“And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Colossians 3:14 (GNB)
This is the 19th memory verse that I will use as a guide/focal point to writing these articles. The Table of Contents is available in the series introductory article.
Immediate Literary Context
Verse 14 is part of a small section of verses starting from verse 12. This paragraph is further contextualised as part of a passage starting from verse 5 and is titled The Old Life and the New.
12 You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you. 14 And to all these qualities add love, which binds all things together in perfect unity.
As believers, we are chosen to be God’s people – His children. Whilst we could and can do nothing to deserve this favour, it is purely of God’s doing and His decision to grant us His mercy and grace. First and foremost, our identity is therefore in Christ/God because He loves us. As a result of this love we need to recognise our identity is in Christ alone, no matter what actions we may pursue as part of pursuing God’s will for our lives.
The second half of verse 12 lists out five key qualities and attributes we should exhibit in living out lives of loving one another. Love manifests itself through each of these qualities. Compare this to 1 Corinthians 13:4 – 8 which is the famous definition of love being patience and kind, slow to get angry…
To have compassion means you possess a tenderness. When you see someone else suffering or in a state of disadvantage the emotional desire of your heart prompts action to tackle the injustice. Kindness and gentleness are bundled up in the action whereby the behaviour is virtuous and ethical. The identification of kindness is often because the person has acted in a kindly way. Humility is the characteristic of lowering oneself below the status/position of others – of putting other people first before yourself. Humility manifests itself also in our recognition of our human limitations – we are not perfect beings, there is only so much we can pursue on our own. There is the further acknowledgement in the act of being humble that we cannot accomplish anything without God. It is important that we have a balanced understanding of humility – it is not a weakness nor is it self-defeating. C S Lewis explained it very succinctly:
Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.
Patience is the final quality in this package of characteristics. They all go hand in hand together because when you exhibit one, it is equally likely that you will exhibit all of the other qualities. Synonyms for patience include forbearance, endurance and perseverance. All of the words/definitions highlight the nature of patience – being able to experience difficult circumstances without being provocative or negative.
Verse 13 expands upon the initial five attributes to include forgiveness and tolerance. To be tolerant with one another requires the exercising of the same five qualities from the previous verse. Tolerance is however not ignorance nor it is about being blind to the truth. Consider how Jesus exhibited tolerance – He clearly stated that he came to be the Truth, Way and Life to the world. No one would or can come to God the Father except through recognising Him as Lord and Saviour. Tolerance is thus focused on our ability to endure for the sake of Christ in following Him. In following Jesus, there will be critics, persecutors and other challenges we need to tolerate. Jesus’ love is universal and for all people – His Gospel can reach and touch the hearts of us all if we are prepared to let him do so. The words of Paul also clarify that the context for forgiveness and tolerance is when we feel critical or the need to complain of others. Tolerate the unjust or unfair behaviour; do not allow another person’s misgivings to cause you to stumble in faith but instead exercise patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, compassion, forgiveness and tolerance.
Forgiveness is a huge topic. In fact, each of the characteristics outlined in these three verses could be turned into masses of content. The need to forgive one another of our failings and sin is simply because God has already forgiven us of our sins. The act and state of remaining unforgiven leads to a hardening of the heart, which is ultimately fatal to our spiritual health. When we truly pursue the qualities and live out gentleness, humility, kindness, compassion and patience, there should not be room for unforgiveness in our hearts. The incompatibility of unforgiveness should stand out in our hearts when we pursue all the other qualities.
So, in reaching our memory verse/verse 14, Paul exhorts us to pursue all the characteristics out of love. Added to these characteristics is love. Without love, the pursuit of patience, kindness, compassion, gentleness, humility, tolerance and forgiveness is all to miss the point. Love is the source and motivating force for these actions. Through the demonstration of all these characteristics we are demonstrating what the love of God can do. Further, when we applied the definition that God is love, God becomes the source of all these good things. It should be noted that each of these characteristics, including love are not just feelings and emotions for us to possess within the heart, but there is a clear call to action as a result. In claiming each quality for ourselves – “I love you”, or “I am kind” – we cannot just say the words without being driven to an act of love, kindness, gentleness, compassion, patience, tolerance or forgiveness. Further, I would even suggest that these are qualities that we should be very hesitant to call out as being our characteristics. As part of being humble and demonstrating humility, it is not for us to say that we are in fact humble, kind, gentle, patient or forgiving. Instead, these are characteristics that other people should recognise and attribute to us. So, whilst we aim to be and live out each of these attributes, it is for other people around us to recognise that our lives, actions, words and presence is flavoured accordingly.
Wider Literary Context
Colossians is yet another of Apostle Paul’s letters to the early churches. This time, his audience is the church in Colosae, situated in modern-day Turkey, some 100 miles away from Ephesus. According to the letter itself, it was one of the few letters where Paul co-wrote the material along with Timothy. Colossae is situated in the same area that is referred to in Revelation (Chapters 1 – 3) as the area of the seven churches. In Colossians 4:13 there is mention of local believers living not just in Colossae, but also nearby in Laodicea and Hierapolis. Members of the Colossian community of believers had unfortunately incorporated pagan practices into their Christian life, including the worship of elemental spirits. The letter to the Colossians thus emphasised Christ’s supremacy over the entire created universe and called believers to lead godly lives.
The letter consists of two parts: first a doctrinal section, then a second regarding conduct. In both sections, false teachers were opposed and rebuked for spreading incorrect theologies amidst the body of believers.
- Introduction (1:1 – 14)
- The Supremacy of Christ (1:15 – 23)
- Paul’s Labouring for the Church (1:24 – 2:7)
- Freedom from Human Regulations (2:8 – 23)
- Rules for Living a Holy Life (3:1 – 4:6)
- Final Greetings (4:7 – 18)
In our previous memory verse, I concluded by stating that we should apply the principles of love from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail.
As documented in this article, love is best demonstrated through action. We can season these acts with kindness, patience, compassion, humility, gentleness, forgiveness and tolerance. Exercising each is an active choice – initially if we are starting from a state which is more lacking of these qualities, it does require greater effort on our part of intentionally be kind, gentle, compassionate, patient, humble, forgiving and tolerant. As the memory verse teaches, each of these choices should be motivated through love.
The natural selfish tendencies that we have need to be worked on in order for a heart of love to become natural. Bring a spirit of generosity into your work environments by bringing in food to share. Spend more time listening to people than talking demonstrates that you care and have patience. When you know people are in need, reach out to help and meet them in that time of need. I love the example that Jesus sets out – in order to lead we must make ourselves the least amongst others by serving them. Jesus’ life itself was the greatest example of servanthood, particularly when he washed the feet of his disciples. We have in Him the best example of how to serve humbly and with compassion.
Worship Song: He Knows My Name
This section was originally part of this posting, but as at October 2016, has been relocated into its own dedicated Song Lyric Analysis article: