The Resurrection of Our Lord · Colossians 3:1-4 · March 23, 2008
By Jeffrey A. Gibbs,
This well-known reading from Colossians presents two (at least!) opportunities for mis-interpretation in our present context. The first might be called an overspiritualizing of the reading. The second would be a moralizing of the text. I will offer brief comments on the text itself, and then speak to each of these two possible mis-readings.
The little word “therefore” (ουν) with which the reading begins is of some importance. At the end of chapter 2, Paul has expressed his dismay that the Colossian Christians have been willing to submit to “pious requirements” regarding foods and festivals, as though these things possessed anything more than the “appearance of wisdom” (2:23). Such attempts contain a double error. First, they falsely exalt worthless regulations to the status of “true spirituality.” Second, by claiming authoritative status such regulations place the believers once again under the reign of the elemental things of the universe, and not under the reign of Christ. So to live is to live in the wrong direction, and to flirt with trusting in something or someone other than the Son of God.
But the Colossians have been taught to look to Christ for their reality and their hope. They are baptized, that is to say, their old way of life has died (2:11-12). So as the reading gets under way, Paul offers what is formally a conditional clause—but really they know that it is true: “If you died with Christ (and indeed you have), then keep on seeking the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God” (v. 1). In a sense, the reading could stop here, with the main clause presented: “Keep on seeking the things that are above.” Verse 2 repeats and explicates, namely, that the things above are not the things merely on the earth. Verse 3 explains why (γάρ) the believers should seek the things above. In so explaining Paul fleshes out the significance of Baptism: “you died with Christ,” and your (real) life now remains hidden (the force of the perfect, “has been hidden”) with Christ, in God. Verse 4 offers the end-time contrast with the present hiddenness of the Christian life, namely, the great eschatological promise of the time when believers will no longer have to seek the things above and nothing will remain hidden. The realities now hidden will be seen openly, when Christ returns in glory to share his glory with all Christians.
So, the center of the text is the invitation/exhortation, “Keep seeking the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.” Now we return to the possible mis-readings of this pericope. In our present context, where “spiritual things” and “heaven” are conceived of in virtually platonic fashion, one might be tempted to use this text to despise “mundane” matters. In this misunderstanding, “the things above where Christ is sitting” would be otherworldly, nonphysical things. Nothing could be farther from Paul’s intention! Christ has accomplished all that He has done for the believers precisely through “mundane” things, namely, the blood of His cross (Col 1:20). The believer’s death with Christ and new life with Him has been inaugurated through the circumcision made without hands, but using the earthly element of water (Col 2:11-12). The “things above” that the believers are to seek are precisely those promises and perspectives that have come true on the earth, and that now are sealed and certain because Christ who accomplished them is sitting in divine power and splendor. The promises and priorities are “with Christ,” but they are all about life here on the earth, lived through faith in Christ and in love for one’s neighbor. The “things above” are the Good News that empowers and directs life lived here on earth.
The other error in reading this text might be to turn it into pure exhortation, so that “keep on seeking the things that are above” is tantamount to “try hard to be good.” But that would be to hurry on too quickly to the undeniably hortatory material that follows in verse 5 and following. The believers in Colossae are being tempted to give their allegiance to the “elemental things” (2:20). Therefore, in the first place the invitation to “seek the things that are above” is precisely that: a gracious imitation to believe again in what Christ, who is sitting and reigning over all things, has already accomplished. The reason why Paul (and every pastor!) must regularly invite Christians to keep seeking God’s promises in Christ is because the world works ceaselessly to distract us from the promises of life that remain hidden—for now. So, to “seek the things above” is equivalent to our Lord’s invitation, “Seek first the reign and His righteousness” (Mt 6:33), that is, look for and believe in what God has done to establish His gracious reign in Christ.
At the same time, as believers seek the Gospel truths that are found in Christ, they will also inevitably find God’s will for their lives and callings. This is why the current text can be immediately followed by verse 5: “Therefore, put to death….” Colossians 3:1-4, then, is holistic, rooted in the Gospel and flowing out into all of life. Seek your orientation from Christ, and look for his coming!
Looking Up Enables You to Live! (Col 3:1-4)
I. Paul needs to say to the believers, “Keep on seeking the things that are above.”
A. Once you become a Christian, then the battle is joined.
?. All around us, and within us, are lies and forces that are trying to bury us.
II. The truth that we need is “above,” because it is truth that Christ promises!
A. Christ is sitting at God’s right hand—this means He has conquered, and He is ruling!
1. He conquered by dying…and by rising to forever-life.
2. He is worthy of worship and honor, with the Father and the Spirit.
B. Christ can and will deliver the truth that will enable us to live as believers.
III. And one day, the truth will come crashing down, to change everything!
A. One day, the battle and the fight will be over.
B. Christ will be revealed, and all who trust Him will be revealed with Him in glory.