put on these relational fruits of the Spirit.
How do we put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience? The beginning of this chapter tells us the answer to that question. The Mindset method is what Paul prescribes for this character change:
Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. …being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator… (Col. 3:2, 10)
When your mind’s focus is Christ and things above, then He transforms you one thought at a time. The more your mind dwells on the Lord and Godly things, the more you will be reshaped into the likeness of Jesus. The more time you spend thinking about Christ, His desire to reward you, His forgiveness for your past failings, His flawless character, the more you look like Him. Character comes to you when Christ is on your mind. A greater level of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience develops in those who fix their mind on Jesus and fight to keep it there.
When are we most likely to trip? In the neighborhood where I grew up, my friends and I rode bikes constantly, so we knew exactly what path to take to avoid the potholes. In the same way, it's important to know where the relational potholes are, especially when we're talking about Christian character. If we want to eradicate divisions in the church, then we need to know what to watch for. Paul shows us the situations where most of the challenges will arise.
Be tolerant of one another and forgive each other if anyone has a complaint against another…. (Col. 3:13 ISV)
If you want to live a life full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, then you’ve got to be prepared to handle conflict very delicately. When people quote Bible verses about conflict, they rarely quote this one. That’s because it doesn’t satisfy a person’s desire for justice. The verse most quoted, when considering conflict, is this one:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may be established.' (Matthew 18:15-16)
People like to quote this verse when they've been wronged because it is confrontational. It puts the wrong-doer in their place. It forces consequences upon the one who has perpetrated the insensitivity. Do you know, however, that many people misuse this verse in Matthew eighteen? There's an important phrase in this verse that we don't find in the Colossians verse. Notice that in Matthew 18:15 it says: "If your brother sins against you.” Matthew eighteen is dealing with a situation where a SIN has been committed. Sins have to be dealt with for the sake of the church’s health. These verses aren’t talking about minor infractions. None the less, I’ve seen more than a few people take these verses and try to apply them to situations where there has not been a sin committed, but only a violated preference, annoyance, or an insensitivity. That is a misapplication of these verses.
Now, let’s return to what Paul says in Colossians. He says, “Be tolerant of one another and forgive each other if anyone has a complaint against another.” Notice that Paul doesn’t mention sin in this verse. Of course, a complaint could include a sin, in which case a witness is expected to follow the instructions in Matthew 18:15-16. However, Paul is painting with a much broader brush here.
If someone says something that annoys you, if someone steps on your toes, or violates some of your personal preferences, this concept holds true. Even if someone has done something that hurt your feelings, forgive them without seeking retribution. He doesn't instruct them (or us) to chase down the insensitive person to force them to confess and do penance. If someone has been insensitive to you, you're commanded to tolerate it and forgive. He adds a powerful reminder to the tail of this instruction:
Be tolerant of one another and forgive each other if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, you also should forgive. (Col. 3:13)
You're supposed to forgive without expecting retribution. That may not seem fair. But wait a minute. Each time you feel like crying, "That's not fair," remember that Jesus could say the same thing about forgiving you. His forgiveness came at a substantial cost to Him and costs us nothing. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, you also should forgive. It puts us in our place, doesn’t it?
Paul explains the most important thing when he says:
But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. (Col. 3:14)
We get an indicator of why God wants us to love one another. We see why he wants us to remove all divisions in the church. For His church to accomplish the work, it must function well. For it to function well, we must unify it. For the church to be unified, individual believers must love one another. This is so important to God that He views believers who love one another as having a kind of perfection. You'll remember that Peter said love covers a multitude of sins. Even Jesus said that the entire law and the prophets hang on these two commands. Love God and Love, people.God will forgive so much imperfection as long as you love one another.
I have two kids. They love each other, and much of the time, they play together in a way that demonstrates their love. As long as they are playing peacefully and joyfully, I will overlook the fact that their room is a mess, they are late for bath time, and they didn't eat all their dinners. I'll overlook so much imperfection as long as they love each other. That seems to be Paul's concept here. When we are bonded together in love, it is a bond of perfection. How do we achieve such love?
Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. (Col. 3:15 CEV)
God chose the church. He wants the church to be a place of peace. The church is to be a place where peace is experienced corporately and privately. That should be the goal of any Christian church.
Among his instructions to live together in peace, he gives us the key to achieving it. He says, “let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts.” It should be no surprise to us by now that Paul's method for accomplishing love and peace is rooted in the mindset of each individual. It begins in our thoughts. The peace a congregation feels must flow out of the internal peace each member experiences. If the individuals are experiencing inner turmoil, then the church will as well. As each believer sets their mind on Christ and things above, peace spreads through the body.
Recently I was lying in bed contemplating a list of difficulties my tribe of family and friends was experiencing. I had spent the day talking to a half dozen loved ones about illnesses, broken marriages, lack of work, worldwide pandemics, and plenty of other things. Two life-altering conflicts were going on within my circle of influence. A few of the things I was thinking about were tempting me to respond in a fleshly way. All that could be done had been, but I was still upset and unsettled by the whole stinking mess. I was considering getting out of bed and making an abrasive phone call to a friend who had some pretty rotten behavior as of late. I knew I wasn't going to do it since it was midnight, but I was mentally practicing angry lines I might say to her if I ever got the chance.
I realized after staring at the ceiling for about a half-hour that I wasn't taking advantage of what Christ offers. I needed peace. I wasn't letting the peace that comes from Christ control my thoughts. In fact, I didn’t have my mind set on Christ at all.
So, I took a deep breath and began to call to the Lord. I set my mind on having His peace and asked Him for it. I asked my Heavenly Father to take away my dark thoughts. I told Him I was looking forward to His Son's return. I envisioned it. I asked Him to help me dwell on Him. I requested that He shove the decrepit mindset out of my head. I went on like this for only a few minutes.
After a short stint of mental focus, I felt His peace. An entire weekend's worth of worries were taken off of my shoulders in less than a second. All the cares were washed away like sidewalk chalk in the rain. Five minutes later, I was sleeping as deeply as my care-free kids in the next room. Sometimes Christ's peace is effortlessly present; other times, we have to fight to let it control our thoughts. It’s all about where we set our minds.
How do we forgive, love, and live together in peace? How do we ensure there are no divisions among us? We let Christ's peace control the way we think about every situation. We keep our minds set on Christ and things above. When the mind wanders, we use our helpful habits, prayer, Bible study, and fellowship to bring it back to the center. We consider every circumstance through the lens of that Godly mindset. How much has Christ forgiven me? Shouldn’t I forgive others? Paul adds that we should be grateful. For what? For the peace of mind that Christ gives us as we love and forgive one another.
As you press forward toward deep fellowship, you are to:
Let the teaching of Christ live inside you richly. Use all wisdom to teach and counsel each other. Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16 ERV)
Not only does God transform us when we have the prescribed mindset, but so too, it changes the church. We are to let the teaching of Christ live inside us richly. This means that not only are we supposed to be aware and familiar with God’s word, but we are to allow it to enrich us. As each individual dwells on Christ’s word, it transforms that person. That, in turn, changes the makeup of the church.
We are expected to share, teach, and counsel with each other. This perpetuates the transformation in those we love. It’s easy for churches to have teaching that doesn’t touch the experience of the listeners. It’s important to couple teaching with counsel. Teaching can sometimes have abstract aspects, but counsel is concrete. It becomes counsel when we take teaching and turn it into practical application in each other’s lives.
How do you know that Christ-teaching is living richly inside you? One example of rich-living-Christ-teaching is demonstrated by singing. Music is an expression of emotions. As you grow and mature, hopefully, Christ’s teaching touches your emotions in novel ways. Thankful songs, hymns, and psalms of a spiritual nature are an amazing expression of Christ’s teaching living richly inside.
I don't know of any better example than my grandpa to illustrate this. When we visited his house, he would wake at 5:00 am every morning. After reading his Bible and praying, he would then engage in about a half-hour of singing. He didn't play an instrument and couldn't even clap and sing at the same time. None the less, his baritone vibrato would rumble through the house. Hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs would fill his home from 5:30 to 6:00 am. It didn't matter if we were still sleeping or not. He would shake the walls with his songs.
His singing wasn't just reserved for private or semi-private occasions. I don't know that I ever remember a time with him when he didn't sing at least two or three songs. One time after taking my brother to the barbershop, he asked the manager if he could sing a song for his patrons. He quieted the whole place full of strangers and explained that he had set a favorite piece of scripture to a familiar tune. As my brother blushed, he sang for them all.
Years after he was past retirement age, the company where he worked asked him to stay on part time for the purpose of singing to other employees on their birthdays, and raising company morale. He would sing happy birthday, then he would sing a quaint little song about growing older with grace, and he'd finish with his latest tune based on whatever scripture he'd been reading most recently. This was a secular company, but they could feel the positive power of singing in their downtown Dallas high rise.
Though it might sound a little strange and somewhat awkward, you can hardly imagine how warmly people responded to his unique willingness to brighten their dark day with a tune. He was only a mediocre singer, with no instrument and poor rhythm. Though, I think he did more with his music than many so-called professionals.
I hope that you have a time when you Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your heart to God. It’s for good reason that churches make it a regular part of their services to sing. It’s a great way to break down divisions and grow in love.
To end the section, Paul sums up with a broad expression of motivation and intention:
Everything you say and everything you do should be done for Jesus, your Lord. And in all you do, give thanks to God the Father through Jesus. (Col. 3:17 ERV)
The mindset method never seems to be absent from Paul’s approach. Everything we do needs to be sourced in our gratitude for what Christ and God the Father have done for us. Whether word or deed, every movement must begin with the right mindset. The mindset prescribed for pleasing the Lord is one of thankfulness.
We are instructed to love one another. We are expected to remove divisions from among us. We need unity. In every situation we find ourselves, especially relationships, we need to keep bringing our minds back to God. To love one another, let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts.