“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you . . .” (Colossians 3:5a, emphasis added)
God’s command is radical and unnerving. It makes us swallow hard and take a second look. Just what—we wonder—is it we must “Put to death”?
The object of your execution is “what is earthly in you.”
This is a somewhat interpretive rendering of a difficult expression in Greek. More literally this might be rendered “the members, the upon the earth [ones].” The foundational part of this clause is “the members.” The definite article is probably to be understood as possessive, so we should understand it as “your members.”
Things just get more difficult, don’t they? Immediately this makes the object of our death-dealing something turned upon ourselves. Gulp!
Paul frequently uses the word “members” in his description of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 6:16; 12:12, 18, 25, 26). Perhaps for this reason The New American Standard Bible renders this “the members of your earthly body.” Though there is nothing in the Greek text here corresponding to the NASB’s “body,” it seems an appropriate understanding of the Apostle’s intent. Yet it is doubtful that the Apostle means the literal members of one’s body (i.e., arms, legs, eyes). Rather, it probably refers to the kinds of sins that are committed by the “members” of one’s body. O’Brien seems to have captured the idea when he says, “Here the practices and attitudes to which the readers’ bodily activity and strength had been devoted in the old life is in view” (p.178).
The rest of the clause (lit., “the upon the earth”) may be understood as an adjectival phrase describing “the members” – “your members, that is to say the upon-the-earth [members]” (Harris, p.145). This precise phrase is used three other times by Paul. The first two times refer to God’s intent to sum up all thing in Christ, whether things in heaven or “things on the earth” (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20). But more telling for our purposes is its use in Colossians 3:2 where he said, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (emphasis added).
We died and our “life is now hidden with Christ in God” (v.3). We eagerly look to heaven for the revelation of Christ “who is our life,” and anticipate the consummation of our greatest hopes at that time (v.4). We are to seek and set our minds upon “the things above” (vv.1, 2). Thus all “the things that are on earth” have nothing to offer us. They are connected with our old, hell-bound life. They offer temporary titillation, but cannot offer hope or on-going life. Thus whatever is in “your members” that is connected to these time-bound, temporary matters, we must “Put to death,” considering them worthless to us and our ultimate desire and destiny.
Just what does this mean in practical terms? How do I actually put this within me to death?
This putting to death involves both a negative and a positive action. Negatively, it means that we resist all such temptations and impulses as Paul will begin to describe in the latter part of this verse. We, to use his words from Romans 13:14, “do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (NIV). But a wholly negative approach to the matter may only leave one obsessed with the very temptations and impulses which he is trying to “put to death.” There also must be a corresponding and dominate focus which is positive. This is found precisely in what the Apostle has already prescribed: that we seek and set our minds upon “the things above” (3:1, 2). We must resist temptation as it presents itself. But ever and always we must seek and set our minds positively on Christ as the locus of our life and hope. This is the path to victory. This negative and positive approach is fleshed out as the chapter continues to unfold. Negatively we are commanded to “put . . . away” (v.8) and “put off” (v.9). This explains and expands upon what Paul means by “put to death” in verse 5. Yet we are also, positively, to “put on” (vv.10, 12, 14).
And all this we must do – drastically, radically, and thoroughly. We must deal ruthlessly with that earthly part which remains within us. No mollycoddling. No mercy. No pity, leniency or compassion. Thoroughly. To the end. All the way. To death! It is a matter of “it” or us, heaven or earth, light or darkness, God or Satan.