Paul, in Colossians 3, is concerned with showing what life in Christ looks like for those who identify with him. He wants his readers to understand and live on the basis of having died and being raised with him. As he comes to 3:11, he 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, 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 translated “nations” is where we get the word “ethnicity” from, which refers to all ethnic groups under the sun.
Making disciples, according to Matthew 28:19 is twofold: First, one must be a disciple through conversion (which is indicated by baptism), and, second, there must be an aspect of maturing and being discipled. The only way this takes place effectively is when those baptised are part of the local church. 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 also be true for the local church. The local church is a visible, though imperfect, manifestation of the universal church.
From the very beginning of the church, the Scripture shows that it was a community 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 the same 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, just 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, friendship, or unity among these churches. At its heart, 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 (Matthew 28:19–20) there was a desire for preserving racial purity. The Dutch Reformed Church, 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. 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 was told that they don’t accept “her kind.”
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.
When I preached through Philippians some years ago, I was struck at 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 Paul and his friends first encountered 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. That’s what you would call diverse. Through the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ, these people were 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 newfound unity is the fact that they had found a new identity in Christ—an identity not based on race or social standing but based on their union with Christ.
Unlike a community whose sole purpose is preserving 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 into but the culture I am born again into. The culture of Colossians 3:11 points, not to roots of my forefathers, but to the root of David.
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” (Colossians 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.