Colossians 2:20-3:3: Set your sights on the heights!

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Bible Studies in the book of Colossians

Colossians 2:20-3:3: Set your sights on the heights!

by I Gordon

The last message from Colossians was all about 'isms.' More 'ism's' than you can shake a stick at. We looked at legalism, ritualism, Gnosticism, mysticism... and one we didn't get on to - asceticism. We'll mention that one in this study but the main focus will be on the first couple of verses in chapter 3. They are:

Col 3:1-2 If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. (2) Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. 

Chapter 3 starts the practical aspect of Christian living in this book. Paul nearly always starts all his letters with your position in Christ and what God has done by his grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And on that basis, and no other, he then turns his attention to the practicalities of living this life out on this little troubled planet. So he starts by reminding them again of their identification with Jesus Christ (that spiritually speaking they have been raised with Christ) before moving into the first step to practical Christian living. And this step will involve your heart, your mind, your will, your affections and your desires. 'Keep seeking the things above' he says.

Seeking the things above...

The Greek word translated 'seeking' in this passage means to seek in the sense of an endeavour, to try to gain, to strive after, with the idea of earnestness and anxious desire. It is used by Jesus in Matt 6:33 "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.'

So here is something we are told to do. Seek... Earnestly desire, strive with earnestness to gain... There is a saying that used to go around which went like this, 'he is so heavenly minded, he's no earthly good.' I used to hear it a bit. Would you agree with that statement? Who would that apply to? Do you know someone of whom you would say 'yeah, that guy, he's so heavenly minded he's no earthly good!' Looking around at where the church is at in general, especially in the Western world, would you say that is our problem? Are we too heavenly minded to be any earthly good? Or are we too earthly minded to be any earthly or heavenly good? It seems to me that it is the later. That is not to say that there aren't those that get so super-spiritual or remove themselves from the world to the degree that they are of benefit to no one.

Let's explore what drives people like that - The last 'ism! 

That is actually what the last 'ism' is about in the verses leading up to this passage - Asceticism. This was an extreme form of legalism with an emphasis on the harsh treatment of the body. They thought this was spiritual so they enforced all these man-made rules upon themselves. Let's look at the passage:

Col 2:20-23 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, (21) "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (22) (Which all refer to things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? (23) These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. 

Don't touch this, don't taste that... don't do this, don't do that, don't, don't, don't! They thought spirituality was found in creating more man-made rules and laws and especially insisted on those that imposed harsh treatment of their physical bodies. As Paul wrote here - it was self imposed religion, false humility (or self-abasement) and involved severe treatment of the body... but had no value against the fleshly indulgences.  [1] 

So there are definitely some throughout history who have been so heavenly minded they are no earthly good like Monks who lock themselves away from the world and others, taking vows of silence and enforcing other rules and harsh treatments of the body in an effort to subdue their fleshly nature. This, according to the Apostle Paul, is not the way. It is man-made and extremism. But like I said before, it's not really a problem within the church today. It seems to me that the problem today is that the church is too earthly minded to be any earthly or heavenly good. The Apostle Paul here tells us to be heavenly minded - to think about the things above. Let look at a few questions that explore this...

Q1: So what are the things above? What is it above that we should seek and set our mind on? 

Firstly Jesus : He is risen! He is alive! He is at the right hand of God. And He is life! The one to whom we owe all. Seeking the things above is seeking Him. His will, His ways, His character, His strength. In whatever we are facing, Martin Luther said that 'thinking must be turned so that you can say Christ lives!'

Secondly our real home : Jesus said  'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.' John 14:1-3.  We read in the book of Hebrews that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob desired 'a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.'

Thirdly our eternal reward : 'Behold I come quickly and my reward is with me.' Some think it is wrong to think about our rewards. They think we shouldn't be motivated by such things. And yet you can't think about standing before the Lord to have your life on this earth judged and rewarded for long before it impacts your life down here. Staying with the book of Hebrews, in the chapter of faith, we read that Moses chose 'to endure ill-treatment with the people of God rather than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin... for he was looking ahead to his reward.'

Fourthly God's priorities and will.  Setting your mind on the things above also involves seeing things from God's perspective. It involves setting your mind on the things that God's will and purpose and the things that He sees as important.

Q2: What are some practical examples of the outworking of this verse? 

  • When the difficulties of this life are pulling you down and you find yourself slipping under the waves, you need to look up and remember that Jesus is above all, seated in authority, that he cares for you and will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear.

  • When you are persecuted for your faith, as many Christians are around the world, or you are lonely or feel different from the world around you, you need to set your mind on the things above and remember that this world is not your home. And when this life is over you will walk the streets of gold.

  • When you struggle with sin and the lures of this world and have found that within yourself dwells no good thing, you need to lift your drooping head and seek the only one who is able to live the Christian life.

  • When the world tempts you with all its riches and shiny things or would seek to make you so busy that time for spiritual matters slowly slips away, you need to set your heart on the things above, remembering why you are here, the true purpose in life, and seek the true eternal riches.

  • Finally, when you're in a state of bewilderment and depression having seen an 8-1 Americas Cup lead finish in a 9-8 loss, or when the media have tricked you with the illusion that winning or losing the America's Cup is actually going to have a great impact on your life, or any impact on your life for that matter, you need to look up and learn from Him who truly knows the things that do matter for eternity. I've had to practice this one from time to time over the last week.  [2] 

Q3: So what is the alternative to setting your mind on the things above? 

Well, it's not rocket science - It is mentioned here in black and white...

Col 3:2 'Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.' 

Now it must be said that setting your mind on the things of earth is much easier. In fact we don't even have to try. The things of earth are in our face 24 - 7. What makes it hard is that we can't see the things above with our natural eyes. We can't touch them. Can't taste them, smell them or wrap our arms around them... And yet the men and women of old were commended for 'seeing Him who is unseen' through the eyes of faith (Heb 11:27) and in like manner we are instructed to 'look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.' (2 Cor. 4:18). But it isn't always easy and the things of earth often block our view. Let's look at a cross reference verse about this from the book of Philippians:

Phil. 3:17-21 'Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. (18) For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. (19) Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. (20) But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, (21) who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.' 

Maybe you know people who are like this... caught up by the attractions of this world.  [3]  The things of this world are both around us and within us, but there are things that can help. I've quoted quite a bit from Pilgrims Progress in this series on Colossians so why stop now? But I'll do it in the fine print for those interested.  [4] 

Q4: How does God help us to move from earthly to heavenly minded thinking? 

Obviously the greatest way that we have to set our mind on the things above is through reading and renewing our minds with the word of God. He has given us His word which contains His thoughts, His ways and eternal wisdom. But God often gives us little experiences or situations that also help us to stop, evaluate what we live for, and look again at the things above - the eternal things that matter.  [5]  What about you? Have you had such an experience lately? Has God been turning your eyes onto the things above recently? Have you been thinking of eternal matters? It is in such times that we gain wisdom for we start to see this life, and its priorities, from God's eternal perspective. And that perspective is from a far greater advantage point than just looking at life from down here!

Concerning this, you may remember that the Psalmist wrote 'So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom .' (Psalm 90:12)

'Number our days' means to realize that we are all fragile, frail and that we only have a limited time here... It means that a lifetime, which seems like forever when we are young, will move so quickly. It means that the candles on your cake will go from but a few, to far more than you ever want to acknowledge, in a flash of time.

'Teach us' - this implies that it doesn't come naturally. We need to be taught this. Naturally, especially when we are young we think we are bullet-proof. The days of our youth won't end and we are to live for the here and now. It requires God to teach us to focus on eternity!

'May gain a heart of wisdom' - The outcome of God teaching us to number our days is this - wisdom. We would gain a heart of wisdom and would see things in a new light and take eternity into account. It's the opposite of what the world tells us.  [6] 

Conclusion - So why should we look to and seek the things above? 

Well, to put it simply, where else are you going to look? Corrie Ten Boom stated it well when she said  'Look around and be distressed, look inside and be depressed, look at Jesus and be at rest.' 

Look around and be distressed... What do we see when we turn on the TV? Nations in upheaval and turmoil, continual pressure leading to a breakdown in the family structure, unstable financial markets, people blowing up as many people as they can, governments and leaders calling black white, and white black. Watch all that for too long and it is easy to be distressed.

Look inside and be depressed... Looking within isn't the answer either. You won't find what you are hoping for there!

But look at Jesus and be at rest. Looking to and seeking the things above gives you a much higher perspective with which to view the events of life. It also provides hope, strength and endurance for the here and now. And it stores up for you eternal riches and rewards which rust can't destroy and thieves cannot steal.

The Bible tells us to '  fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.'  Not easy. All that we see seems so permanent, so everlasting. But the Bible says that one day the stars will fall from the heavens and the sky itself will be rolled back like a scroll. And He who is life will be revealed. And then we shall see that this life is but the prelude and the main feature is still to come!

'Look around and be distressed, look inside and be depressed, look at Jesus and be at rest.' Amen!

[1] ↩ One book I read said that 'Church history reveals that Christians sometimes outdid the Pharisees in their extremism. By the fourth century monks were living on a diet of bread, salt and water. One devised a cell so small he had to double up his body to enter it. Another spent 10 years in a circular cage. Grazier-monks lived in the forests and grubbed for wild herbs and roots; some wore only a loincloth of thorns. Simeon Stylites set the standard for extremism: he lived on top of a column for thirty seven years and prostrated himself 1,244 times a day.' 

[2] ↩ Ok, fair enough... this one may not be a big deal or problem to you. I hope it isn't! But being a Kiwi it is fair to say that it was, at the time of writing, a big thing in New Zealand!

[3] ↩ I read an illustration of this in an online copy of 'Our daily bread'. It said: 

An article in a San Francisco newspaper reported that a young man who once found a $5 bill on the street resolved that from that time on he would never lift his eyes while walking. The paper went on to say that over the years he accumulated, among other things, 29,516 buttons, 54,172 pins, 12 cents, a bent back, and a miserly disposition. But he also lost something - the glory of sunlight, the radiance of the stars, the smiles of friends, and the freshness of blue skies. 

The author of the article went on to write:
I'm afraid that some Christians are like that man. While they may not walk around staring at the sidewalk, they are so engrossed with the things of this life that they give little attention to spiritual and eternal values. Perhaps they've gotten a taste of some fleeting pleasure offered by the world and they've been spending all their time pursuing it. But that is dangerous. When God's children, who are 'seated with Christ in the heavenlies,' give their affection and attention to a world that is passing away, they lose the upward look. Their perspective becomes distorted, and they fail to bask in heaven's sunlight. Taken up with the baubles of this world, they become defeated, delinquent Christians. Buttons, pins, and pennies, but no treasures laid up in heaven. The apostle Paul said, 'If ye, then, be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above' To live for the things of this world is to miss life's best. Let's set our sights on the heights!

[4] ↩ In his journey Christian meets Prudence who asks some important questions about how he gets relief from worldly or carnal thoughts...

PRUDENCE: Do you sometimes think of the country from which you originally came?
CHRISTIAN: Yes, but with much shame and loathing. Truly, if I had a deep yearning for that country, then I might well have taken the opportunity to return. But now my heart desires a better country that is a heavenly realm. Therefore I prefer to press on.
PRUDENCE: Do you not still carry with you in your mind some recollection of the things that you were formerly involved with?
CHRISTIAN: Yes, but greatly against my will, and especially those inward and carnal reasoning's which all of my countrymen, as well as myself, were delighted to revel in. But now all those things only grieve me; and should I be able to choose only what I think, I would choose never to think of those carnal things anymore. But when I would be doing that which is best, still that which is worse remains with me.
PRUDENCE: Do you not sometimes find that personal carnality is vanquished when at other times it was of great trouble to you?
CHRISTIAN: Yes, but those times of conquest over carnality are infrequent, though when they do occur such hours are truly golden.
PRUDENCE: When you experience these precious times in which carnal annoyances are vanquished, can you remember by what means these triumphs were obtained?
CHRISTIAN: Yes, when I meditate upon what I saw at the Cross, that will do it; and when I look at my embroidered coat, that will do it; also when I look inside the scroll that I carry in my chest pocket, that will do it; and when my thoughts are warmly stimulated about where I am going, that will do it.
PRUDENCE: And what is it that makes you so desirous of going to Mount Zion?
CHRISTIAN: Why there I hope to see living he who hung dead on the Cross; and there I hope to be rid of all those things within me that remain a constant annoyance. At the Celestial City they say there is no death, and there I shall dwell with the type of companions that I like best. For to tell you the truth, I love my Lord because he released me of my burden, and I am weary of my inward sickness. In view of these circumstances, I would much prefer to be where I shall die no more and my companions shall continually cry, 'Holy, Holy, Holy".

I like that. Christian got relief when meditated on what he saw at the cross (which is what Jesus did for him), when he looked at his coat (robe of righteousness - a gift of righteousness that makes us perfect in the sight of God), when he looked at the scroll (which is the Bible - that always turns our attention to the things above) or when he thought about where he was going (which is Heaven - the Celestial City as he calls it).

[5] ↩ I had a wee example of this a couple of weeks ago. I went for a ride on my mountain bike and was riding along a grassy walk way alongside a little creak. As I rode along I saw someone about 50 meters over to my left lying in the grass... which didn't seem quite right - An odd place to rest really. So I decided to go over and check if they were ok. As I approached I could see that it was an older man, lying on his back, with his eyes open, still holding on to his walking stick in his right hand. I started saying 'Are you ok? Are you ok?' But he didn't respond and it became clear that he wasn't ok. He was actually dead. I could see that his mouth was open and clear but he wasn't a good color so I sprinted off to the nearest house and we rang 111. I then went back to the man with a cell phone and the emergency lady on the 111 call talked me through CPR on this man for the 5-10 minutes until the ambulance arrived. They then worked on him for a further 20 minutes or so before assessing there was nothing they could do. It is only the 2 nd time in my life that I have been the first to find someone dead and it's an odd experience. As I did the compressions on his chest I could hear the air coming out of his mouth and his eyes and mouth were open but nobody was home. He had gone and all that was left was his body. I remember thinking as I counted out the chest compressions - 'Where are you now old man? You went for a Saturday afternoon walk in the park and ended up entering eternity. Where are you now?' It's a sobering thing. I know others have had funerals and seen people die recently and it always gets you to think about what really matters in this life. What do we see as important? What are we living for?

 [6] ↩ As I was preparing this message during the week, I saw a new Pepsi ad on TV. It had Beyonce dancing around and they had a new Pepsi slogan at the end - 'Pepsi: Live for Now!' 'Yeah, live for now. Live it up. Woohoo. Yeah, don't think about tomorrow.' 'Don't think about what's to come. Just live for now! Yeah'... ' Um, really? Does the world really need to be told to 'live for now'? Isn't that what most are doing anyway? According to the Bible that is the problem, not the solution. Everyone is already just living for the here and now. How about this for a new slogan - 'Pepsi: Teach us to number our days, that we main gain a heart of wisdom - Pepsi!' What do you think? Gunna fly? Yeah, ok... granted... it may not excite and rev. the people as much as 'live for now!' The bottles may not start flying off the shelves straight away with such a slogan. But at least there would be some wisdom and truth in what they say!