Seeking and Thinking Upon the Right Things

With the new year ahead of us, many people are making all sorts of New Year’s Resolutions—new diets, new Bible reading plans, new commitments to exercise more. We have all heard of the truism: “You are what you eat.” In many ways, this statement is true! If you feed your body well, you will generally have better health and more energy. If you feed your body a steady diet of junk food, then the results are somewhat predictable. But think with me for a second about this saying’s spiritual counterpart: “How we think effects how we behave.” Perhaps in this new year, we as Christians could use a little re-focusing on how we think.

Consider the truth of Romans 6:11: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11, ESV). If we think about the reality that we as Christians have died with Christ on the cross to the power of sin, then we can find victory as we strive to live holy lives. This sort of thinking will have a serious impact on the way we live our lives.

In a sense, we are living corpses. We are dead to ourselves and alive in Christ (Col. 2:20). We have been buried with him (Col. 2:12), have been raised up with him (Col. 3:1) and have been seated with him in the presence of God the Father (Col. 3:1). If we can get our heads around what this means, it will have a huge impact on the way that we live life now.

Colossians 3:1-3 says, “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.” (Colossians 3:1–3, ESV)

In this blogpost, I’d like to look a little more closely at this idea of seeking the right things and how that affects our thinking as Christians.

Background

As we begin, it would be helpful to take some time to remember the situation the church of Colossae faced. They had this false teaching that was spreading what was a mix of Jewish ceremonialism and a false teaching that would later be called Gnosticism.

Jewish ceremonialism demanded that they follow all the rules and regulations of the Old Testament, while failing to see that those ceremonies pointed to Jesus Christ (Col. 2:16-17).

Early Gnostic mysticism demanded ascetic living, angel worship, and visions while simultaneously taking the focus off of Christ (Col. 2:18-19).

One form of Gnosticism failed to see the symbolism of the Old Testament ceremonies and rituals that pointed to Jesus Christ, while the other form placed the focus on lesser beings and self-affliction to gain greater access to God. Both forms of this false teaching led the people away from God through rituals, ceremonies and false philosophies. The motivation for seeking God was man-made traditions and rules. And both failed because they did not address the heart and the mind.

So, Paul, in these four verses (Col. 3:1-4) turned from these false teachings to the true motivation given for pleasing God and living a victorious Christian life that replaces man-made rules and traditions. This brings us back to the truth I stated at the beginning: How we think effects how we behave. In Colossians 3:1-4 we find two keys that will unlock for us the real motivation for living for Christ that deals with the heart and the mind before it deals with the flesh.

1. Seek the Things That Are Above (v. 1)

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” (Colossians 3:1, ESV)

Paul begins by giving to us the counter to the false teacher’s approach that he has just finished discussing in Colossians 2. “If then” is a conditional statement that really could be translated “Since.” Since you have been raised with Christ. What has happened as a result of being raised with Christ? We died to sin according to Romans 6. And according to Colossians 2:12, we were buried with Christ in baptism (“having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (ESV))

The very next verse (Col. 2:13) adds that not only did we die to our sins with Christ, but we were also made alive together with him at his resurrection. Paul once again reminds his readers of this fact in 3:1. Since we have been raised with Christ, Paul is saying, seek the things that are above. Really, Paul’s grammar tells us that he means, “Keep on seeking!” This isn’t a one-time deal. We are to keep on seeking. Paul is saying that since we are those who are truly spiritually alive, who have our lives in Jesus Christ. Therefore, let us place our goals, aspirations and dreams upon those things that are above, where our lives are at—with the Savior who is not on earth, but sitting at the right hand of the Father.

Whereas the false teachers were placing their sights upon earthly goals, Paul says that what we ought to seek is far above—in heaven. In other words, our values system changes when we see ourselves as being alive with Christ in heaven. We stop seeking primarily after the things on this earth because our lives are not here on earth, but in heaven with Christ. Our attachment to earthly things will be evaluated with this truth. We will have a different standard of value for material possessions because we have treasure laid up in heaven. We will not be concerned about gaining honor from men, because we are enthroned with Christ—and there is no greater honor than that. We will not seek after earthly power, because we have all power in Christ. We will not chase after fame because we have already gained the loving approval of our heavenly Father.

All of these things that men seek after are earthly things and the one who grasps the reality of what he or she has in Christ will not seek after them with the same hungering and passion as the unredeemed man. We may need and use earthly things while we are here, but we will not spend an inordinate amount of time or energy chasing them because we see their true value in the light of what we already have in Christ.

2. Set Your Mind on the Things that Are Above (vv. 2-4)

“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.” (Colossians 3:2–4, ESV)

Like the command in verse 1, this is also given in the same tense and could be translated, “Keep on thinking on the things that are above.” Keep on thinking about heavenly things. Some people say that some Christians are “Too heavenly minded to be any earthly good,” but I think that the real problem is that too many Christians are not heavenly minded enough to be any earthly good. Our eyes are on this world and not on heaven.

Paul reminds us why we ought to have this heavenly focus in verse 4. Christian, you are dead, he writes. You are no longer a citizen of earth. Sure, you need to live here for a few more years, but this planet is not your home. You are a visitor. Don’t unpack your bags! You are an alien, a foreigner in a strange, distant land, so don’t get too comfortable! This isn’t your home. Your old life—it is gone! You died. You are no longer the same person. You died and have been reborn a different person. So, don’t focus your mind on the things on this fallen earth, rather think about the things in your true home where Christ is.

When I was little boy, I went to a Christian camp in California called Indian Village. It was the first time that I had been away from home by myself, not counting staying over my grandparent’s house. I got so homesick at camp. I thought about the food at home and my toys and my bed. I especially thought about my mom and dad and my little brother. I was so unsettled, that I refused to take a shower for several days. That is until my camp counselor helped me get over the embarrassment by letting me shower after everyone had left camp for an activity and I was allowed to shower in my swim trunks. That teepee tent I slept in at night for a week was not my home, and I was not going to get used to it. I eventually settled down some and even had a good time, but I was ready to go home when the buses came!

Colossians 3:3 says that our real life is hidden with Christ, who is in heaven. Life is not here—it is waiting for us in heaven. We are somewhere between heaven and earth, as Jonathan Edwards said, not a part of either heaven or earth right now. Our feet are on earth, but our heads and hearts are in heaven.

What is our motivation for this change in our thinking? Verse 4 tells us that the motivation for living in this truth is that when Jesus Christ comes (and this is sure, although the timing is unknown), then our real life will begin, and we will really start living. We will appear with him in glory. Just as we died with Christ and were buried and were raised up with Christ, when he returns, we will share in the glory. We will see the unifying of this strange existence into one. Heaven will come down and we will no longer be torn between heaven and earth. We will then be with Christ in heaven where our hearts and minds are. Everything will be made right. We, as pilgrims, will finally be home.

What are you seeking after? Heavenly things or earthly things? If you are seeking after earthly things, you will eventually leave them all behind. You can’t take them with you, and even if you could, they would be worthless in light of the treasures of heaven.

What are you thinking on? Heavenly things or earthly things? Have you unpacked your bags and begun to settle in? Have you forgotten your true home? Are you home sick? You should be. You should have a mental picture of heaven and the Lord and it should be so vivid that you can’t be truly happy to remain here on this broken planet. May we all be like the Apostle Paul, who would stay here for the blessings that he could bring the church, but he would much rather go home to heaven (Phil. 1:21-24). Paul’s eyes were set heavenward. Where are yours?

Help for New Expositors – Don’t Photobomb Jesus

photobombIsn’t it interesting that there are no physical descriptions in the Bible of what the Apostles or Jesus looked like. This is hard to believe in our self-driven culture where the Instagram selfie perfectly captures the ethos of our day.

There is one extra-biblical description of Apostle Paul found in The Acts of Thecla, where it says that Onesiphorus described Paul as “a man short in stature, with a bald head, bowed legs, in good condition, eyebrows that met, a fairly large nose, and full of grace. At times he seemed human, at other times he looked like an angel.”[1] It appears that Paul had a face for radio!

In our world, “image is everything” and yet, for those who stand before the world to proclaim the Word of God, we are simply called to be a faithful, unwavering voice of truth in a dry, wilderness of error and darkness (Mark 1:3; Amos 8:11).

When this is the case, we shouldn’t worry about being impressive or even whether anybody notices us. We shouldn’t be jockeying for prominence among the evangelical superstars or trying to be seen so we can move up the ladder of fame. This is exactly the opposite of what Jesus expects of his servants. Mark 10:42-45 shines brightly against the growing evil of popular Christianity and its longing for attention. It hurts to read Jesus’ words and think about how much modern evangelical Christianity ignores these words:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42–44, ESV, emphasis mine)

It is when we open our mouths, when we speak the Word of God that people should be amazed–not at us, but at our great and awesome God. If we draw attention, let it be to our Lord and Savior. If we thunder and rail, let it be against sin as we call men to holiness. If we speak with great authority and power, let it be from the Scriptures alone and not ourselves. And when we leave a room where we have preached the mighty deeds of our God, and people stand back and say, “What a mighty God! O, how I want to know Him more!” may we be content to slide out of the room and rejoice that our God chose to use us, sinners saved by grace, to bring more people into His presence. SDG

[1] The Acts of Thecla 3. Translation by Bart D. Ehrman in Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It into the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 114.


Help for New Expositors – Develop Patience in Your Hearers

Lord willing I will step into the pulpit of my church this Sunday and I will continue my journey through the book of Acts. I will be in Acts 26 and as of last night, I’m not sure how far I will get into Paul’s defense before Agrippa. I have been saturating myself with the text, doing word studies, background, translation and all the good stuff that comes with Bible exposition done well.

As a part of my study, a small phrase in Acts 26:3 stuck out to me that is helpful to think about more, not only as we prepare to preach, but as we think about the overall ministry of preaching to our congregations. The phrase that Paul says is this, “Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently” (ESV). There are a lot of reasons that Paul says this, and I can’t go into them here, but I do want to say this–expositors need to learn to develop patience in their listeners and we need to be such skillful expositors that people are willing to be patient when we preach.

You see, Paul was well aware how critical sound doctrine is, particularly in preaching the gospel. He is about to expound on the differences between traditional Judaism as practiced in his time and how they differed from the gospel message of Jesus Christ. To the Jews, Paul had committed sins worthy of death while Festus couldn’t figure out why everyone was so upset. It all sounded the same to him!

Agrippa was a Jew and he knew Judaism well (Acts 26:3), and yet Paul still begged for patience from him as he laid out this complicated doctrine of the gospel. Paul didn’t abandon sound doctrine, but he also didn’t abandon his listeners either!

Brother preachers, let me be candid for a minute. Sometimes people don’t reject sound expositional preaching because it is not informative, but because we have not done all our work to be clear and concise. The church is not a seminary and your pulpit is not a seminary lectern. We cannot dump raw meat on our congregations and expect them to digest our poorly assembled sermons. We can ask and expect patience, but we must deliver on feeding the sheep! They cannot digest raw exegetical data. Reject the false dichotomy that our preaching must be raw meat (unrefined doctrine) or baby food (little or no doctrine). We have been called by our Lord to dig deep, understand the text better than anyone else in our church, and then to assemble a sermon that imparts much of what we have learned in a way that does not choke them because it is too far over their heads or factual but unhelpful.

As you prepare, go deep but go patiently, walking with the weak and the babes. Recommend further reading and study for those that are more mature. Add in scholarly insights at appropriate places to entice deeper thinking, but return to the average maturity level of your congregation for most of your exposition. Let them up for air after a long explanation of a particular concept by showing them why this doctrine is so important to their lives and how it can be put into practice to the glory of God.

That is how you develop patience in your listeners. You are a shepherd. Lead them, don’t drag them or abandon them. Ask for their patience, but deliver the goods every time you make them work to understand. Reward thinking by showing the soaring heights of spiritual truth. Then the next time you open your Bibles, they will have grown a little more and able to keep a little faster pace with you.