The Crowning Glory of Christian Godliness (3:14)
You may be tired of hearing about it, but there’s simply no escaping the centrality of love in the community of God’s people. We must consciously resist any temptation to diminish its importance or casually set it to the side simply because it’s overused and abused.
I certainly understand why there is a reaction to the concept of love. I’ve seen countless instances where truth has been compromised or altogether sacrificed in the name of preserving and promoting some vague ideal that goes by the name of “love”. We’ve all witnessed the emergence of “sloppy agape,” in which “love” has been cited to trump righteousness or discipline or justice. And who can deny that in our society at large “love” has become virtually synonymous with “lust”. So, yes, the temptation to shake our heads in frustration and ignore the biblical mandate to love is all too real.
But make no mistake: the centrality and supremacy of love among all Christian virtues is pervasive in the biblical record. One need only think of Paul’s declaration in Romans 13:8-9 that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” and that “the commandments . . . are summed up in this word” (cf. Gal. 5:14). We must never forget that whereas “faith, hope, and love abide, . . . the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). It is “in Christ Jesus,” Paul reminds us, that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
The supremacy of love among all Christian qualities and virtues is reinforced here in Colossians 3:14, where Paul writes, “And above all these, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” To fully appreciate Paul’s point, we need to analyze this translation (ESV).
Does he mean “above all these” (or “upon all these”) in the sense that love is the crowning grace with which we are to adorn ourselves? In other words, is love the “hat”, so to speak, which tops off the clothing of Christ which we are to “put on” (Col. 3:12) and wear daily? Or should we render this phrase, “beyond all things,” the point being that love is the greatest and most important of all virtues? I don’t think there’s much need for a choice, for the two notions certainly overlap and each assumes the other.
More challenging is the latter part of the verse in which Paul describes love as that which “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14b). The single word translated “perfect harmony” has the sense of “perfection” or “maturity” or “completeness” (its only other occurrence in the NT is in Hebrews 6:1). I actually prefer rendering the phrase something like, “the bond that produces (or results in) perfection.”
But what exactly is love envisioned as “binding” together in perfection or completeness? Is it the many and varied virtues that Paul has just described in vv. 12-13? In other words, is Paul saying that love is the grace or power that holds all the others together? There is certainly a sense in which love is the catalyst that empowers and energizes all other fruit of the Spirit. And who could deny that love is also the spiritual lubricant, so to speak, that minimizes relational friction and makes the rest of the virtues function smoothly. It is the glue that unites all Christian qualities. It is the mortar that holds the bricks of Christian behavior in place. Without love, knowledge is but a selfish and arrogant acquisition; without love, purity is self-righteousness; without love, zeal is an aimless endeavor; without love, hope is a fool’s deception. Love, as it were, holds them all together in a single coherent package (Dunn).
Whereas that is all quite true and can be defended from any number of other texts, I’m not certain that is what Paul has in mind here in Colossians 3:14. Given the emphasis in 3:8-11 on the importance of harmony amidst the diversity in the body of Christ, I think Paul envisions love as that which ultimately binds together the Christian community itself. In other words, it isn’t so much the virtues of individual Christians that are bound together by love (as true as that may be in its own right) as it is the many fellow-believers themselves who are united by this remarkable affection.
David Garland agrees. “Paul’s main concern,” he suggests, “is not that these virtues be joined together in a perfect unity. Instead, he is concerned about diverse individuals – Greek, Jew, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free – being joined together in one community. . . . Love bonds the community of believers together into the one body where peace reigns (3:15) and leads to their perfection (see Eph. 4:13)” (211-12). Dunn agrees, that “at the end of the day it is this love (and only this love) which is strong enough to hold together a congregation of disparate individuals” (232).
Whatever the case, and however we choose to translate v. 14, let no one deny the indispensable role that love plays in our lives individually and corporately as God’s people. And just as our forgiving one another (Col. 3:13) is based on Christ’s having forgiven us, so too must our love be modeled after the love wherewith he loved us.
Loved, therefore loving,