Overcoming Sin Together II (Colossians 3:12b-15)

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Recently, I spoke with a man who over the last couple of years has, along with his wife of course, adopted three African children. This couple became believers in their late teens having been raised in unbelieving homes.

By God’s grace this man’s parents came to faith several years ago and are members of a good church in another part of Johannesburg. The woman’s parents are still unsaved.

When they informed their parents of their decision to adopt these children they did not take the news very well. Racism was in their veins. But this man shared with me how amazing it has been to watch his own parents’ attitude change. They told him initially that they did not think that they could love them as their grandchildren. And yet now they seemingly love these adopted children even more that their natural born grandchildren! He added that his wife’s parents are still emotionally where they were when they first told them the news; that is, somewhat unwelcoming.

This brother in Christ told me that it is obvious that his parents in fact are believers because of this transformed attitude towards these children. And this is precisely what Paul says to the Colossians in 3:11ff.

You see, those who have put off the old man because they have put on the new man demonstrate this reality by how they regard others and thus by how they respond to others.

Let me review briefly how we got to where we are.

Paul tells us that in light of the supremacy and the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ that we are to seek Christ and as we do so we will stop sinning as a lifestyle (vv. 1-7). He adds that we will strip off the deeds of the new man and we will suit up with what Alexander Maclaren called the “garments of the renewed soul” (vv. 8-12a). This is possible because we have been reclothed (v. 10a), renewed (v. 10b) and recreated (v. 10c).

We will show this threefold renewal by how we regard others (v. 11) and how we respond to others (v. 12-13a). Motivated by our privileged relationship with God through Christ (v. 12a), we will respond to one another (regardless of any demographics, v. 11) in a radically different way than those who do not seek Christ, who is above. This is where we begin this study.

How We Respond to Others

Verses 12-13 continue the theme of how we respond to others, and highlights the fact that our response to others must be governed by God. Paul writes, “Put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (vv. 12-13). This passage identifies the garments of the renewed soul, purchased and provided for us by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Curtis Vaughan calls these things “qualities of life which, if present in the community of believers, will eliminate, or at least reduce, frictions” and “the self restraining that enables one to bear injury and insult without resorting to hasty retaliation.”

Before embarking on this study I want to reiterate an important contextual consideration of this text. Paul has in mind the community of believers overcoming sin together. We are to work together at stopping it and stripping it and suiting up and then showing it. If we (the local church) will take seriously this corporate mandate to collectively put on these graces, then we will all be the better for it.

Let’s consider each of these qualities in turn as we seek to learn from Paul.

The apostle tells us first to put on “tender mercies.” The term refers to “heartfelt sympathy” or (literally) “compassion in the gut.” It describes a deep sensitivity to the needs and sorrows of others. It is used often in reference to the mercy of God (Romans 12:1; 2 Corinthians 1:3) or of Christ (Philippians 2:1; Matthew 9:36-38).

The old man finds it all-too-easy to criticise others, but the new man, dressed in “tender mercies” seeks to walk in mile in the shoes of others before he criticises. He desires to respond to the material needs of others.

I was recently blessed after we sent out a church-wide email regarding a need that arose at a sister church. Our church members do not even know the family in whose lives the particular need arose, but the response was absolutely overwhelming as people did what they could to meet the needs of their family in Christ.

Those who have put on “tender mercies” will also have no hesitation in coming alongside to restore the fallen, and to encourage the weak in faith.

The second quality that Paul highlights is “kindness,” which hints at uprightness or integrity. Romans 2:4 uses the word to speak of “the goodness of God.” In contrast, the same epistle tells us that “there is no one who does good” (3:12). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22, where the KJV translates the word as “gentleness.” Ephesians 2:7 describes God’s “kindness” toward us, and the same letter urges us to be “kind” to one another (4:32). Titus 3:4 speaks of the “kindness” of God and Peter tells us that the Lord is “gracious” (1 Peter 2:3), using the same word.

Greek scholar A. T. Robertson defines “kindness” as “‘sweetness of disposition,’ even when there is no call for pity. It is the proper Christian temper in our relation to others, that goodness of our heart that makes us act rightly in dealings with each other.” William Barclay says that the Greek term is “a lovely word for a lovely quality,” and adds,

The ancient writers defined chrestotes as the virtue of the man whose neighbour’s good is as dear to him as his own. . . . It is used of wine which has grown mellow with age, and which has lost its harshness.

John MacArthur speaks of “kindness” as “the grace that pervades the whole person, mellowing all that might be harsh.” And Maclaren writes, “Kindness makes a person attractive. If you would win the world, melt it, do not hammer it.”’

We should note once again that this was a quality of the Lord Jesus Christ, who described His yoke as “easy” in Matthew 11:30.

Practically, those who have put on the new man should be approachable. My father-in-law was also my pastor from the time I was a toddler until I was sent from the church as a missionary. I have heard him say some strong things from the pulpit, and have on occasion been on the receiving end of some strong words. And yet I have never known a man with kinder eyes than my father-in-law. Although he pulls no punches when it comes to speaking the truth, he is supremely approachable, a quality that is clear evidence that he has put on the new man.

We should properly grow mellow with age. I do not mean that we should compromise on truth as we age, but surely some things that used to bother us ought not to do so anymore. We should reach out to others, and express our acceptance of them. I recently read a wonderful illustration of this quality.

Mamie Adams always went to a branch post office in her town because the postal employees there were friendly. She went there to buy stamps just before Christmas one year and the lines were particularly long. Someone pointed out that there was no need to wait in line because there was a stamp machine in the lobby. “I know,” said Mamie, “but the machine won’t ask me about my arthritis.”

Kindness can indeed go a long way!

Paul next mentions the quality of “humility,” which simply speaks of “humbleness of mind.” Paul served the Lord “with all humility of mind” (Acts 20:19, KJV) and exhorted the Philippians to honour one another “in lowliness of mind” (Philippians 2:3). Peter echoed Paul’s exhortation when he wrote, “Be clothed with humility” (1 Peter 5:5).

In contrast to the humility of the new man, Paul highlighted the “false humility” of the false teachers in Colossae (Colossians 2:18, 23). False humility (i.e. pride!) is a quality of the old man, but the new man manifests Christlike humility.

MacArthur speaks of humility as “the antidote for the self-love that poisons relationships. Thomas Watson writes, “Humility is the sweet spice that grows from poverty of spirit.” Vance Havner adds, “If we learned humility it might spare us humiliation,” and John Flavel says, “They that know God will be humble and they that know themselves cannot be proud.”

Humility is both the source and the result of the graces mentioned above. It is not that one thinks low of themselves, but rather the condition of not thinking of oneself at all. William Hendriksen notes, “The person who is kind to others generally does not have too high an estimate of himself. A happy condition arises when in a church each member counts the other to be better than himself.”

In the summer of 1986, two ships collided in the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Hundreds of passengers died as they were hurled into the icy waters below. News of the disaster was further darkened when an investigation revealed the cause of the accident. It wasn’t a technology problem like radar malfunction—or even thick fog. The cause was human stubbornness. Each captain was aware of the other ship’s presence nearby. Both could have steered clear, but according to news reports, neither captain wanted to give way to the other. Each was too proud to yield first. By the time they came to their senses, it was too late.

When Augustine was asked to identify the three greatest virtues for a believer, he replied, “Humility, humility, humility.” Jesus, of course, would agree. Though He was entitled to all honour and glory, “He humbled Himself and became obedience to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

Those who have put on humility are prone to turn away from self-promotion and self-preservation and to seek esteem others better than themselves.

There is another man in our country with whom I was good friends for many years. As my understanding of certain doctrinal issues began to change, our friendship slowly drifted, to the point where we really had no meaningful contact at all. My wife recently challenged me to take the initiative to phone this man and re-establish the relationship. When I took her counsel and spoke to him, he was so glad he told me to give my wife a hug from him. We had a good chat, and I trust that the relationship will remain strong as each of us humbly pursues the friendship.

Fourth, Paul urges us to put on “meekness.” This refers to gentleness and has been defined as “strength held in check” or “power under control.” Moses was “meek” (KJV) or “humble” (NKJV)—more than anyone else alive (Numbers 12:3)—and he would hardly be considered a weak person. Moses had tremendous strength, but he was able (for the most part) to keep it under control. Perhaps his most shameful moment in leading Israel was the very time when he failed to control his strength (Numbers 20:1-13). The New Testament identifies meekness (“gentleness”) as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) and frequently exhorts believers to meekness (Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Timothy 6:11).

Hendriksen defined meekness as “submissiveness under provocation, the willingness rather to suffer injury than to inflict it.” Barclay wrote, “The man who has praotes is the man who is so self-controlled, because he is God-controlled, that he is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

A. W. Tozer once wrote, “The meek man is not a human mouse afflicted with a sense of his own inferiority. Rather he may be in his moral life as bold as a lion and as strong as Samson; but he has stopped being fooled about himself. He has accepted God’s estimate of his own life. He knows he is as weak and helpless as God declared him to be, but paradoxically, he knows at the same time that he is in the sight of God of more importance than angels. In himself, nothing; in God, everything. That is his motto.”

Or hear the comments of J. I. Packer:

“Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). His meekness was shown in his acceptance of what God ordained, including endless battles with those recalcitrant and disappointing people whom he was trying to lead from Egypt to Canaan, including, even, the enormous disappointment of himself not getting into the Promised Land.

Moses was a man with a fierce temper—it was this which had betrayed him during the time in the wilderness—but when God said, in effect, “Now look, Moses, in order to teach the whole world how much loss sin can bring, I’m not going to let you enter the land; the people will go in, but you won’t,’ he did not curse God in furious protest; quietly, if sadly, he accepted God’s decision. That’s meekness. Meekness, for a child of God, means accepting uncomplainingly what comes, knowing that it comes from the hand of God who orders all things. What he sends, we accept in faith even if it hurts, knowing that it’s for our and others’ good.

For many years Sir Walter Scott was the leading literary figure in the British Empire. No one could write as well as he. Then the works of Lord Byron began to appear, and their greatness was immediately evident. Soon an anonymous critic praised his poems in a London newspaper. He declared that in the presence of these brilliant works of poetic genius, Scott could no longer be considered the leading poet of England. It was later discovered that the unnamed reviewer had been none other than Sir Walter Scott himself!

Once again, we cannot miss the fact that meekness was a characteristic of Christ Himself (Matthew 11:29; 1 Corinthians 10:1). On the one hand He angrily drove the money changers from the temple; on the other hand, He quietly submitted to the mistreatment that led to the cross. He was a man of great strength, and yet He was characterised by waiting on God.

For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.

(1 Peter 2:21-23)

The believer who puts on meekness will die to self when tempted to argue and defend himself. He will not back down when it comes to matters of truth and principle, but he will not see the need to defend himself or to be a control freak.

The fifth characteristic that Paul highlights here is “longsuffering,” which refers to the quality of being hopeful and not easily annoyed. Literally, it means to be “long-spirited.” The ideas of patience and endurance are inherent.

There is a poem about patience, which is somewhat cynical.

Patience is a virtue,
Possess it if you can.
Found seldom in a woman,
Never in a man.

It does sometimes seem to be the case that patience comes more naturally to women than to men, but believers who have put on the new man—regardless of gender—will increasingly manifest the quality of longsuffering.

Once again, the New Testament is replete with injunctions to Christian longsuffering. Paul tells us that “love suffers long” (1 Corinthians 13:4) and urges us to “be patient with all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). The author of Hebrews commends Abraham because he “patiently endured” (Hebrews 6:15). James urges us to “be patient” (James 5:7-8). “Longsuffering” is again a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and Paul challenged the Colossians to display “all patience and longsuffering with joy” (Colossians 1:11).

“Patience is the opposite of resentment and revenge,” writes MacArthur, and Barclay speaks of patience in this way: “Foolishness and . . . unteachability never drive it to cynicism or despair; . . . insults and . . . ill-treatment never drive it to bitterness or wrath.”

Jesus suffered long with thick-headed and slow-hearted disciples—and He suffers the same with us! Apart from God’s longsuffering, no one would be saved (2 Peter 3:9).

Paul deals, sixthly, with the quality of “bearing with one another.” This speaks of enduring or, properly, “to hold oneself.” Robertson defines it as “holding yourselves back from one another.” It means to endure that which you don’t like, to carry the load of the unlikeable.

J. Stowell points as an illustration of this to a unique race in the ancient Greek Olympic Games. The winner in this particular race was not the runner who finished first but the runner who finished with his torch still lit. “I want to run all the way with the flame of my torch still lit for Him,” writes Stowell.

In a society which is given to venting our frustration, this characteristic of the new man seems foreign. But again, it is a characteristic of Christ, who bore patiently with His disciples (Matthew 17:17). And the New Testament again urges us toward the same forbearance.

Paul spoke of the need to “endure” persecution (1 Corinthians 4:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:4) and to “bear with one another in love” in the church (Ephesians 4:2). The author of Hebrews issued a similar appeal: “And I appeal to you, brethren, bear with the word of exhortation, for I have written to you in few words” (Hebrews 13:22).

Jesus Christ, the holy, eternal Son of God, certainly did not like all that He saw when He was on earth, and yet for the sake of His Father, and for our sake, He bore with it. And bearing with that which we do not necessarily like is a mark of maturity.

We sometimes say that we have to love others, but not necessarily like them. Whilst it is certainly true that you will get along with some better than with others, this quality of the new man suggests that we ought to learn to like others. After all, if they have to bear with us, how much more should we bear with them!

How We Reconcile with Others

Paul now shifts gears slightly and talks about how we reconcile with others. Believers—those who have put on the new man—are characterised by “forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful” (vv. 13-15).

The qualities described above will enable us to bear with one another and to forgive one another for the benefit of another and of the whole. And, of course, we will benefit ourselves.

Verse 13 is closely paralleled by Ephesians 4:32, which reads, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Jesus spoke of Christian forgiveness in Matthew 18.

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

The Command to Reconcile

Paul quite clearly issues a command here to reconcile. He speaks of “forgiving one another” not as an option. Instead, “If anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you must also do” (v. 13).

The need for reconciliation is a fact of church life, because sin is a fact of church life. The command to reconcile is also a fact of church life. It is an obligation, not an option.

A Sunday school teacher who had just concluded her lesson wanted to make sure she had made her point. She asked, “Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain forgiveness of sin?” There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room, a small boy spoke up, “Sin.”

We can assume that we will sin against others, and that others will sin against us. When that happens, the command to seek reconciliation must be obeyed.

David Jackman notes, “The unwillingness to forgive is a major cause of psychological breakdown, and there is little doubt that a bitter spirit is a killer. It kills the spiritual life of those who cherish it; it kills their emotional, mental and even sometimes their physical health; and it kills the fellowship where it is not dealt with.”

The Cement that Reconciles

But the most fundamental piece of apparel is that of love (v. 14). Love is the belt that keeps it all together (1 Corinthians 13). And when the virtues of vv. 12-13 are held together, spiritual transformation makes progress. “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (v. 14).

J. B. Lightfoot defines “the bond of perfection” as “the power, which unites and holds together all those graces and virtues, which together make up perfection.” Abbot notes, “Love binds the virtues into a harmonious whole.” And Hendriksen observes, “Love is the lubricant that enables the other virtues to function smoothly. . . . It is intelligent and purposeful self-giving that Paul has in mind.”

Barclay puts his finger on the importance of love: “The tendency of any body of people is sooner or later to fly apart; and love is the one bond which will hold them together in unbreakable fellowship.” Hendriksen again observes that love “unites believers, causing them to move forward toward the goal of perfection.”

Without love, reconciliation is impossible and the church cannot move forward toward God’s intended end.

The Crux of Those Who Reconcile

Paul then urges, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body.” “The peace of God” here refers to the peace that God gives (cf. John 14:27). When the above vices are put off and the above virtues are put on, harmony and happiness in the church is the result.

The word “rule” means “to umpire.” Lightfoot correctly asserts that “it is the metaphor of contest here. . . . Wherever there is a conflict of motives or impulses or reasons, the peace of Christ must step in and decide which is to prevail.” Robertson adds to these thoughts: “The peace of Christ is the Umpire where there is a conflict of internal motives. . . . So then, pleads Paul, let the peace that Christ gives cast the deciding vote in our struggles. We shall never go wrong in that case.”

A cross-centred life is the only means by which we can put on the new man and live at peace. Because we have been reconciled through the cross of Christ, we can reconcile with one another. Our response to one another must be consistent with the objective peace that we enjoy with God through the gospel.

The peace of Christ must become the deciding factor in all disputes. “Whatever disagreements or mutual suspicions occur in the church, they are to be dealt with at the deepest level, by all parties allowing the fact of their unity in Christ to settle the issue in their hearts” (Wright). MacArthur summarises:

Peace is not only objective and subjective, but also relational. Believers “were called” to live in peace “in one body.” Individuals who have peace with Christ and in their own hearts will live in unity and harmony with each other.

In light of the objective peace of God will our response aid the further enjoyment of this gospel peace or will we lose it? In light of the peace that Christ expects within His body, will our response aid or hinder such gospel peace? Lightfoot urges, “As ye were called as members of one body, so let there be one spirit animating that body.” May that spirit be that produced by the cross of Christ: humility.

The Contentment of Those Who Reconcile

Our text concludes, “And be thankful” (v. 15). The tense of the Greek clause could literally be rendered, “And keep being thankful.” Rather than asserting ourselves when others sin against us, we should “forget [ourselves] in thanksgiving toward God” (Lightfoot).

John Calvin summarises Paul’s thoughts neatly: “We cannot be in a state of agreement with God otherwise than by being united among ourselves as members of one body. . . . If gratitude takes possession of our minds, we shall without fail be inclined to cherish mutual affection among ourselves.”

Peace and gratitude are inseparable. Curtis Vaughan says it best: “Be grateful for the peace that Christ bestows on us. . . . Thankfulness for this peace becomes an incentive for preserving it.”

Let us be thankful that we have Christ. Let us seek Him and show Him to one another! Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift!