One of the longest modesty texts in the Bible never mentions the word once. It appears in Colossians 3:12-17, a passage about the virtues in which Christians should clothe themselves. They are the things that others should see when they look at us.
To many Christians today, this application might seem contrived. They have been trained to think of modesty as women dressing so as not to excite the lust of men. While I appreciate it when my sisters in Christ choose to dress considerately, we must recognize that this focus on revealing clothing has little to do with the Biblical witness about either modesty or lust.
In the New Testament, immodest dress is that which flaunts one’s wealth, not one’s physique, and the law of Christ uniformly places the responsibility for lust on the one doing the lusting, not its object. Instead, the modesty contexts, 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and 1 Peter 3:1-4, are concerned with a different problem—the splendor of a woman’s outward adornments eclipsing the splendor of her holiness.
This is really a focus issue. The first-century sister who bought a slave to style her hair elaborately was spending her time and money on the wrong things. Her hair revealed her wealth and status, but it concealed her good works and discipleship. People who looked at her saw riches, not Christ.
Today, we too must beware of Christ-concealing adornments. Sometimes these are physical, like the dress of the daughters of Zion in Isaiah 3:16-26. Perhaps more commonly, they are spiritual. It is no coincidence that in Colossians 3:10, Paul tells us to “put off” the vices of the old self. If flashy jewelry is a distraction from Christ in us, how much more are sexual immorality, greed, and malice! They focus attention on the old self that we were supposed to have put to death. They are immodest.
By contrast, the godly change of clothes (“put on”) in 3:12-17 puts the emphasis on Him, not us. Selfish, worldly people aren’t compassionate, forgiving, or loving. They don’t seek the peace of Christ, sing the word of Christ, or act under the authority of Christ. In fact, people only do these things when they are determined to glorify Him.
This is not a change that we can make by blowing thousands of dollars on a new wardrobe. Instead, it is an attitude that we put on patiently, humbly, every day. Nobody is going to stare at us or build a statue of us because of these things, but they might be moved to contemplate our Master. We have modestly deflected the glory from us to Him.
It is good for us not to dress in a way that might put a stumbling block before another. It is better for us to remember that the most important adornments of the disciple can’t be seen in a mirror. A Christian in a burqa who is bitter and spiteful is still showing too much of the wrong things. By contrast, when we resolve to exalt Christ in every area of our lives, comparatively unimportant matters like our clothing will sort themselves out.
“Jesus, Name Above All Names” to the contrary, Christ is not the hope of glory. Instead, according to Colossians 1:27, Christ in us is the hope of glory. If Christ dwells in us, ours is the hope of dwelling eternally with Him. In Colossians 2:6, Paul says that this involves receiving Him as Lord and continuing to walk in Him.
However, he spends the next context of Colossians warning us against attempts to add anything to this Christ-centric formula. He highlights two related manifestations of this problem. The first is submitting to the judgment of those who want to enforce regulations concerning food and drink, festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths (2:16). The second is deferring to those who delight in asceticism, the worship of angels, and visions (2:18).
In the former, especially given Paul’s earlier discussion of circumcision, we have no trouble recognizing Judaizing false teachers. They taught that believing, baptized Gentiles also had to submit to the ordinances of the Law of Moses, especially circumcision. The grace of Christ and walking in Christ aren’t enough. You need Christ plus.
This same impulse appears today in those who want to bind things outside the law of Christ on other Christians. Often, these brethren are acting with good intentions. They’ve come to their own conclusions about the application of certain passages (as indeed we all must), they see other Christians acting contrary to those conclusions, and they speak up because they genuinely can’t tell the difference between what they’ve concluded and “thus says the Lord”.
From this, there are two lessons that we should draw. First, whenever anyone tells us to do anything in the name of Christ, we always are right to ask, “Where is it written?” The most “conservative” approach does not deserve deference unless it also is the most Scripturally founded.
Second, we must beware of this tendency in ourselves. It’s fine to have views about godly living. It’s even fine to share them with others. However, we must take care to distinguish between what we think and what God has said. Seating ourselves in the chair of Moses is a great way to shut down disagreement, but it’s hazardous to our spiritual health and the health of others.
Similarly, in the angel-worshiping ascetics of v. 18, we find those whose beliefs would produce Gnosticism in another several decades. The name “Gnostic” itself came from the Greek verb ginōskō, “to know”. The Gnostics were self-described knowers. They believed that they had spiritual insights that ordinary Christians didn’t.
Most brethren don’t have to be warned against spiritual know-it-alls, but we must be careful not to become one ourselves. We must beware of the intellectual pride that accompanies staking out a maverick position based on our superior knowledge of the Scriptures. Maybe we just “get it” and those clods in Sunday morning Bible class don’t, but we also should consider the possibility that the clods get it and we’re the ones whom the devil has tangled up. Frankly, years of teaching auditorium classes have, as a rule, left me more impressed with the collective wisdom of God’s people than with the folks I’ve encountered who think they’re on a higher spiritual plane.
If we want to have the hope of glory, humility is vital. If we truly are wise and understanding, that will reveal itself in deeper reverence for our Lord, deeper obedience to His will, and deeper subjection of ourselves. We don’t need anything but Christ, and the more we try to add anything, the more we will lose what we need.
The King came lowly to His own;
His humbling was complete;
He did not claim an earthly throne
But knelt to wash our feet.
He did not send us into war
Nor shed our blood in strife,
But with His blood, He went before
And offered up His life.
He summons us to follow now;
He beckons from above,
And He’ll exalt us if we bow
In servanthood and love.
Many modern attacks on the reliability of the Bible depend on the stupidity of the people of the ancient world. Everybody Knows, the argument goes, that we are much wiser than our ancestors. They were foolish, credulous people who were easy to trick with pious frauds. Thus, we should dismiss ancient testimony about the resurrection, the miracles of Jesus, etc., because the witnesses can’t be trusted.
However, this doesn’t reckon with what the Bible itself reveals about the people of Biblical times. Certainly, there were foolish, credulous people who lived 2000 years ago. The Samaritans who were deceived by Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8 come to mind here. Before we sneer too much, though, we should remember that there are plenty of foolish, credulous people in our society too, many of whom are well educated!
Conversely, many ancients were predisposed to reject evidence of the supernatural in their own time. According to Acts 23:8, the Jewish sect of the Sadducees taught that there was no resurrection, no angels, and no spirits. They were no more likely to accept the risen Christ than we are to accept the claims of modern-day miracles that our Pentecostal neighbors make.
We see this rationalistic bias at work in Matthew 28:11-15. There, the chief priests bribe the guards at Jesus’ tomb to say that His disciples stole His body while they were sleeping. There are significant holes in the story. If the guards were sleeping, how do they know who took the body? More seriously, if the disciples stole the body, why are they willing to suffer and die for a Messiah they know is a fraud?
However, Matthew regretfully reports that this tissue of lies, holes and all, was spread among the Jews until the day when he wrote his gospel. This isn’t the behavior of people who jumped at any opportunity to believe wild stories. It’s the behavior of people who would seize any plausible excuse not to believe them.
Nor was such skepticism limited to the Jews. The resurrection seemed every bit as foolish to Gentiles as to the Sadducees. Everybody knew that dead bodies didn’t get up and start wandering around again!
This bias finds its voice in Festus’s outburst in Acts 26:24. When Paul asserts for the first time that Jesus rose from the dead, the Roman governor can’t control himself. He accuses Paul of having been driven mad by too much study. What other explanation can there be when an obviously intelligent, educated man says something so ridiculous?
Despite all this, Acts 6:7 reports that many of the priests (who were Sadducees) obeyed the gospel. In Philippians 4:22, Paul conveys greetings from the Christians in Caesar’s household, the cynical, cosmopolitan heart of the Roman Empire. The gospel didn’t only find a home in people who would believe anything. It also came to those who were won over in spite of themselves. When people like that (Paul chief among them) proclaim that Christ arose, we should pay attention.
The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once said, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.” The same is true of Christianity. Most of the time, we don’t struggle with the knowing, but with the doing.
Philippians 2:14 is a prime example of this unpleasant truth. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” is not a long sentence. We know what all of those words mean. It’s simple.
However, I suspect that most of us would prefer for those words to mean something else, something not quite so. . . pointed. We find grumbling and disputing to be quite enjoyable, and we don’t like hearing that we’re not supposed to, ever.
Indeed, Paul’s words here may point to two different ungodly methods of dealing with conflict. Imagine that it is Thanksgiving, and your Uncle Gerald shows up with the rest of the clan. You can’t tell whether he’s doing it on purpose or not, but he has the knack of taking every one of your most cherished beliefs and stomping them into the mud, all with the most infuriating, self-righteous tone you’ve ever heard in your life.
How do you handle Uncle Gerald? Do you give him a piece of your mind right then and there, or do you spend the car ride home assassinating his character to your spouse? If the first, you’re probably a disputer. If the second, grumbling is more your thing.
Interestingly, both the disputer and the grumbler like to cloak their behavior in virtue. The disputer is “telling it like it is”. The grumbler is “biting my lip for the sake of peace.” Of course, speaking truth without love is not godly, and neither is avoiding conflict while sowing the seeds of bitterness.
The solution is as simple as the problem. Imitate Christ. Philippians is pretty much a book-length explanation of how following Him keeps us from disputing and grumbling. Stay united. Put others first. Pursue their good as well as yours.
This habit of mind transforms our perspective on the Uncle Geralds we encounter, whether in our earthly family or our church family. When we truly have Uncle Gerald’s best interests at heart, we’re less interested in giving him a piece of our mind and more interested in figuring out what we can say to help him. We might bear with him for the sake of love, but we won’t shy away from going to him about his sin. We certainly won’t gossip about him rather than talking to him!
If we take the high road, Paul in the very next verse promises that something amazing will happen. We will prove ourselves to be blameless, innocent children of God who shine like lights in the midst of the sinful world. Why wouldn’t we? The world is full of grumbly, disputatious folks. When we aren’t that way, we can’t help standing out, and we reveal clearly who our Master is.
On the other hand, if we do practice grumbling and disputing, well, that reveals who our master is too, doesn’t it?