Seeking the Things Above

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Rooted in Christ: Paul's Letter to the Colossians

Date: March 3, 2019

Speaker: Jeff Breeding

Series: Rooted in Christ: Paul's Letter to the Colossians

Scripture: Colossians 3:1–3:4

Seeking the Things Above

There is an insightful scene from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that captures the heart of our passage this morning. The scene involves a character called Mr. Muck-Rake, and as is the case with all of Bunyan’s characters, the name tells this man’s story. Mr. Muck-Rake lives in a dusty old room, where he spends of all his time raking up straw and sticks off the dirty floor. That alone is a rather sad way to live, but Mr. Muck-Rake’s condition is actually worse than what it first appears. You see, suspended above Mr. Muck-Rake’s head is a glorious, glistening crown. All Mr. Muck-Rake has to do is exchange his rake for the crown, and everything will change. Instead of sticks and straw, Mr. Muck-Rake will have life and light and joy.

But Mr. Muck-Rake never makes that exchange. He keeps on raking in the muck and mire of that dusty old room. Why, we’re intended to ask? The answer is Bunyan’s insight into our passage. Mr. Muck-Rake is content with the sticks and straw because he only ever looks downward. He never looks up – he never looks heavenward, to use Bunyan’s language. And as a result, Mr. Muck-Rake misses the glory that would both redefine and redirect his life. That is Mr. Muck-Rake’s failure. His mind is set on the things of this world, and therefore, he lives only for those things.

That need for an upward or heavenly perspective that we see in Mr. Muck-Rake – that need is Paul’s focus here in Colossians 3. For the last several paragraphs, Paul has warned the Colossians against the schemes of the false teachers. He has urged them to be vigilant against man-made ideas and earthly regulations that would lead them away from Christ. But as we enter chapter 3, Paul shifts from warning to exhortation. He shifts from the negative to the positive, and that positive exhortation calls the Colossians to live for things above, to look upward, so to speak. You see, it’s that contrast between earthly things and heavenly things that drives this passage. For all their boastful claims of spirituality, the false teachers were actually living for earthly things. And that’s what Paul exhorts the Colossians to avoid. Don’t be like Mr. Muck-Rake, with your mind set on earthly things. Look up, and remember that you’ve been raised with Christ. You’ve been transferred to his heavenly kingdom, so live today for the truth that already defines who you are in Christ.

If we had to sum up this passage in one sentence, this is what I would say. You can think of this as the roadmap for the rest of the sermon. Here it is – Because of our union with Christ, Christians should pursue a heavenly mindset that reveals their secure identity and their confident hope. Let me say that again. Because of our union with Christ, Christians should pursue a heavenly mindset that reveals their secure identity and their confident hope. Now, clearly that is a loaded summary, so let’s take it piece by piece focusing on the Christian’s Pursuit, Identity, and Hope. We start in vv1-2 with the Christian’s Pursuit.

 

The Christian’s pursuit

You can see right away that Paul’s aim is to encourage the Colossians to pursue a life that is oriented toward Christ. Notice that both v1 and v2 contain commands. V1 says, “Seek the things above,” and v2 says, “set your mind on things above.” Clearly, Paul wants the Colossians to raise their eyes upward and pursue a life that is oriented toward Christ.

But if we jump straight to that pursuit, then we miss something essential to Paul’s teaching. Note carefully how v1 begins not with the command, but with a reminder. V1 – “If then you have been raised with Christ.” Now, Paul is not questioning the Colossians’ salvation. He spent a good bit of time in chapter 2 reminding them that they have, in fact, been raised with Christ. Ch2, v12 – they were buried with Christ in baptism, in which they were also raised with Christ through faith in the powerful working of God. When Paul says, “If you’ve been raised with Christ,” he’s not questioning the Colossians.

Instead, he’s urging them to remember the truth that already defines them. You see, the “if” in v1 is like a wake-up call. It grabs the Colossians’ attention, and it forces them to remember what’s true. And that’s where we have to start. This is key to understanding and applying this text. The Colossians should seek the things above not in an effort to raise themselves up. No, they should seek the things above because they have been raised with Christ.

Brothers and sisters, we’re going to talk a lot about spiritual growth in this sermon – how it’s necessary, how it happens, what it means. But from the start, I want to be clear on this point. As Christians, we pursue the things of God because God has already pursued us in Christ. May we never forget this. For the Christian, the entirety of the Christian life is a response to what God has done in Christ. We seek, we strive, we pursue – all because God has first pursued us by his grace.

Now, with that gospel reminder firmly in view, we’re ready for Paul’s command. Again, Paul writes in v1, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above.” That command to seek has to do with the desires of the heart, what the old Puritans used to call our affections. As Christians, our desire should be for the things above. Our hearts should be turned toward the values and interests of God’s kingdom. And our lives, then, should be oriented toward pursuing those heavenly realities.

Do you remember in Matthew 6, when Jesus teaches his disciples that they should not worry about food and clothing? If God clothes the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, how much more will he provide for you, Jesus asks? But do you remember what else Jesus says there in Matthew 6? He gives essentially the same command we find here in Colossians 3 – “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” You see, Paul is following on from the Lord Jesus. He urges them to seek first the things above, to have their desires oriented toward the kingdom of Christ.

But Paul goes on in the next phrase to define what those things are. This is so helpful. Paul does not leave us with some vague notion of heavenly things. No, he clearly defines for us what these things are. Notice what he writes, again v1 – “seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right of God.” You see, the center of heavenly attention is the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. People will often say, “I wonder what heaven is like.” Here is your answer. Heaven is a theater of glory, and there at center stage is the Risen Christ. Having finished his work of redemption, Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father, where he has received all authority in heaven and on earth. And from that heavenly throne, he holds all things together by the word of his power. He sustains his people as the Head of the body, the church. He nourishes his people as the source of their life. And he receives the praise of all creatures, since the Father has triumphed the powers and principalities of this age in him. Do you hear the emphasis, brothers and sisters? The things above are not streets of gold or lavish mansion. No, the things above are nothing less than the glorious person and work of Jesus Christ. Our interest should be his glory, for he is the one who is seated at God’s right hand.

It’s a good question to regularly ask ourselves, brothers and sisters. What is it that drives the desires of my heart? What am I living for, aiming at, striving after? Is it only earthly things, material things, self-oriented things? Or am I seeking after the Lord Jesus – seeking to grow in my knowledge of him, my trust in him, my obedience to him, my proclamation of him, and my commitment to him in his body, the church? It is so easy, isn’t it, even as a Christian to put something other than Christ at the center of my pursuit? And that’s why this exhortation from the apostle Paul is so important and necessary. If we’ve been raised with Christ, then let us also seek the things above, where Christ is.

Even so, we’re faced with a question at this point. Let’s say that we recognize our need to grow in seeking the things above. I know that was certainly my response as I studied this week. I often lose sight of the things above, and I very easily drift into seeking earthly things. And perhaps you can relate to that this morning, so let’s say we recognize our need to grow. Where do we start? How can we grow in seeking the things above?

Notice Paul’s command in v2. It sounds similar, but there is a world of wisdom here that can help us. V2, Paul writes, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” If the first command had to do with the desires of the heart, then the command here in v2 has to do with the orientation of our will. It’s not simply what we think about, but is more the sense of what occupies our attention that then leads to action.

I want you to notice the connection Paul is drawing between these two commands – seek and set. Again, they sound similar but there is a connection that is foundational. To put it simply, you will seek what your mind is set on. If your mind is set on earthly things, then you will seek after earthly things. But if your mind is set on things above, then you will seek those things above, where Christ is. Do you see the connection? This is actually a repeated emphasis of the apostle Paul’s ministry – the way a person thinks is closely connected with the way he or she lives. The most well known expression of this truth is Romans 12 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” How do we avoid being conformed to this world? By having our minds renewed in the knowledge of Christ. You will seek what your mind is set on.

We come back again to one of those questions that is good to regularly ask ourselves – What am I setting my mind on? What receives the lion-share of my attention – earthly things, or the things above, where Christ is? And let me remind you that sometimes these earthly things are not necessarily sinful or wrong. Paul is not saying everything earthly is bad. He’s not opposed to the material world. Rather, Paul’s point is that earthly things were never meant to be ultimate things. It might be something good, in and of itself, that we mistakenly elevate to an ultimate position – career, family, ministry, personal fulfillment. Those are good things, but if they become the focus of our minds, then we’ll spend all of our time seeking after them and lose sight of Christ. What is my mind set on? Whatever the answer is – that is what you will seek after.

But I hope you also see how this opens up the pathway for growth. If we want to grow in seeking the things of Christ, where do we start? With the renewal of our minds, by setting on mind on things above. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying – it is never a waste of time to grow in the knowledge of Christ. It is never a waste of time to study, meditate on, think about, discuss, and delight in the things of God. And this passage tells us why that’s true. It’s because having our minds renewed invariably leads to having our lives changed. Set your mind on things above, and by God’s grace, you’ll find that his Word, applied by his Spirit, empowers you to seek the things above as well.

 

The Christian’s identity

That’s the first part of our roadmap to this text. Because of our union with Christ, Christians should pursue a heavenly mindset. Let’s consider now the second piece of our summary – the Christian’s Identity. In v3, Paul provides the foundation for these commands. Why should Christians set their minds on things above? V3 – “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Again, we see that union with Christ is really the heart of Paul’s ministry to the Colossians. Remember, union with Christ describes that vital connection between the Lord Jesus and the believer. It means that Christ is in his people, his people are in him, and he, therefore, provides all that they need for life and godliness. It’s a profound biblical reality, and it is essential for Paul’s ministry to the Colossians. The reason the Colossians should resist the false teachers is because they are already complete in Jesus Christ. They are in Christ, he is in them, and therefore, there is no need for earthly rules and regulations. Christ and Christ alone is enough.

But even as we’ve seen this truth before, v3 does highlight, in a unique way, two specific applications of union with Christ. The first is the idea of victory. Notice that very stark statement that begins the verse – “For you have died,” Paul says. Now, clearly, Paul is not speaking about physical death, since the Colossians are very much still alive. Rather, Paul’s point has to do with victory over sin and death. When the Lord Jesus died at the cross, he did so in order to crush the power of death forever. By taking on death only to rise again, Christ proved, once and for all, that sin would not have the final word for God’s people. Death would not win. You see, that was the paradoxical glory of the cross – the moment that appeared to be Christ’s defeat was actually his victory. By enduring death, Jesus crushed death forever.

And since believers are in Christ, they participate, by faith, in Christ’s victory. Sin and death will have no hold on those who belong to Christ. In Christ, believers have died to the things of this world, so why would we still live for the things of this world? Do you see Paul’s application? The false teachers want the Colossians to follow earthly regulations in hopes of finding victory over sin. But Paul says, “You don’t need those regulations, for you have already died with Christ. His victory is your victory.”

Brothers and sisters, do you believe that this morning? If you are a Christian today – if you are repenting of your sins and trusting in Christ alone to save you – then you can be assured that Christ has already accomplished the victory you need. His victory is your victory. Sin will not have the final word in your life. Even death will not be the end. You have died with Christ in his death, which means that you will live with Christ in his resurrection. His victory is your victory.

And listen, brothers and sisters, that should change the way we think about spiritual growth. That should change the way we pursue the things above. We’re not trying to attain victory through our own effort. Rather, we’re striving to live out the victory Christ has already won. So whatever specific struggle I face at this moment as a believer, I can face it with confidence, trusting that God will finish his work in me because I am united to Christ.

And that confidence, brothers and sisters, keeps us going. Christ’s victory becomes the very strength we need to continue walking by faith, striving after holiness, and standing on God’s Word. When Paul says in v3, “For you have died,” he’s reminding us of the victory believers have through union with Christ.

The second application of union with Christ flows from this victory, and it focuses on the idea of security. Notice the rest of v3 – “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” You can hear the emphasis on resurrection, on new life with Christ. You have died, Paul says, but now you are alive with Christ. His death was your victory, and his resurrection is now your life. But what about that word hidden? What does it mean that the believer’s life is hidden with Christ? The idea is to keep something secure so that it cannot be lost. If a thief breaks into a home, the things that are well hidden are secure. They won’t be taken; they’re safe. And so it is with the believer’s life with Christ. It cannot be lost. Christ himself is the security. He guards those who belong to him, so that no one can steal away their life.

You see, this is why Paul reminded us in v1 that Christ is seated at the right hand of God. It was to encourage us with the reality of Christ’s absolute authority. He reigns over everything, with unrivaled power. And that is why it’s good news that the believer’s life is hidden with Christ. Christ himself will keep his people secure. He will not lose a single one.

And so, I want you to see the incredible bond there is in v3 between the believer, Christ, and God the Father. This is the nearly unthinkable application of union with Christ. Think of the bond between Christ and God the Father. Can that bond ever be broken? No, absolutely not. The Father delights in his Son, and the Son delights in his Father. They are bound to one another in eternal fellowship and love. They cannot be parted from one another. Now, think of the bond between the believer and Christ. Where is our life, brothers and sisters? It is hidden with Christ in God. The believer’s life is bound up with Christ, and that means the bond between God the Father and his Son is now shared with those who belong to Christ. As sure as the Father loves his Son, so also will the Father love those who are in his Son by faith. They will not be lost, for the Father and the Son will never be parted from one another. It is the love of God for his Son that defines and secures God’s people forever. Dear Christian, the next time you are tempted to doubt the Father’s care for you, think of his Son. Think of how deeply the Father loves his Son, and then remember the reality of the gospel – that very same love has been given to you in Christ.

Brothers and sisters, these are the unspeakable riches of who we are in Christ. This is our identity in the Lord Jesus. We are victorious through his death, and we are secure in his Sonship. And so, let me ask you the question of this letter – why would you look anywhere else for life? Seek the things above.

 

The Christian’s hope

As we come to v4, we’ve considered the Christian’s Pursuit, and we’ve seen the Christian’s Identity. That leaves the final piece of our roadmap to this text – the Christian’s Hope. Notice again v4, where Paul continues to expound the believer’s union with Christ, but he does so now with a focus on the last day. Notice the first phrase of v4 – “When Christ who is your life appears.” Again, we find Paul singing that same note. By faith, believers are united to Christ, and that union is so deep that Paul can say Christ is your life. It’s not merely that believers live in Christ, which is gloriously true; it’s also that Christ is their very life. In him, we live and move and have our being. Christ is the source of the believer’s life, the aim of life, the guarantee of life, and the foundation of life. That’s how deep this union goes. Paul can say that Christ is your life.

But it’s actually the return of Christ that receives Paul’s focus here in v4. “When Christ…appears, Paul says. The idea is one of revelation. There is a day coming when the entire world will see the glory that believers now behold by faith. There is a day coming when there will be no question as to who is Supreme. There is a day coming when every person will recognize that it has been Christ and Christ alone sustaining not only the universe but their lives as well. That day is coming, and for the Christian, that day is as certain as the sun rising. Notice that Paul says When here in v4. He doesn’t say If but When. You see, this is the controlling reality in the NT – Christ is alive, and he is returning again. Whatever else we might experience and do in this world, it must be understood in light of this truth – that the Risen Christ is coming again.

But Paul presses this a bit further at the end of the verse. He connects the return of Christ with the final glory of the believer. Notice again what he says – “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Again, we see the unbreakable bond that exists between the believer and the Lord Jesus. For Christians, we have died with Christ, we have been raised with Christ, and we will be glorified with Christ. It is that sharing of glory that Paul emphasizes here. Christ’s return will be the consummation of his work to redeem God’s people and deliver them into God’s kingdom. That alone is an incredible thought, but Paul says more. Not only will Christ be glorified on that final day, but his people will share in his glory with him. When he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is. The church will see Christ in glory, and in seeing that glory, we will share in it by God’s grace.

And so, there is no need to look anywhere else for life and godliness. That is Paul’s point to the Colossians. You don’t need what the false teachers are selling. You don’t need their earthly ideas and man-made regulations. Your future, your destiny even, is glory with Christ. When Christ returns, those who are in him by faith will share in his glory.

This, then, is the great hope of the church, the great hope of every believer. Since we are united to Christ in a bond that cannot be broken, we can live each day with the certain hope of glory. Illness, sin, heartache, suffering, despair, loss, uncertainty – the Christian will face all of those things in this life, and they will be challenging, even painful in many ways. And yet, the hope of the gospel is that none of those things will win. Or, better yet, none of those things will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is the Christian’s Hope.

We’ve put all the pieces together in this powerful passage – pursuit, identity, hope. Because of our union with Christ, Christians should pursue a heavenly mindset that reveals their secure identity and their confident hope. The gospel frees us, brothers and sisters, to seek the things above – not because we’re looking for hope but because we have a hope that cannot be shaken. You see, that shift in perspective can make all the difference when it comes to living the Christian life. It’s the shift that Mr. Muck-Rake in Pilgrim’s Progress never made. He lived in the muck and mire because his mind was set on earthly things.

But by God’s grace, that is not true of Christ’s people. God has delivered his children from such a sad, dreary existence, and he has raised them up in Christ, even uniting them to his Son by faith. In response, brothers and sisters, may we lift up our eyes to see the glory of union with Christ, and may we set our minds on him, for the glory of his name and for the good of our souls. Amen.