Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed; anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language and lying. No, this isn’t the plot of a Netflix series; nor is it a description of an average day’s viewing on TV; nor a summary of the night’s news headlines from Parliament House. Rather it’s a description of Colossae in the first century. Here was a place where the constraints on human behaviour appear to have been removed. People simply did what they liked. Free love, plenty of passion but focused in the wrong direction, greed and lust, desire running free, tempers unchecked, abuse, physical and verbal violence. You couldn’t trust anyone, because lying was a normal way of life. Factionalism and partisanship were also normal. So if you were Greek, you looked down on the Jew, or the barbarian or the Scythian. If you were a Jew you looked down on those who were Gentiles. He doesn’t mention it here, but no doubt if you were a man you looked down on women. If you were a woman and were free, at least you could look down on those who were slaves.
Sadly it could also be a description of much of the world today. We don’t seem to have progressed much in 2000 years do we?
This was a place where the grace of God wasn’t apparent. In fact the opposite: it was a place that God wasn’t happy about. He says: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” But that had all changed when the gospel came. Now things were different. He says, “These are the things you did when you were living that old life, but now a change is needed.” They need to begin to exhibit the sort of behaviour that befits those who are followers of Christ.
But how are they going to do that? How are they going to overcome the habits of a lifetime? How do you go about making changes in your life? Here are a couple of ways people try. The more strong minded among us probably say, “You just resolve to do it and then get on with it!” It’s what many people do on New Year’s Eve: “I resolve to eat less chocolate.” “I resolve to stop kicking the dog.” “I resolve to listen calmly and reasonably to my teenage son or daughter and never lose my temper.” Or if you’re the teenager it’ll be “I resolve to listen calmly and reasonably to my parents and never lose my temper.”
But of course we all know what happens don’t we? Someone arrives the next day with a late Christmas present and what is it? A box of expensive Belgian chocolates! Or your teenage son or daughter go out to a New Year’s Eve party and don’t get home until 3 in the morning when you’d said they had to be home by 1. You know the sort of thing I mean. So why is it so hard to keep those resolutions? Well, partly I think, it’s because the things our resolutions are aimed at are actually the bad habits we’ve developed. And the trouble with bad habits is that we do them habitually. That is, we hardly even think about them. We just do them because we’ve always done them. So our resolve to change only lasts as long as our short term memory. That’s about 5 minutes for some of us. No, we need something stronger than just looking back on our bad habits and regretting them if we’re going to make significant changes to our lives.
Well, what about a new set of rules for daily living? Maybe that would help us. Not just New Year’s resolutions, but guidelines for Christian purity. A list we could put up on our fridge to remind us how to live. Well, we looked at that a bit last week, didn’t we? There were in Colossae, in fact, people who had set up a whole range of rules: don’t handle; don’t taste; don’t touch. But what was Paul’s conclusion about those rules? They have an appearance of wisdom, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Just like a new year’s resolution, rules for living won’t help. The sorts of vices and passions Paul lists will re-emerge in the end. No matter how much they restrain them they’ll eventually bubble to the surface. So looking back to their bad habits won’t help, setting up rules and guidelines won’t help. So what can we do to bring about the changes needed to be like Christ?
The only thing that’ll bring about the sort of radical change we need is the power of God, the same power that raised Christ from the dead. And that’s what Paul points them to in vs 1-4. He says “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
Notice the great statements Paul makes here about the Christian.
First, you have been raised with Christ. The ‘if’, by the way, isn’t posing a question. Rather it’s the given, what’s known, and what follows is the natural implication of that truth. So, if you’ve been raised with Christ, what’s the natural implication of that fact? It’s that you’ll have your mind focused on things above where Christ is, where you are spiritually, rather than on earthly things. Paul wants the Colossians to look back, not to their old habits, but to Christ’s death and resurrection, and then to look up, to where Christ is, seated at God’s right hand. He wants them to be firmly focused on the power of God which raised Christ from the dead. He wants them to be looking to Christ in whom all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. He wants them to look to Christ who is the head of the body, the church, and who is supreme over everything. Why? Because their existence is no longer tied up with earthly things, but with God.
Here’s the second great statement: v3, “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The spiritual reality, in which we now exist, is that our life is intimately tied up with the life of Christ. Christ is in us and we are in Christ, so our life, our true existence, is tied to the life of Christ.
Thirdly, v4, “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” Your current existence may not feel like it’s with God. You may be feeling the opposite in fact. You may feel like you’re going through a living hell at the moment. But even if that’s how you feel right now, the truth is that if you’re a follower of Christ, if you’ve taken that step of faith, of handing your life over to him, then he’s taken your life and has it in safe hands. And when the day comes when he’s revealed in all his glory, then we too will be revealed with him in glory. If you haven’t taken that step then here is the great incentive for becoming a follower of Christ: the promise of being raised with Christ in glory on that great day in the future when Christ returns.
So they’re to look back to Christ’s death and resurrection, they’re to look up to Christ, seated at God’s right hand, and they’re to look forward to Christ’s return when all who are his will be raised to glory with him. It’s simple really: Paul wants them to make sure that Christ is central. He’s the source of their life, the preserver of their life and he’s their destiny.
But how does that help us change our lifestyle? How would that help the Colossians get rid of the sort of behaviour he lists? C.S. Lewis once wrote about the difficulty that people often have with very strong desires that lead them into sin. And he says that we imagine that all we need is weaker desires so we can overcome them. But no, he says, what we really need is stronger desires centred on God. You see if we desired God most of all, above everything else, then these other desires wouldn’t control us. In Paul’s language, if we set our minds on things above, not on things that are on earth, then these things wouldn’t control us. This is a call, do you see, for passion, but passion focused on the right things. That is, focused on Christ and all he’s done for us. If your mind is focused on Christ, think how that will affect your behaviour. If you’re always aware of being present with God, what will that do to the way you react to people, or the way you speak, or the way you approach your work? And when you find the going tough, what difference will it make that you’re aware of Christ’s presence with you? Won’t it make you more ready to call on his help, on his power to change your life, or on his strength to persevere? You see, the gospel that Paul is talking about isn’t just a gospel of external forgiveness. It isn’t just about having your sins wiped out. No, it’s also about the power of God to change us. It’s about the power of God to take our old habits and reform them. It’s about the same power that raised Christ from the dead and that will in the end raise us from the dead.
So be passionate about the right things. Be passionate about the truth. Be passionate about Christ and what he’s done for you. Be passionate about what he promises to do for you.
And what will be the practical outworking of such passion? It won’t just be that we’ll rid ourselves of all these vices. That would never suffice would it? I mean you can imagine the sort of person who’s given up all those things but that’s all they’ve done. They’re the ultimate bore. They’ve given up anger and malice and impurity and lust, but they’ve put nothing in their place. They have nothing to say, nothing to do. No, there’s a much more positive side to what Paul is saying: That is, v12, that we’ll clothe ourselves with a whole new way of living: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We’ll bear with one another. We’ll forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven us.
If the previous lists were like the script of a B-grade movie, this is like a description of heaven. This is what it’s like to be in the presence of God. This is what will happen if our minds are set on things above where Christ is. And the more we do these things, the less we’ll do the others. Rather than losing our temper in rage when someone does something stupid, or lets us down again, we’ll show compassion; we’ll bear with them; we’ll forgive them; we’ll be patient with them. Rather than lying, or slandering, or showing malice, we’ll act with humility and meekness; we’ll show love. The sort of love that is, that Christ showed, who died for us even while we were still sinners. It’s love, he says, that’s the key.
“Over all of these, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” The sort of love this is talking about is different from what we usually think of as love. What we usually think of is a response to something that pleases us about someone. Possibly their looks, but more commonly how they make us feel. Loved, important, significant, heard, useful. Mostly the sort of love we show has a good degree of self-interest involved. But the sort of love Christ showed had no self-interest involved. It was love for the unlovely, love for those who were totally opposed to him. That’s the sort of love that will bind everything together in perfect harmony, because if there’s no self-interest involved there’ll be no arguing or fighting to cause division.
Notice though that Paul doesn’t leave it there. He knows how hard this is. So he says, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Now he isn’t talking here about that sense of peace you have when you’ve made the right decision. That’s how some of us have been taught to understand this passage in the past. No, he’s talking here about the life of the congregation. We’re called to peace as members of a single body. So let Christ rule you and his rule will be a rule of peace in the Church. Notice that it’s Christ’s peace. If we try to do this by ourselves, the chances are that we’ll fail. If that should happen we mustn’t be discouraged. Rather we should ask Christ to give us his peace. It’s Christ’s power that matters in all of this. That’s why Paul reminds them in v12 that they’re God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. We are who we are, because God has chosen us and placed his love on us and set us apart. And it’s God’s power that will enable us to change.
This will be made more likely as we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly; as we teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and as we thankfully sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Why? Because the word of God and the power of God are so closely linked. Each one of us is asked to apply the word of God to our lives in order to encourage and to admonish one another. What is the aim of such encouragement and admonishing? It’s to bring us all to maturity in Christ. It’s to focus each one of us on Christ. It’s to bring about lives that show the sorts of characteristics that Paul lists. It’s to generate an atmosphere in which the peace of Christ can rule in our collective hearts.
Finally be thankful. Notice how the idea of giving thanks is repeated in the last few verses: “be thankful,” “with gratitude in your hearts,” “giving thanks to God the Father.” Failing to thank God is the sin of paganism. Thankfulness is the opposite of dissatisfaction. The false teachers in Colossae were working on the dissatisfaction some people were feeling at their spiritual experience. But Paul says, be thankful. Recognise the full extent of the treasure you have in Jesus Christ your Lord. And of course the beauty or the wisdom of this is that the more we give thanks the more we experience the greatness of God’s love for us. And the more we experience God’s love for us, the closer we’re drawn to others and the more we’re willing to share God’s love with others.
So how are we going to change to be like Christ? Not by sheer willpower, not by sets of rules for Christian living, but by having minds that are set on things that are above where Christ is, seated at God’s right hand; by taking seriously our status of having died and been raised with Christ; by looking forward to the day when we’ll be raised with Christ in glory; by putting on a new set of clothes, a new way of living and relating; and by appropriating the power of God to bring about a change in our lives that we’re powerless to make by ourselves.
Let’s pray that God would take us and change us to be more like him as we set our minds on Christ, as we let Christ’s peace rule in our hearts, as we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly and as we respond to his goodness to us with gratitude in our hearts.