“… a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman …” (Colossians 3:11a)

We have been exhorted, as those graced by God through Christ, to put on “the new self” (v.10).  This “new self” is at various turns pictures the state of each one of us individually and at other times all of us collectively “in Christ.”  In what follows it is clear that Paul now has the corporate nature of “the new self” in view more than that individual.

Paul now designates different racial, religious, cultural and social distinctions that, while found on earth among the unredeemed, are obliterated and cease to exist in “the new self” re-created by Christ.  He first gives two contrasting pairs, then names two groups individually, and then closes with another contrasting pair.  First is the pair “Greek and Jew.” Eleven of the thirteen times Paul uses the noun “Greek” he combines it, as he does here, with the word “Jew.”  It refers not simply to people of Greek culture or language, but more broadly to pagan or heathen peoples.[1] This is in distinction from the “Jew” as determined by birth, race or religion.[2] The next pair is “circumcised and uncircumcised,” which is the same distinction simply considered now by that characteristic mark (or its absence) which set the Jew apart from the Gentile.  Paul may have repeated himself in this way for sake of emphasis simply because false teachers in Colossae seemed to have had a significant Jewish vein to their teaching and may have been pushing physical circumcision as a necessity for saving faith.  Then there is “barbarian.” The word referred to those who spoke in “stammering, stuttering, uttering unintelligible sounds” and were thus considered of “strange speech or foreign language (i.e. non-Greek in language and culture in the NT).”[3] The word itself had an “onomatopoetic repetition” to its intonation—with the sound bar-bar.[4] Then comes “Scythian.” The Scythians were inhabitants of what is today southern Russia.  “By the more civilized nations of antiquity the Scythians were regarded as the wildest of all barbarians.”[5] They were “the barbarian or savage ‘par excellence’.”[6] Finally there is the pair “slave” and “freeman,” which mark out both sides of the social scale of bondage to servitude on the one hand and self-directed autonomy on the other.

The false teachers in Colossae were preaching a “gospel” that divides – some are “in” and others are “out.”  Some are “in the know” and others are not.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ unites and binds.  It overcomes social, racial, religious and cultural distinctions to make all believers stand on the level ground of grace before God “in Christ.”  The vertical grace of God to man is given without regard to such distinctions.  That grace then goes horizontal between the recipients of such grace and those same distinctions fade away in the fellowship of those who make up the “new self.”

[1] BAGD, 252.

[2] Ibid., 379.

[3] Friberg, 87.

[4] Robertson, 4:503.

[5] Thayer, 580.

[6] BAGD, 758.