- Colossians 3:1-11
In 1976 Dr Francis Schaeffer wrote a book with the title “How should we then live”. The question is by what standard should we live. Dr Schaeffer said when we base society on the Bible, on the infinite-personal God who is there and has spoken, it provides an absolute by which we can conduct our lives and by which we can judge society. This leads to what Schaeffer calls “freedom without chaos.” When we base our standard on a value system rooted in the belief that man is his own autonomous, independent measure, all values are relative, and we have no way to distinguish right from wrong.
How should Christians live?
The story was told of a pastor who found the roads blocked one Sunday morning and was forced to skate on the frozen river to get to church, which he did. When he arrived, the elders of the church were horrified that their preacher had skated on the Lord’s day. After the service, they held a meeting where the pastor explained that it was either skate to church or not go at all. Finally, one elder asked, “Did you enjoy it?” When the preacher answered, “No,” the board decided it was all right!
We might ask, “By what principle?”
By what principle?
The great controversy of Colossians stems from the influence of Gnosticism, as well as Judaism upon the Christian congregation.
We met the Gnostics who contended that the only way to salvation comes through some mystical separation from earthly life in search of the way out of this world into the next. Some adhered to a strict lifestyle, denying themselves all psychical enjoyment, claiming that they receive messages from angels and have seen things other couldn’t (Colossians 2:18, 23).
Another group in the congregation was the Jews. Some commentators think that we should think of Jewish gnostics. Their own brand of Christian living was tainted with the rules and regulations as defined by the Pharisees. Their mortality was one of what one eats and drinks, whether or not you celebrate New Moon festivals and Sabbath Days. Their morality is summed up in “Do not handle, do not test, do not touch.” (Colossians 2:21)
The members of the congregation who did not meet their standard of living were regarded as spiritually underdeveloped; they were disqualified from the prize.
The regulations of both the Gnostics and the Jews indeed had an appearance of wisdom and humility.
The question still remained, “By what standard? Why?”
The Apostle Paul writes:
Put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, (Colossians 3:5–6, NKJV)
But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. (Colossians 3:8, NKJV)
Do you want to ask the question, “By what standard, Paul?”
What is the difference between what the Gnostics and the Jewish Pharisees said? Is it not just the same thing? The Gnostics called for humility, harsh treatment of the body, withdrawal from the evil world. The Jews called for a holy life of “do not taste, do not handle”. Would the Gnostics and the Jews not agree with Paul’s call against fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Add this this anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, and filthy language.
Let’s go back to the elders and the skating minister: by what standard did he think it was good to skate to church, and by what standard did the elders condemn him? And by what standard was it okay if the minister did not enjoy it? They apparently had different standards.
If we even go back to Dr Schaeffer, we might understand something. “If we base society on the Bible, on the infinite-personal God who is there and has spoken, it provides an absolute by which we can conduct our lives.”
What is this absolute principle which God gave us to live by?
‘Without-Christ’ and ‘in-Christ’
When salvation is based in adhering to certain sets of rules, one finds oneself in what the Bible describes as living in shadows, in false humility, having an unspiritual mind which exhibits itself in pride, having a fleshly, or worldly mind. All these efforts come to nothing and lead nowhere. It cannot mortify sin. Why? Verse 19 gives the answer:
They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. (Colossians 2:19, NIV)
Good works are not bad, but it achieves nothing for eternity.
In essence, this describes life without Christ.
So, let’s be practical. When it comes to things eternal, the things you hold dear because you value them as the things which will be able to tell God why He should allow you in heaven, what precisely are they? Why do you think they are meeting God’s standard? By what standard do you measure and value these things?
Do you read the Bible regularly because God might give you a golden star on the forehead if you did? Do you pray to get another star of approval? Do you come to church for the same reason? Have you stopped swearing and telling dirty jokes because, by your standards, it is not good? If this the case, you are in the same boat as those we read about in Colossians 2: they have lost connection with the Head. Don’t you think you should reconsider your case in the light of what the Bible teaches?
Paul contradicts the life of self-improvement and DIY righteousness with the life ‘in-Christ’.
For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3, NIV)
To understand the difference between BYO, DIY and fleshly, dying, worthless righteousness and God-glorifying righteousness something radical must happen. It is extraordinary radical, but it is the only way.
You have to die!
You have to die and take into that grave all efforts of self-righteousness. It is clear Biblical language:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature… (Colossians 3:5, NIV)
But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these… (Colossians 3:8, NIV)
Words in these verses refer back to Colossians 2:11 where it talks about the fulness of the work of Christ who, in our place, “put off the sinful nature” by dying for us (v.12). When Christ took away or cancelled the charges against us by nailing it to the cross, He fulfilled what we never could or will by own effort.
This is the Good News of the Gospel: we don’t need to try to get ourselves up to scratch to meet God’s standard; He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, to do it on our behalf and in our place. But to get any benefit from this rescue mission, we need to, by faith and deed, die with Him. We need to attend our own funeral; we need to get rid of the filthy, sins-stained clothes, and clothe ourselves with the righteousness of Christ.
It’s only when we understand that by dying to sin in Jesus Christ, we receive a heavenly address which enables us to set our minds on holy things.
A radical change
In chapter 2 Paul referred to self-helpers, who have cut themselves loose from Christ. He calls them puffed up and unspiritual without any hope because whatever they try to improve themselves is actually only exposing more obstacles, digging their graves just deeper. Remember what Dr Francis Shaeffer said about life without God?
… all values are relative, and we have no way to distinguish right from wrong… Because we disagree on what is best for which group, this leads to fragmentation of thought, which has led us to the despair and alienation so prevalent in society today.
For those who are ‘in-Christ’, those who died with Christ, those who rose with Him to a new life, those who received their address in heaven, there has been a radical change, anchored in a sure and eternal hope.
What have they become?
God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved… (Colossians 3:12, NIV)
God’s chosen people! God’s holy people! People God dearly love!
Therefore, and based on this truth only, we say life with a nature dead to natural yearnings, displayed in how we now suppress unholy desires and the way we speak—aspects we will look at next week—is miles opposite to self-improvement. It’s opposed to “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch“ because a life saved by grace is a new life in Christ—it abhors what is contrary to God’s will and anything that would dishonour to his Name.
By this standard, we need to live. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 28 October 2018