A Commentary by John Stott
The letter focuses on what God did through the historical work of Jesus Christ and does through the Spirit today, in order to build his new society in the midst of the old.
It tells how Jesus Christ shed his blood in a sacrificial death for sin, was then raised from death by the power of God and has been exalted above all competitors to the supreme place in both the universe and the church. More than that, we who are ‘in Christ’, organically united to him by faith, have ourselves shared in these great events. We have been raised from Spiritual death, exalted to heaven and seated with him there. We have also been reconciled to God and to each other. As a result, through Christ and in Christ, we are nothing less than God’s new society, the single new humanity which he is creating and which includes Jews and Gentiles on equal terms. We are the family of God the Father, the body of Jesus Christ his Son and the temple or indwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore we are to demonstrate plainly and visibly by our new life the reality of this new thing which God has done: first by the unity and diversity of our common life, secondly by the purity and love of our everyday behaviour, next by the mutual submissiveness and care of our relationships at home, and lastly by our stability in the fight against the principalities and powers of evil. Then in the fullness of time God’s purpose of unification will be brought to completion under the headship of Jesus Christ.
With this theme in mind, we may perhaps analyse the letter as follows:
1. The new life which God has given us in Christ (1:3-2:10)
2. The new society which God had created through Christ (2:11-3:21).
3. The new standards which God expects of his new society, especially unity and purity (4:1-5:21).
4. The new relationships into which God has brought us – harmony in the home and hostility to the devil (5:21-6:24).
The whole letter is thus a magnificent combination of Christian doctrine and Christian duty, Christian faith and Christian life, what God has done through Christ and what we must be and do in consequence. And its central theme is ‘God’s new society’ – what it is, how it came into being through Christ, how its origins and nature were revealed to Paul, how it grows through proclamation, how we are to live lives worthy of it, and how one day it will be consummated when Christ presents his bride the church to himself in splendour, ‘without spot or wrinkle or any such thing…holy and without blemish’ (5:27).
The contemporary relevance of this message is obvious. Karl Marx also wrote of ‘the new man’ and ‘the new society’. And millions of people have caught his vision and are dedicating themselves to its realization. But Marx saw the human problem and its solution in almost exclusively economic terms. The ‘new society’ was the classless society which would follow the revolution, and the ‘new man’ would emerge as a result of his economic liberation.
Paul presents a greater vision still. For he sees the human predicament as something even deeper than the injustice of the economic structure and so propounds a yet more radical solution. He writes of nothing less than a ‘new creation’. Three times he uses creation language. Through Jesus Christ God is recreating men and women ‘for good works’, creating a single new humanity in place of the disastrous Jewish-Gentile division, and recreating us in his own image ‘in true righteousness and holiness’ (2:10, 15; 4:24). Thus according to Paul’s teaching the new man and the new society are God’s creative work. Economic restructuring has great importance, but it cannot produce these things. They are beyond the capacity of human power and ingenuity. They depend on the fiat of the divine Creator.