Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 9, 2023
Colossians 3:1-4 Commentary
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson challenges and stretches Christians’ understanding of Easter’s ongoing importance. Christians profess that approximately two thousand years ago, God the Father didn’t let God the Son stay dead. God raised Jesus from the dead (1).
Jesus’ friends also understand at least some of the future implications of Jesus’ resurrection. Because God refused to abandon Jesus to death, God refuses to abandon God’s dearly beloved people to death. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, God will also someday raise Jesus’ followers from the dead. “When Christ, who is your life, appears,” Paul tells the Christians in Colosse in verse 4, “then you also will appear with him in glory.”
But as Marianne Meye Thompson, from whose marvelous commentary (Colossians and Philemon, Eerdmans, 2005) I borrowed some of this commentary’s ideas, notes, Jesus’ resurrection also impacts daily Christian life. So preachers who choose Colossians 3 as this Easter Sunday’s text might note that it’s part of Paul’s inspired answer to Easter’s question, “So what?”
The apostle begins in verse 1 with a statement of fact: Christians have been “raised with Christ” (synagerthete to Christo). He professes, in other words, that as certainly as God raised Jesus from death to life, God also raised Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters from death to life. In fact, it’s as if Paul says that when God raised Jesus to life, God also raised God’s dearly beloved people to life.
Among the questions that assertion raises are how Paul can claim that people are raised with Christ to life when, in fact, they’ve not yet died. Especially in his letters to the Romans and Ephesians, the apostle answers by speaking of the death from which God raises us as a kind of spiritual death. God graciously raises God’s adopted children from a deathly life that’s marked by consistent rebellion against God, as well as God’s will and purposes.
Jesus’ friends whom the Spirit raises from that death to life are those whom the Spirit graciously equips to live to honor and please God. As Reformed Christians profess in Lord’s Day 17 of The Heidelberg Catechism, by God’s power “Christians … are already raised to a new life.”
While this describes an accomplished, historical fact, Paul also goes on to refer to a future ramification of Jesus’ resurrection. “When Christ, who is your life, appears (phanerothe),” he writes in verse 4, “then you also will appear (phanerothesthe) in glory (doxe).” When Christians’ adopted big brother Jesus appears (or reappears), his adopted siblings will also appear.
But just as the returning Christ will be more obviously glorious when he comes a second time than he was when he first came, so his friends will also be more glorious at his return. When God’s only natural Son of God came the first time, he looked a lot like God’s adopted sons and daughters decidedly inglorious selves.
When Jesus returns in the future, Paul asserts, both his adopted siblings and him will all look far more glorious. The Message paraphrases the apostle as claiming in verse 4, “When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too – the real you, the glorious you.”
Yet in verses 1b-3, Paul also insists that Jesus’ resurrection already impacts his followers. The Holy Spirit, as the apostle insists in verse 1b, equips Jesus’ friends to “set [our] hearts (zeteite) on things above” (ta ano). The Spirit also, according to verse 2, empowers Christians to “set our minds (phroneite) on things above” (ta ano).
Biblical scholars note that these are yet more Pauline invitations that are easy to misinterpret. With the Spirit’s help, most Christians understand the apostle’s allusion to Christ’s exulted state in the heavenly realm (“where Christ is seated at the right hand of God”). That status, notes Thompson, reflects both Christ’s vindication and his ongoing status as the ruler over all creation.
What Paul means by calling his readers to set our hearts and minds “on things above” has been historically less clear to Jesus’ friends. In fact, in their fine book Colossians Remixed (InterVarsity Press, 2004), the biblical scholars Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat imagine post-moderns as hearing this as a call to a kind of unhelpful otherworldliness.
Some of our contemporaries may hear the apostle’s call as a summons to no longer even think about “earthly things” (2), but to concentrate only on things in the heavenly realm and new earth and heaven. Paul may, in other words, sound to some people as summoning Christian to be “so heavenly minded” that we’re of “no earthly good.”
Walsh and Keesmat reject that understanding. They suggest that setting our hearts and minds on things above means, instead, something like allowing our “vision of life,” our “worldview,” our “most basic life orientation to be directed by Christ’s heavenly rule at the right hand of God.” Such an understanding echoes Jesus’ call in Matthew 6:33 to “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and righteousness.”
In that view Paul isn’t calling Jesus’ friends to simply ignore “earthly things” like families and friendships, work and recreation, home and school. He’s, instead, inviting us to think about those earthly things from a heavenly perspective. Paul is summoning Christians to view those things the way the victorious and reigning Christ views them.
Those who have been raised with Christ view things from his sovereign perspective. The apostle invites his readers to even look at and respond to earthly evils like injustice, poverty, neglect, abuse and prejudice the way the victorious and ascended Christ does.
The verses that immediately follow this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson support that understanding of heavenly mindedness. There, after all, Paul calls his readers to “put to death … whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (5). This isn’t ethereal language about focusing on the “sweet by and by.” It’s, instead, an invitation to Jesus’ followers to view the creation and its creatures from a kingdom perspective. In his earlier commentary on this text, Scott Hoezee says that it suggests that “those of us who have been raised with Christ are [to be] at once fixated on that divine reality and busy at work here on earth.”
Christians have, after all, according to verse 3, “died” (apathanate). Christ’s death and resurrection has, in other words, broken Satan, sin and death’s dominance of us. Our life, continues the apostle, “is now hidden (kekryptai) with Christ in God (en to Theou).”
This, too, is, admittedly, a mysterious claim. Thompson (ibid) suggests that it means that there are no important secrets that God has hidden from God’s dearly beloved children. What’s more, as those whom the Spirit has joined to Christ, Jesus’ friends’ life is somehow hidden in the life of our risen Lord. So while our culture may think of Christians as spiritually dead, God has raised us to life, a reality that we share with Christ Jesus.
Keesmat and Walsh (ibid) suggest that this offers a kind of multifaceted, distinctively Christian ethic. “It is,” they write, “a resurrection ethic that refuses to bow the knee to the empire and its idols. It is an ascension ethic that refuses to be subject to the principles of normality. It is a liberated ethic that dares to imagine a world that is alternative to the present brokenness. It is an eschatological ethic of hope that engenders a this-worldly praxis in anticipation of a coming kingdom.”
In her book, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, Laura Tillman tells the story of the Camacho family. In 2003 John Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children in their apartment. However, several years later the Camachos’ neighbors transformed their yard into raised garden beds.
As Tillman reflects on this, she notes, “The garden had accomplished something unexpected — it made the building seem beside the point. The story of what had happened here lent strength to this new incarnation, a symbol of renewal in a spot where death once reigned.”
In this Easter Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul invites his readers to think of ourselves as a similar “symbol of renewal in a spot where death once reigned.”
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