The Life in Christ – Choosing Things Above Colossians 3:1-17

Introduction

Good morning everyone. It is good to see you all this morning, and I am honored to be bringing the Word of God to you this morning. The passage we are going to look at today is Colossians 3:1-7. Before we get into the passage, I want to start with an illustration. One of my favorite stories is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. My favorite character in that tale is Sam Gamgee. When the story starts, Sam is a timid servant of the hero, Frodo. As the tale unfolds, Sam is changed. He grows from a bumbling servant to the real hero of the story. He becomes a Hobbit that preservers and faces the darkest evil, carrying his beloved friend Frodo when all appears to be lost. Even more, he is the only one who can reject the ring, something even Frodo could not do. At the end of the story, after the forces of evil have been vanquished, Sam and company returns to the Shire and finds the evil Saruman and his cohort Wormtongue have taken over and enslaved the hobbits. However, Sam is no longer a timid servant; he is a warrior. He is a Hobbit of the world. He can face evil with his friends and drive it out of the shire. In every respect, he is a new Hobbit. His character has been ultimately changed so that the old life he once knew is passed. Like Sam, when we come to faith, we leave past lives behind. No longer do we strive for things of our old life, but we seek things of our new lives, things of a higher order. This concept is what Paul will address in our passage today.

As a little background, Paul wrote this letter to the believers in Colossae while he was in prison, somewhere around 60-62 C.E. Colossae was a smaller town along a trade route whose residents were Greek although there were some Jews. Paul, as far as we know, never visited Colossae, but in Acts 19:8-10 we see Paul sending a fellow who was probably Epaphras mentioned in Colossians 1:7, to the region. The backdrop of this letter is a town that was financially well off, steeped in Greek culture and had a smattering of Jewish influence.[1]

            Paul wrote this letter not just to send greetings, but to address a specific heresy that was popular in the region. Although we don’t know the particulars of this heresy, in Colossians 2, there is a good indication it was a legalist form of pagan traditionalism. The heresy de-emphasized the divinity of Jesus.[2] What is interesting is that the Colossians did not appear to have fallen into this heresy, but Paul was concerned none the less.

            Paul starts his letter quite warmly with greetings and even what appears to be an early hymn in chapter 1. An interesting comparison is with the letter to the church in Galatia. Paul greets the Galatians very coldly, and it is very apparent that he is extra cranky with those folks. The Galatians had fallen headlong into the legalistic Judaistic form of the faith whereas the Colossians appeared to have held firm. This background brings us to chapter 3 of the letter and Paul is going to encourage this church in an extrodinary and, I believe, practical way.

Focusing on Things Above

            So, let’s start with a reading of the passage. Please open your Bibles to Colossians 3:1-17. I will be reading from the NIV version now, but as I quote scriptures throughout the sermon, I will be using the CSB version.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature:  sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:1-17 NIV)    

There are several things in the passage for us to consider, but let’s start with the first two verses: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (vss. 1-2 CSB). Paul is now assuming that since the Colossians have entered a new life – “raised with Christ” he is now directing them to seek and set their minds on things above. Two important notes I want to point out here.

            First, the words “seek” and “set your minds” indicate a sense of choice. Paul is telling the Colossians that because they are believers, they need to choose to focus on the things above. The word choice is important because when we use words to direct someone to “seek” or “set their minds” on something, we are asking them to choose an action. For instance, when my kids were younger and wondering what they wanted to do in their lives, I would tell them to seek out what they love to do and set their minds on that thing they love to do. Once they received that advice from me, it was up to them to do that. They had to choose to do it. So, it is with Paul and the Colossians. He is directing them to choose “things above” – their goal.

      However, secondly, we need to define what Paul means by “things above.”  In the next two verses, Paul states: “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (vss. 3-4 CSB) Paul is reminding the Colossians that they have been risen with Christ and need to seek things from above. There is a strong encouragement for the Colossians to change their mindset so that they are focusing on “things above.” However, what exactly does this phrase mean?

            The heresies from chapter 2 might have some heavenly minded aspects involving the Roman / Greek gods. However, those anthropomorphic deities are a far cry from what Paul is referring to. Paul is referring to the Judeo / Christian God who is eternal. First Paul reminds the Colossians that they have died to their old selves. The language recalls thought of baptism, where one dies to the old self under the water and is raised again to the new self. It is also like Philippians 1:21 and Galatians 3:20. In both of those passages, Paul speaks of present death and future glory. The language of death and resurrection is then coupled with the eschatological promise of “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (vs. 4). As Barclay notes, this the language of the “already and the not yet.”[3]

            N.T. Wright finds three focal points form this passage:

  1. Christ’s people have already risen with Him
  2. There is an appeal to an activity of the mind and the will
  3. The object of that activity[4]

The object of that activity is Jesus. Therefore, the idea of “things above” is something that is here, but not fully here. It is seeking the things of Christ who has ascended. However, it is also setting the mind to the present life that has been dedicated to Christ. It takes an act of the will, but “things above” are what are available now and what is yet to come. This setting of the mind on things above is concentrating on who Jesus was, is, and is to be.

(ask congregation for thoughts on “things above”)

The consequences of living the “old life”

      The passage now turns to one of Paul’s sin lists.

Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, God’s wrath is coming upon the disobedient, and you once walked in these things when you were living in them. But now, put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another… (vss. 5 – 9a CSB).

In Paul’s letters, he presents several sin lists. For example, in Roams 1:26-32, provides a sin list that is like the one in Colossians 3. While it might prove interesting to compare all the sin, what would eventually be uncovered are lists of behaviors. These behaviors are symptoms of those either living a life pleasing to God or a life that is antithetical to Jesus’ example.

However, to focus on the behaviors misses the point. The sin lists are an indication of the old life. In Romans, the list is an outcome from wrong worship – idolatry. In Colossians, the list is a result of the “old life.”  Again, Wright states: “Though it may not always feel like it, those who have joined the family of Christ have become different people. They have ‘taken off’ the old solidarity, the old humanity, like a shabby set of clothes.”[5] It is tempting to focus on the individual sins and virtues – and to be sure they are important. However, they are symptoms of the life lived in Christ or a life lived outside of Christ. When a Christ follower falls into sin, it is because they have engaged with their old way of living; something has gone awry in their worship. Jesus has been supplanted by something else (lust, greed, fear, etc.) and it is a natural course that sin will follow.

This includes everybody

            In the second part of verse 9 through verse 11, we see a fascinating transition:

…since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (vss. 9b – 11 NIV).

Paul is hitting on a theme that comes through in many of his letters, and that is the unity of the Body of Christ. Again, going back to his letter to the Galatians he states:

For those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:27-29 CSB)

In his other letters, he talks about this unity with different emphases, but in this letter, he is demonstrating how, since we are now believers in Jesus and have entered a new life, the message he is delivering is the same for all. There is no class system in the Body of Christ. One can be a pastor with many followers and with amazing teaching but living a life that is of the “old nature.” Similarly, one can be a janitor and be living a life that is seeking the “things above.”

            The point Paul is making is important because we tend to make celebrity status a virtue. The more famous a Christian is, well then, the more virtuous they must be. The scandals that have rocked the church (don’t just think about televangelists and pedophile priests, think about medieval popes and corrupt religious orders – this has been going on since the inception of the Church) affect everyone regardless of class. However, the good news is that those who are focusing, choosing the “things above” know no class as well. Anyone who has committed their lives to Christ can now live lives of virtue and sanctification.

(ask congregation for thoughts on the equality of the body of Christ)

The Life that is set on and seeking things above

            Now we turn to the list of virtues of a life lived seeking “things above.”

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Vss. 12-16 CSB)

When a Christ follower is living in the new life in Christ, focusing on the “things above,” then the virtues naturally follow. Moreover, according to vs. 14, the virtue of love will be predominant.

            I want to compare this to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In 5:22-26 Paul states:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Gal. 5:22-26 CSB)

Similar, no? Paul is demonstrating that our lives are not only new, but our old lives are dead. They have been crucified with Jesus. Again, it is not the list of virtues that are the focal point, although they are important. No, what is essential is that the Christ follower is choosing to live a life seeking the “Things above” and the virtues of a life lived in that way will be demonstrated in a life of virtue. Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Ephesians:

[P]ut off  your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on  the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24 NIV)

Further, Ravi Zacharias writes:

The truth is, we need a Savior, every one of us, whatever our past, whatever our present. We need a God who not only changes what we do but what we want to do. Scripture declares that we are “made new in the attitude of [our] minds… created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” What a hope and a promise![6]

To that, I say, amen, and amen!

Conclusion

Finally, let’s read the final section of the passage. Paul states:

“And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17 CSB)

            Everything we do, when we choose to seek the things above, we do in the name of Jesus. If we do things – whether it be a ministry, work, family, school, really anything – that is outside of the name of Jesus, then we are not seeking the higher things, but living in our old life. All of life is worship. All that we do is for Jesus. When we do these things in the name of our Savior, then we will see the fruit of our new life bloom. We will be able to persevere through hard times, like Sam Gamgee. However, if we do these things outside of Jesus, then we are in trouble because the things will ultimately lead to idolatry and then sin. Allow me to finish with this illustration from another of my favorite books.

            Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, centers around two characters, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. The story begins with Valjean released from prison. He is a miserable wreck of a man whose life has been completely ruined by his imprisonment. He is taken in by a priest and is shown kindness. However, this kindness is repaid with Valjean robbing and assaulting the priest. Valjean is caught with the items he stole and is returned to the priest for identification. The priest, as an act of grace and mercy, indicates that Valjean was given the items and states that Valjean forgot two candlesticks. This act of grace and mercy changes Valjean for the rest of his life. He goes on to become mayor of a small town and has opportunities to show integrity as well as compassion throughout the story.

Contrasting Valjean is the Police Inspector Javert. Javert is dedicated, passionately, religiously, to the law. In his life, there is no room for grace or mercy. The law is the law and injustice must always be punished. Javert is the enemy of Valjean because he does not see Valjean as reformed or forgiven; all he can see is Valjean’s guilt. This view is challenged when Valjean, in the act of selfless mercy, saves Javert’s life. Javert ultimately does not know how to rationalize this selflessness and ends his life instead of breaking with his notion of law and justice.

Here’s the point, when we are living a new life in Christ, we leave our old lives behind. All the sins of our lives come when we revert to our dead way of living. Jean Valjean was able to live his new life and leave his old life behind. Because he saw himself as a new creation, he was able to live a selfless and noble life. When we live in our identity as forgiven children of God, we live lives of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and most importantly, forgiveness. Valjean learned this life form a priest who provided for him more than just candlesticks. The priest offered him a new life. Valjean had to choose to stay in the old life or accept the things from above with a new life. When we live lives like Inspector Javert, where there is no forgiveness and no mercy, we are subject to the sin of our old lives.

            As we head into a time of ministry and prayer, if you are struggling with your old life, pull someone aside and have them pray for you. Ben, Janelle, Mike, Karl, and Lindsay or anyone else. Please don’t take this with you, get with someone and leave it here. Get some prayer and know that the Holy Spirit is working in you now to root the old life so that He can fill you with things from above. If you are not a Christ follower, then I invite you also to see one of the folks I just mentioned. Today, this minute, Jesus is speaking to your heart. He is inviting you into a life in which you can leave the old behind and see a new life He has for you. There is nothing in your life that is too big for God. There is no sin too big that Jesus can’t forgive. There is no pain to big for Jesus to heal. Things above await you; all you need to do is accept the gift God has waiting for you.

            Let’s pray.


[1] Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians – Philemon, Vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 266.

[2] Ibid, 267-68.

[3] William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 147-48.

[4] N. T. Wright, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon, Vol.12 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 135.

[5] Ibid, 142.

[6] Ravi Zacharias, The Logic of God: 52 Christian Essentials for the Heart and Mind, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 47.

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