Christ-centered Living (sermon resource for 7/31/22)

This post exegetes Colossians 3:1-11, drawing on multiple sources including commentary from Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository Commentary) and Peter T. O’Brien (New Bible Commentary).

Christ with His Disciples by Mironov (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction 

The theology of Paul’s epistles centers fully on Jesus and the creation and outworking of the union that all humanity has with him. Our personal realization of and active participation in that union proceeds in three interrelated steps:  

1. Belong. This is the declaration of what is true already of all humanity, namely, that in and through Christ (our Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer), God includes all humanity in his life and love. He has made us all his dearly loved children. And he has done this for us and to us, apart from any work or merit of our own. It’s thus his gift of pure grace. And now the Spirit brings us a choice: to believe or not.

2. Believe. This is the invitation to change our thinking about God and oneself in the light of this inclusion (this is repentance), and to believe (trust) in Jesus who has accomplishes this inclusion for us and with us. Like our inclusion, repentance and faith are gifts of grace. We believe in Jesus because the Spirit testifies that we are God’s children. And in believing, we join our personal belief to Jesus’ own belief. 

3. Become. This is the response of Christ-centered living. It is our active participation with Jesus as he relates to God and to other humans in his love and grace. We believe into this life of Jesus, because we belong to him, and we behave with Jesus because we belong and we believe. It’s all of God’s grace—all about the life we have in and through Jesus who is fully God and fully human for us.

Earlier in Colossians, Paul has addressed steps one and two. Now in the last two chapters, he turns to step three: Christ-centered living. This living is different from the self-centered, often immoral living of those who, in their minds, remain alienated toward God. In the first several verses of Colossian 3, Paul defines Christ-centered living through the lens of three admonitions: seek the heavenly, slay the earthly, strengthen the Christly. It’s all about Christ and our life in him.

1. Seek the heavenly (Col 3:1–4)

1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

In our union with Jesus, we are given entrance to his being and doing. Paul begins with our sharing in Jesus’ being, which has to do with our position in Christ. Note the key elements of that position:

a. We died with Christ (v. 3a) 

For you died…

Christ not only died for us as our substitute, but because he is our Creator and Sustainer (in whom we live and move and have our being), when he died, we died with him (2Cor 5:15-16). Because of the Incarnation, all humanity is “in Christ”—and what happens to Christ, happens to us all. This is our position—our true identity. We are dead in and with Christ. And that means that we are dead to sin through being included in Jesus’ sacrifice for all sin. So we are dead in Christ, yet we are resurrected to new life… 

b. We live in Christ (v. 4a) 

Christ, who is your life…

In union with Jesus we are now alive—included in his eternal life (his communion with the Father and Spirit). This life is not something Jesus “faxes in” to us from a distance. No, eternal life is Jesus himself: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life”(1 John 5:12).  “For to me, to live is Christ…” (Phil. 1:21).  How did we get this life?

c. We are raised with Christ (v. 1a)  

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ…

When Jesus rose from the grave—fully God and (still) fully human (now glorified), we were raised in him and with him to new life. And when Jesus ascended (still fully human, now glorified), we ascended with him and are now seated with him in the “heavenly realms” (see Eph 2:6). This exalted position that we share with Jesus in his glorified humanity is an accomplished fact for all humanity. This is our position, accomplished not by our own doing, but by what Jesus did in his union with us all. We are raised with Christ, though that reality is not visibly seen—for now we are “hidden with Christ”…

d. We are hidden in Christ (v. 3b) 

…your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

Because of who Jesus is and what he has done, we belong to him—not to the world. And our true identity and true life are in him—“hidden with Christ.” The Christian life is a “hidden life” as far as the non-believing world is concerned, and, to some extent, even to ourselves. But even now, as believers, our life is focused on Christ, not on the things of this world. This does not mean that we ignore our earthly responsibilities. Rather it means that our motives and our strength come from Christ, not from the things of a world that ignores Christ. And it gets even better…

e. We are glorified in Christ (v. 4b) 

…you also will appear with him in glory.

Though our true life is now hidden in Christ, one day it will be revealed at Jesus’ parousia (revealing) when he returns. At that time all will see him in the fullness of his glory—and the truth of all humanity included in Christ will be seen clearly as well.  Thus Paul can say that we have already been glorified (Rom 8:30). This glory simply has not yet been fully revealed. Christ has already given us his glory (John 17:22), but its full revelation awaits his return (Rom 8:17–25). 

f. Therefore, look up (vv. 1-2) 

1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

In view of our wonderful position and identity in Christ, we have a great responsibility and opportunity: “Set your hearts on things above” (3:1). Through Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, we have been separated from the old life of this world, and we now belong to a new Christ-centered world. But how do we go about setting our hearts there? The answer is found in 3:2: “Habitually set your mind—your attention—on things above, not on things on the earth” (literal translation). Our feet must be on earth, but our minds must continually be oriented toward heaven. 

This is not to suggest (as D.L. Moody used to say) that we become “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.” It means that the practical everyday affairs of this life get their direction from Christ. It means that we live out of the perspective of our position and identity with Christ. We think with him and in him. We “set” our minds on him, and our feet follow. We do this “setting” of our minds in large part through spiritual disciplines: study of Scripture, prayer, worship, fellowship and service. Christ is our life and we live it actively with and in him. Look up!

2. Slay the earthly (Col 3:5–9)

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices

Paul turns now from the positive to the negative. Because we have died with (and in) Christ (Col 3:3), we share in Jesus’ victory over all earthly, fleshly desires that want to enslave us. Therefore Paul calls upon us to “count” (“reckon”) ourselves to be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (Rom 6:11).  And Paul gives examples of the sins we are dead to--sins that are characteristic of the old life and have no place in our new life with Christ. Indeed, God’s wrath falls on these sins because they rob his children of the enjoyment of the life that he has given them. 

Note Paul’s focus in this listing of sins on evil desires—this is where sin begins and sinful desires lead to sinful actions. Thus, purity in action begins with purity in mind—it begins with actively embracing the mind of Christ. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psa 51:10) is our prayer—a prayer which God answers as the Spirit conforms our minds to that of Christ. Our actions then follow. It’s change from the inside out, and it’s the Spirit’s work in us.

Do believers commit the sins Paul lists here? Certainly, and that is why Paul gives this list to believers. The list begins with common sensual sins, then points out the dangers of certain social sins. Different ones of us struggle with different ones of these sins. But all sinful behaviors have one thing in common: they are contrary to the life and love of Jesus which we share in by God’s grace. And Paul urges us to rid ourselves of such sins. 

The picture Paul paints here is that of a person changing clothes: “take off...put on” (Col 3:9–10). This relates to the resurrection of Jesus (Col 3:1); for when he arose from the dead, Jesus left the grave clothes behind (John 20:1–10). In his new and glorious resurrection life he had no further need for the grave clothes. Likewise, when Lazarus was raised from the dead, Jesus instructed the people to “loose him [from his grave clothes], and let him go” (John 11:44). These grave clothes represent the old life with its sinful deeds. Now that we have embraced our new life in Christ, we walk “in newness of life” by putting off the old actions and desires (Rom 6:4). We do this by deeply embracing and practicing our position in Christ, thus reckoning ourselves to be dead to the old and alive to the new. 

3.  Strengthen the Christly (Col 3:10–11)

10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Having died with Christ, we are now alive with him and in him, and are being made new—becoming more and more like him. Note that the Greek verbs translated take off and put on (3:9–10) indicate a once-for-all action. In Christ, the old has gone and the new has come. He has done this for us—“Christ is all, and is in all” (3:11b). Note also that the verb translated “renewed” (3:10) is a present participle—“constantly being renewed.” By placing our trust in Jesus, we begin actively to participate in the death and resurrection that Christ has accomplished for us all. Through this personal and active participation we become progressively like Christ—more and more conformed to the new creation that he has made us “in the image of [our] Creator” who is Christ himself.

The Greeks had two different words for new: The first is neos, which means “new in time.” We use this word as an English prefix in such words as neoclassicism. The second is kainos, which means “new in quality.” Sometimes the two words are used interchangeably, but there is still a distinction. Christ has given to humanity a “new [neos] self” and, now as believers we participate in that new creation and in doing so we are renewed [kainos]. We are new in quality—becoming more and more like the new creation that we are in Jesus, who, himself, is the “new person”—the last (or second) Adam (1Cor 15:45; Romans 5:12-19), the fountainhead of a new humanity (2Cor 5:17). 

How does this renewal in Christ proceed? Through knowledge (Col 3:10). The word knowledge was one of the key terms in the vocabulary of the false teachers who had infiltrated the church at Colosse. But their so-called spiritual knowledge could never change a person’s life to make them like Christ. Through the work of the Spirit, a believer grows in the true knowledge of Christ and through that knowledge—which is deeply personal and relational—they become more and more like their Creator and Redeemer Jesus (see Phil. 3:10). 

Indeed, humankind (male and female) was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27). This “image” involves our personality (intellect, emotion, will) and our spirituality. When humankind sinned in Adam, this image was terribly distorted. Adam’s children were born in the image of their sinful father (Gen 5:1, 3). Yet, despite the ravages of sin, humanity still bears the image of God (Gen 9:6; James 3:9). We were formed in God’s image, and deformed from the purity of God’s image by sin. But in Jesus, the image is restored—there is a new humanity through Jesus, the second Adam. And those who embrace Jesus, begin to actively participate in that new creation—that new life in the fullness of God’s image. This renewal comes through the Spirit who renews our minds (Eph 4:23), helping us participate more and more in the glorious image of God in Christ (2Cor 3:18). Indeed, God transforms us by the renewing our minds (Rom 12:2) in Christ, who is the Truth that sets us free from the old life (John 8:31–32). 

In this new humanity, the old distinctions drop away (Col 3:11). In Christ, there is no separation between nationalities (neither Greek nor Jew). There is no recognition of former religious differences (circumcision nor uncircumcision). There is no cultural superiority (barbarian, Scythian). The Greeks considered all non-Greeks to be barbarians; and the Scythians were the lowest barbarians of all. Yet, in the new humanity birthed in Jesus, a person’s cultural status is no advantage or disadvantage. Nor is their economic or political status (slave or free). All of these human distinctions belong to the “old self” and not the “new self.” In his letter to the Galatians, Paul added, “There is neither male nor female,” thus erasing any idea of gender-based superiority. We are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). 

Conclusion

Paul’s point is this section of his Epistle is that our entire focus—our being and our doing—must be in and with Jesus. The rally cry of the new life we have in him is this: “Christ is all and in all.” Because we are complete in him, we can look beyond earthly differences that separate people and enjoy true unity with one another in the Lord: 

  • We are alive in Christ; therefore, let us together seek the heavenly. 
  • We died with Christ; therefore, let us together slay the earthly. 
  • We are being transformed into the likeness of Christ our Creator; therefore, let us together strengthen the Christly, permitting the Spirit to make us truly new in Christ’s image.