An Exegesis of Colossians 3:1-7


I. Introduction

Colossae was located in the Roman province of Asia, currently in the territory of Turkey, in the Lycus River valley. It’s about 120 miles east to Ephesus, close to Laodicea and Hierapolis. The three cities formed a kind of triangle. It appears that in Paul’s day Colossae is much smaller than its nearby cities like Laodicea and Hierapolis. However, according to geographical research, it was “well positioned on a major trade route and well known for the purple hue of its wool”.[1]

Bible does not tell us how the gospel was preached to the city of Colossae. However 1:4-7 indicates that Paul learned from others about the situation of church in Colossae. Moreover, since in 2:1 Paul mentioned the believers in Laodicea and other believers “who have not met me face to face”, it is widely believed that “the establishing of the church in Colossae is influenced by Paul’s ministry among Ephesians, when ‘all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord’ (Acts 19:10)”.[2] According to 1:7, a coworker named Epaphras was responsible for overseeing and ministering the church. And when Paul was writing the letter, he was in prison (4:3, 18) and he had never got the opportunity to see the congregation face-to-face.

The text (1:1, 1:23-2:5) suggests that Paul is the author of the epistle to the Colossians. If Paul is not the one who planted the church, why did he write this letter? The content of the letter shows that Paul found that the church was having a tendency of being misled by the worldly philosophies (2:8). The tone of the letter suggests that Paul tried to proactively warn the church to pay attention to this tendency and avoid the misleading teaching. The objections to the Pauline authorship of Colossians have been adequately answered by several scholars. The most compelling argument in favor of the authenticity of the letter is its close connection with Philemon, which is scarcely open to challenge. In another word, if Paul authored Philemon, it’s almost true that he also wrote Colossians, “due to the remarkable similarities of circumstance”. [3]

The reference to imprisonment (4:3) links the letter with other three letters (Ephesians, Philemon, Philippians) and they are grouped as “letters from prison”. But it is still unknown where and when Paul was imprisoned and wrote these letters. Possible locations include Ephesus, Caesarea and Rome. But the traditional view dates all four epistles during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment mentioned in Acts 28:30-31. N. T. Wright inclined to put Colossians in the period “between 52 and 55, while Paul was working in Ephesus and treat it as instruction given to a very young church”. [4]

In this paper, we will look into Colossians 3:1-7 and do an exegesis on this text.[5]

II. Grammatical and Syntactical Development

The major focus of the last section in chapter 2 is to warn the Christians in Colossae not being misled by false philosophies and teachers. Paul states that because Christians have died with Christ (aorist for past actions, perfective aspect), thus we don’t need to submit to the regulations from “elemental spirits of the world” (2:20).

1Εἰ οὖν συνηγέρθητε τῷ Χριστῷ, τὰ ἄνω ζητεῖτε,

1Therefore since you have been raised up with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is sitting in the right side of God.

The world οὖν (“therefore”, “then”) indicates that 3:1 continues the consequences from 2:20. But unlike the previous section, he shifts from the negative prohibitions of submitting to the positive seeking of heavenly things. It’s a conditional sentence. συνεγεἰρω (“cause to rise up with”) is the finite verb in the protases in aorist tense, denotes that rising with Christ is a completed past action in perfect aspect. In first class conditional protases, we can probably better translate εἰ to “since” instead of “if”, based on Paul’s earlier statement regarding baptism. The “Christ” here is a dative noun due to the “συν” compound verb just like part of a prepositional phrase “with Christ”, not an indirect object. Then in the apodosis, the finite verb is the imperative ζετἐω, which shows a command or ask from Paul to the audience, “Seek”. The accusative object of seeking in apodosis is τὰ ἄνω. The article indicates a substantive usage of the adjective, meaning “things above”.

οὗ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν ἐν δεξιᾷ τοῦ θεοῦ καθήμενος•

where Christ is sitting in the right side of God.

οὗ is the genitive of pronoun ὃ, denoting the location. Another verb in this clause is κἀθημαι (“cause to sit”) in participle middle nominative. With ἐστιν they formed a phrase of “where Christ is sitting”. The relative clause here is a predicate structure modifying τὰ ἄνω. The preposition phrase of ἐν δεξιᾷ τοῦ θεοῦ modifies the verb in participle as local adverbial (“in/at the right side of God”). From this relative clause, two things are stated by Paul: Christ is sitting above, and Christ is sitting at God’s right hand. The one we raised up with is now occupying a place of primacy and sovereignty. If Christ is the Lord of Christians, then we should look up to him.

2τὰ ἄνω φρονεῖτε, μὴ τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς.

2Seek the things above, not the things on the earth.

The finite verb in this sentence is the imperative φρονἐω (“think”, “set one’s mind on”), indicates a command from Paul. It’s a repeat and emphasize of the command in verse 1, while the direct object is the same accusative adjective. ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (on the earth) with accusative article τὰ particularize the meaning to “earthly matters”, while μὴ is used to negate it. The whole verse makes a contrast between heavenly matters and earthly matters. From this then the audience can tell what they were attracted to (the philosophies and regulations) is not the thing that they should pay attention to as a Christian raised with Christ.

3ἀπεθάνετε γὰρ καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν κέκρυπται σὺν τῷ Χριστῷ ἐν τῷ θεῷ.

3For you have died and your life has been hidden with Christ in God.

The first word is the finite verb, 2nd plural aorist active indicative of ἀποθνᾐσκω (“die”). The conjunction γὰρ introduces another reason for seeking heavenly things (verse 2): Christians are dead to the earthly matters. καὶ links it to another finite verb, 3rd singular perfective indicative passive of κρὐπτω (“has been hidden”), indicates a perfective aspect and the action is performed by a divine role. σὺν shows that the resurrection lives of believers are connected with the risen of Christ. Also it is implied that in a spiritual, real sense “believers are already living ‘in the company of Christ’ in the heavenly realm (ἐν τῷ θεῷ), hidden from human gaze”.[6] The whole sentence again reminds the Christians that we are spiritually in the territory of God, with the risen Christ. Thus seeking the heavenly matters is not a command to earthly human beings, but a command to the new citizens of heaven, raised through the death and resurrection with Christ.

We can find compound format of the verb κρὐπτω used earlier in this letter. They are ἀποκρὐπτω in 1:26 and ἀπόκρὐφος in 2:3, and they all talk about the hidden plan or knowledge about God. Here Martin suggests that Paul uses this word probably because he “recalls the Greek idiom in which death is likened to a man’s being ‘hidden in the earth’”.[7] In the following verse Paul talks about the reveal (φανερὀω) of Christ and Colossians at future perspective, while “being hidden” is a present perspective. It can also imply a meaning of security with Christ, and concealment in God (after the spiritual death).

4ὅταν ὁ Χριστὸς φανερωθῇ, ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν,

4When Christ who is your life is revealed

The finite verb in this phrase is φανερὀω in 3rd singular aorist passive subjunctive, together with ὅταν indicate a conditional future action “when Christ is revealed”. ἡ ζωὴ ὑμῶν (the life if you) is a nominative phrase, which is normally used as subject of the sentence. It’s in agreement with Χριστὸς, probably an epexpositional apposition to ὁ Χριστὸς, indicating that “Christ is your life”. According to Dunn, “it is one of Paul’s ways of emphasizing the centrality of Christ for believers, the way everything which gives the Christian meaning and identity focuses on Christ”.[8]

τότε καὶ ὑμεῖς σὺν αὐτῷ φανερωθήσεσθε ἐν δόξῃ.

At that time you also will be revealed in glory with him.

τότε (“then”) is a conjunction word and a response to the ὅταν (“when”), showing the apodosis part of the conditional sentence. So καὶ should not be a conjunction word but an adverbial to the verb, means “also”. The finite verb in this phrase is φανερὀω again but in 2nd plural future passive indicative, means “you will appear”. The σὺν αὐτῷ here indicates the accompanyship with Christ, because they agree in gender. The prepositional phrase “ἐν δόξῃ” could indicate a local meaning of “in where is glory”, or ainstrumental meaning of “by glory”. We are not sure whose glory it is, but the glory is shared between Christians and Christ.

Putting verse 3 and 4 together, Paul is making a statement of eschatology. Christians died and are now hidden with Christ in God’s realm, and one day Christ will appear, then we all will appear with him in glory. I believe verse 3 and verse 4 putting together is the reason for seeking the heavenly matters. Because we are died, because we are hidden with Christ in heaven (which is God’s realm) spiritually, and because we will be revealed with Christ in glory, we should seek heavenly matters. The past, the current and the future are put together to form the reason for Paul’s command.

5Νεκρώσατε οὖν τὰ μέλη τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς,

5Therefore put your earthly parts to death:

The first word is 2nd person plural aorist active imperative of νεκρὀω, means “put to death”. It’s another command from Paul. οὖν indicates a consequence from previous verses. I would think it as a response to verse 3 that “you died”. The direct object of νεκρὀω is τὰ μέλη (the members), which is in accusative. The prepositional phrase of ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς functions as a locative adjective together with the article τὰ (earthly) to modify the direct object. Please note that the first τὰ is possessive, which indicates “parts of you”, while the second τὰ categorizes the propositional phrase and make it adjective. Paul uses the word μἐλος here, which means parts of the body. He can use other words like ἔργον (deed). But μἐλος shows strong connection between the sin and the flesh. Paul is not asking Christians simply stop doing bad things, he is asking for a termination for desire for sin, which is in us and from us. And the reason that we still have these parts is because our hearts and desires are still sticking to the earthly matters. Harris states that “Paul is calling for termination of the immoral and self-centered use of physical limbs or organs”. [9]

πορνείαν ἀκαθαρσίαν πάθος ἐπιθυμίαν κακήν, καὶ τὴν πλεονεξίαν, ἥτις ἐστὶν εἰδωλολατρία,

sexual immorality, impurity, bad lust, and greed which is idolatry.

Then we have a series of accusatives as in apposition to τὰ μέλη. They also explain the meaning of τὰ μέλη in detailed examples. πορνεία means “immoral sexual activity”, ἀκαθαρσία stands for “impurity” or “uncleanness”, πάθος means lust, ἐπιθυμία κακήν is probably referring to “bad desires related with sex”. The last one πλεονεξία is “avarice” or “desire to have more”, but this word has an article while other accusatives don’t. Since the following relative clause use the feminine relative pronoun ἥτις, which agree with πλεονεξία in gender. So the article here probably is used to particular πλεονεξία, and indicates that it is the antecedent of the ἥτις in relative clause. Thus the relative clause is saying that “greed which is the idolatry”. So Paul makes πλεονεξία special among all accusatives, probably this is an important sin that the believers in Colossae should deal with.

6δι᾽ ἃ ἔρχεται ἡ ὀργὴ τοῦ θεοῦ,

6The wrath of God is coming because of these things,

διἀ (“on account of”, “because of”) starts another relative clause. ἃ is the plural or singular accusative of ὃ. If it’s singular then the whole relative clause is either referring to τὰ μέλη which categorize the things that we need to put to death. Or it’s plural, referring to the accusatives in the previous verse, “because of these things”. ἡ ὀργὴ (“the wrath”) is the only nominative noun in the clause and it should be the subject, while τοῦ θεοῦ is the genitive of possession, indicating the owner of the wrath. The finite verb ἔρχομαι is in its 3rd person singular present, indicating imperfect aspect, which is “is coming” or “always comes”. Unlike the judgment at the Lord’s Day, the wrath of God is coming now because of the earthly things among the people.

[ἐπὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς τῆς ἀπειθείας]

[against the sons of disobedience.]

The prepositional ἐπὶ with accusative can be translated to “toward” or “against” with a verb. Most probably the clause indicates the object of the verb. Then there are two nouns in the prepositional phrase. The first one is an accusative while the second is a genitive. It’s quite obvious that the accusative τοὺς υἱοὺς (“the sons”) is the object of ἐπὶ, and the genitive ἀπειθείας (“disobedience”) is the genitive of quality (“the sons characterized by disobedient”) modifying τοὺς υἱοὺς. So the prepositional phrase is saying that the wrath of God is against the sons of disobedience.

The brackets in NA27 indicate that this phrase is omitted in some manuscripts. It is missing from especially 46 (one of the oldest papyrus, dated within 2nd century) and B (Codex Vaticanus). Many English translations also omit this clause, including RSV, NEB and NIV. However, many other manuscripts including the Sinaiticus include this phrase. In terms of external evidence, omission is supported by older reading, while including is supported by geographic diversity. If we look at internal evidence, this phrase also appears in Ephesians 2:2 and 5:6. Moreover, the beginning of the adjacent relative clause “ἐν οἷς” is suggesting an antecedent in plural and referring to people. So I think the inclusion makes more sense. Wright suggests omission, and he suggests that “by omission the antecedent of the οἷς in the adjacent relative clause can refer to ‘because of which’ in verse 6”. [10] But they don’t agree in number and gender.

With the inclusion, we can know that the wrath of God is coming against the sons of disobedience. The earthly deeds and desires are disobedience against God and mark the evildoers disobedient. We are familiar with a saying that “God hates sin, but loves people”. But the verse here does not suggest that. From this verse, God also hates sinners. He has his wrath coming against the sinners.

7ἐν οἷς καὶ ὑμεῖς περιεπατήσατέ ποτε

7You also walked among them before,

The finite verb is περιπατἐω, meaning “walk around” or “live”. The verb is in 2nd plural aorist active indicative. It’s in perfective aspect, indicating that they “used to live”. It’s a finished state, not the current state. are It is discussed earlier that with the inclusion of the prepositional phrase in the former verse, οἷς agrees in gender and number with τοὺς υἱοὺς, referring to the sinful persons. Ποτε (“before”) strengthened the perfective aspect.

ὅτε ἐζῆτε ἐν τούτοις

when you were living in these things.

ὅτε (“when”) is a temporal conjunction, indicating that the following phrase modify the previous phrase by specifying the time, as a temporal adverbial. The finite verb is the 2nd plural imperfect active indicative of ζάω (“live”). Harris suggests that “the imperfect tense is referring to the durative of the verb”. [11] τούτοις is the dative plural neuter of οὗτος, the antecedent can goes back to the vices in verse 5, meaning “these deeds”. Putting together, the phrase is referring to “when you were living in these things”.

The perfect aspect of the verbs in verse 7 indicates that living among sinners with a lifestyle having sins in life is not the current state of Christians. It’s the snapshot of our lives before regeneration. As Christians, we are distinct from them, and we are no longer among them. In another aspect, the group of people we identify ourselves with has huge influence on what we are doing. Verse 8 continues this important point that we now must put those bad deeds away, because our identities have changed.

III. Conclusion

From the verses that we have analyzed, we learned that Paul is giving a command to the audience to seek the heavenly things, and do not desire the earthly things. Then Paul provides four reasons for this command. (1) Christ our Lord is in heaven with God; (2) Christians are hidden with Christ in God’s realm, which is also a heavenly territory; (3) the earthly things are disobedience toward God and trigger God’s wrath against sinners; (4) Christians are no longer among sinners thus should no longer perform those sins.

It’s also important to learn the current status of Christian life is “hidden with Christ in God”. The usage of κοὐπτω here indicates a protection from God and a secret providence from Christ. It’s not a lifestyle that we show off, but we know that God is supplying us in a hidden way so that we are empowered in this world. “With Christ” also brings comfort and confidence that we are sharing with Christ in God’s providence. Moreover, we are already in God’s realm. We are not standing on the earth while seeking heavenly things. We are already in God’s realm but “not yet” in it physically. It’s a contrast to verse 7~8, which referring to the life before, when we lived among sinners and committed sins. The contrast here again encourages us and urges us to seek heavenly things and set the mind on heavenly things.


Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, et al. Novum Testamentum Graece. 27th ed. New York: United Bible Societies, 1994

Dunn, James D. G. Commentary on Colossians and Philemon. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Harris, Murray J. Colossians & Philemon. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

Martin, Ralph P. Colossians and Philemon. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981

Porter, Stanley E. Idioms of the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Sheffield: Academic Press, 1996

Wright, N. T. Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon : an Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986

[1] Todd D. Still, Colossians in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2006), 266.

[2] Murray J. Harris, Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1991), 5.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] N.T.Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to the Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1986), 36.

[5] Based on the manner of speaking, verse 8-11 is in parallel with verse 5 and part of the consequences of verse 3-4. However in order to keep this paper short, we only discuss verse 1-7. Greek text is cited from NA27.

[6] Harris, 139

[7] Ralph P. Martin, Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1981), 102

[8] James D. g. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: EERDMANS 1996), 208.

[9] Harris, 146

[10] Wright, 135.

[11] Harris, 149