Colossians 3:1-4

Our last time in Colossians was the last Lord’s Day evening of September. So let’s take a quick glance over the first two chapters and remind ourselves of the ground we have so far covered. The opening thanksgiving, typical in Paul’s letters but more elaborate in this case because he used it to make important points relative to the situation in the church at that moment, was followed by Paul’s “great Christology,” then by a recollection of the spiritual history of the Colossian believers themselves, and that of Paul’s own ministry. That led to another extensive account of the Lord Jesus as God-man and the Redeemer of sinners which led, in turn to the first direct attack on the teaching of the visitors who had brought some elitist notions of Christian living that mixed the gospel with elements of the religious and philosophical milieu of the Greco-Roman world. All that Paul has said so far and the way he said it was designed to undermine the influence of the false teachers whose teaching amounted to something much less than a Christocentric theology and a Christocentric way of life.

What Paul is about in Colossians is putting Jesus Christ back in the center and keeping him there. As has sometimes been said the main thing in life is to keep the main thing the main thing in life! How easy it is for human beings to lose touch with the main thing. I was fascinated to read recently that only three of some ninety obituaries of J.S. Bach mentioned that he was a composer! All the rest referred to his virtuosity as a player of the organ and the harpsichord. That is something akin to remembering William Shakespeare as a great actor! [W.F. Buckley, Happy Days Were Here Again, 444] Well so it is here as well. A great many accounts of religion and its meaning by people who call themselves Christians do not mention or hardly mention Jesus Christ! And even in cases where Christ has a place, it is amazing how subtly, how surreptitiously, even how unintentionally the Lord Jesus can be displaced from the center of the Christian’s and the Christian church’s consciousness, faith, and hope. Colossians is a sustained protest against any and all failures to keep the Lord Jesus Christ at the center of our own individual and of the church’s conscious life. The letter is an assertion of the Christocentricity of both our faith and our daily life.

Text Comment


“raised with Christ” harks back to 2:12-13 where we are said to have been “made alive” together with Christ in his resurrection. It is a thought like that we get in the opening verses of Romans 6. There too we are said to participate or share in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.


“you have died” in the same way harks back to 2:20. In Christ’s death, we also died, because of our union with him we participate in the work he did on our behalf. So the Bible can say we have died to the world, to sin, to self and have risen to a new life all in the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

“Your life is hidden with Christ in God” is one of those short epigrammatic statements found often in Paul that compress so much meaning that the alert reader can’t help but wonder just what and how much Paul was intending to say with the words he used. More on that later.

Chapter 3 begins what is often called the “practical” section of the letter. By the word “practical” is meant not that what you find in chapters 1 and 2 is less useful, but rather that it has to do with praxis, that is with behavior. Typical of a number of Paul’s letters there is in Colossians a theological section and an ethical section. And the second section, the ethical section begins in an entirely typical manner for a letter of the Apostle Paul. There is in rhetoric, or the art of written, but especially spoken English, something called the “Ciceronian period,” a type of sentence mastered by the great Roman orator Cicero, in which the words on which the primary emphasis is to fall are left to the last. It was the model in which virtually all great American orators were trained or trained themselves. Perhaps there is a reason why we have no oratory any longer in our political life; no one is consciously attempting to imitate a model of great oratory as budding orators always did before. Well, if there is such a thing as a Ciceronian period, there is also such a thing as a “Pauline therefore.” You find it everywhere in Paul and perhaps no simple grammatical or oratorical technique so distills the great man’s thought as his use of this three letter particle at key points in his letters.

The ESV, as the NIV, has somewhat weakened Paul’s “therefore,” into a “then.” “If then you have been raised with Christ.” Some Greek and Latin words are what classical grammarians call “postpositives.” It is a fancy term that means that the word is never found first in a sentence. It always follows some other word. Well so with the word “therefore” that Paul uses here. It doesn’t come first in the order of words, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t first in the idea of the sentence. Translate 3:1 this way: “Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ…” The “if” is rhetorical; Paul doesn’t doubt that they have been raised with Christ, he is drawing a conclusion from the fact that they have been raised with Christ.”

This “therefore” as you know appears regularly in Paul’s letters as the connection between his theological argument at the beginning of the letter and his ethical conclusion. You have it famously in Romans 12:1 where, after 11 chapters of the exposition of God’s work of salvation, Paul begins his description of the Christian life with “Therefore, I appeal to you brothers by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…” You have this again in Ephesians 4 where, at the same point, at the intersection between theology and ethics Paul writes, “Therefore I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…” It is an extraordinarily significant way of connecting the two sections of his letters, this Pauline “therefore.” Scarcely has any word ever borne as much weight as this little particle of three letters!

What this “therefore” means is that we are to live the life that Paul goes on to describe because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Or as the old writers used to put it we are to live from grace and salvation not to grace and salvation. God’s work always comes first, ours only as a response and answer to it. Most of the world, as you know, has it exactly backwards. All the other religions have it exactly backwards. They exhort us to do this or that in the hope that if we do so we shall be saved. They are living, obeying, serving, and worshipping to life, in hopes of acquiring, attaining, or achieving life. We Christians, on the other hand, alone among all the peoples of the world, have been granted life from the dead as a free gift. We too must obey and serve and worship, but our obedience and our service are the result of God’s gracious salvation not the cause of it. They are the outworking of what God has already done for us and in us. This is the same point that Paul makes when he writes, as in Ephesians 4:1 or in Colossians 1:10 that we are to walk worthy of our calling as Christians or worthy of the Lord. We have been given a very great gift. We have been given to know this great Savior. It is ours to demonstrate with our lives how grateful we are for what we have received.

The second question of the Heidelberg Catechism reads:

“What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” [You remember question one, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer: “That I belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”] So question two asks “What must your know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” And the answer is:

“Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.”

The exposition of the Christian life, called “Gratitude” in the Catechism, which is the third and last section of the Catechism, begins this way:

“We have been delivered from our misery by God’s grace alone through Christ and not because we have earned it: why then must we still do good?”

We’re already safe. If we’re already in, why do we have to work so hard living the Christian life? And the answer:

“To be sure, Christ has redeemed us by his blood. But we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.”

All of that to capture the meaning of Paul’s therefore. We do not obey in order to be saved but because we have been saved. Ethics in the Bible is the outgrowth, the after-effect, the consequence of salvation, not the cause of it. Now don’t think this too obvious to need mention.

The principle error of the human heart, the fundamental theory of all false religion, and so the basic nature of all corruptions of the Christian faith is preciselythe repudiation of Paul’s therefore! It was Israel’s undoing repeatedly in the ancient epoch. She began to live and worship to life instead of from life. It was a failure to grasp this point by those who would certainly have claimed to be following the Bible that put Judaism at odds with her Messiah when he came among them, and it has been this embrace of legalism — for that is what legalism is, any theory of working to life instead of from life — that has hidden the gospel from generations of people whose inheritance was that of biblical Christianity. Whether other religions or Christians who have lost their way, the error is invariably the same. This is the principle soteriological issue of human life. How do ethics fit the larger picture? Where does our behavior come in terms of our relationship with God? And the error is always the same: to reverse Paul’s order. That is, to put Colossians 3 and 4 first, followed by a therefore, and then Colossians 1 and 2; or Romans 12-16 first, followed by a therefore and then Romans 1-11, they put Ephesians 4-6 first, a therefore, and then Ephesians 1-3. Biblical Christianity has a unique and absolutely indispensable order: theology first, ethics second; God’s work first, our work second; grace first, obedience a response to it. It is immensely important to understand this because, after all, the other religions also teach that we should not lie or steal or prove unfaithful to our spouses. They also teach that we should love others as we love ourselves. So what is the big difference? The big difference is precisely that we do not regard that obedience as the price of our salvation but as the fruit of it. Our living good lives is not the reason we are saved but the proof that we have been.

How is man made right with God? What is required of him that he might live forever? No matter how it is put this is the great issue of human life and compared to it everything else, and I mean everything else, is detail. And Paul’s “therefore” simply but dramatically reveals the utterly unique answer to these questions given in Holy Scripture. No other religion has an incarnation or a cross or an empty tomb precisely because every other religion imagines that human activity of some type is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of salvation, whatever it understands salvation to be. No other religion needs Paul’s “therefore.” It is the word that free grace makes necessary when we begin to speak about how we ought to live.

Or put it this way: we tend to think of religion in terms of man’s search for God, though it might be more accurate to describe the religions of the world as man’s effort to keep God at a distance. But be that as it may, in the Bible man does not search for God, God searches for man. Man may be hiding from him, but God finds him and draws him, and brings him back. That is salvation in the Bible. And once one has been found and changed by the grace and power of God, there is a new life for him or her to live.

But lest there be any temptation to assume that since God has found me I’m safe and there is nothing else I need do, the Bible is always reminding us that there is a great deal for us to do. God didn’t save us that we might sit on our hands. He saved us to live and to love and to serve. Christ was the perfectly righteous man that we have been saved eventually to become, but he was the farthest thing from an idler. He worked himself virtually to death. And if we really appreciate the gift, the stupendous gift we have been given, we will not want to sit on our hands but rather make the very most of it.

That is what Paul begins with here. Now we must understand two things to feel the force of Paul’s exhortation here.

  1. The first is the contrast between heavenly things and earthly things in vv. 1-2. Obviously Paul is not saying that we should forget all about sleep, or food, or drink, or husband or wives or children. He is going to talk about our obligation to a lot of earthly “things” in that sense in the remaining sections of the letter. He will talk about our responsibilities in marriage and in family and in the workplace. We are to love one another and we are of this earth, so he obviously does not mean by “earthly things” anything we find in this world.

As the following verses make clear, the contrast is a moral and spiritual one. Heavenly things are the things of Christ — his love, his salvation, his lordship, his will, his example, his coming again, and his glory — and the earthly things are sinful things, worldly things in the negative sense, things that matter only a little and only for a time, the sort of things, in other words, that would distract us from living out our new life in Christ and deflect our loyalty to him toward lesser interests. Only in this sense is the contrast absolute between heavenly things and worldly things. As the Lord Jesus taught us: you cannot love both God and money. There is nothing wrong with money per se — Jesus needed money just as we do — but we know how easily money can become an earthly thing in Paul’s sense of the phrase here: a god or an idol. So the contrast is, as one commentator puts it, between the “ultimately essential, transcendent, [and] belonging to God” and the “trivial” and “selfish.” [Moule, 111] The only other use of the phrase “earthly things” that we find in Paul is in Phil. 3:19 and there, very clearly, it refers to sinful desires. It describes men, Paul says, whose god is their belly. That’s the earthly thing he is talking about.

By saying that we are to “set our minds” on heavenly things Paul is saying that we are to concentrate on the Lord himself, upon the great work he has done for us, upon the calling we have to trust, love, and serve him, upon the great future that beckons us forward, and so on. As a man thinks, so he is, the Bible reminds us. So often, as we all know all too well, our minds are full of other things; lesser things, unworthy and sinful things and that must enfeeble our communion with the Lord Jesus and our living for his sake. [Lucas, 137]

  1. The second phrase we must understand is the phrase “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” What does that mean? Well, this new life you have in Christ is not observable to others. Your skin color didn’t change when you became a Christian; you didn’t add six inches; you didn’t become suddenly more beautiful or handsome. We know that the hiddenness that Paul is referring to here has to do with what can be observed or seen by others because we have the contrast in v. 4. There we read that a day is coming when Christians will appear with Christ in glory. No one will doubt then that you and Christ are together, that you belong to him, or that you are his servant and he your Master. It will be evident to everyone.

What is more, in that same v. 4, we read that “Christ is our life.” How many times does Paul say something like that: a somewhat cryptic and very dense or compact description of what it means to be a Christian? Think of Phil. 1:21, “For me to live is Christ.” Or Galatians 2:20: “…it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me…” You can ponder those statements until the day you die and you won’t get to the bottom of them. It is a way of speaking of our participation in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, of Christ’s active presence in our lives by the Spirit; of the profound change he has wrought in our very nature, and of how our faith in him makes possible an active and personal communion with him every moment of the day.

But, again, no one can see that with the eye. Unbelievers are not forced to admit, as it were against their will, that Jesus Christ himself lives in all his followers. When, on the great day, the church is revealed for what it truly is, the world will be astonished. It didn’t see this before! It never saw Christians for what they really were. Their true nature was hidden from view. Our heavenly identity as Christians is real and secure, but it is not as obvious as we wish it were. It will only be revealed fully in the future. [O’Brien, 244]

And we know why. The fact of the matter is, much as we may wish it were not so, there is a great deal in the life of every Christian and of the church as a whole that serves to obfuscate and hide what otherwise would be the evidence of your personal union with the Son of God himself.

There is, in many Christian lives and much of the time, grand evidence of the presence of Christ by his Holy Spirit. The goodness, the sacrificial spirit, the selfless love of many Christians is magnificently inspiring. It certainly has inspired me throughout my life. How many people through the ages, how many people that you know would say they became Christians because they observed Christians living their lives and they wanted to be like them, they wanted whatever it was that made them so different. But Christians, at the same time, speak and do many things that tarnish their image as the children of God. We can be, alas we often are, as petty, as worldly, as self-satisfied, as proud, as cold, and as faithless as the unbelievers around us who have not died and risen with Christ. We learned at Prayer Meeting last Wednesday evening that a prominent Christian, a writer of well-regarded books defending the Christian faith, has been caught in sexually dubious behavior. How many times has that happened over the past generation? For centuries the quintessential example of clerical impurity was a medieval monk. One thousand years after the middle ages it was still the quintessential example of clerical impurity. In a single generation we have raised in the world’s mind the suspicion that both Roman Catholic priests one and all and Protestant pastors one and all have all manner of skeletons in their closets. And if it isn’t sexual sin, its financial malfeasance, or drug addiction, or any number of other moral failures.

It is one of the saddest and most demoralizing features of the life of the Church that Christians do not live more worthy of the calling we have received. Think about it. Why don’t you tell your unsaved friends and neighbors, “Unlike you, I’m a child of God and my life is hidden with Christ in God”? I’ll tell you why. You don’t say such a thing because you would die of embarrassment to utter the words. You know only too well that your neighbor would laugh at you and wonder what in the world makes you think you are so much better than he or she. And then you would immediately have to explain that you are not yet what you will someday become, and so on.

But it is not only in that way that our life is hidden with Christ in God. So much of even the best of our lives happens tucked away inside where so much of our devotion, so much of the spiritual warfare, and so much of our battle with sin and temptation takes place, in our hearts and hidden from the view of outsiders as it must be. If we bring it out in many cases it will be for the sake of our pride. Christ’s own life as a man was hidden in God as well. People couldn’t see the divine majesty upon him. Why, they accused him of being a drunk and a glutton and a glory-hound. He raised human nature as high as it had ever been raised, as high as it will ever be raised because he lived in such perfect communion with his heavenly Father, and in perfect obedience to the commandments of God, but the people didn’t see it. Even his own disciples hardly saw it at the time. It is a lot easier to see lust and greed and hatred than it is to see meekness, love, humility, and faithfulness. He was God, but his deity was hidden. And even his perfect human life was interpreted by observers as something so much less than it really was.

Now, let’s put all of this together. As in many different ways and in many different places, here to we are said to live between the past and the future. We died in Christ’s death and at the cross and, to be sure, and at the time we became Christians, we died to our old way of life. In his resurrection and in our conversion to Christ we rose to a new and different life, a life like Christ’s own life. That’s Paul’s typical way of talking about how Christ has utterly changed our lives by his saving work. But we are not yet what we will someday be. We live in the prospect of much that is still to come. You can’t understand who a Christian is or what it means to be a Christian without an understanding of what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future. And it is precisely this — Christ’s work behind us and Christ’s second coming before us — that we are to concentrate upon and make the principles of our daily life. Christ at the Right Hand is the Jesus Christ who came, died, and rose again. Christ at the Right Hand is the Lord Christ who is coming again to judge the living and the dead and to bring salvation to all those who are waiting for him.

There is really nothing like this, nothing, anywhere else in the religious or philosophical thinking of mankind. Events outside of us, apart from us, that took place without us, without our knowing, without our conscious participation and happened long before we were born absolutely transformed our lives. But the transformation is only so far partial and incomplete. For whatever reason, God has ordered that we will not be fully and finally made into the people Christ saved us to be until he comes again and until we appear with him in glory.

(By the way, and this is an aside, it is also utterly typical of the New Testament to pass over the transformation that death brings to concentrate on the final perfection of our natures that comes only at the resurrection. It is never death — wonderful as that is when a man or woman dies in Christ and becomes morally perfect in the presence of the Lord — but always the resurrection, when the body is transformed and human life in its integrity and completeness is made perfect, that is the culmination and consummation of our salvation. Perfect bodily life is what we are always looking forward to. May I say to you that the practice of cremation ignores this magnificent fact of biblical revelation and treats our death as the final step rather than our resurrection. That’s the aside.)

Now there are massive implications of the philosophy of life that we are given in Col. 3:1-4, this Pauline “now but not yet.” We have a new life in Christ, but what that life will someday be has not yet appeared. You have been raised with Christ, Paul says, in v. 1, but usually he says you will be raised with Christ, and that is the sense of v. 4. There is a resurrection and a new measure of Christ’s life that we must wait for. Let me mention 2 of those implications in conclusion.

  1. It means that we must live with a measure of real disappointment and confusion. That is a very practical implication of this theology and the ethics that come from it. We have in us the very life of God. Astounding; remarkable; breathtaking really, if only you will stop to realize what it means. You have beating in your hearts the life of God himself. You are a child of God. You now have his nature as one of his children. You are the children of God! We say the words but we hardly know what they mean. And in part we struggle to appreciate the astonishing thing that has happened to us because that life of God in us is still so hidden, partly because in its very nature it is inward, a matter of the heart, but also because it is mixed with so much crud.

Brothers and sisters, the more you appreciate what the Lord has done for you, the more you will rejoice and the more you will mourn. In both Holy Scripture and in Church history, the godliest men and women were invariably those who were most disgusted with themselves and most anxious to escape this world and the entangling cords of sin, and find themselves at last in heaven, the men and women they were saved to be, that they struggled to be with only very partial success during their lives in this world, the men and women they have longed to be since first they tasted the divine life inside themselves. It is a burden to be a Christian because you have a nature that makes you want things for yourself that you cannot yet have. Unfulfilled longing is a heavy burden.

  1. But the main implication is that this before and after, this now but not yet being our very nature, the condition and situation of our lives, we must live in the active, daily recognition of that fact. This is Paul’s main point here. Christ is not here with us on earth, at least not visibly, not bodily as he one day will be. He is in heaven. Some day he will come from there to bring salvation in its fullness to all of us who are eagerly waiting for him but until he does he is in heaven. That is what Paul says. We are to “seek the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” We can’t see him there, we must be with him by faith and by the active engagement of our minds with the truth that has been revealed to us about what he has done for us in the past, where he is at present, and how he will someday return. It is all about Christ: Christ in the past, Christ in the present, and Christ in the future. That must be the stuff of our daily life. A mind concentrating on Christ behind me, Christ above me, and Christ before me! That is how the Christian life is lived and must be lived, because it is hidden with Christ in God.

Let’s face it, brothers and sisters. Faith, however strong, is not the same as sight. There is a sense, a very real and important sense, in which we are separated from a Christ whom we cannot see, just as a blind man is cut off from the world to which he nevertheless belongs. [Plummer, II Corinthians, 151] It is by the engagement of the heart and the concentration of the mind upon that Jesus whom we cannot see and who is in some sense apart from us in heaven that we are to live out our days. Henry Martyn the saintly missionary to India in the early days of Protestant missions, often referred to Psalm 119 — the long Psalm — in his diary. He would write such things as this:

“In the evening grew better by reading the 119th psalm, which generally brings me into a spiritual frame of mind.”

Well, says Paul, that’s what we all need: a spiritual frame of mind. In the early church and in many churches still today the worship service begins with what is called the Sursum Corda. “Sursum Corda” is Latin for “Up with your hearts” or “Lift up your hearts.” It goes like this:

Minister to Congregation: “Lift up your hearts!”

Congregation to Minister: “We lift them up to the Lord.”

Well that is Paul’s technique of the Christian life. Write in your Bible next to Colossians 3:1, Sursum Corda, “Up with your hearts” “Up with our hearts” “Up with my heart.” Each day as the day begins and then throughout the day until its end, lift up your hearts to the Lord. Look back upon what he has already done for you, look up to where he is now, and look forward to his coming again. Look backward and forward and then upward and set your mind and heart on all he has done, all that he is, and all that he will do because your life is hidden with him in God.