May 26 – An Expectation of Heaven

Seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.

Colossians 3:1

The apostle Paul was preoccupied with heaven; he knew few earthly comforts. He was beaten, stoned, left for dead, deprived of necessities, and frequently disappointed by people. But he had no concern for pleasant feelings: he wanted only to live a productive life in pursuit of his heavenly goal.

We must have the same focus if we are going to pursue our heavenly reward. Christ is from heaven and in heaven. Heaven is His place, and because we are His, heaven is our place as well. If we are preoccupied with being like Him, we will naturally be preoccupied with heaven. What happens there should be more important to us than what happens here.[1]

3:1 If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. The If of this verse does not express any doubt in the mind of the Apostle Paul. It is what has been called the “If” of argument, and may be translated since: “Since then you were raised together with Christ.…

As mentioned in chapter 2, the believer is seen as having died with Christ, having been buried with Him, and having risen with Him from among the dead. The spiritual meaning of all this is that we have said goodbye to the former way of life, and have entered upon a completely new type of life, that is, the life of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Because we have been raised with Christ, we should seek those things which are above. We are still on earth, but we should be cultivating heavenly ways.[2]

  1. Consistency requires that believers live in conformity with the fact that they were raised with Christ, who is not only the Object of their faith (chapters 1 and 2) but also the Source of their life (chapters 3 and 4). Of course, the line between these two divisions is not sharp. There is considerable overlapping. There is, however, a difference in emphasis.

Between Colossians 3 and that which precedes there is a close connection. The opening words of Col. 3, If then you were raised with Christ, resume the thought already expressed in 2:12, 13, “raised with him … made alive with him,” and are the counterpart of 2:20, “If with Christ you died to the rudiments of the world.…” The Colossians, it will be recalled, were beset by the danger of relapsing into paganism with its gross sensuality, etc., as is clear from 2:23 and 3:5 ff. The wrong solution of their problem was refuted in chapters 1 and 2, especially the latter. It was indicated that there is no material cure for a spiritual ill, that neglect of the body will never heal the soul’s sickness but will aggravate it, that heaven-born individuals cannot gain satisfaction from earth-born remedies. Christ, he alone, is the answer, Christ in all the fulness of his love and power, as already implied in both chapters 1 and 2, and set forth with even greater clarity and directness now (chapter 3), in a series of pastoral exhortations. If, then, the Colossians were corporately raised when Christ was raised and with him, as previously explained (see on 2:12, 13, 20), why should they seek salvation or fulness anywhere apart from him? Why should they resort to broken cisterns when the Fountain is at hand? Christ’s resurrection, followed by his ascension and coronation, guarantees their pardon and provides for their purity. To this Savior they had surrendered themselves when they had embraced him by faith. The cleansing power of Christ’s blood and Spirit had been signified and sealed to them in baptism. The supply of grace remains plentiful. Right now—they need not wait until the day of the Parousia!—they are raised with Christ. They possess within themselves the life of the resurrection. Let the power of Christ’s resurrection, therefore, be experienced by them in an ever increasing degree. Let their union with the exalted Christ transform their entire life: mind, heart, and will (Phil. 3:10). Let them seek the things that are above, where Christ is. The verb seek implies persevering effort; hence, the rendering, “Be constantly seeking,” is not incorrect. This seeking, moreover, is more than a seeking to discover. It is a seeking to obtain (cf. Matt. 6:33; 13:45). The emphasis, though, is not on the seeking but on the object sought. A precise rendering would be, “the things that are above [placed forward for emphasis] be constantly seeking.” Seeking to obtain is a common activity, but seeking to obtain the right treasures is not nearly so common, and therefore requires emphasis. These things that are above are the spiritual values embedded in the heart of the exalted Mediator in glory, whence, without loss to himself, they are bestowed upon those who humbly ask for them and diligently seek them (Matt. 7:7; 1 Cor. 12:11; Eph. 1:3; 4:7, 8). As the context indicates, the apostle has reference to such realities as tenderheartedness, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering, patience, the forgiving spirit, and above all love (3:12 ff.). Surely, if the hearts of believers are filled with such bounties there will be no room for fleshly indulgence. Here, then, is the true solution.

The Colossians can be assured of the fact that their exalted Christ has both the right and the power to bestow whatever gifts are needed, for he is seated at the right hand of God (Ps. 110:1, a phrase applied by Christ to himself in Matt. 22:41–46; 26:64; Mark 12:35–37; 14:61, 62; Luke 20:41–44; 22:66–70), clothed with majesty and honor.

This comforting truth of the ascension of the Lord and his coronation at the Father’s right hand, as a Fountain of blessing for his people, was foreshadowed in the Old Testament (Ps. 8, as interpreted in Heb. 2:1–8; Ps. 68:18, as explained in Eph. 4:7, 8; Ps. 110:1, as has been shown; Isa. 53:12). It was frequently referred to by the Lord himself (see, in addition to the Gospel-passages in the preceding paragraph, John 14:1–4; 14:13–18; 16:7; 17:5; 20:17). It was from the very beginning one of the basic themes in the preaching of the church (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:6–11; 2:33–36; 3:21; 5:30, 31; 7:56; Rom. 8:32–34; Eph. 1:20–23; 4:7, 8; Phil. 2:9–11; 3:20, 21; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1–3, 13; 2:1–8; 4:14–16; 8:1, 2; 9:11, 12, 24; 10:12; 1 Peter 3:21, 22; Rev. 1:12–18; 12:5–12).

Those that seek to obtain these “things that are above” are not chasing phantoms but are gathering priceless treasures. They are not the kind of people who forget about their duty in the here and now. On the contrary, they are very practical, for the graces that have been enumerated enable them not only to gain victory upon victory in their struggle against fleshly indulgence but also to be truthfully “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13, 14).[3]

The Reminder

If then you have been raised up with Christ (3:1a)

If denotes reality, as in 2:20, and is better translated “since.” Believers having been raised up with Christ is not in doubt. The verb actually means “to be co-resurrected.” It is an accomplished fact.  Believers spiritually are entered into Christ’s death and resurrection at the moment of their salvation. Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.” In that verse, the apostle shows the union of the believer with the Lord, so that they have a shared life. Romans 6:3–4 teaches the same truth: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

The “baptism” here is not into water, but an immersing into the Savior’s death and resurrection. Through their union with Christ, believers have died, have been buried, and have risen with Him. By saving faith they have entered into a new dimension. They possess divine and eternal life, which is not merely endless existence, but a heavenly quality of life brought to them by the indwelling Lord. They are thus alive in Christ to the realities of the divine realm.

Consequently, Christians have an obligation to live consistently with those realities. Paul delineates the specifics of that obligation in Romans 6:11–19:

Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.

This new life is real and powerful, but so is remaining sin. Though it no longer is our master, it can still overpower us if we are not presenting ourselves to God as servants of righteousness. (For a fuller  treatment of this rich teaching, see my comments on Romans 6–8 in Romans 1–8, MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1991].)

Spirituality, as Paul says in Philippians 2:12, is working that inner life out, the process of living the reality of our union with Christ. In Him we have all the resources necessary for living the Christian life (cf. 2 Pet. 1:3). Paul emphasizes the centrality of Christ throughout Colossians 3:1–4. By using such phrases as with Christ (3:1); where Christ (3:1); with Christ (3:3); when Christ (3:4); and with Him (3:4), he stresses again Christ’s total sufficiency (cf. 2:10). Unfortunately, many Christians fail to understand and pursue the fullness of Christ. Consequently, because of not knowing what Scripture says, or not applying it properly, they are intimidated into thinking they need something more than Him alone to live the Christian life. They fall prey to false philosophy, legalism, mysticism, or asceticism.

Paul reminds the Colossians that they have risen with Christ. This is the path to holiness, not self-denial, angelic experience, or ceremony. They are no longer living the old life they lived before their salvation, but possess the eternal life of Christ and have been raised to live on another plane. They must not be ignorant or forgetful of who they are and how they are to live. All sinful passion is controlled and conquered by the power of the indwelling Christ and our union with Him.

The Responsibility

keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (3:1b, 2)

The present tense of zēteō (keep seeking) indicates continuous action. Preoccupation with the eternal realities that are ours in Christ is to be the pattern of the believer’s life. Jesus put it this way: “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). Paul is not advocating a form of mysticism. Rather, he desires that the Colossians’ preoccupation with heaven govern their earthly responses. To be preoccupied with heaven is to be preoccupied with the One who reigns there and His purposes, plans, provisions, and power. It is also to view the things, people, and events of this world through His eyes and with an eternal perspective.

The things above refers to the heavenly realm and hones in on the spiritual values that characterize Christ, such as tenderness, kindness, meekness, patience, wisdom, forgiveness, strength, purity, and love.

When believers focus on the realities of heaven, they can then truly enjoy the world their heavenly Father has created. As the writer of the hymn “I Am His, and He Is Mine” expressed it,

Heav’n above is softer blue

Earth around is sweeter green!

Something lives in every hue

Christless eyes have never seen:

Birds with gladder songs o’erflow

Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine,

Since I know, as now I know,

I am His, and He is mine.

When Christians begin to live in the heavenlies, when they commit themselves to the riches of “the Jerusalem above” (Gal. 4:26), they will live out their heavenly values in this world to the glory of God.

In 3:2, Paul gives instruction on how to seek the things above. He says, Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. Set your mind is from phroneō and could simply be translated, “think,” or more thoroughly, “have this inner disposition.” Once again, the present tense indicates continuous action. Lightfoot paraphrases Paul’s thought: “You must not only seek heaven, you must also think heaven” (St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [1879; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959], p. 209; italics in the original). The believer’s whole disposition should orient itself toward heaven, where Christ is, just as a compass needle orients itself toward the north.

Obviously, the thoughts of heaven that are to fill the believer’s mind must derive from Scripture. The Bible is the only reliable source of knowledge about the character of God and the values of heaven. Paul describes that preoccupation as being “transformed by the renewing of [your] mind” (Rom. 12:2). In it we learn the true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and praiseworthy things our minds are to dwell on (cf. Phil. 4:8).

Such heavenly values dominating the mind produce godly behavior. Sin will be conquered and humility, a sacrificial spirit, and assurance will result.

The Resource

where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (3:1c)

The believer’s resource is none other than the One in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge: the risen and glorified Christ, seated at the right hand of God in the place of honor and majesty. The Bible speaks often of Christ’s exalted position. Psalm 110:1 says, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet.’ ” Jesus told the accusers at His trial that “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69). In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter told the crowd that Jesus had been “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33). Peter and the other apostles described Jesus to the Sanhedrin as “the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior” (Acts 5:31). As he was being martyred, Stephen cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Paul describes Jesus as He “who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:34), because God “raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20). The writer of Hebrews says of Christ, “When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). Because of that, “we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (Heb. 8:1). He is the One “who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him” (1 Pet. 3:22).

Because of Christ’s coronation and exaltation to the Father’s right hand, He is the fountain of blessing for His people. Jesus told the disciples, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14; cf. 15:16; 16:23–24, 26). Believers can be assured that what they seek is there, “for as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes” (2 Cor. 1:20).[4]

1 Having reminded the Colossians that they have died with Christ (2:20; cf. 2:12), Paul now reiterates that they have been “raised with Christ” (cf. 2:12). Unlike Christ, they have not been raised bodily. Nevertheless, Paul insists that they have been raised (synēgerthēte, GK 5283, is a liquid aorist passive compound verb [second person plural]) spiritually with Christ by God. Their baptisms served as vivid, tangible reminders of this vital theological principle. If they truly have been raised with Christ via conversion as imaged in baptism, then they should seek “the things above.” They should not devote their attention to the earthly things that characterized the “philosophy”; conversely, they should quest after (“set [their] hearts on”) heavenly things. (“The things above” is synonymous with heaven [so, rightly, Lincoln, 637].)

Why does Paul counsel the Colossians to keep seeking the things above? Is this not dangerous advice with which the promoters of the “philosophy” would agree? Paul does not employ such spatial imagery to affirm the “philosophy” or to encourage visionary activity among the assembly; rather, he commands the Colossians to pursue the things of heaven precisely because this is where Christ is. He is not one among a panoply of heavenly dignitaries; Christ occupies a place of primacy and sovereignty. The resurrected Christ is the ascended Christ who is “seated at the right hand of God.” This depiction of Christ’s session is drawn from Psalm 110:1 (cf. Ro 8:34; Eph 1:20). (To take this metaphoric description literally is a misconstrual of the text.) In enjoining the church to seek the things above and thereby Christ, Paul is encouraging them “to give Christ [who reigns as Lord] an allegiance that takes precedence over all earthly loyalties. His ends are to be their ends; and it follows that the means by which those ends are attained must be his means” (Caird, 202).[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 163). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2007). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Colossians and Philemon (Vol. 6, pp. 139–141). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1992). Colossians (pp. 125–128). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Still, T. D. (2006). Colossians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 322). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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