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Seek The Things Above; Colossians 3:1-4:6

Notes of an address

Max Billeter

In order to understand the epistle to the Colossians we must know the Epistle to the Romans and the Epistle to the Ephesians. Paul's Epistle to the Romans shows us how God solved the problem of sin for the believer on the basis of the Lord's work on Calvary, whereas the Epistle to the Ephesians shows us that which God has given us as a completely new thing on the basis of Calvary through the resurrection of Christ. Ephesians begins in its teaching where Romans stops. Colossians is on the threshold between the two, it puts one hand on the Epistle to the Romans and tells the believer that he has died with Christ and it puts its other hand on the Epistle to the Ephesians and shows the believer that he has been raised with Christ; this is the great subject of the Epistle to the Colossians.

Colossians falls into two parts, the first two chapters tell us the doctrine and the last two chapters tell us of the practical matters, and both are important for the believer. There are people who only want to know about doctrine and who do not place any emphasis on the practical walk; this is like a man who has only bones but no flesh, he is a skeleton. But there are also Christians who only want practical matters and put no emphasis on doctrine; this is like a man who has only flesh but no bones, can you imaging that? Both doctrine and practical matters are important, but the doctrine comes first, then the practical walk comes out of the doctrine. Paul demonstrates this in this epistle in a very systematic way.

"If therefore ye have been raised with the Christ, seek the things which are above, where the Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God: have your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth; for ye have died, and your life is hid with the Christ in God. When the Christ is manifested who is our life, then shall ye also be manifested with him in glory."   (3:1-4) 

In verses 1 to 11 of chapter 3 he shows the two great truths of Christian practice, the first one is "seek the things which are above" and the second is "put to death therefore your members which are upon the earth". I will now try to explain these two great facts. I believe that what Paul has before him here, where he says "seek the things which are above", is not the matter of looking on to the glorified Christ, which is the great objective for Paul in 2 Corinthians 3, but rather he means to search out the thoughts of our Lord Jesus Christ in view of the practical walk down here, which thoughts are diametrically opposed to those which are on earth, the philosophies that are developed here by unbelievers. In our practical Christian walk we should not be guided by these philosophies but rather by the thoughts of Christ in relation to the Christian walk.

I would like to tell you a little story to illustrate this. A father passed a field of melons with his little son, and the father said, 'Son, stay on the road here and look left and right while I go into the field and steal a melon and let me know if anybody comes', and he went into the field. Suddenly the boy shouted, 'Father, shall I also look upwards?' The father turned around and said, 'Let us leave it'. This is the example that illustrates what it means to seek those things which are above.

Paul uses two words for this here. Firstly he says, "seek those things which are above" and then he says, "have your mind on the things that are above", and these are not exactly the same, there is a progression. Seeking means to search out the thoughts of Christ who is above, and putting your mind on those things means to habitually think the thoughts of Christ. When a young Swiss person comes to England he must try to learn the English language. This may cause a problem for a few months, but after two or three months he can get by more or less, he understands English but he still thinks in German. Suddenly, however, he makes the experience that he does not only understand English but he thinks in English. This is the meaning of "setting your mind on", that we have learnt to think Christ's thoughts habitually in relation to the practical Christian walk.

The apostle Paul wants to demonstrate that Christ's thoughts are important because they are the thoughts of the One who sits at God's right hand. To do this he gives two reasons. Firstly, he says, in verse 3, 'You are already heavenly people'. Even if we still live on the earth we are already characterised by what is heavenly because "our life is hid with the Christ in God"; this is why we think in His thoughts. But there is a second reason, he says the day will come when we will appear with Christ in glory and then all will see that we are really heavenly people. When I tell the people in my little village this they laugh at me, they say, 'We do not see a difference, you also age and get sick like us', but they will still see that I am a heavenly person when I shall appear with the Lord Jesus in glory. This is what Paul says in verse 4, "Seek the things which are above" because already now you are heavenly people as far as your character is concerned and one day you will appear as heavenly people. This is the first great principle of Christian practice. The second principle is in verse 5.

"Put to death therefore your members which are upon the earth, fornication, uncleanness, vile passions, evil lust, and unbridled desire, which is idolatry. On account of which things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. In which ye also once walked when ye lived in these things. But now, put off, ye also, all these things, wrath, anger, malice, blasphemy, vile language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, having put off the old man with his deeds, and having put on the new, renewed into full knowledge according to the image of him that has created him; wherein there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman; but Christ is everything, and in all."   (3:5-11)

In order to explain this I have to state that the philosophies of this world have an ally in the believer, this is the sin which still dwells in us. The philosophies in this world about the practical walk of men are always based on the sin which dwells in us and then there is the danger that this indwelling sin produces branches. This is the meaning of the members here, they show us that with the believer there is always the danger that the indwelling sin might produce outward sin, or branches, in the daily walk. So Paul says, "Put to death these members". I would like to explain what this means in three points. Firstly, he wants to bring about the consciousness of this sin in us as a preventive measure. There is a brother in our local meeting who often says in his prayers, 'We are conscious tonight that we have brought with us our indwelling sin'. We are always in danger of following the impulses of this sin.

The second point is that once such a branch has occurred we confess this sin before God and, if necessary, before men. The third point is that if the same sin occurs in our life again and again we must think about the sources from where this comes and perhaps we need to change something fundamental in our lives. This is the matter of "putting to death our members".

I am sure that the brethren in England know a lot about the issue of grafting trees. Such a tree consists of two things, firstly there is the wild trunk and the branches and then the refined branch is grafted into that trunk, and it is the task of the gardener to cut down the branches that originate in the wild trunk, otherwise the grafted branch will not prosper. This picture shows us the meaning of mortifying the members, the cutting off of the wild sprouts which stem from the sin that dwells within us. The best time for doing this is when the wild sprout is still very thin and small, you just take the scissors and it is gone, but if you wait for three years then you need a saw. This is what it is like in the Christian's practical life, so Paul says, "put to death your members which are on the earth".

In verse 5 Paul then shows what these sprouts are and he provides arguments as to why we should put them to death. The first argument is in verse 6, namely that these are bad, terrible things, and that it is because of these things "the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience". He wants to make it plain to us that these wild branches are abhorrent in the eyes of God. The second argument is that the believer knows that in his life there is a 'once' and a 'now'. Once we were people for whom these wild branches would have been normal but it is not normal any more. Thirdly he reminds us of the day of our conversion when we put off the old man and put on the new man, and he says, 'Do not forget this day'. The old man used to produce old branches before our conversion, but the new man produces completely new things and these new things are according to the image of the One who produces the new man, this is God. Who is the image of God? This is Christ. The new man produces things which are in harmony with Christ. He says in verse 11, "there is no difference". For the believer there are no differences, there is only one name, and this is Christ who is "all in all". This is the character of the new man, he has Christ as his aim and objective.

So the two great truths of Christian practice are firstly to "seek the things which are above", and secondly to "Put to death therefore your members which are upon the earth". We can then practice these two principles in four areas.

"Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any should have a complaint against any; even as the Christ has forgiven you, so also do ye. And to all these add love, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of Christ preside in your hearts, to which also ye have been called in one body, and be thankful. Let the word of the Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another, in psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to God. And everything, whatever ye may do in word or in deed, do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father by him"   (3:12-17) 

The first area is the area of the believers, Christian practice comes to bear in the Christian circle. In order for us to be able to apply these principles in Christian practice Paul mentions the important truth that, first of all, believers have to be in the enjoyment of their Christian position, and he mentions three facts of Christian position, we are elect, sanctified and beloved. We stand in this Christian position very consciously. Christian practice proceeds from this Christian position. Then Paul lists the things produced by the new man, the seven flowers of the new man. The first one is compassion, this is to be able to sympathise one with another; the second is kindness; thirdly lowliness; fourthly meekness; fifthly longsuffering; this is what can be displayed in the Christian circle. But in the Christian circle there are weak believers and when there are such we want to forebear one with another, this is the sixth point; but when believers live together there are also sins that occur and naturally we cannot bear or tolerate them but being believers we want to forgive them; this is the seventh point, forgiving one another.

I do not speak about this seventh point in a light-hearted way, when believers live and walk together there are sometimes difficulties, we may be deeply hurt in our heart by something a brother or a sister does and we say, 'I cannot forgive this'. Of ourselves we cannot do this, but we can when we realise how much God has forgiven us in Christ. When our Saviour was on earth He told the parable in Matthew 18 of the man who had a great debt and could not pay and he was forgiven and did not have to pay his debt, but then the same man went to another man who owed him a little debt and put him under pressure to pay. This is a very serious story, but does not this sometimes happen amongst believers? We have been forgiven such a great debt in Christ, and yet we are sometimes unable to forgive our brother or sister.

These seven flowers of the new man bound together by the cord of divine love are not natural characteristics of man. There are some people who are particularly meek, there are people who are practically kind but this is not what Paul means here, what he has in mind is things that have been brought about in our lives by the Holy Spirit. They are surrounded by the gold of divine love, and the peace of Christ should influence the decisions in our hearts with regard to our living and walking with one another.

I would like to direct your thoughts to Ephesians 2 where we find this important phrase, "He is our peace" (v.14). This is not a matter of the peace of our conscience, and I do not think it is a matter of the peace of our heart, but the point is that we are all met in Christ's presence. He is the Person who has led us together, to one another, "He is our peace". I think this is the meaning here as well, this thought that we have been led one to another in Christ should govern the decisions of our heart. Then the word of Christ should be displayed in the Christian circle and then we find spiritual joy. This can be expressed through psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. We should sing together not only in the Christian circle but also in the circle of the Christian family.

"Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing in the Lord. Fathers, do not vex your children, to the end that they be not disheartened"   (3:18-21) 

The two principles, "seek the things above" and "put to death your members which are upon the earth" should also be displayed in the Christian family. God gave marriage before sin occurred but it has been affected by sin. Scripture shows us here the two divine principles for marriage, firstly the wives should take the place of subjection to their husbands, and the husbands should love their wives. To make clear what Paul says here I will tell you what the opposites are. The opposite of subjection to the husband is rebellion again him, and the opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. Unfortunately, I sometimes have to deal with difficulties in the marriages of believers, and I have witnessed that these two things, when wives are in rebellion in their own houses against their husbands and when husbands are indifferent to the needs of their wives, are destructive in Christian marriages. I know that the philosophies of this world differ but we do not want to be governed by these but by the thoughts of Christ.

Then we have the relationship between children and their parents, the children being told that they are to obey their parents. This is a divine principle, still valid, and on this principle a great blessing of God has been placed. I would like to repeat this for children here, "Children, obey your parents". I know that this is different in our environment today, but in Christian families this principle should still apply. Then the fathers are told they are not to provoke their children. This is an important exhortation to fathers, we can provoke our children through carnal behaviour, when we want to demonstrate that we are the lord of the house, or we can provoke our children by exaggerating what we require of them, and we can also provoke them if we do not give them increasing liberty when they grow up and need to live a life of their own. So we can see that these two principles are so important in the Christian family, "seek the things above" and "put to death your members which are upon the earth".

"Bondmen, obey in all things your masters according to flesh; not with eye-services, as men-pleasers, but in simplicity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatsoever ye do, labour at it heartily, as doing it to the Lord, and not to men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the recompense of the inheritance; ye serve the Lord Christ. For he that does a wrong shall receive the wrong he has done, and there is no respect of persons. Masters, give to bondmen what is just and fair, knowing that ye also have a Master in the heavens."   (3:22-4:1) 

The third circle is that of our work. Again, these two general principles are valid for the believer, "seek the things above" and "put to death your members which are upon the earth". Servants are exhorted to work and masters are called upon to reward their servants according to their worth. Paul speaks about slaves and masters here, but these are divine principles which are still valid today, for the believer in his workplace is under an obligation to follow the instructions given to him by his boss and to work as "to the Lord". There we read something wonderful, namely, that the Lord will give a recompense. A young brother told me, "I earn five thousand pounds a month" and I said, "It is hard for me to believe you earn so much". And he replied, "Well, I do not receive that much, I only receive two thousand; but what I deserve is five thousand" (earning and deserving is the same word in German). Perhaps there is someone here who thinks the same way and if this is true, that you deserve more than you earn and you still remain faithful to your boss, then the Lord will give you a recompense.

"He that does a wrong shall receive the wrong he has done" applies to the masters and the servants. This verse is the transition after the servants are addressed but before the masters are addressed. Believing bosses should be just with their employees and they should give them fair wages, they should give that which is just for the body, the soul and the spirit of the employee. These are the exhortations which reflect the thoughts of the Lord Jesus Christ in the circle of the workplace.

"Persevere in prayer, watching in it with thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us also, that God may open to us a door of the word to speak the mystery of Christ, on account of which also I am bound, to the end that I may make it manifest as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom towards those without, redeeming opportunities. Let your word be always with grace, seasoned with salt, so as to know how ye ought to answer each one."   (4:2-6) 

The fourth circle where these two principles, "seek the things above" and "put to death your members which are upon the earth", apply is in the circle of the Lord's work and all believers have the privilege of doing this work. We say, 'all believers have a task in the Lord's work', and, 'This brother is in the Lord's work'; both expressions are scriptural. I would like to show this. 1 Corinthians 15:58 comprises all believers, "So then, my beloved brethren, be firm, immovable, abounding always in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord", and so all believers have a task in the Lord's work, but then there are special tools, as in 1 Corinthians 16:10, where both Timothy and Paul are mentioned, "Now if Timotheus come, see that he may be with you without fear; for he works the work of the Lord, even as I." This is the fourth circle where we move in practice, we work in the Lord's work.

Perhaps we think the most important thing we can do in the Lord's work is to speak, but I will now show you the three things that are important in the Lord's work, and I lay special emphasis on the order. The first and foremost thing in the Lord's work is prayer. Your service in the Lord's work begins on your knees. This is the starting point for every work in the Lord's service. The second point is in verse 5, the walk. If we want to work in the Lord's work we must take care of our walk. Then in verse 6 mention is made of speaking; so we have: prayer - walk - word, this is the divine order in the Lord's work.

We should also pray for others who are in the Lord's work and it is Paul's desire here that the Lord should open a door for him. Sometimes we listen to news from the Lord's work where someone writes that there are many open doors, but Paul does not ask for many doors, he only asks for one because you cannot pass through many doors at one time. Therefore he requests this prayer that the Lord might open one door for him, so that he might announce the mystery of Christ which comprises the whole Christian truth. We pray for the gospel, and this is important, but it is not all, we should pray that the whole Christian truth is proclaimed. Then Paul speaks of our walk in relation to those without who watch us and we should redeem the time. This does not mean that you must work for twenty-four hours a day but it means that you have to do the right thing at the right time, this must be our exercise in our walk. If there is an opportunity then we should take it under the Lord's guidance, this is the meaning of redeeming the time.

Then of course we should also speak in the Lord's work, and our speech should be characterised by two things. Firstly, we do not speak by giving orders, we speak in grace. Secondly our speech is to be seasoned with salt. Salt has the property of working against corruption and gives spice and taste to food. This is what our speech should be like, always in grace but also with some spiritual power which works against corruption and which gives a divine seasoning to our whole speech.

Finally Paul tells us, not what we should respond to every one, but how we should do it. Our French speaking brethren have a nice phrase, 'the tone makes the music'. This is true in the Lord's work as well. It is not only a question of what we say but of how we say it. We should ponder this if we want to be involved in the Lord's work. 

To summarise, we "seek that which is above", and we "put to death your members which are upon the earth". This is a daily exercise and we practice this in the Christian circle, and the family circle, and at our workplace and in the Lord's work with the help and grace of our Lord.