Remember that incredible day at the graveyard outside of Bethany when Jesus’ words cracked through the tombs like lightning: “Lazarus, come out!” And then Jesus tells the amazed onlookers, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” But then, we never see Lazarus again in scripture. I wonder, how would Lazarus have lived, what would have been different in his life? Have you ever thought what you would do differently, if you could do it all over again? How might you live differently if you were given a second chance?
That is, in essence, the message of the cross:
Rom. 6:4 – We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Eph. 2:1-2,4-5 – As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live… But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
Col. 2:13-14 – When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.
What we have experienced in Christ is no less spectacular, no less life-changing than what Lazarus experienced – in fact, more so – he was raised, only to die again – we are raised, never to die.
But that begs the question: if you have been raised from death, if you have been given a second chance, so what? What would that change? What should that change?
And that is the question Paul answers here in Colossians 3.
If I had only one scripture that I could memorize and cement into place in my life this would be it:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3:1-4)
Notice how Paul begins that sentence. It is not “if” but “since” you have been raised. There is no hesitant condition placed on your life in Christ – if you are good enough, if you hope hard enough. There is a certainty and a confidence that accompanies this new life in Christ.
Paul says, “you have been raised with Christ.” We experience a death and a resurrection. In Romans 6, Paul describes baptism as dying to self, being buried and then raised again. It is a participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul says we become one with Christ. In Galatians 3, he says we are clothed with Christ.
This relationship with Christ that begins in baptism is not arms-length and hands-off. When we are baptized into Christ, we are united with him in a life-changing way. And this relationship affects, not only our eternal existence, but our life on earth each day. In what way?
Paul says it affects everything. Since you have been raised with Christ, “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” And then he sets that same thought on the other side of the conflict: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” We live our lives in this tension between heaven and earth, between spirit and flesh. It is so hard to be in this world but not of this world.
If you live in that struggle of trying to keep your heart and mind in heaven and at the same time trying to say no to the enticements of this world, welcome to the club. Paul himself struggled with it. You remember his self-revealing struggle in Romans 7:18-20 For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
When we come to verses 5-11, Paul sets up this very real scenario – a contrast between the earthly and the heavenly. This is not a theoretical sparring between good and evil, but a real life battle between life and death.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Col. 3:5-10)
“Put to death”
It is the strongest possible language – not merely suppress or control, but put it to death, kill it off, don’t let it exist. Sin is incompatible with the life we have been called to – it is the life we have been called from.
The syntax of the words are important here: the tense is aorist, the mood is imperative. It combines an immediate urgency, with continuing effect. It is like a surgery to remove cancer followed by chemotherapy to prevent its recurrence.
The effect of that is that we put sin to death in our lives, but then each day we need to throw another shovel full of dirt on the grave. It is a constant battle. It demands continuing vigilance.
“Whatever belongs to your earthly nature”
This is the exact same phrase as in vs. 1 – “earthly things.” Paul doesn’t tell us that sin is inherent within the material substance of our physical flesh – an inevitable part of being human – an unavoidable outworking of depraved human nature. Sin is a voluntary act of transgression against God. No excuses, no blaming – we have the choice of sinning or not sinning. It’s not Adam’s fault, Satan didn’t make you do it, you’re not a victim. Sin is a choice we make to rebel against God’s will for us.
There is within us a powerful, driving desire for what is earthly. John described it as “the lust of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and the pride of life.”
Paul lists some of those expressions of that earthly nature – vss. 5,8 – “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry… anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lying.”
Sound familiar? Sin is not cultural, not faddish. Holiness doesn’t evolve, and something that God once considered sin, he has now changed his mind about. What was sin then, is sin now. Regardless of how culture has changed and redefined sin and made some sins socially acceptable, God still hates sin.
In fact, Paul writes, it is “Because of these the wrath of God is coming.” We don’t like to talk about God’s wrath – it seems inconsistent and out of character for a God of grace. But the same Bible that tells us of God’s love also tells us about God’s wrath.
And his wrath comes not because he has a bad temper and gets mad when we do something he doesn’t like. God’s wrath comes because he knows what sin does in our lives – he knows what terrible tragedy and misery it causes – and he gets angry when we refuse to listen to him when he warns us and disciplines us and we go ahead and do what we want to do and live how we want to live.
Would you get angry with your child if he started using illegal drugs? Why, because he’s breaking the law? No, but because you know the dangers and terrible consequences of those drugs. It breaks your heart to know what those drugs will do to him.
God hates sin because of what he knows it will do in our lives, and because he hates sin, he let his Son die for our sin to free us from sin.
Whenever Paul writes about sin and God’s wrath, he never leaves us there. He always follows the bad news with the good news.
Romans 3 – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… and are justified freely by his grace…”
1 Cor. 6 – “And such were some of you… But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…”
And that is how Paul addresses sin here in Colossians. In verse 7 he writes: “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.”
But then in verse 10 he says, “Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
There is a reversal – the Bible calls that repentance. You were going one way and you turned around and went the other. The things you were doing were leading you to death, but now you have gotten rid of all those and are walking toward life.
I’ve talked with folks who said, “Not me, I could never change.” Tell that to Paul who devoted his life to killing Christians, but then on the Damascus road everything changed. I’ve met some folks who thought even if they changed God could never forgive them – “I’ve gone too far and done too much for God to forgive.” The only sin which God cannot forgive is the one from which you refuse to repent. In Isaiah 59, Isaiah writes, “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.”
All that brings us back to verses 1-4 where Paul provides four powerful antidotes to the sinful life:
Set your heart and your mind on Christ
If you “set your heart on things above, where Christ is” Satan is going to have a tough time tempting you with something that pales in comparison. When you have a steak on your plate, spam doesn’t sound nearly as appetizing.
When you “set your mind on things above, not on earthly things” that means you focus your thoughts on the kinds of things that are going to draw you closer to Christ. Paul said that very thing in Philippians 4, when he wrote: “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
You died and your life is now hidden with Christ
The only real antidote to sin is to die to it. Over and over in his letters to struggling Christians, Paul says we must die to sin and to self so that Christ can live in us.
In Galatians 2:20, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
To the Corinthians he writes: For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor. 5:14-15)
A death must take place in your life – a severing of your relationship with sin. When sin comes knocking on your door, you are no longer there, but Christ answers the door and tells sin, “Be Gone!”
Christ who is your life
Can you say that Christ is your life? Not just that he owns it, runs it or operates it, but that he IS your life.
Christ doesn’t want to compete with everything else in your life just for a few minutes of your time. He doesn’t want a little piece of your life, he doesn’t even want a majority share, he wants your life to be consumed in his.
If Christ is our life, then all the other things, all the other activities, all the other relationships become subservient to him. I don’t try to fit him in, I organize my life around him. I evaluate the value and importance and the appropriateness of everything else in my life according to Christ.
When we make Jesus the Lord of our life, it is an absolute, once for all decision to let Christ be our all in all.
You also will appear with him in glory
That is such a striking phrase – to “appear with him in glory”
It’s not a matter of just barely making it into heaven, slipping in while Peter’s not watching the gate; if saved barely saved. This is being a part of the victory party, standing with Jesus in the light of glory. Realizing we are a part of the bride of Christ who is precious to him.
Do you ever worry (even just a little bit) about heaven? Paul says, “Don’t” – If you have died with Christ, been raised with Christ, if Christ is your life -- you will be revealed with Christ in glory.
It’s a powerful motivation to live for Christ, not so that you may be saved, but because you have been saved. To look forward to that day of victorious celebration – being at the side of Christ. How could we not live a life over which the power of sin has lost its grip?