“… bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” (Colossians 3:13)

Having enumerated five virtues which we are commanded to “put on” (v.12, see this post), the Apostle now (using two participles) reveals just how we are to do so.[1]

The first is “bearing with.”  The present tense marks this as a constant necessity in relationships.  The middle voice pictures the subject taking action on himself so as to bear up with others.  The word means to endure, to bear with, or to put up with difficult people or circumstances, the former being the focus here.[2] This action is to be taken reciprocally upon “one another.”

A second participle is now added (“and”): “forgiving.”  Again the present tense pictures this as a repeated, regular feature necessary to make relationships within the body of Christ work.  The middle voice again pictures the subject acting upon himself to extend forgiveness to the others in his life.  The word means to give freely or graciously as a favor and then by extension to forgive or pardon.[3] This action is to be taken upon “each other,” the reflexive pronoun being used for the reciprocal pronoun.[4] The reflexive pronoun pictures action “of each one toward all, –yea even to themselves included, Christians being members of one another.”[5]

These two actions, then, are the way we demonstrate “a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (v.12) toward one another.  The object of forbearing and forgiveness are not the same, however.  Indeed, they may be extended to one and the same person, but that within the person which requires forbearance and forgiveness are not the same.  As someone has well said, we forebear silliness, we forgive sin.

This must be the response of “whoever has a complaint against anyone.”  The use of the conditional particle and the subjunctive mood of the verb (“has”) forms a condition which pictures the condition as uncertain of fulfillment, but still likely (e.g. “if one has a complaint,” esv).  The unfortunate fact is that wherever followers of Christ live together complaints arise one against another.  Paul is ever the realist and here outlines the prescription for such occasions.  The issue is individual and personal—both pronouns being singular.  Indeed, the Greek text pictures the reality by setting the two indefinite pronouns in careful juxtaposition over against one another (lit. “someone to someone”).  In such a pair someone “has”—present tense—“a complaint” against the other.  The noun is used only here in the New Testament.  The verb from which this noun arises refers most commonly to errors of omission, meaning “to find fault with.”  Thus the noun is probably pointing to “a debt, which needs to be remitted.”[6] Far too often in the body of Christ someone concludes that some brother or sister “owes” them something for a wrong done.  And far too often they are out to extract payment from that person.  In such cases, the Apostle says, forbearance and forgiveness from “a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (v.12) are the order of the day.

And this cannot be merely granted in some grudging way.  Both the “ground and motivation”[7] of such grace are set forth when Paul adds: “just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you” (cf. Eph. 4:32).  The comparative conjunction (“just as”) provides the hinge point of similarity between our forgiveness and that of Christ.   The standard is “the Lord forgave you.”  He “forgave” is an aorist tense simply noting the doing of the deed.  The middle voice pictures Christ acting upon Himself to give Himself up in our place, taking our sin, exhausting the judgment of the Father against our rebellion.  Paul repeats the same verb used earlier in the verse, here however describing the forgiveness of the Lord toward us (cf. 2:13).  This He did for “you,” a plural pronoun acknowledging Christ’s death for each one of us, but picturing us as a redeemed company.

This beautiful picture of redeeming grace in view, the Apostle now says, literally, “so also you.”  The adverb (“so”) correlates this statement regarding us to the preceding statement regarding Christ.  What is true of Christ toward us should “also” be true of us toward one another.  The pronoun is again plural (“you”), laying the responsibility upon us each one, but picturing us as a whole body practicing such grace among ourselves.

Obviously none of us can give ourselves with the same redemptive effect as Christ gave Himself.  His work is done “once for all” (Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27; 9:12; 10:10).  He alone is the sin-bearer.  Yet precisely because of what He has done for us we can (and must) in like fashion extend grace to one another, not holding our offenses against one another.  Reflection on the relationship of Paul’s instruction here and Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:23-35 will prove instructive.

[1] NET Bible; Rienecker, 580.

[2] BAGD, 65.

[3] Ibid., 876.

[4] Ibid., 212.

[5] Rienecker, 580.

[6] Lightfoot, 220; cf. Little Kittel, 580.

[7] O’Brien, 202.