he more you study Scripture, the more you see how important context is for understanding the meaning of a passage. This is especially important when it comes to seeing how the “commands” of Scripture fit with the truths that ground them. Or to say it another way:
Let the indicatives (truths) of Scripture set up the imperatives (commands).
Colossians 3:5-11 provides a good example of this.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:5-11, NIV)
If we take this passage out of its immediate context, then this sounds like a negative and discouraging passage. Sure, the content is sobering and we ought to take seriously the call to resist sin. However, read in isolation, this sounds like a daunting or even impossible task!
Colossians 3:5 is a call to action: “put to death”; it is the command, the imperative.
Common to Paul’s writings, commands do not come out of thin air, they are grounded in a truth that he has already laid out. He presupposes his readers will read the imperatives in light of the indicatives.
It’s easy to overlook the word “therefore,” in verse 5 (above), but let’s not do that. It is there for a reason! And its purpose is to link what came before with what is being said. To be purposefully redundant, the “therefore” links the imperative to the indicative; it links the call to action with the truth that has already been substantiated. So, where is the indicative? Where is that truth that is grounding this ethical call to action? Unsurprisingly, it is contained within the passage that came just prior.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4, NIV)
More than one thing is going on in this passage, so for the sake of our discussion, I have bolded the part I want you to hone in on.
“Put to death” (Colossians 3:5) is built on the previous assertion that “you died” (Colossians 3:3). This fits with Paul’s overall portrait of how the Christian has undergone a significant change, having the death and resurrection of Jesus become vicariously efficacious for themselves as well (for example, Colossians 2:11-12). For the Christian, to “put to death” the practices of the old and fallen world comes as a natural by-product of having died and no longer being under that order!
This call to “put to death” the old self is the living out of the victory that has already been achieved in Christ.
Therefore, to “put to death” means to live with a recognition that one is already freed, by means of death, from the power of sin. This relationship between the imperative and the indicative affects the interpretation from simply “put to death,” with no referential context to “in light of having died with Christ, put to death anything that does not belong to the new life you have in him.”
Using Colossians 3 as a case study, we see that the call to “put to death” the old and corrupted practices is to be balanced by the recognition that Christ’s death allows such an imperative to be possible.
Why does this matter? Because if we are not careful, the New Testament’s many commands, prohibitions, and calls to action can (wrongly) be interpreted as a call to try harder on one’s own strength and ability. What does one miss with this interpretation? Well, the most important part. The imperative, without the indicative, has a exhoration without the empowerment to actually carry it forth.
Paul begins with the reality that we have died with Christ and risen with him, something that has immediate and future effects and consequences (more on that another time!). He then, and only after establishing that truth moves to a natural outworking of that reality. If we have died with Christ, then there are things in our life that ought to be counted as dead with him and that might mean we take them to the gravesite and bury them there where our old self was buried. See the power of the illustrative language?