On Sunday mornings we have slowly been making our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. Our teaching theme, you may remember, this year is “Rooted” – learning to live from our union with Christ. And you will perhaps, at least I hope, have begun to see that’s actually a pretty good summary of the central concern of the letter of Paul to the Colossians. He wants us to learn to live from our union with Jesus Christ. And this morning we’ve come to a part of the letter, it’s sort of a pivotal part of the letter, the first half has largely, though not exclusively, been concerned with doctrinal considerations – explaining union with Christ, correcting some doctrinal errors. And now, beginning in the portion we’re looking at today and really running through the end of the chapter, while there continues to be doctrinal concerns Paul is moving into a more practical application of the truths he has been teaching and the errors he has been correcting. And so we’re going to be focusing from here on out on some questions of practical Christian living. That’s the burden of the second half of the letter. So if you would please, if you haven’t done so already, take a Bible in hand and turn to Colossians chapter 2, beginning in verse 20, running through chapter 3 verse 4; page 984 if you’re using one of our church Bibles.
Generally speaking – I wonder if you’ve found this in your own reading of Scripture – generally speaking, the chapter divisions are useful in helping us locate our place but every now and again you will find them to be most unhelpful because they insert a division into the text where no division really belongs. And that’s certainly the case here. The end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3 belong together. Chapter 2 verse 20, “If with Christ you died” – chapter 3 verse 1, “If, then, you have been raised with Christ.” Do you see the connection of thought? There’s the theme – union with Christ in His death and in His resurrection – and these two parts, the beginning of chapter 3, the end of chapter 2, they belong together and we’ll consider them together in just a moment.
Before we do, it is worth our while asking, “What’s the problem that Paul is responding to in the portion of Scripture before us? What’s going on in Colossae that Paul is concerned about?” If you look down at chapter 2 verse 23 for a moment you’ll see the problem clearly. Chapter 2 verse 23 – the strategy for Christian living, that at least some of the members at Colossae had developed, Paul says that, chapter 2 verse 23, is of no value “in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” That’s the problem. Apparently, there are at least some of them that want to stop the indulgence of the flesh. They want to grow in holiness and obedience to God. They are fighting with the remaining corruption that they still find in their regenerated hearts. But the problem is, their strategy for stopping the indulgence of the flesh doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. It keeps failing them.
Well, where have they gone wrong? How can they begin to make progress in this whole question of Christian obedience at last? Those are vital questions, and if you have been a Christian for any length of time they are questions you will have asked yourself when you find the strategies you have been using to make progress just don't seem to work. "Where am I going wrong? How can I make progress at last?" That is very much the focus of these two portions of Colossians and we are going to see both the mistakes they are making and Paul's corrective in just a few moments. Before we turn to the passage, let's pause and turn back to God in prayer and ask for His help. Let's pray together.
O Lord, we confess that the means by which Christ applies to us the benefits of His mediation are all His ordinances, especially the Word, the sacraments and prayer. And the reading, and especially the preaching of the Word, are Your instruments for our nurture and our growth in grace. And so now we pray that by the work and power of the Holy Spirit, the reading and preaching of the Word may be given force and power to change our hearts, to deliver us from bankrupt strategies that not only don’t help us but wound us as we seek to live for Your glory, and enable us to begin to live in a manner that is well-pleasing in Your sight. For we ask it all in Jesus’ holy name, amen.
Colossians 2 at the twentieth verse. This is the Word of God:
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have 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.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
If you had been in Beaufort County, South Carolina in the first two weeks of this year, you might have stopped at a gas station in Port Royal to fill up your car before you made the long journey back to Jackson, Mississippi. And if you had, it’s quite likely you would not have gotten very far once you pulled out of the gas station because apparently, when the gas station took delivery of more fuel for the pumps that week, a mixup saw the fuel truck delivering diesel to the premium and mid-grade gasoline fuel tanks. And so customers who filled their tanks with what they thought was gas, soon found out the hard way why it’s bad news to put diesel in your gas engine.
The Colossians have been trying to propel obedience to God with the wrong fuel and they were just not making any progress. Like with diesel in a gas engine, their strategy for stopping the indulgence of the flesh didn't work. Some of us wonder, don't we, why we've not had more success in killing sin, in resisting its power, in obeying the Lord. Well, it may be that we have been pumping spiritual diesel into our gas tanks all along. Now I'm not a mechanic, but mechanics will tell you that if you do put diesel in your car and you realize it before you've turned the ignition you need to drain the fuel tank immediately before you do real damage to the engine. Apparently, diesel is thicker than gas and it will clog up the – nevermind! Nevermind! I don't really know what I'm talking about so let's not even go there! But don't do it is the point! It's bad news! And if you realize you've done it, you've got to drain the fuel tank. You've got to get rid of the diesel.
And Paul actually does that in chapter 2:20-23. He addresses the problem first. He looks at the wrong fuel they’ve been trying to power obedience with in 20 through 23 if you’ll look there with me. Notice first that he starts with the simple fact of the believer’s union with Christ. You see that in verse 20? “If with Christ you died” – so this is the most basic fact about a Christian. When you believe the Gospel for yourself, you are connected to, you are united to Jesus Christ in His death and in His resurrection. “In him,” Paul says, “in his death we died.” And as chapter 3 verse 1 is going to say, “in his resurrection we have been raised to a new life.” And we’ve seen Paul, if you’ve been with us as we’ve walked through Colossians together, make that point over and over again in different ways throughout the book. He says in chapter 1 verse 14 that we have redemption “in him, the forgiveness of sins.” In chapter 1:22, we are reconciled “in his body of flesh by his death.” In chapter 2 verse 1, “we received Christ Jesus the Lord and must walk in him, rooted and built up in him.” Chapter 2 verse 10, we are “filled in him.” Chapter 2 verse 11, we are circumcised “in him with a circumcision made without hands.” Chapter 2 verse 13, “we are dead in sin but made alive together with Christ.” To be a Christian is to be “in Christ.” Every spiritual blessing we enjoy or can enjoy comes to us only by virtue of our union with Jesus Christ in whom all these blessings are hidden and reside. And so if we are Christians, Paul says we died with Christ.
Died to Demonic Powers
But look at verse 20 specifically. We died to “the elemental spirits of the world.” You see that phrase in verse 20 of chapter 2? These are demonic powers that lurk back of the false teaching that had begun to infiltrate the Colossian churches. Paul has already mentioned them back in verse 8. He’s mentioned them again in slightly different terms in verse 15. And his point is, false teaching isn’t simply wrong-headed. It’s not just an unfortunate miscalculation as though Christian doctrine were a math problem and we’d just gotten our sums wrong. False teaching is a part of a satanic strategy to paralyze our progress in holiness. Satan and his servants want to ruin your witness. They want to undermine your faithfulness and stunt your growth and leave you defeated and disillusioned and disappointed.
And notice the specific mistake at Colossae. It’s a mistake that I suspect those of us who have been Christians for a while, for any length of time really, are tempted to make often enough as we work to make progress in holiness in a life that pleases God. Verses 20 and 21, the Colossians were “submitting to regulations – do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” – referring to things that all perish as they are used. So the false teaching, this satanic error that has crept into the church, has to do with the idea that “If I just get the rules down right, in fact, if I can make the rules extra narrow, extra strict, if I can really turn the screws on a very narrow vision of what it means to live for Jesus, then, then I’ll be able to avoid sin altogether.” They were adopting all sorts of rules and codes of conduct over and above the commands of God and His moral law that were designed to try to prevent them and keep them on the straight and narrow. They were looking for prescriptions for every aspect of behavior thinking that if they could be exhaustive enough, strict enough, they could steer clear of sin.
But what is it that they're missing? Why will that not work? Well, it won't work, what they don't understand is, it won't work because holiness does not begin in behavior. It's revealed in behavior. It blossoms in behavior. But the root of the matter is not behavioral. It's a matter of the heart, of your inner self. Holiness works from the inside out and the Colossians are trying to work from the outside in. That strategy of outside-in change, that's how the world thinks. That's what the world thinks Christianity is. Right? A list of dos and don'ts, of mere behaviors, of rules to keep and rituals to perform, a set of practices which, if you do them, promises you a whole new you.
But do you see Paul’s critique of that approach to the Christian life, that merely surface behavioral approach to the Christian life? In verses 22 and 23 he says two things. First, these sorts of approaches are, he says, “according to human precepts and teachings.” Mere behavior modification is not God’s method of sanctification. Now hear me carefully there. Mere behavior modification, true holiness always requires the modification of our behavior, but it doesn’t originate there. It doesn’t start there. Holiness does not consist only in the implementation of strategies designed to break bad habits while the heart is unchanged. That’s the world’s way, not God’s way. This is human precepts and teaching, not God’s strategy for the renovation of our lives. And after all, that’s all the world could ever hope to do. Right? It can only deal with externals and behaviors. It can’t touch the heart. The Gospel changes the heart. So first, Paul says this is not God’s strategy. It’s according to human precepts and teachings.
Appearance of Wisdom
The second part of his critique is that this has the appearance of wisdom. So he’s willing to admit this is attractive. It has some draw, some pull to it. We are drawn toward it. Oftentimes, actually, when we find ourselves stumbling and falling into sin and our consciences sting and accuse us and shame overwhelms us, “How come I’m back here again? I thought I’d put this behind me. How is it possible I’m back here again? I’m so ashamed!” That’s the moment when we’re most in danger, when shame stings most acutely, of giving in to a merely behavioral strategy, for looking for three easy steps so I never do that again. And not actually recognizing that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. We need the strategies for behavioral change to be sure, but if that’s where your focus lies, you will always be doomed to failure. In fact, worse than that, when you stumble and fall even after implementing the merely external behavior modification strategies that you have developed, your shame will be so much worse, your guilt so much more crushing.
Actually, it's been my experience as a pastor, that the most narrow, the most judgmental, the sourest, harshest, most legalistic Christian, the one most inclined to adopt all sorts of external rules in addition to God's law to stop them from sinning are often the very ones hiding the worst patterns of besetting sin and secret shame in their own lives. I've just found it to be a general rule of thumb that the harsher and more restrictive the prescription and the nastier and judgmental the person, the deeper the guilt and the more pernicious the sin that's festering still away all unseen in their private lives. Legalists are almost always antinomians in secret. Legalists are almost always persistent, habitual lawbreakers in secret. That's why they're legalists in public; they're overcompensating. I don't know if he actually said this, if it originated with him, but I've heard it attributed to William Still – you've heard me quote it before. William Still was the pastor of Gilcomston South Parish Church of Scotland in Aberdeen, Scotland. He said that "There are some Christians who look like they've been baptized in vinegar." You know the type? They come across as really serious about their faith, they are paragons, you know, of orthodoxy and virtue, but boy are they sour and sharp and unforgiving.
Real holiness, real sanctification is never of the vinegary variety. It is sweet and humble and attractive, never harsh and acidic. That’s the world’s approach to religion and you died to that, Colossians, when you were united to Christ. Why are you still submitting to regulations like this? It’s just a baptism of vinegar. It will make you sour and rob you of joy and it won’t deliver in the end. It has no value of stopping the indulgence of the flesh. You’ve not realized that the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.
The Fuel for New Obedience
But Paul doesn’t leave it there. Does he? He doesn’t simply drain the tank and then leave them without the fuel for new obedience. Look at chapter 3, verses 1 through 4. He wants us to understand the dynamics that power true obedience to the moral law of God – a life that’s pleasing to Him. That’s chapter 3 verses 1 through 4. If we died with Christ, we died, he says, to the worldly strategy of mere behavior modification. But now, chapter 3 verse 1, what does it mean if we’ve been raised with Christ? Is progress in holiness merely a passive thing? So not behavior modification. If you’re just in Jesus and you’re full of wonder in what He has done, the holiness just sort of appears organically without effort in your life. Is that right?
Will Towards Obedience
Look at what Paul says in verse 1. Actually, in the remainder of the book, Paul is going to explain the implications of having been raised with Christ in the new life and what it means to walk in new obedience. That really is the focus of the whole of the rest of the book. Here, he's just giving us some preliminary principles that we need to have in place before the rest of what he has to teach us will make sense. But if you look at verse 1, he tells us what it is we must do. How do we fill the tank so that obedience can be propelled forward in our lives? "If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." Clearly we're not passive. Right? The will is engaged. We are seeking and pursuing. There is work to be done. God doesn't simply zap holiness into the life of a Christian. You must engage your will and resolve towards obedience. "Seek the things that are above."
If we are united to Christ, Paul says, who is seated on the throne of glory – King of kings and Lord of lords – the life over which He reigns, the life of a citizen in His kingdom is the life we are to pursue. It’s the life he describes in the remainder of the chapter. We are to seek it, to love what He loves not so that we don’t stumble and fall, so that we don’t have to feel ashamed of ourselves anymore. That’s not our motive. What are we doing when we do that? On what is our mind fixed? That’s what Paul tells us to do in verse 2. “Set your minds on things that are above.” On what is your mind fixed when you want change so that you don’t have to feel ashamed anymore? The terminus of that approach to Christian obedience is still yourself. Paul says, “No, look. Fix your mind on Christ, on the One on the throne, on a life that will bring a smile to your Savior’s face. Make His glory your heart’s desire.” And then, then you begin to see that holiness is about honoring Him, serving Him, because you trust Him in the wake of all that He has done – how He has given Himself for you. How could you not gladly give your all for Him? And holiness like that touches the heart. It changes the deep structures of our motivation. We’re not the focal point of it at all. He is. Set your mind on things above. Seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
It’s the inside-out principle, you see. Verses 20 through 23 of chapter 2, Paul talks about the outside-in approach of the Colossian false teachers, mere behavior modification. But now, Paul begins to talk about the inside-out approach of true holiness that starts with the heart, starts with the mind, starts with the will and the appetites and the affections. He says, “Fix them on Jesus. Learn to train your appetite to delight in more of Jesus. Let Him be the fuel, let Him be the fuel that empowers your obedience.” so that you could sing with Watts, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small! Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.” What would I not give for the One who has given all for me? Seeing what He’s done, seeing who He is, seeing how glorious and how gracious He is – the One on the throne who is my Elder Brother, my conquering King, my Savior, my Rescuer, my Redeemer. He’s mine and I am His. Why wouldn’t I live for His glory. It changes the motives of the heart. Set your mind on things above where Christ is. Seek the things above where Christ is.
And Paul presses on the question of motivation still further if you look at verses 3 and 4. Verses 3 and 4. First, he deals with the present, then he deals with the future. The present first in verse 3. Here's what we already enjoy. He says, "Just take a little glimpse again. Remind yourself again of the blessings that are yours. See the wonder of it. It will fuel your desire to honor your Savior in a life that is well-pleasing in His sight." Verse 3 – what is it that we enjoy? He says, "You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God." What does that mean? I don't know! It's extraordinary! Isn't it? You died and your life is hidden with Christ in God! I'm not sure we can understand that. I think we can enjoy it. We can experience and know it. There's a mystery here. We are in some way already with Christ in God. He is our refuge, our new environment, our true home. Our life is bound up with Jesus in God. We have this extraordinary communion and fellowship with the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit, right now.
Which makes me ask this question – Who, seeing what we enjoy already here by the grace of God, who wouldn’t want to be a Christian? Look at the glories available to you. Your life is hidden with Christ in God, right now. Jonathan Edwards once preached a sermon entitled “The Presentness of Religion.” Essentially he’s saying the Christian life is the happiest life to live. There are joys none but Zion’s children can ever know. So even if there was nothing else beyond this life, following Jesus would still be infinitely worth it. He said, “It is worthwhile being a Christian if for only the pleasantness of it.” There’s joy here. But of course there is more. There is more to come. There’s exquisite fellowship with the living God available to you here. Who would not want that? And he’s reminding us of it to sort of light the spark that will ignite the fuel that will propel obedience to move us to say, “I want nothing so much as to please my Jesus, to bring glory to Abba Father, to honor Him from the inside out.”
Glories to Come
But there’s more. Isn’t there? Verse 4 – not just glories here but glories to come. Verse 4, “When Christ, who is your life appears, you also will appear with him in glory.” Your life is already in Christ, He is your life, when He comes back in glory you will appear in glory along with Him. What’s hidden here will be hidden no longer. The glory of the age to come that you glimpse and taste here will shine from you one day very soon like the sun coming up after a long night. So you get Paul’s point. Live here like you were destined to live there forever. Live here as a citizen of another country, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Live here as though you were destined to inherit the glory that is to come. When Christ who is your life appears, His glory will radiate from yours with a dazzling brilliance as you are transformed at last and every remaining remnant of your native corruption will be eradicated from you forever and you will be like Him. You will see Him as He is. What a day that will be. What here and now while we wait, Paul says that we should strive and labor as citizens who stand to inherit the glory yet to come. To fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, that we may run our own races with perseverance until the finish line at last is crossed and we go to be with Him or He comes to take us home, whichever comes first.
Brothers and sisters, please don’t let guilt and shame drive you to yet more and more restrictive narrow rules that God has not prescribed. They just don’t work. They have the appearance of wisdom, to be sure, but they are powerless, of no value, to stop the indulgence of the flesh. In fact, they will rob you of your joy and they will leave you defeated and ashamed when you fail to keep them as you inevitably will at some point and you will end up looking like a person baptized in vinegar, not someone who reflects the joy of knowing the living God in His Son, Jesus Christ. No, we are to set our minds on things above, on a life that reflects the reign of Jesus’ heavenly throne. Pursue the things above, because you died and your life is hidden away with Christ in God. That’s where your life is rooted now. And one day your destiny will shine from your glorified humanity with the reflected brilliance of the character of Christ Himself. Set your minds on that day. Long for that day. Live as though that day was your destiny. It is. So show the world that you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
We need to resist the temptation, don’t we, to turn inward, to confuse growing holiness with the treatment of shame by means of behavior modification. They’re not the same thing. We need to learn instead to look away from ourselves to Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of God. To fix our eyes on Jesus. To make Him our delight, our desire, make His glory our motivation, His praise our goal. He is the fuel that will propel new obedience. May the Lord fill our tanks with such fuel, for His glory and praise. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, fill the whole limits of our horizons with fresh views, new vistas of the glory of the work and the person of our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ, the One on the throne – the Man of Calvary and the Lord of glory. Show us, remind us He’s coming soon, and our task here is to get ready for that day. Begin, begin to change us inside out. Save us, O Lord, from the broken strategies of the world that are interested only in external behavior and don’t touch the heart. Instead, begin to renew our motives, begin to inflame our desires and incline our wills so that more than anything else we want the smile of our Savior, the “Well done, good and faithful servant” or our Master. Would You do that in each of us? And for those who do not yet know Jesus Christ, show them indeed the pleasantness of the Christian life, the joy that only Zion’s children know. Show them the black and white of life without Jesus and the glorious color of life in Him and then draw them to Him. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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