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“Living in Light of What is Real” --- Colossians 3:1-7


In his letter to the believers at Colosse, Paul addressed false teaching that was influencing at least some of the members of that fellowship. In regard to that false teaching there is some debate about the nature of the heresy than had infiltrated the Colossian church. Some have suggested that it was Gnosticism. That is very unlikely in light of the fact that Paul’s response to the heresy indicates it involved Jewish ceremonies. Perhaps an even more serious problem with the view is that historically the Gnostic movement did not really come into being until the second century. Others have proposed that the problem was Jewish mysticism. However Paul’s response does not really suit that conclusion either. Yet another view is that the heresy was the teaching of the Judaizers. These false teachers were a group of Jews who professed Christ, yet maintained that salvation also required that the individual be obedient to the Mosaic Law. This option is unlikely as well because Paul does not include a single quotation of the OT in this letter (and a response to errant Jewish Christians would most definitely included such quotations). In addition, Paul does not directly address the role of the Law of Moses nor any misunderstandings regarding circumcision (both of which were the primary concerns of the Judaizers).

Therefore the best conclusion is that this was a heresy that was not that of an organized movement, but something which had sprung up in the fellowship itself as the result of deviant beliefs from members of the church who were trying to win others over to their point of view. The key falsehood that Paul is addressing in this portion of the letter is the idea that through extreme self-discipline and adherence to strict rules of conduct one can be free from sin. Paul will make the point that this approach is at odds with the truth of the Gospel. God revealed through the Gospel that to be free from sin one must be given a change of heart and gain a fundamental change regarding one’s perspective on life. It is to the nature of that perspective, and the choice that flows from it that Paul now turns.

I. The Right Perspective: (vs.1-4)

To understand Paul’s point in these verses, it is necessary to first understand some of the language that Paul uses in this passage. The Bible does not seek to explain the metaphysical realities that surround us in modern scientific terms. Instead, the Bible uses simpler ideas to convey very complicated concepts. One aspect of this is that the Bible presents reality as being split into two distinct spheres of existence. The first is the material creation that has succumbed to the Fall; the environment into which human being are born. The material creation is said to be what is below, and the human race is understood to be in rebellion to God and the entire planet is under the curse of God because of that rebellion. Though the Bible affirms that God is everywhere, it also teaches that He dwells above us somewhere, and His dwelling place is the other sphere of existence. That is also where the angels dwell and where everything exists in harmony with the moral will of God. Paul adds to this in several of his letters that when the believer is converted there is a change in his or her existence. The believer is not only defined by the realm below, but also by realities in the realm above. It is in that second realm where dramatic changes have taken place in who and what the believer is:

  • “even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”
  • --- Ephesians 2:5-6

    In the passage above Paul explains that the believer was not only raised from the dead with Christ to new life, he or she also ascended with Christ to sit together with Him beside God’s heavenly throne. Clearly no living believer is literally sitting in heaven right now; so what does Paul mean? Paul is using the language of these two spheres of existence and saying that that when a person is saved they become a part of the realm of God, and in that realm certain things become true of them that are not experienced at this time in the material creation. This conception of two spheres of existence relates to the division of those spiritual realities that are unseen from those physical realities that can be seen. We are further informed that the unseen realm of spiritual things is even more real than the physical realm we can see. We are told that eventually the realities that exist in heaven above with God will be joined to the physical world below. When this happens everything in the material realm will be made to conform to the realities of the realm above. In this passage Paul writes to encourage his readers to live in light of the unseen realities that are above that ultimately determine what is true and good.

    Paul opens the passage by writing:

  • “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.”
  • --- Colossians 3:1-3

    The word “if” does not imply that there is any doubt about whether these Christians have been raised with Christ; instead it is used to introduce a premise upon which a conclusion is drawn. The premise is that these believers were in fact raised with Christ, and the conclusion is that in light of having been raised they should seek those things that are above.

    In chapter two Paul had reminded his readers that when they came to faith they died in Christ, and were given a new life in Him. Therefore when Paul opens this passage by writing that these believers were “raised with Christ” he is referring to having a new life because of their union with Jesus Christ. Paul explained that this new life is to be characterized by seeking those things that are above. The Greek word translated as “seek” means to pursue something in order to obtain or possess it. In this case what the believer is to seek to obtain is an orientation to heavenly realities. Since this verb is in the present tense it implies that this seeking is to be ongoing and ceaseless throughout our lives until we arrive in heaven. But why does Paul mention Christ’s enthronement in referring to the things above? It is because the Colossian heresy contained an interest in supernatural beings that were believed to have power and influence over the world. This interest in supernatural beings led Paul to write the following things earlier in this letter:

  • “He (Christ) has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (1:13)
  • “For by Him (Christ) all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.” (1:16-17)
  • “For in Him (Christ) dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.” (2:9-10)
  • “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He (Christ) made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” (2:15)
  • “Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind” (2:18)
  • The “power of darkness”, and the “principalities and powers” refers to the gods that these people used to worship. Their previous worship included participation in magic and occultism. Therefore unknowingly these believers had worshipped demons that pretended to have ultimate power over what happens in this world. Their past made them susceptible to the teaching that they should venerate angels because of their power. In light of this teaching among the Colossians, Paul reminds these believers throughout this letter that Christ has been made the true sovereign over all creation and has subjugated the demonic host. This was done to reinforce the truth that Christ is the real power in the universe, and that He is the one to whom everyone must answer in regard to the sort of life they lead, and the only one who determines the future. So one of the first truisms to embrace in regard to a heavenly perspective on life is the majesty and authority that Jesus Christ has over everything so that we will live to serve Him and not worry about appeasing anyone or anything else. Only then can our lives be what God wants them to be.

    Paul elaborated further on this new perspective in verse two by admonishing his readers to “set your mind on things above, not on the things on the earth”. Setting one’s mind on something means to direct one’s focus or attention on it. The focus of the believer’s thought life is to be on heavenly rather than earthly things.

    Paul was not saying that the believer is to despise the pleasant things of the world. In fact Paul directly refuted the idea that true godliness involves the legalistic commands “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle” (2:21). Even more importantly, Paul is not referring to general indulgence in earthly pleasures at all. Paul was warning his readers to distance themselves from the falsehoods of an earthbound religion (a way of describing the Colossian heresy). The Colossian believers were being taught the false notion that engaging in ceremonies, rituals, and self-denial led to godliness. However, all of these things kept one rooted in earthly experiences. The truth is radically different. The true worship that God calls us to engage in involves a focus on knowing, loving, and devoting ourselves to God. Earthly ceremonies and ethical admonitions are not ends in themselves, but are the means by which we can distance ourselves from what is wicked and instead draw near to God. Holiness is necessary because it is the environment in which we can have unrestricted fellowship with God. But God did not create us merely to be holy in an abstract sense. He created us to be holy because He wanted to relate to us as our loving heavenly Father throughout eternity. Paul exhorts his readers to build their theology and lifestyle around heavenly realities rather than those centered in life on planet earth with the intent that God’s goal for us might be realized. To have a religion that orients us to earthly concerns is to lead the worshipper away from God and the life Christ came to provide for us. To focus on spiritual things is to prepare us for the life to come, a life that to a degree, can be experienced in the present.

    Next, Paul went on to write, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (vs.3). The death that Paul refers to is a death to what we were in our previous life under the Fall. It was a life that was defined by the realities, appetites and priorities of living in the physical world with little or no thought to God. For the believer, that person is dead, and we are alive to an entirely new orientation to life. Paul says that life is “hidden with Christ in God”. But in what way is the Christian’s life “hidden”? It is hidden in the sense that there is much about our new life that neither we nor the world around us can see. The apostle John expressed the same idea:

  • “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” --- I John 3:2-3
  • John was saying that we are children of God right now, but we do not look any different from anyone else. Our existence is the same as unbelievers as far as we can detect with our senses. However, beyond what our sense can detect a change has taken place. Paul then is making the point that we are not to live a life defined merely by earthly realities because there is so much more to our lives than what can be seen on earth. We are immortal, we are holy, we are in relationship with the Almighty who is now our Father; therefore we already possess a glorious existence even though we cannot experience it fully just yet. In the meantime (until we can experience it fully) we are to live in light of what is hidden from view, but has been made known through God’s revelation. When Paul added that this hidden life is “with Christ in God”, he was saying that our lives have their source in the Father and it is mediated to us through the Son.

    Paul then concludes his instruction regarding the perspective that Christians should have on life by writing, “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (vs.4). The “appearance” that Paul has in mind here is Christ’s Second Coming. When Christ comes again the true life of believers will be fully disclosed. Our appearance will be in “glory”. The word “glory” is commonly used as an adjective to refer to something that is wonderful or magnificent; something worthy of adulation or praise. The idea here is that at the coming of Christ the spiritual realities of our life will no longer be hidden, but will be fully seen in all of its glorious splendor. That is the moment of vindication of the believer’s faith and the realization of the Christian hope.

    II. The Right Choice: (vs.5-7)

    In light of having a perspective on the Christian life that is rooted in these unseen spiritual truths, these believers are now exhorted to make the choice to live in light of these truths. Paul writes, “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (vs.5). It may seem odd that Paul, having just written that his readers had “died” (vs.3), would now exhort his reader to put a part of themselves to death. Paul’s rationale for giving this instruction is the same that he had when he wrote something similar to the believers at Rome:

  • “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection,…Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  • --- Romans 6:3-5, 11

    In both passages Paul is exhorting his readers to make a choice on the basis of a theological truth. The theological truth is that everyone who places genuine faith in Christ as their Savior is united to Christ in His death and resurrection. Therefore from conversion onward the believer in reality is no longer under the dominion of indwelling sin or controlled by the weakness of the flesh. Once someone becomes a Christian they are alive to God; meaning that because of their new awareness of spiritual truth and their new natures the believer can choose to live in a godly way. However, the Christian must choose to continue to believe in that reality. If a Christian continues to choose to see life from the perspective of an unbeliever, he will act like one, but if the believer chooses to believe in the capacity that God provides to be holy, then the believer will actually be dead to sin’s dominion in experience and not just as a birthright. So Paul admonishes his readers to consider their members to be dead to sin and fleshly indulgence.

    But what are the members that are to be put to death? Some suggest it is the list of sins at the end of the verse. However, that is not the case. First, of all, Paul uses the Greek term translated as “members” many times, and always uses it to refer to parts of a body or a part of a family (Rom.6:13, 19; 7:5, 23; 12:4-5; I Cor.6:15; 12:12, 18, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27; Eph.2:19; 4:25; 5:30) and never uses it elsewhere to refer to behaviors or to the sins a person commits. Second, the metaphor is consistently used to refer to stopping one’s inclination to sin, not putting an end to the individual sins themselves. The tie to the sins is that such things can become so much of what a person is that it can define them (or at least a part of them). This is reflected in a modern figure of speech; “don’t give me any more of your lip!” One who says this is not referring to the lip itself, but to the defiant things one might say with their lips. Therefore Paul is telling his readers to count themselves dead to sin so that the various parts of their body will not become involved with evil things. In regard to those evil things, the first four that are listed are: “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire”. All of these are different ways of referring to sexual immorality. The last sin listed is “covetousness” (which is similar to greed). To covet is to have an unrestrained desire for something that for one reason or another is something that cannot be legitimately pursued. It is the root sin of all others and it is why it is the 10th commandment. All other sins begin with wanting something forbidden so much that one is willing to sin to get it. Sex and coveting were sins that characterized the ancient fallen world, and now characterize the modern fallen world. Coveting is said to be equivalent to idolatry because in the end coveting exists because one is more devoted to one’s self than to God and anything that displaces God as the ultimate object of our devotion is an idol.

    Paul then writes, “because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience” (vs.6). “These things” refers to the list of sins in verse five. The reference to the wrath of God is most likely eschatological (in light of the reference to the return of Christ in verse four), and therefore refers to the wrath that will be expressed when Christ returns in glory. Paul says that the wrath of God is coming upon the “sons of disobedience”. This designation refers to those who are characterized by defiance of the Law of God. So when He returns Christ will punish the reprobate for their involvement in the very sins listed here that are expressions of their defiance to God. But why does Paul mention this here? Is this intended as a threat that Christians who sin too much will face punishment? That cannot be Paul’s meaning because elsewhere in the New Testament it is stressed that the Christian will never face condemnation or punishment for sin (Rom.8:1; 28-39). Is Paul suggesting that this will be the fate of those who do not persevere in faith and obedience and thus were never Christians at all? This is at times what Paul teaches, but this meaning does not fit Paul’s flow of thought in this passage. Instead, what Paul is doing is drawing a contrast between who these believers are in Christ, and the lifestyle that he is exhorting them to avoid. A lifestyle characterized by sexual immorality and unrestrained greed is the sort of life that invites the wrath of God and eternal damnation. That sort of lifestyle then is precisely the opposite of the sort of life God wishes for His children. In a sense Paul is asking why would those who possess the riches of eternal life and fellowship with God ever be interested in living a lifestyle of rebellion that antagonizes God? The answer is that such a lifestyle truly has no appeal to the believer if they are keeping in their minds who they are and what they have received in Christ.

    In verse seven Paul concludes this passage by writing “in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them”. The pronouns “which” and “them” both refer to the vice list in verse five. In other words Paul reminds his readers that those sins defined their former lives, not their present lives. This observation reinforces the call for these believers to consider themselves to be new creatures in Christ (II Cor.5:17); to understand that their body is dead to sin, and that the life they have been reborn to live is one in harmony with the holiness of God (I Pet.1:15-16).


    In the closing verses of the second chapter of this letter, Paul wrote:

  • “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations — ‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using — according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
  • --- (vs.20-23)

    Paul’s point in these verses is that religious rules and personal discipline are not enough to restrain sin and the lusts of the flesh. It will always fail. One might succeed in keeping certain specific rules, but it does not deal with the sin that is within the human heart. The core idea of the New Covenant is that God recreates our hearts so that we have a new inclination toward righteousness. That means our true selves no longer want to sin; therefore now it is possible to defeat sin in our lives. Not by lots of rules, but by substituting virtuous aspirations and a godly focus for the carnal appetites and worldly perspective that once defined us.

    This explains why faith is so fundamental to being a Christian. Because the more we believe the Gospel, the more we will be empowered to make the choice to live in a godly manner.

    So the choice before the Christian is always to live by what God has revealed to be true, and refuse to build one’s life on the lies of this fallen world.

    In the Bonds of Christ,

    Pastor Michael

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