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Maintaining a heavenly focus
By Steve Kimmel
Colossians 2:20a; 3:1-10, 12-14, 17
Related Sunday School Lesson, Family Bible Series, August 13
American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes famously complained, “Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” That’s a cheap and glib criticism that usually overestimates the heavenly mindedness of ineffectual people and underestimates the heavenly mindedness of truly effectual people.
In our focal passage we see that Paul is urging us to maintain a heavenly focus. Paul is writing to the believers in the church in Colosse (a town in modern day Turkey) from prison in Rome, in about A.D. 60. He was writing, primarily, to refute what has come to be regarded as “The Colossian Heresy.” Paul never explicitly describes the false teaching, but we can infer the heresy’s principal characteristics from his letter.
• Ceremonialism. This is an over-investment in the value of rules and regulations, including circumcision (2:11, 16-17, 3:11).
• Asceticism. The denigration of comfort and pleasure and the elevation of discipline, discomfort and privation (2:21, 23).
• Angel worship. Don’t let this confuse or distract you (2:18).
• Diminishment of Christ. This is implied in Paul’s strong emphasis on the supremacy of Christ (1:15-20; 2:2-3, 9).
• Secret knowledge. The Gnostics believed that knowledge was the key to salvation. Paul stresses that we need only “know” Christ, in whom the fullness of God is revealed (2:2-3, 2:18).
• Reliance on human wisdom and tradition. False teachers emphasized that salvation was the result of the combination of faith in Christ, secret knowledge and adherence to man-made regulations. Paul would emphasize that Christ plus nothing equals salvation (2:4, 8).
How can you maintain a heavenly focus?
Look up. The criticism of Oliver Wendell Holmes, et al, notwithstanding, it’s important to emphasize that we must maintain a heavenly focus. So, this is the first thing in maintaining a heavenly focus. Recognize that it is not only legitimate and desirable, but also imperative. The command is clear, “Set your hearts on things above where Christ is …. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (3:1-2). In other words, look up.
C.S. Lewis said, “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven” (The Joyful Christian, p.138). In other words, to be of earthly good, maintain a heavenly focus. Look up.
Answering the call to follow Jesus is no small thing. In fact, Paul describes it in terms of death. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). The startling reality is, we are welcomed into relationship with Christ through death. It is the only way.
Look back. This of course means that you must not only look up, you must look back. Look back at your old, sinful ways and determine to be rid of them. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed. …Rid yourselves of these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language. Do not lie to each other” (3:5, 8-9).
Paul doesn’t engage in any psychobabble. Instead, he simply says, “Stop doing these things.” Because of your upward look and your confidence in Christ, you have died to sin. Look back at your old way of life and exercise the discipline necessary to be rid of these old, destructive patterns.
Elia Zedeno was on the 73rd floor of Tower One on September 11, 2001. When the plane struck, she actually felt the building lurch, as though it might topple. You might think that her next instinct would be to flee. But it wasn’t. She said, “What I really wanted was for someone to scream back, ‘Everything is okay! Don’t worry.’” But fortunately, at least one colleague responded differently. The answer she got was another co-worker screaming, “Get out of the building!” The directness startled her into action, which saved her life.
Paul is equally direct and equally urgent. Get out of this old way of life! Stop doing these things. They are inconsistent with the upward look and your new position in Christ.
Look ahead. The look up and the look back are meaningful only insofar as they lead to a look ahead. If our loving look up teaches us anything, it is that it’s not enough simply to put off the old; we must also put on the new.
Paul tells us, “Clothe yourselves” (3:12). Then he lists the several Christian graces we are to conspicuously wear (3:12-13). What he is describing is a person who has been transformed. In the gospel of John, Jesus would describe it as being “born again.” It describes a change (the things you’ve put off and the things you’ve put on) so complete, so fundamental, that the only reasonable way to describe it is to use the imagery of death, and beginning again.
Paul lists numerous specifics with which we are to clothe ourselves, but he summarizes them by telling us, “Over all these virtues put on love” (3:14). Paul deals with the idea of “putting off” and “putting on” in Romans 13. There he describes the cohesive nature of this love by repeating the rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Rm. 13:9).
How can you go about getting these three looks in proper order in your life? Well, be guided by the adage that says, “Be smart comes before be strong.” Therefore:
Insert yourself into positive surroundings. Simply refuse to put yourself in situations that obscure your look back and wash out your bright look ahead. “Don’t go there” not only has a figurative meaning; it has a literal meaning, too.
Expose yourself to positive messages. Decide now to reduce your exposure to the corrosive effects of popular media – movies, television, music, Internet. And increase your exposure to those things that are uplifting and affirming.
Involve yourself with positive people. You can only take so much of whiny crybabies who constantly complain. Avoid them. On purpose. Determine to spend more time around happy people.
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