The Seamless Garment of Christian Godliness (3:12)
The garment of Christian godliness is seamless. It isn’t a patchwork of virtues sewed together and therefore just as easily pulled apart. The life that truly reflects the beauty and goodness of Jesus is unified in its display of the many, interrelated qualities that he embodied.
Nowhere is this better seen than in Colossians 3:12 where Paul lists several of the characteristics of that “garment of godliness” with which we are to adorn ourselves. “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion [literally, “bowels of mercy”], kindness, humility, meekness [or “gentleness,” as in the NASV], and patience.” There’s simply no way to have one of these without having them all. To forego one is to undermine the integrity of the others.
Before I go any further, note again how Paul envisions the Christian living in holiness: “put on” compassion and kindness, etc. As noted before, the verb often means “get dressed with” or “adorn” and “clothe” yourself. These virtues and qualities are portrayed as a beautiful, glorious floor-length garment that envelops the believer. “Deck yourself out in that garment,” says Paul.
In yet another passage Paul doesn’t even bother to enumerate or list the characteristics and qualities. He simply says, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). All the features of a godly life were embodied perfectly in our savior. Therefore, all one need do is put on Jesus! Clothe yourself with Christ!
But wait a minute. I’m already dressed. How can I put on Christ over what I’m already wearing? You can’t. That’s why both in Romans 13 and here in Colossians 3 Paul first tells us to get undressed, metaphorically speaking, of course. Strip off the garments of unrighteousness and sin; disrobe yourself of your former ways and then put on Jesus.
Now, that these many virtues are interrelated, if not inseparable, is evident from a consideration of “humility” and “meekness” as just one example. It’s not easy to differentiate between what these two words have in mind. We often use them interchangeably and rightly so.
Jesus spoke of the “meek” in the Beatitudes when he promised to them that they would inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). The word used there is “praus” (cf. the use of “prautes” here in Col. 3:12 as well as Gal. 5:23; 6:1). What is the essence of “meekness”?
Bobby Knight, boisterous basketball coach at Texas Tech University, once said: “The meek may well inherit the earth, but they rarely get rebounds!” This comment reveals the common misconception of meekness: that it entails indolence, laziness, weakness of heart, a sort of mental and emotional flabbiness, perhaps a fear of expressing oneself forcefully, a lack of aggression when called for, a tendency to compromise when the truth is at stake. Others would identify meekness with a docile, dependent personality. This is most assuredly not what Paul has in mind. What, then, does he mean?
Although meekness is not weakness, let’s not lose sight of an essential element: tenderness and sensitivity, or a capacity to deal gently and compassionately with others. Thus we see immediately that to be “compassionate” (Col. 3:12a) one must first be “meek” (Col. 3:12d). You simply can’t be merciful and mean-spirited at the same time.
Another essential element in meekness is the willingness to allow others to say about me the very things I readily acknowledge before God. Thus again, to be meek, one must first be “humble” (Col. 3:12c). Meekness, together with humility, is living in accordance with the abilities God has given us, neither as if we had more nor less; neither pressing ourselves into situations we are not equipped to handle (for fear that if we don’t people will lose respect for us), nor shying away from those we can.
The key to “meekness” and “humility” is a healthy acknowledgement of and submission to the sovereign grace of God. In 1 Cor. 4:7, Paul writes: “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” Meekness should always be in direct proportion to one’s grasp of grace. Pride is the fruit of the lie that what I have I didn’t receive. Meekness or humility is the fruit of the truth that everything is of God (see also John 3:22-30, esp. vv. 27 and 30).
The meek person is also, necessarily, “patient” (Col. 3:12e), in that he/she is not easily provoked: “A meek spirit, like wet tinder, will not easily take fire.” And again: “Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long. But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth” (Psalm 38:12-13). Meekness, reflecting patience, is therefore the antithesis of hastiness, malice, and revenge.
Perhaps most of all, meekness is being like Jesus: “I am gentle [or meek] and humble in heart” (Mt. 11:29; Phil. 2:5-11). The measure of Christ’s humility was his “compassion” (Col. 3:12a). Proud people don’t love the unlovely very well. The measure of your humility is the degree to which you happily embrace the unembraceable, touch the untouchable, and love the unlovable.
So there it is: to be compassionate one must be kind, to be kind one must be humble, to be humble is to be meek, to be meek one must display patience. Such Jesus was. Such we ought to be.
Longing to be clothed with Christ,