Notes on This Week’s Scripture Reading: Colossians 3:12-17
In Paul’s theology, says scholar L. Michael White, baptism was “the central ritual of initiation for entrance into Paul’s churches.” Paul believed baptism to be a “spiritual circumcision” (Col. 2:11), a substitute for physical circumcision that would serve to bring the pagan faithful into the “congregation of Israel.” And what, according to Paul, did baptism signify? For one thing, baptism incorporated the faithful into the “body of Christ.” In turn, all who were “in Christ” became “one body.” This is precisely the point of the language that three times accompanies Paul’s references to baptism—language that scholar Wayne Meeks calls the “baptismal reunification formula.” Among the baptized, Paul writes, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, … slave or free, … male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28; see also 1 Cor. 12:13, Col. 3:11.) Through baptism, differences evaporate and only unity, a single body, remains.
Further, Paul taught that baptism united the faithful to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. “Do you not know,” Paul writes, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). Elsewhere, Paul tells the congregation at Colossae that “when [they] were buried with [Christ] in baptism, [they] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). For Paul, baptism served as a sort of ritual reenactment of the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. The baptized, having been “buried” with Christ, now stood to be “transformed by the renewing of [their] minds, so that [they] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
Analogous to the “dying and rising” symbolism is Paul’s imagery of “stripping off and putting on” clothing. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul proclaims, “have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Likewise, in Colossians 3:9-10, Paul says that, through baptism, the faithful “have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed [themselves] with the new self.” According to White, “baptism was actually performed in the nude: the initiate undressed, went down into the water, came out and redressed.” This physical act of stripping off and putting on clothing served to symbolize the replacement of the old body/self with a new one in “the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). In today’s scripture reading, Paul extends this metaphor by giving it ethical import: the faithful should “clothe [themselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12) as well as “with love” (3:14). Here, Paul’s baptismal imagery becomes the basis for ethical instruction through lists of vices to be avoided (3:5-9) and virtues to be internalized (3:12-16). Just as baptism unifies the faithful “in one body,” so too does virtuous living bind everything and everyone “together in perfect harmony” (3:14).
Adult Christian Education Team
LAST WEEKS NOTES: Psalm 8
According to The Jewish Study Bible, Psalm 8 “is pure praise, without any request, and like other hymns from the Bible and the ancient Near East expresses the religious moment when the individual stands before the deity and appreciates the greatness and power of the divine, especially as reflected in creation.” Recalling Genesis 1:26-28, where humans are created in the image of elohim to rule over the earth, the psalmist celebrates the place of honor humans have been accorded in the creation and the “dominion” they have been granted “over the works of [God’s] hands; … all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea …” (8:7-8). God’s power and majesty are proclaimed in verse 2, where the psalmist acknowledges the Lord’s victory over “the enemy and the avenger.” Commentators agree that the meaning of verse 2 is obscure, but many maintain that “the enemy and the avenger” likely refers to sea-monsters or chaotic forces that, according to ancient tradition, God subdued while creating the world. (See Ps. 74:12-17; 89:9-10; 93:3-4; Job 26:12; Isa. 51:9-10.)
The proper translation of verse 5—in particular, the Hebrew word elohim— has been much discussed by scholars and theologians. The NRSV, for example, renders the word as “God,” even though the word is a plural noun and therefore should, one might think, be translated “gods.” (For what it’s worth, in Psalm 82, where the word elohim appears four times, the NRSV renders it twice as “God” and twice as “gods.”) Many modern translations use the plural word “angels” in 8:5, just as the Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, did when it rendered Hebrew elohim as angelous. The decision of translators to render elohim as “angels” is, according to the editors of The Jewish Study Bible, “the result of the discomfort of depicting humans as too God-like—a discomfort not shared by the psalmist.” Instead, in its translation of 8:5, The Jewish Study Bible renders the word elohim as “divine,” which explains, the editors say, why humans are “adorned” with such typically divine qualities as “glory” and “majesty.”
It’s worth noting that Hebrews 2:7 quotes the Septuagint translation of Psalm 8:5, but here the author de-emphasizes the near-divinity of humans and their dominion over earthly things and instead emphasizes the view that Jesus, though he “for a little while was made lower than the angels,” was “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (2:9). Jesus, once lesser than the angels, is now “superior” to them. God, the author proclaims, did not “subject the coming world … to angels” (2:5). Only Jesus, he says, “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:4). A new worldview is here evident. Where once (Psalms 8 and 82, Job 1) a pantheon of divine beings made up God’s assembly, now Jesus sits “at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (1:4).
Adult Christian Education Team