Seek The Things That Are Above audio (4MB)
Paul has just finished telling the Colossians to stay away from those who want to tie them down to human rules and regulations. He says these rules are of no use to you in controlling your human desires. He says “Why would you want to subject yourself to human regulations when Christ has died to set you free?”
But does that mean that you can forget about how you behave. No, it doesn’t mean that there are no longer any constraints on us. That’s the mistake that so many people make when they find themselves liberated from what was perhaps significant bondage. It’s what we saw with the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s. Sexual liberation led to sexual licence, removing all moral boundaries. Women’s liberation led to women seeking to dominate men the way they’d always felt dominated. Even in the political arena you see examples like Zimbabwe where the liberation of the native population has led to retaliation by the new government out of all proportion to what was suffered. No, liberation doesn’t mean licence. Some of the rules and regulations those people at Colossae had set up may have been a good thing. It was just that the way they were being applied negated the truth of the gospel.
So what we need to think about is how are we to live out the freedom of the gospel while at the same time ensuring that our behaviour doesn’t put the gospel to shame.
Well the solution isn’t to set up a list of rules to keep us in line. As he said at the end of Ch2: “23These [rules] have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.” It’s no use sticking a list of rules for the day on your bathroom mirror to remind you how to live. That’ll last about as long as it takes you to walk out the door.
No. Something more powerful is needed.
What’s needed is
A complete change of mind.
You know, the mind is a powerful organ. All sorts of experiments have been run to see what impact the mind has on the way the body behaves. If a doctor gives you a prescription but says he’s not sure this will help, you’re much less likely to get better. But if he tells you confidently that this will fix you up in a few days that’s exactly what’s likely to happen. From another point of view, people’s whole lives can be changed by some traumatic experience they have and until they sort it out in their mind they might never recover.
But here Paul is talking about far more than just the power of positive thinking or psychological counseling. He’s talking about a total change of mind. He says it twice in the first 2 verses: “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.” He wants us to have our minds so focused on the things that are above, on heavenly things, that our minds are actually changed. You know that old phrase: “So heavenly minded he’s no earthly use.” Well Paul wants us to be so heavenly minded that we become totally useful to God. He wants our minds to be transformed so that we react the way Jesus would have reacted, so that the thoughts we have are automatically godly thoughts. He wants our minds to be such that we don’t have to think about how to behave or speak, we just do it the right way intuitively.
But to help us do that he gives us some pointers. He begins by reminding us of our present legal status. He says: “you have died.” Your legal status is now “Dead.” There is no you any more.
A New You
But then again, there is, but it’s a new you. “Your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” We have a new identity that’s integrally connected with Jesus Christ. And it’s a spiritual identity whose centre, whose location is with Christ in God. Christianity is not one of the world’s great religions. You see, it’s not a religion at all. Despite what people have tried to make it, it has no earthly sanctuary, it doesn’t depend on regulations or hierarchies or religious rites. It has no essential centre of authority in this world because its centre is Jesus Christ, who's seated at the right hand of God the Father. What’s more Christianity isn’t an exercise in internal spirituality or mysticism or even spiritual enthusiasm like the religions our world is familiar with. No, the Christian is simply someone who has been brought into a relationship with Jesus Christ, seated at God’s right hand. This is our present reality, even if we’re still waiting for it’s final fulfilment.
So if our existence is hidden with Christ in heaven how could we continue to live the way everyone else on earth behaves? Notice that our morality arises from who we are. It doesn’t determine who we are.
Our task is to build on that relationship with Christ by concentrating on the things that are above where Christ is, so that we’re prepared for the day when we go to be there with him forever: “4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
So focusing our minds on the things above is the place to start, but most of us need something more that that. So he uses two metaphors to help us focus. First he says if you’ve died with Christ, died to the old life, then why not put the things of that old life to death. Live in the reality of who you now are.
He points to three areas of human sinfulness: sexual impurity, sins to do with money and wealth and sins to do with our use of the tongue.
No Sexual impurity
He says: “5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire.” It’s only a short list but it sums up all the vices that our modern world seems to rejoice in. Sexual liberation has become sexual licence and anyone who dares to criticise is called a prude or something worse.
It’s not easy to overcome the temptation to go with the flow, to do what everyone else is doing, to see no problem in people enjoying the sexual freedom that the 60’s won for us.
Some of you might even find yourself in the situation where the temptation to sexual impurity is very strong. In such a situation the harshness of Paul’s expression becomes reasonable doesn’t it? He doesn’t say repress it, or deny it, or try your best to overcome it. What does he say? He says “Kill it!” “Put it to death!” No half measures. Do away with it for good. [And how do we put it to death? Well one way is to starve it. Get rid of those things that feed your desires. Be careful what you watch, where you go on the Internet, who you mix with, the sort of television you watch, how you dress, how you behave when you're out on a date.]
But notice that it isn’t just sexual impurity that he’s worried about. He also says to put to death your greed. Christians sometimes focus too much on sex and forget the other great vice of our age - greed. There was an article in the paper this week about the amount of money being paid to the top executives in our major banks - despite the poor performance of their companies over the past year or so. Big companies have always worked on the principle that greed is good so why shouldn’t their bosses follow suit? But it’s not just them. Most people are motivated by greed. But Paul says put it to death as well. Why? Because greed is idolatry. Jesus said you can't serve both God and possessions. If desire for more things is your failing be careful, because that desire for things may be getting in the road of your desire for God.
Watch The Tongue
And for those who are not affected by sexual temptation or even greed he adds the final killer list. This time it’s the sins of the tongue: “8But now you must get rid of all such things -- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” If you’re one who’s prone to go off at the mouth whenever you’re cross, get rid of it. If you’re prone to gossip, especially the sort that puts other people down, cut it out! And if you tend to use lies or half-truths or deception, stop doing it. Your life is hidden with Christ who is the truth. How can you use lies when you live in Christ?
Put on the new self
But we don’t want to be too negative do we, so Paul adds the positive in his second metaphor. He says you’ve stripped off the old self - like an old set of clothes - and have clothed yourself with the new self - and what a new self it is! Your new self, the new you, is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. There’s a new creation coming into being in you. A new creation that’s being remade the way God first intended us to be: made in his own image.
Again your mind is involved. You’re being renewed in knowledge. The result is that the way we see others is changed. There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free. No more cultural stereotypes, no more economic or educational barriers, no more class distinctions. He might have added as he did in Galatians 3, no more male/female distinctions. Now Christ is all and in all! Notice by the way that expression. Some of us may be a bit confused with that expression "our lives are hidden in Christ." But look at it this way. Our lives are hidden in Christ because Christ's life is hidden in us. God has given us his Holy Spirit to live within us, to bring about the transformation we've been talking about today. Our new life comes about because Christ's life is planted within us by his Holy Spirit. So Christ is all and in all.
And if that’s true, if now you’ve put on Christ, if you’re being remade in the image of God then you'd better start behaving like it, you’d better start showing the family likeness. “12As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
It’s a similar list to the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 6 isn’t it? It could also be a description of the character of Jesus Christ: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Wouldn’t the world be a different place if we all showed these characteristics. And notice how these positive behaviours are a counter to the things he told us to kill off. Compassion rather that wrath, kindness rather that anger, humility rather than malice, meekness and patience rather than slander and abusive language.
And on top of it all he calls for that which binds all these graces together: “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
The Peace of Christ
And if you want all of this to work then change what rules your heart and mind. He says “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” Peace is the gift of God and the calling of the Christian. We’re all raised to life in Christ and that means that we’re all bound together into an indissoluble unity. There may be a thousand different Christian denominations around the world but there’s only one body of Christ. So let that peace that comes from that unity rule in your heart.
Let God’s word dwell in you richly.
If we're to set our minds on things that are above then God's word is vital. That's where we'll learn what God wants of us. It's as we immerse ourselves in God's word that we begin to take on his character. It's as we interact with one another around God's word, as we teach and admonish one another in all wisdom that we begin to change. It's as we sing God’s words to each other that we’re reminded of the great things that God has done and are encouraged to give thanks.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. If we have our minds centred in Christ, focussed on the things that please God, then we won't need a rule book. We won't need a set of regulations. We won't need to be taught the right way to worship God. If our minds are filled with God's word, if God's word dwells in us the way our lives are hidden with Christ then we'll do things that please God automatically, without the need of laws. It'll come naturally, instinctively.