Paul in Colossians 3 in concerned with showing what life in Christ looks like for those who identify with Christ. He wants them to understand and live on the basis of having died and being raised with him. As he comes to chapter 3, verse 11 shows us God’s desire for that the church to be a community of reconciliation. This is accomplished through the gospel.
Colossians 3:11 is the fruit of the gospel where a vertical reconciliation between God and man inspires and gives birth to a horizontal reconciliation between individuals. It is precisely here that we see the genius of God’s grace in reconciliation: the gospel not only addresses our relationship with God but also addresses our relationships with each other. Colossians 3:11 testifies to the Genius of God’s grace in reconciliation.
God’s Grace Proclaimed: A New Identity in Christ
With just a glance at this verse you can immediately see that Paul is proclaiming a new identity in Christ. This identity is gospel birthed; it is a result of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel creates a new identity that removes all the sinful divisions that formerly separated people from one another.
From here we see the heart of Christ for His church is that she would not built on human distinctions, on skin colour or cultural preferences. There’s a hint of this idea in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 in which Jesus commands His disciples, and by extension the church at large, to “make disciples of all nations” the word ‘nations’ is where we get the word ‘ethnicity’ from, which refers to all ethnic groups under the sun.
The gospel creates a new identity that removes all the sinful divisions that formerly separated people from one another.Tweet
Making disciples according to Matt 28:19 is twofold: 1) one must be a disciple through conversion (which is indicated by baptism) and 2) there must be an aspect of maturing and being discipled. The only way this takes place effectively is when those baptized are part of the local church. Now when Jesus says that His disciples must “make disciples of all ethnicities” the implication is that he desires that his church will be made up of multiple ethnicities. This is not only true of the universal church but must be true for the local church as well. The local church is a visible manifestation of the universal church, though imperfectly.
From the very beginning of the church, the scripture shows us that the church was a community that was made up of a colourful mosaic of human cultures. As early as Acts 2 Luke mentions several people by their linguistics-cultural identities who came under the passionate preaching of the gospel, and they made up the community who became members of the first church. We see also in the churches that were planted during Paul’s missionary journey: they were made up of both Jews and Gentiles; they were multi-ethnic, multi-cultural.
The word multi-cultural has recently been a buzzword in the South African church setting, and there is so much that we need to be rejoicing about as we see churches that were once made up of one ethnic-cultural group opening up their doors to welcome people from different ethnic backgrounds as part of them. We should rejoice because a few decades ago in our country this was unthinkable. There was the white church in the suburb and the black church in the township. There seemed to be no partnership, no friendship or unity among these churches. At the heart of this division showed a lack of understanding of what it means to be in Christ with other Christians. Instead of embracing the multi-ethnic vision of Christ for the church (Mat. 28:19-20) there was a desire for preserving racial purity. The Dutch Reformed Church up until 1989 said,
“the Scriptures…teach and uphold the ethnic diversity of the human race, and regard it as a ‘positive proposition’ to be preserved. Consequently, ‘a political system based on the autogenous or separate development of various population groups can be justified from the Bible.’”
What that means in simple terms is that the Scriptures support apartheid in and outside the church. And sadly, that is the attitude of many people to this day. I remember my sister visited a church because she was working far from home and she was told that they don’t accept “her kind”.
It is the church’s responsibility to hold up the race-transcending gospel to the world.Tweet
So when churches embrace the multicultural vision of Christ we should rejoice because that says to the world, “this is what it means to be a community that is shaped and transformed by the gospel.” It is the church’s responsibility to hold up the race-transcending gospel to the world.
At the church where I pastor we are currently going through Philippians. What has stood out for me was how the church in Philippi was made up of a number of people who humanly speaking had nothing in common. Acts 16 shows us three people that were first encountered by Paul and his friends when they preached the gospel in Philippi: a wealthy businesswoman from Asia with a Jewish background; a slave girl with an occult background, most likely not educated; and a Philippian jailor with a career as a military man. Now that’s what you would call diverse. Through the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ these people are brought to sit around the same table as brothers and sisters in Christ, as one new family. The walls that divided them and made it impossible for them to share a meal together came crashing down because of the gospel.
The only reason to make sense of this new-found unity is the fact that they have found a new identity in Christ. An identity that is not based on their race, or their social standing but based on their union with Christ.
Unlike a community whose sole purpose is preserving the so-called cultural purity, God’s community is countercultural in that it can bring a man from a Zulu culture and a man from a Sotho culture and a man from an English culture and unite them as a harmonious people whose unity is found in Christ. The emphasis on this community is not the culture I am born in but the culture I am born again in. The culture of Colossians 3:11, points not to roots of my forefathers but to the root of David.
But do not understand me as saying that when you come to Christ your culture is irrelevant. What changes is that our primary identity is not in our skin colour or cultural differences. Those distinctions become insignificant in light of our new identity “in Christ” as God’s children. So in a multicultural context the beauty of diversity is best expressed when our diversity points to our unity in Christ.
In a multi-cultural community, it is God’s superiority and not cultural superiority that is at the centre of our unity. So Paul says, “here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
In this community our primary identity is not whether we are white Christians or black Christians but that we are Christians in Christ.