Today we have a pair of solid Bible questions that, at first, don’t seem to be related, but they are. They’re united by Paul in Colossians 3:9–11. So I’ll lump them together in this episode. The first one is from a listener named Aaron. “Pastor John, hello! In light of Colossians 3:9–11, that we have put off the old self, and put on the new self, what role does ethnic identity now play in the Christian life? And why does Paul relate this identity to putting off the old self?” And the second question, on this same text, is from a listener named Justin. “Pastor John, hello, and thanks for considering my question. Paul says in Colossians 3:11 that ‘Christ is all, and in all.’ That seems very significant to me! Can you explain it?”
Yeah, it does sounds significant because it is significant. And it is beautiful. I mean, who wouldn’t want to know what that means for us? “Christ is all, and in all.” So let’s read it in context. Here’s Colossians 3, starting in the middle of verse 9:
You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here [and the here means “here in this church, in these relationships, in this group of people who have put off the old and put on the new”] there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:9–11)
Old Self, New Self
So Paul moves from individual newness in verse 10 to corporate or church or relational newness in verse 11. And it’s crucial to see that movement. A lot of people would like to deny that it moves that direction. But it moves from individual to corporate. Verse 10: “You have put off the old self [very individual] with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
“The church is made up of people whose old self has died and whose new self has been created in the image of Christ.”
Now, in order to understand what he’s going to say about the newness of the new relationships, we have to get at the essence of what the newness of the new self is. The church is made up of people whose old self has died and whose new self has been created in the image of Christ. God in Christ has brought a new creation into being, our new self. So, then, what is the central mark of the old self that died and the new self that lives? This is going to shape all our relationships.
In Galatians 5:24, Paul says that those who belong to Christ “have crucified the flesh.” So the old self, that which died, is called the flesh. What’s that? Romans 8:7 says the flesh is “hostile to God.” It’s insubordinate. It’s unable to please God. It’s our old rebellious self. When we became Christians, that self died.
What about the new self? What’s new about the new self? What marks it? The new self is the humble, believing self. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20). That’s the new me, the me of faith. So I died; my old self died. The new life is the new life, or the new person, of faith. In other words, my hostile, insubordinate, spiritually paralyzed self died, and a new believing, trusting, dependent, humble self came into being.
Christ in Us
But here’s the crucial link with the statement “Christ is all, and in all.” Galatians 2:20 says, “The life I now live . . . I live by faith.” Yes, but it also says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” In other words, another way to say that all Christians have put on a new believing self is to say that all Christians are indwelt by Christ. The essence of our newness is that we are not just Christ-trusting and Christ-treasuring, but we are Christ-inhabited. Our new life is Christ in us (Colossians 1:27). He is our inner life; he is our life (Colossians 3:4). If he were not there, we would be dead.
“We are not just Christ-trusting and Christ-treasuring, but we are Christ-inhabited.”
Therefore, when Colossians 3:11 says, “Christ is all, and in all,” the “in all” is the same as saying, “We have put off the old self and put on the new.” Our new self, individually, is Christ-inhabited — the Christ-indwelt self. Christ in us is our newness, the newness of every member. This is what it means to be a Christian. Every Christian should be able to say this.
Then from Christ’s place within each of us, he makes himself our supreme treasure. That’s what Paul means in Philippians 1 when he says, “To live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21) — and in Philippians 3 when he says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). So “Christ is all” means Christ has become more valuable than all, and it means whatever besides Christ has value for me, it has that value because of its relation to Christ.
Death to Old Boasts
Now we can relate all of this to the relationships in the community in verse 11. So verse 11 says, “Here [in this church where the old self has gone and the new self is put on] there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
- Jew and Greek: the age-old hostility — some with covenant privilege, some without it and unclean latecomers.
- Circumcised and uncircumcised: those who conform in all the traditions of the privileged people and those who bear no marks of that privilege.
- Barbarians: the foreigners — uncultured, foolish by Greek and Jewish standards, with weird languages.
- Scythian: the distant people to the north of the Black Sea, the epitome of unrefinement and savagery. Josephus wrote, “Scythians, who delight in murdering people, are little better than wild dogs.”
- Slave and free: the opposite poles of the economic strata of society.
If Christ is all, and if Christ is in all, what becomes of those relationships? Once we boasted in our culture and our intellect, like the Greeks, but now Christ is all. Once we gloried in our tradition and our religious rigor, like the Jews, but now Christ is all. Once we got our strokes because of our ethnic pedigree, but now Christ is all. Once we reveled in not being like the barbarians and the shabby Scythians, but now Christ is all. Or once we resented not being the cultured, not being rigorous, not having the cultured pedigree, not having wealth and refinement, but now Christ is all.
Once we tried to find our significance and our happiness and our security in what we were in relation to other people or in distinction from other people.
- “We’re Jews.”
- “We’re Greeks.”
- “We’re circumcised.”
- “We’re free.”
- “We’re American.”
- “We’re rich.”
- “We’re smart.”
- “We’re strong.”
- “We’re pretty.”
- “We’re witty.”
- “We’re cool.”
But then that old self died, a new self was born, and the core essence of the new self is that it knows and feels, “Christ is all.” “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” “To live is Christ.”
Our New Identity
And when someone asks, as I think one of these questioners does, “Does that mean that all the differences, the cultural and ethnic and racial differences, are canceled out because Christ is all?” the answer is no, it doesn’t. No Jew, no Greek, no barbarian, no Scythian, no slave, no freedman remains unchanged here. Everybody’s changed by discovering that Christ is all. Lots of things change for everybody. But none is obliterated.
I can see your Jewish nose. I can see your Greek forehead. I can hear your barbarian accent. I can see your Scythian gestures. I can see the hole in your earlobe left over. I can see the refinement of your bearing. None has ceased to be, except that Christ is in all of you. He is your new identity, and everything about you is being renewed after Christ. And shining as the mark of your new identity is this: “Christ is all.”