The Word of Christ
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (3:16)
The word of Christ refers to the revelation He brought into the world, which is Scripture. Peace and thankfulness, as well as unity, love, and all the required virtues, flow from a mind controlled by Scripture. Dwell is from enoikeō and means “to live in,” or “to be at home.” Paul calls upon believers to let the Word take up residence and be at home in their lives. Plousiōs (richly) could also be translated “abundantly or extravagantly rich.” The truths of Scripture should permeate every aspect of the believer’s life and govern every thought, word, and deed. The Word dwells in us when we hear it (Matt. 13:9), handle it (2 Tim. 2:15), hide it (Ps. 119:11), and hold it fast (Phil. 2:16). To do those things, the Christian must read, study, and live the Word. To let the word of Christ richly dwell is identical to being filled with the Spirit (cf. Eph. 5:18). The Word in the heart and mind is the handle by which the Spirit turns the will. It is clear that these two concepts are identical because the passages that follow each are so similar.
Colossians 3:18–4:1 is a more brief parallel to Ephesians 5:19–6:9. The result of being filled with the Holy Spirit is the same as the result of letting the Word dwell in one’s life richly. Therefore, the two are the same spiritual reality viewed from two sides. To be filled with the Spirit is to be controlled by His Word. To have the Word dwelling richly is to be controlled by His Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is the author and the power of the Word, the expressions are interchangeable.
Paul then mentions two specific results of the Word of Christ dwelling in the believer, one positive and the other negative: with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another. Teaching is the impartation of positive truth. Admonishing is the negative side of teaching. It means to warn people of the consequences of their behavior. Both are the result of a life overflowing with the Word of Christ.
Having the Word of Christ richly dwell in us produces not only information, but also emotion. It generates psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Psalms were taken from the Old Testament psalter, the book of Psalms. They sang psalms put to music, much as we do today. Hymns were expressions of praise to God. It is thought that some portions of the New Testament (such as Col. 1:15–20 and Phil. 2:6–11) were originally hymns sung in the early church. Spiritual songs emphasized testimony (cf. Rev. 5:9–10). They express in song what God has done for us. (For more details on this theme, see my commentary, Ephesians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1986].)
Commentators are divided on whether chariti (thankfulness) should be translated “thankfulness” (as in the NIV and NASB) or “grace” (As in the KJV). Perhaps its use here encompasses both ideas: believers sing out of thankfulness for God’s grace. When Paul tells believers to sing in your hearts he does not mean not to sing with the voice. His concern is that the heart agree with the mouth (cf. Amos 5:23). Singing is to be directed to God as praise and worship offered to Him for His pleasure and glory. That it is edifying to believers is a byproduct of its main purpose.
16 The thankfulness to which Paul calls the Colossians was to be enthusiastically expressed in their corporate worship (cf. Lincoln, 648). Paul enjoins the assembly gathered for worship to “let the word of Christ dwell in [or among] [them] richly.” Like “peace of Christ” in v. 15, “word of Christ” is unparalleled in the NT (cf., however, 1 Th 1:8; 4:15: “the word of the Lord”). (Additionally, as with “the peace of Christ,” some later copyists altered “the word of Christ” to read “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord.”) While “the word of Christ” may refer to instruction proceeding from Christ (i.e., Jesus tradition), it more likely speaks of the message pertaining to Christ (i.e., the gospel; cf. 1:5, 29; so O’Brien, 206)—though arguably a wedge should not be driven too firmly between these alternatives (cf. Abbott, 290; Bruce, 157; Houlden, 207; Moule, 125; Dunn, 236). The proclamation of Christ, not the veneration of angels, was to be central in the Colossians’ worship (cf. Lincoln, 648; Dunn, 235–36). “The gospel is to have its gracious and glorious way in their lives” (O’Brien, 207).
The congregation is encouraged to let this word dwell, live, or abide richly in their midst as an operative, transformative force (cf. Harris, 167). How is it that “the word of Christ” is to make its home among the community? The answer appears to be, by means of the assembly’s ministry of teaching, admonishing, and singing. (The Greek syntax of this verse is complex and has occasioned much discussion [and confusion!] among commentators; cf. Moule, 125–26; Harris, 166–70.) Though Epaphras played a pivotal role in founding and instructing the Colossian assembly (1:7; 4:12; cf. Phm 23), he was not the only one who was meant to function in a teaching capacity. Notwithstanding the fact that Paul was an apostle grasped by God to admonish and teach all people in all wisdom (1:28), mutual, thoughtful, tactful instruction and admonition were privileges and responsibilities entrusted to the entire congregation (cf. Garland, 242; Lohse, 150–51).
It is possible that church members were meant to instruct and correct one another by means of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (so NASB; cf. Eph 5:19). However, psalms, hymns, and songs may simply be descriptive of the various forms of congregational singing (so NIV). Even if one cannot say with certainty which reading is most likely on grammatical grounds (cf. Moule, 125; O’Brien, 208–9)—though I favor the NIV’s translation here (so also Dunn, 211, 237)—one may note that a positive, mutually reinforcing link is to exist between the church’s teaching and singing (cf. Bruce, 158; Houlden, 208; Lincoln, 649; Lohse, 151). The songs of the church can be both instructive/cognitive and responsive/emotive (cf. Lincoln, 651).
It is best not to try to differentiate too sharply among psalms (cf. 1 Co 14:26), hymns (cf. Ac 16:25; Heb 2:12), and songs (cf. Rev 5:9; 14:3; 15:3; so, rightly, Garland, 212; O’Brien, 209; Lohse, 151). From our vantage point, these three terms appear to be more or less synonymous (so also Dunn, 238–39, who nonetheless contends that “some range of songs is presumably in view, unless we assume that the authors are being needlessly tautologous”; cf. Lincoln, 649, who notes, “They are the three most common terms for religious songs in the LXX, where they are used interchangeably”). Regardless of those nuances now lost on us, these songs are depicted as “spiritual.” (Whether or not the adjective pneumatikos, “spiritual,” GK 4461, is meant to modify “psalms,” “hymns,” and “songs,” or merely “songs,” is an open question, though it arguably applies to all three nouns [so also O’Brien, 210; Lincoln, 649; Lohse, 151].) Some of these songs were probably set (cf. 1:15–20 [?]), while others were likely spontaneous and even glossalalic (cf. Dunn, 239). Taken together, these three terms reveal the rich variety of praise in the worship of the Pauline churches in particular, if not of the early church in general. Whatever the precise form and content of these songs, they were to be sung with a thankful or grateful heart toward God. Gratitude should well up within believers for the grace that God has bestowed on them in the Beloved (cf. Lohse, 152).
3:16 / Here is a verse loaded with important truths. Paul has just spoken about the peace of Christ that is to rule in the believers’ hearts (3:15). Now he turns to another aspect of Christ, namely, the word of Christ. This phrase, taken as an objective genitive in Greek, means the words about Christ, that is, the gospel.
The word of Christ is to dwell within the believer and can do so either richly or feebly. Although the gospel certainly is “rich” in meaning, content, and so on, the Greek adverb richly definitely is intended to characterize the manner in which Christ’s message is to inhabit the believer: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
The indwelling word will manifest itself in two ways: First, the Colossians are exhorted to teach and admonish one another with all wisdom. This is a pedagogical process (cf. 1:28) in which all members share responsibility. In light of Paul’s ministry as a teacher and Epaphras’ as a transmitter of tradition, this verse should not be taken to imply a deficiency in these church leaders.
The second manifestation of the word of Christ is in worship. Considerable research has gone into analyzing the different components mentioned, so it is not unusual for commentators to suggest that psalms (psalmois) may have their heritage in the Old Testament; hymns (hymnois) could include psalms but may be more Christian songs of praise to God or Christ; spiritual songs (ōdais) may be musical compositions originating from ecstatic utterances under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 14:16).
On the basis of this passage and a similar one in Ephesians 5:19, it is not possible to establish distinctions with any precision, even though there is a certain diversity about the three. It does help one to appreciate both the richness of Christian hymnody even at this early stage of the church’s life and the function of music within the context of worship. When such music is grounded in the word of God (i.e., doctrinal in content), it definitely serves a teaching and instructional function within the body.
Singing is to be expressed in a spirit of gratitude. Music may edify the members of a congregation, but its primary function is to render thanks to God. The word translated gratitude is charis, not the more common eucharistia. charis can also mean “grace,” and with the inclusion of the article (en tē chariti), Paul may be referring to the grace of God. When Christians sing “in the grace,” they sing by virtue of the grace of God which is theirs. (The niv rightly uses God rather than “Lord,” which has weaker manuscript evidence and probably represents an attempt to harmonize it with Eph. 5:19.)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you (verse 16)
As usual in this letter Paul takes every opportunity to stress the centrality and sufficiency of Christ. Elsewhere, in a parallel passage, he can write to the believers about letting the Holy Spirit fill them. In Paul’s teaching there is never any question of Word and Spirit being separately experienced. The coming of the Word of God in the gospel is the coming of the Spirit, and the coming of the Spirit is the coming of the living and abiding Word of God. Therefore, to enjoy the fullness of the Spirit, a Christian must necessarily be filled with the word of Christ.
A Christian community is happy, therefore, if the word of Christ is richly, that is abundantly, available. But it may well be that the visitors looked to other sources by which a ‘word’ from God might come their way (cf. 2:4, 18, 20–22). If so (and how else did they get their authoritative messages?), this must have greatly influenced the teaching they gave, and the type of songs they used for praise: instead of being characterized by the word of Christ, there would be a significant admixture of human doctrines, i.e. of religious traditionalism.
For the apostle, therefore, the word of Christ must control all the ministries of the local church. First, there is the ministry of teaching. It is intriguing, in view of modern interest in lay ministry, that the work of teaching and admonishing, described in 1:28 as Paul’s major function, is here said to be the work of the local congregation, the people (laos) of God in one place. How could it be otherwise? A responsibility so vast must be shared. But it will not be carried out in all wisdom, that is with sufficient balance and relevance (1:9ff.) if the local congregation itself is not firmly under the word of Christ.
Secondly, there is the ministry of praise. Paul likes to pile synonyms together, although words that appear synonymous (e.g. as here, teach and admonish) sometimes carry different emphases. In the case of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs we shall be wise not to attempt a differentiation, for since the time of Jerome the problem has been debated, and is still unsolved! What is at issue here is the content of the young church’s hymns. The history of Christian awakening shows that whenever the word of Christ is recovered, it is received with great joy, a joy that can fully express itself only with songs of praise. What the apostle is concerned to see is that these songs are consistent with the word of Christ, or as we are bound to say nowadays, scriptural. A fair test of this is to be found by whether or not they echo a heartfelt spirit of thankfulness: genuine Christian praise is not primarily a vehicle for the expression of spiritual aspirations and experiences, so much as a celebration of God’s mighty acts in Christ. Lohse has an interesting comment on the normal translation:
This translation cannot account for the definite article which specifies charis as God’s bestowal of grace which gives life to the believers. The phrase en tē chariti reminds the readers of sola gratia (by grace alone) which is the sole basis of existence and creates the realm in which Christian life can exist and develop. This is the reason why God is praised.
Very well. A gospel of grace (1:6) must be echoed by songs of gratitude for grace.
3:16. If believers are to be transformed into the character of Christ, the word of Christ should find a home in our hearts. It should not come and go, show up occasionally, or be something we visit like a vacation spot. As Eugene Peterson translates this phrase, “Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives” (Peterson, 504).
The parallel between Colossians 3:16–4:1 and Ephesians 5:18–6:9 must not be missed. The structure and terminology are almost identical. The Ephesians passage exhorts believers to be filled with the Spirit, whereas the Colossians passage exhorts believers to let the Word of Christ dwell in them. The two concepts must be synonymous. The external results are the same. The internal effect is the same. The believer is to be “under the influence” of the word of Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit. The reason for the Colossians’ emphasis on Christ is expected in a book so devoted to his centrality and supremacy. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in hearts to God (v. 16). When the word of Christ finds a comfortable home in individual believers and in the new community, there will be teaching (positive instruction), admonishing one another (negative correction), and thankful worship, evidenced by singing and gratitude.
16. Paul has just been saying. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” At first glance a believer might well ask, however, “If I do this am I not building the edifice of my hope and trust upon a rather insecure, subjective foundation?” After further thought, however, he answers, “Not at all, for I have peace when in my inmost being I, by God’s sovereign grace, resolve to live in accordance with the objective word of Christ.” Verses 15 and 16 must therefore not be separated. By obedience to the gospel peace is conveyed to the heart. So Paul continues, Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly. The objective, special revelation that proceeds from (and concerns) Christ—“the Christ-word”—should govern every thought, word, and deed, yes even the hidden drives and motivations of every member, and thus should bear sway among them all, and this richly, “bearing much fruit” (John 15:5). This will happen if believers heed the word (Matt. 13:9), handle it rightly (2 Tim. 2:15), hide it in their hearts (Ps. 119:11), and hold it forth to others as being in truth “the word of life” (Phil. 2:16). Though when the apostle wrote this, “the word of Christ” had not yet been entrusted to the written page in the form and to the extent in which we now have it, this does not cancel the fact that for Paul and for all believers in his day as well as, in broader scope, for us today, “All scripture (is) God-breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be equipped, for every good work thoroughly equipped” (see N.T.C. on 2 Tim. 3:16, 17). The logical continuation is: in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another.137For the explanation of these words see on 1:28, where essentially the same thought is expressed in an almost identical statement. The differences are as follows: (1) in 1:28 the apostle relates what he, Timothy, etc., are doing; here (in Col. 3:16) he admonishes the Colossian believers what they should be doing. In both cases the content is the same: admonishing and teaching. Believers, by virtue of their “office” as believers—let them not forget that they are clothed with that office!—should do what Paul and his associates are doing by virtue of their office, respectively as apostle and apostolic delegates. Each person must do it in accordance with the rights and duties of his particular office. (2) In 1:28 the object is somewhat broader, “every man.” Here (Col. 3:16) the emphasis is rather on mutual teaching and admonition. And (3) in 1:28 the phrase “in all wisdom” is placed last. In the Colossian passage it is placed first, perhaps to underscore the thought conveyed in the immediately preceding adverb “richly,” as if to say, “If the word of Christ is to dwell among you richly, then in all wisdom you should admonish and teach each other.”
There is something else that should also be done if the word of Christ is to dwell among the Colossians richly. It is stated in these words: (and) by means of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs singing to God in a thankful spirit,139 with all your heart.
Paul clearly recognizes the edifying nature of God-glorifying singing. As to the meaning of the terms psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (see also Eph. 5:19) a little investigation quickly shows that it may not be easy to distinguish sharply between these three. It is possible that there is here some overlapping of meanings. Thus, in connection with psalms it is natural to think of the Old Testament Psalter, and, in support of this view, to appeal to Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33. So far there is no difficulty. However, expositors are by no means agreed that this can also be the meaning of the word psalm in 1 Cor. 14:26 (“When you assemble, each one has a psalm”).
As to hymns, in the New Testament the word hymn is found only in our present passage (Col. 3:16) and in Eph. 5:19. Augustine, in more than one place, states that a hymn has three essentials: it must be sung; it must be praise; it must be to God. According to this definition it would be possible for an Old Testament psalm, sung in praise to God, to be also a hymn. Thus when Jesus and his disciples were about to leave the Upper Room in order to go to the Mount of Olives, they “hymned” (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). It is held by many that what they hymned was Psalm 115–118. According to Acts 16:25 in the Philippian prison Paul and Silas were hymning to God. Is it not altogether probable that some, if not all, of these hymns were psalms? Cf. also Heb. 2:12. But if Augustine’s definition is correct there are also hymns that do not belong to the Old Testament Psalter; such hymns as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) and the Benedictus (Luke 1:68–79). Fragments of other New Testament hymns seem to be embedded in the letters of Paul (Eph. 5:14; Col. 1:15–20; 1 Tim. 3:16, and perhaps others).
The word song or ode (in the sense of poem intended to be sung) occurs not only in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 but also in Rev. 5:9; 14:3, where “the new song” is indicated, and in Rev. 15:3, where the reference is to “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb,” These are not Old Testament Psalms. Moreover, a song or ode is not necessarily a sacred song. In the present case the fact that it is, indeed, sacred is shown by the addition of the adjective spiritual.
All in all, then, it would seem that when here in Col. 3:16 the apostle uses these three terms, apparently distinguishing them at least to some extent, the term psalms has reference, at least mainly, to the Old Testament Psalter; hymns mainly to New Testament songs of praise to God or to Christ; and spiritual songs mainly to any other sacred songs dwelling on themes other than direct praise to God or to Christ.
The point that must not be ignored is this, that these songs must be sung in a thankful spirit. The songs must be poured forth sincerely, rising from within the humbly grateful hearts of believers. It has been said that next to Scripture itself a good Psalter-Hymnal is the richest fountain of edification. Not only are its songs a source of daily nourishment for the church, but they also serve as a very effective vehicle for the outpouring of confession of sin, gratitude, spiritual joy, rapture. Whether sung in the regular worship-service on the Lord’s Day, at a midweek meeting, in social gatherings, in connection with family-worship, at a festive occasion, or privately, they are a tonic for the soul and promote the glory of God. They do this because they fix the interest upon the indwelling word of Christ, and carry the attention away from that worldly cacophony by which people with low moral standards are being emotionally overstimulated.
The passage under discussion has often been used in support of this or that theory with respect to what may or may not be sung in the official worship-service. Perhaps it is correct to say that the appeal is justified if one is satisfied with a few broad, general principles; for example, (1) In our services the psalms should not be neglected. (2) As to hymns, in the stricter sense of songs of praise, “It is probably true that a larger proportion of the religious poems which are used in public praise should be ‘hymns’ in the stricter sense. They should be addressed to God. Too many are subjective, not to say sentimental, and express only personal experiences and aspirations which are sometimes lacking in reality” Charles E. Erdman (op. cit., p. 91).
For the rest, it is well to bear in mind that Paul’s purpose is not to lay down detailed rules and regulations pertaining to ecclesiastical liturgy. He is interested in showing the Colossians and all those to whom or by whom the letter would be read how they may grow in grace, and may manifest rightly the power of the indwelling word. His admonition, therefore, can be applied to every type of Christian gathering, whether on the Sabbath or during the week, whether in church or at home or anywhere else.
 Still, T. D. (2006). Colossians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 333–334). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Lucas, R. C. (1980). Fullness & freedom: the message of Colossians & Philemon (pp. 154–155). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.