Colossians 3:15 by Robert Dean
Christians may misunderstand the meaning of inner peace, seeing it as a manifestation of understanding God’s will in their lives. What are the criteria for knowing God’s will for your life? How does peace relate to unity within the Body of Christ? Contrast inner peace with the mental state of Jesus in Gethsemane just prior to the crucifixion. Can a Christian experience deep anguish and still be within the will of God?
Series:Colossians (2011)
Duration:53 mins 28 secs

Peace - Inner Guide or External Standard? - Colossians 3:15


Colossians 3:15 NASB "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful."

This is a verse that is frequently used in the teaching of many people as a verse on divine guidance, emphasising that one of the ways in which we come to understand how the Lord is leading us is through an inner sense of peace. We are going to discover that that is not true, for a number of reasons. So we are asking the question: Peace, is it an inner guide or is it an external standard?

When our Lord taught, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, He taught using a technique of contrasting truth with error. Frequently He would say, "You have heard it said," and then He would make a statement related to a false interpretation of Scripture. The Sermon on the Mount is actually Jesus Christ's/God's interpretation of the Mosaic Law in contrast to the false interpretation that had accumulated through two or three hundred years of tradition among the Pharisees and Sadducees within the religious community of Israel. So He is stating the accurate interpretation of the Mosaic Law in contrast to the false interpretation that had become a commonly held view among most of the Jewish community at that time.

In any generation, in any culture, there is always a "popular religion." There are a lot of Christians in a lot of churches who ought to know better but they still hold to certain popular ideas that are false—popular ideas about what is said in the Scripture. This is simply because they are not taught very well. They sort of enter into the culture of modern evangelical Christianity and they are not really challenged a whole lot and eventually they come sort of sacred cows and people are afraid to say anything about them. But that happens across the board in almost any religious system. There are these popular ideas that take on a life of their own and that is part of what the Lord was doing: correcting those kinds of ideas that had entered into the every day Jewish belief system at that time.

So He would says, "You have heard it said," and then He would contrast it and say, "But I say unto you," and then He would correct that interpretation. We will follow a pattern something like that here, that with regard to discerning or understanding God's will in our life many of us have not been taught correctly on this area—especially with regard to this verse that we are studying.

We have heard it said that God has a perfect will for every decision in our life. That is really taken to mean that God has a specific will for us in every single decision that we make in life. We have heard it said that we should live in the center of God's will—that is another popular way in which it is stated—and that God will always reveal to us precisely what He wants us to do, what His will is for us in any particular circumstance, whenever we are struggling about what we should do. We usually think of this in terms of the big questions of life related to marriage, related to education, related to career, to where we should live, whether to buy a house or not buy a house, etc. But it also boils down to the many small decisions in life because we all understand that most of the major events in our life have really turned upon very small what may have appeared at the time to have been insignificant decisions; and yet they ended up having a great impact on things.

And we have often heard that one of the keys to discerning the will of God is an inner state of peace or tranquillity when that decision is made. We take it to the Lord in prayer and when we make that decision that God sort of confirms to us that it is the right decision because we have a peace of mind, a "peace that surpasses all comprehension," quoting Philippians chapter four. This peace that surpasses all comprehension sort of guarantees us that we have made the right decision and are living in the center of God's will.

There are other things that come into play in this. We are often told that the way to discern God's will is to not only pray about it but we also seek guidance from wise or mature Christians. Also God will open or close doors through various circumstances, and so we often end up without realising it, putting the emphasis not on the objective revelation of God's Word but on subjective inner impressions.  subjective inner interpretations of external circumstances, and it is almost as if it is some kind of shell game that God plays with us where He has it hidden under one of the walnut shells which He is constantly moving around, and we have to guess which one it is., and He is going to give us an idea of which one to choose because we are going to have some sort of inner peace.

This is not biblical. It is actually an extremely subtle but dangerous form of mysticism. All mysticism is really a way of denying the authority of God and rejecting the authority of God because it is substituting some inner mental state for the Word of God. All of this ultimately boils down to understanding some key things about bibliology, that God has revealed Himself objectively through history and that that objective revelation ceased with the closing of the canon of Scripture. Since then God has been silent. And there is a reason for that silence. If God is communicating anything to us in any way, whether it is verbal or non-verbal, it is a form of special revelation. If we think that God is going to vibrate us one way or vibrate us another way to tell us to go left or right then that is a form of revelation. We either believe that revelation has ceased or we don't. And of we believe that it hasn't ceased then we end up with a whole host of confusion because then we have to ask: what is the criterion for determining what revelation is today and what isn't? In the Old Testament there were the prophets; in the New Testament there were the apostles. They sat as a guard, as it were, to determine what was and was not from God, what was and was not revelatory. So if we are going to make claims that we have any kind of revelation today then who is it that decides whether it or not it is because we have no apostles or prophets on the scene anymore.

The key to understand what is going on here in Colossians 3:15 is to understand the context. "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts." That first part of the verse is part of the second part of the verse, which says, "to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful." There are two commands here: let the peace of God rule in your hearts and be thankful. One of the key interpretive clues here is that second part that talks about "to which you were called in one body." The purpose for letting the peace of God rule in your hearts is related to maintaining the unity of the body of Christ. But wait a minute. That doesn't sound like it is there to help me pick what college to go to, what person to marry, or what kind of decision to make about where to live or when to retire, etc. Just reading the whole verse tells us that Paul isn't talking about making decisions, he is talking about maintaining unity in the body of Christ. And we remember as we have gone through Colossians that a major theme throughout has related to the body of Christ and submitting to the authority of God.

So as we think about the way discerning the will of God is frequently taught we will expand on it a little. In the idea that God has a perfect will for every believer's life it is understood that every single decision, great and small, no matter how irrelevant or minor it may seem to us, is going to be part of God's will and God is going to inform us as to what that should be, how we can always make that right decision. The problem is, if we miss it—for example, we may end up never being able to recover it—then we may miss it, because the influences, the friends, the opportunities, the choices that are going to come by living in one area are going to be quite different from those in another. So if we miss something that appears to be a minor decision it may radically alter the rest of our life and we never get back. So there is a sort of internal logical problem with this center of God's will idea to begin with.

On of the most holy-sounding ways that is given for discerning this is the idea that there is some sort of inner communication from God the Holy Spirit. This is often taught as the inner voice of the Holy Spirit. We will hear people refer to an episode from the life of Elijah where he has run from God, has left Jezreel under the fear of threats of Jezebel, run down toward Mount Sinai and is hiding out down there. Then we hear God comes in the storm and then there is quiet. People say he is listening to the still small voice of God and that is how we discern what God wants us to do. That is taken totally out of context in that particular passage.

Then people talk about inner impressions, that God gives us some sort of inner impression, a feeling, a glow, a buzz, whatever it might be. This is really a kind of confusion with the special revelation God gave people in the Scriptures. Often people go to passages such as Ezekiel chapter one when God calls Ezekiel and gives him specific instructions. That is special revelation. Or, for example, in 2 Corinthians chapter twelve where Paul receives special revelation, special instruction, from God. All of these examples in the Scripture where God tells a believer, a prophet, an apostle, or someone something specific to do are all examples of special revelation. If there is no more special revelation then we can't expect that anymore, and they were all given at a time where there was an incomplete canon of Scripture.

So part of this criterion that is often suggested for this inner guidance of God is this phrase "the peace of God." This is how this is normally taught. As we read in Colossians 3:15, the opening phrase says, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts." Then what is taught is that the verb here, which is brabeuo [brabeuw], present active imperative, means to act as an arbiter, an umpire, a decision-maker. The word was used in the first century to describe officials who oversaw the athletic games of the Greeks and would make judgments and decisions at these contests. So the conclusion that is taught is that we should let the inner peace of God be this umpire. It should call the decisions of our lives, and as we experience an inner sense of calm when we make these decisions we can know God's perfect will for our lives in every decision.

Unfortunately this doesn't pass the smell test and it doesn't pass the exegetical test. The exegetical test is the more important one. And it also violates a number of things that are going on in the midst of our passage in Colossians 3:12-17. This has nothing to do with what Paul is talking about in these verses, as we will see. Secondly, it puts a subjective mental or emotional state in authority over the direct revelation of God (the Word of God). It violates the meaning of peace as it is used contextually in not only Colossians but also in the broader Pauline epistles, as well as in the New Testament. It is a subtle and dangerous form of mysticism and Paul is writing, remember, against mysticism in Colossians. So why would he suddenly say something in such a vague ambiguous way as to give the mystics he is writing against a foothold against him? It just doesn't make sense. What this does is end up making an authority out of a subjective state of mind. An example that comes to mind is the idea that if we make a right decision we are going to have certain confirming emotional senses of wellbeing or stability. From just everyday experience parents have to corporately discipline their children. They have to spank them. That is something that God says to do. If you don't discipline a child he will not learn authority orientation. This is clearly taught in Proverbs. But a good parent isn't going to feel good about giving his child a spanking. If they are doing it the right way they are not going to like it. They are doing the will of God because that is what the Word of God says but it doesn't make one feel good. That is one example that contradicts this whole way of teaching.

Another is found in rhe Scriptures. Matthew 26:36 NASB "Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, 'Sit here while I go over there and pray.'" As Jesus contemplates in prayer what is before Him we are told some interesting things about His mental and emotional state. We have to remember Jesus was sinless, so nothing that is going on here is a sin. [37] "And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed." He is going through intense emotional turmoil. Wait a minute. I though that if you were in fellowship ands walking with God you don't get emotional. Wrong. Jesus got incredibly emotional here. The terms that are used here, first of all the verb is lupeo [lupew], a word that has a variety of meanings. It means to grieve, sometimes to experience pain, sorrow, fear. These are profoundly deep, tumultuous emotions. Sometimes it is even translated "be anxious." The second word that is translated here "distressed" is the Greek word ademoneo [a)dhmonew] which means to be depressed, full of anguish or sorrow. In His humanity Jesus experiences these emotions. These emotions are not sin. This is hard for a lot of people to grasp because the way we have often been taught is that if we have certain emotions that is sin. No. What is sinful is where volition chooses to react to those emotions in a sinful way. There are times when we have certain emotional responses to certain events. If someone kicks you in the shin it is going to hurt, there is nothing you can do about the fact that you are hurting. What may be inappropriate is what you do in response to the hurt. That is where the sin comes in. The physical pain gives you a test as to whether you are going to handle it in a biblically correct manner or not. So we go through certain things in life. Someone dies; we experience grief. There is nothing wrong with grief or sorrow. There is nothing wrong with the emotion that comes, what is wrong is what we do with that emotion.

There are things that we can do in life under intense pressure, and there is going to be just a turmoil of emotion going on inside of us. That is part of our humanity. But it is what we do with that. Are we going to trust God and obey His Word despite how we feel, or are we going to let those emotions drive us into emotional sins such as anger, bitterness, revenge, mental attitude sins, other things of that nature? Or are we going to say, I am in a tough situation here. Of course I'm upset, sorrowful, there is anxiety here but God is going to get me through this and I am going to trust Him even though I feel this way. The feeling, the experience of those emotions is not sin.

Matthew 26:38 NASB "Then He said to them [Peter and John], 'My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.'" The words "deeply grieved" is a noun based on the word lupeo. Here He uses the word perilupos [perilupoj], a compound word—peri is the Greek preposition that means something that goes around, like a periphery. He feels that He is being surrounded by sorrow. He is under such intense pressure that He begins to sweat drops of blood. That tells us how intense His emotional turmoil is, yet He is not going to sin. But that pressure is there; He is being squeezed emotionally as His humanity perceives what is about to transpire both in terms of the physical suffering He will encounter as He is tortured before He goes to the cross, and also the spiritual horrors that He will encounter when He goes to the cross. Jesus is not experiencing the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension, and yet He is praying to the Father in terms of the Father's will. [39] "And He went a little beyond {them,} and fell on His face and prayed, saying, 'My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.'" He knows what God's will is. At the same time as He anticipates that He is experiencing these profound emotions.

We have to understand that certain emotions are going to normally and naturally arise in our soul. But what we do with them is where the issue of sin or not to sin takes place. In many decisions we make in life doing the right thing, doing that which glorifies God is not always going to be pleasant. It is not always going to be something we know is right because we have this inner calm, inner peace, because doing what God wants us to do may bring us into circumstances like our Lord faced where are experiencing some anguish and emotional turmoil as we face an extremely difficult situation. But because we know that is God's will because of His Word we are able to go through that and obey and glorify Him.

From this example of Jesus we see that we do not always have this kind of peace. What we are saying is, we have misunderstood and misinterpreted this whole concept that we run into, this whole concept of peace and that Scripture is not saying that the way we discern the will of God in our life is that we are going to have this inner peace.

As we look at this passage we have to understand what Paul is talking about when he speaks of the peace of God. Contextually this is related to something he introduced back in Colossians chapter one which is reconciliation. In Romans chapter five Paul speaks about the results of justification, one of which is the peace that we have with God. Because we have been justified we have peace with God. That peace with God is not an inner state of contentment, it is a recognition and reality of the removal of the state of hostility between God and man. In Ephesians chapter two we have a development for Paul of the term "peace" and how it is used for him in its terms of reference to reconciliation. He says in Ephesians 2:14 NASB "For He Himself is our peace…" He is talking about something objective. He is talking about Jesus' work on the cross as the fulfilment of the typology of the peace offering from the Levitical offerings in the Old Testament, and that by Jesus' atoning work on the cross the wall of separation between man and God is removed in reconciliation. "…who made both {groups into} one."

In the context he is talking about the fact that prior to the cross there was a separation between the Jew and the Gentile. God had a special plan for the Jew and the Jew was in a position of spiritual privilege and blessing because God had chosen to work out His plan, reveal His plan, through Abraham and his descendants. So there was a barrier. Not only did sin bring a barrier between the human race and God but sin also created a barrier between Gentile and Jew. The death of Christ on the cross destroys the barrier between God and man, but it also destroys the barrier between Jew and Gentile. "…and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, [15] by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, {which is} the Law of commandments {contained} in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, {thus} establishing peace." So the peace that is accomplished objectively at the cross between God and man has an application in that it breaks down the enmity between Jew and Gentile so that when Jew or Gentile trusts in Christ as savior they become part of a new body. They are united in Christ in this new body, the body of Christ, the universal church in the church age.

In Ephesians, which is the mirror almost of Colossians, Paul says that at the cross Christ destroyed the hostility—not the hostility here between God and man but between Jew and Gentile because He fulfils one. In the commandments the Jew was to remain separate from the Gentiles, but that aspect because of the destruction of the barrier, is removed by Christ's reconciling work on the cross. So verse 16 moves from talking about the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile and their unity now in the body of Christ, and he says, "and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity." That is talking about the breaking down of that barrier, the destruction of the barrier between fallen humanity and God. [17] AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE …" This is reconciliation, the same thing Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, that we are ministers of reconciliation. As ambassadors of Christ we are proclaiming the message to be reconciled to God. Christ accomplished that work of reconciliation objectively at the cross but it is not realised experientially until we trust in Christ. When we trusted Him we were reconciled to God, as we entered into the body of Christ as believers there is now unity in the body among the different members—Jew and Gentile is not an issue anymore. In Christ these external social aspects no longer and issue in direct access to God.    

Ephesians 4:1 NASB "Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called." This is important because as we look at Colossians 3:15 what we see is that we are also to walk in light of that calling with which we have been called—" to which indeed you were called." This is a reference to the calling of God at salvation. This is what we were wrought to in terms of the body of Christ. We have that same idea in Ephesians 4:1. In verse 2, "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, [3] being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." So peace here is not talking about inner tranquillity, it is talking about maintaining unity within the body of Christ and not giving in to schisms and divisions over irrelevant things. There is a point: we maintain unity not at the expense of doctrine or truth, we maintain unity on the basis of truth. What we are emphasising here is that keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is that the reality that we have in Christ, that that barrier between us has broken down so that we are one in the body of Christ, is to be an external standard. So when there are problems in the body of Christ part of the way in which we handle that is to remember that there is to be peace in the body of Christ and we are not going to give in to petty differences and personality conflicts that frequently cause divisions in the body of Christ.

Ephesians 4:4 NASB "{There is} one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling." So we see that contextually, in terms of Colossians and how Paul uses the terminology of peace and calling, that this is not something that relates to an inner sense of tranquillity and calm, but it is talking about an external reality related to our unity in the body of Christ.

We see an emphasis on the body of Christ in a couple of different passages. Colossians 1:18 NASB "He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything." Then in verse 24 again he mentions the body, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church …" We see that throughout chapters one and two Paul has been emphasising the importance of the body of Christ for the Colossians, because they are being ripped apart because of these false teachers who have come in. This is related in the same context to what Paul has said about reconciliation. He brings that in in Colossians 1:20-22 NASB "and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross …" So here we have peace used in Colossians chapter one in the sense of relating to reconciliation, not something that is related to an inner state of calm and tranquillity. [21] "And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, {engaged} in evil deeds, [22] yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach." So as we look at these verses we realise that peace, as Paul talks about peace, is not on this sense of an internal sort of barometer related to calmness or tranquillity.

Back to Colossians 3:15, Paul gives this command: "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts …" In modern American idiom reference to the heart is commonly understood to be emotion, an internal emotional state. So the way this is read through our cultural grid is that we are to let the peace of God rule in our emotions. But that is not how the word "heart" is used in Scripture in either the Old Testament or the New Testament. The word ultimately refers to something which is the center of something. It is never used to refer to the organ inside the body that pumps blood. Always it is used in the metaphorical sense of referring to that which is at the center, the core of something. It refers to the immaterial part of the human being. In many cases it relates to the soul, just as a general term for the soul and all of its components. But in about 75 or 80 per cent of its usage in the Bible it refers more to the mentality of the soul. There are a few places where it refers to volition, a few places to emotion; but the vast majority of its usage refers to the mentality. And that fits with what we have studied with Paul. We are to "think on these things," Paul says. He doesn't say to emote on these things. Phil. 4:8, 9. In other places we are to study the Word. Again and again we have the principle laid down in Scripture that God has revealed Himself to us in language, and we do not understand Him without using reason; we understand Him through the study of His Word, the normal use of words, grammar and syntax and studying things in light of their biblical and historical usage. So the emphasis is on thought.

Colossians 3:16 NASB "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you …" If in verse 15 Paul is talking about a state of emotion then he is going to contradict himself in the next verse by emphasising the study of the Word and the internalisation of that special revelation of God. So it doesn't fit the context to interpret heart here as an emotional state, we are to let this truth of this external unification within the body of Christ be the umpire that oversees our horizontal relations with one another. We are not to let things come along that are going to fragment and fracture us on the basis of personality or on the basis of likes or dislikes or petty politics in the local church. What we are to do is let the truth that we are united in the body of Christ govern the way in which we relate to one another so that we can maintain that bond of peace that we have in he body of Christ. [15] "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body …" That is the focal point, the realisation in our experience of the unity of the body of Christ on the basis of this external rule.

"…and be thankful." Usually when Paul is emphasising being thankful it is because we are facing circumstances for which we would not normally be thankful. So we are to have a divine viewpoint mental attitude towards whatever these circumstances are that if we were just operating on our sin nature might lead to division, antagonism, hostility; but we are going to let the objective reality of our unity in the body of Christ be the guide for how we handle interpersonal relationships, and whatever tensions may come into that we are going to be thankful because this gives us an opportunity to apply God's Word and to see Him work within the body of Christ to maintain that unity.

This passage is talking about the application of the peace that we have with God in terms of our horizontal relations with one another.