Set Your Mind on Things Above
I want to begin by summarizing the big picture view of the biblical storyline. God created man upright and good and placed him in a very good world. He gave man one simple command, one No in a world full of Yes. In an act of rebellion, man rejected God’s kingship and listened to the voice of the devil and fell from his favored place. Man came under the domain of sin, death, and darkness, and spiraled into greater violence, evil, and despair. But God didn’t abandon his creation but set out to make things right. He chose Abraham and his family, and in doing so, created a division within humanity: Jews and Gentiles. According to Paul in Galatians 4, this era of history was like the childhood of humanity. Just like children are placed under guardians, managers, and babysitters when they are young, so humanity was placed under guardians and managers in this period. Jews were placed under the Law of Moses, which Paul tells us was put in place through angels (Gal. 3:19; Acts 7:53). At the same time, the Gentiles (pagans) were under the dominion of evil guardians, dark powers, which imposed their own rules and regulations. In this period of man’s rebellion, God ruled the Jews through good angels and his holy and righteous law, and ruled the pagans through dark powers and their evil and oppressive laws. God’s law was a temporary guardian until God would send his Son in the fullness of time to deal with sin and rebellion. At that time, God’s Deliverer would rescue Jews from the curse of the Law and rescue Gentiles from the dominion of the dark powers, the false gods who kept them in awe.
Now, as Jonathan noted last week, the Colossians were likely pagans who came to believe the gospel. They were delivered from the dominion of the dark powers and entered the kingdom of God’s Son. But now, they were likely hearing from some teachers that in order to complete their conversion, they needed to come under the dominion of the Law of Moses with its Sabbaths and regulations and commandments. And Paul is appealing to them, “Don’t do it. Don’t go back to childhood. Grow up into maturity. Those laws were basic and elemental; they served their purpose in their time. But they were shadows, but Christ is the substance. They gave us pictures of reality, but now Reality has come in the person of Jesus. I know that from the outside those laws have an appearance of wisdom. All of the “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” looks like it will help you live a godly life that pleases God. But it won’t. In themselves, those rules will not deal with your evil desires; they aren’t able to deal with the cravings in your heart. You need stronger medicine.”
So there’s been a transition, both in history and in the lives of the Colossians, that changes everything. And Paul speaks of this transition in terms of death and resurrection. You’ve died with Christ to the elemental spirits (2:20) and in the present passage, “you’ve been raised with Christ” (3:1). You’ve died and you’ve been raised. And because you’ve died, you’re no longer alive in that old world with its rules and regulations (2:20). Put another way, you used to live in one kingdom (the domain of darkness), but you’ve been transferred to another kingdom (1:13), the kingdom of Jesus. And the way that you’ve been transferred is by death to the one world, and a resurrection in a new world. Paul says something similar in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live.” Later in Galatians 6:14, he says that he’s been crucified to the world. That’s the same as “died to the elemental spirits” (Col 2:20). We’ve died to the elemental spirits, we’ve been crucified to the world, to the evil age, and we’ve been raised in a new world, a new kingdom. How did this happen?
[You’ve] been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col 2:12)
Baptism and the faith that it publicly reveals is the mark of that transfer from one kingdom to another, from one world to another. And this brings us to the present passage. If you have died to the elemental spirits through Christ, and if he has disarmed the rulers and authorities and the dark powers who oppressed you, and if he has cancelled your record of debt with its legal demands, and if you have been transferred from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of his Son, and if you have been raised with Christ, what then? How should you live?
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4 ESV)
Now this passage might be a challenge to someone who wrote a book urging Christians to enjoy the things of earth. This passage tells us not to set our minds on earthly things. Instead, we’re to set our minds on things above. High things. Holy things. Not earthly things. And, because we’re Bible people, we have to wrestle with that question. And so, in June, the pastors are going to preach a five-part series on The Things of Earth to try and help us think through how to treasure God by enjoying his gifts. And the rest of what I have to say this morning is a kind of foundation and anticipation of what we’ll unpack more fully in that series. I have two questions this morning.
- What does Paul mean by “the things on the earth”?
- What does Paul mean by “set your mind”?
I want to answer those questions and then close with some application to our lives.
The Things on the Earth
When Paul refers to “the things on the earth,” does he mean things like baseball, bacon cheeseburgers, game nights with the family, Shakespeare, working out, Star Wars, Bell’s Oberon Summer Ale, home repairs, and church picnics on Sunday Spring days? Is Paul telling us that we shouldn’t seek those things at all or set our mind upon them in any sense? This is where attentive reading can help. Look at Col. 3:5:
Put to death what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Now, the word for “earthly” in 3:5 and the word for “the things on the earth” in 3:2 is the same word. So in the immediate context, earthly things doesn’t mean “created things,” but instead “sinful things”: sinful behaviors, desires, and activities. It is these things that we are to reject in favor of the heavenly things, the things above.
We get confirmation of this by examining the second question. What does Paul mean by “set your mind on”? This word shows up in a number of places. In Romans 8, there is a mind that is set on the Spirit (life and peace), and a mind that is set on the flesh (death). That seems to fit with the thrust of this passage. The book of Philippians, I think, really helps to clarify what is meant. Listen to two passages.
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18-19 ESV)
That sounds remarkably similar to Colossians 3. Enemies of the cross of Christ; their end is destruction (upon them the wrath of God is coming); their god is their belly (they practice covetousness which is idolatry); with minds set on earthly things (same words as Col. 3:2). Now listen to the second passage from Philippians 4:8.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Now, this is a different word than in Colossians 3 (phroneo vs. logizomai). Set your mind upon vs. think, consider, regard. But I think if we reflect on this, a picture begins to emerge. What Paul is telling us is that all of us have a fundamental orientation of the heart, what he calls “a mindset.” That mindset and orientation ought to be governed by the things above, where Christ is. To orient our lives by earthly things is to commit idolatry leading to wrath and destruction. But, if we orient our lives by Christ, then we’re free to think, to consider, to attend to whatever is true, good, and beautiful wherever we find it, whether in heaven or on earth. We set our minds on things above and then consider what is good and lovely in things below.
In other words, what Paul is calling us to a life centered on Christ (as Pastor Jonathan said last week), rooted and grounded in God’s love (Col 2:6-7), oriented by the glory and majesty and beauty of God. Because you’ve died with Christ, because your life is now hidden with him (3:3), therefore fix the fundamental direction of your life on him always.
But we have to define this “always” the way the Bible does. And given that Paul has just rejected false asceticism that rejects created things (2:20-22), it’s no surprise that his description of the heavenly-minded life is very earthy.
Put on humility and meekness like a new robe (3:12); be patient and forgive each other (v. 13); wear your love on your sleeve and watch it compose a symphony (v. 14); put peace on the throne of your heart; be thankful (v. 15). Make the Scriptures at home in your soul. Teach and sing them to each other with thankfulness in your heart (v. 16); do every- thing in the name of Jesus. And did I mention give thanks to God (v. 17)?
Wives, submit to your husbands (v. 18); husbands, love your wives (v. 19). Children, obey your parents; it makes God happy (v. 20). Fathers, don’t provoke your children; that doesn’t make God happy (v. 21).
Are you under authority? Then obey those over you sincerely because you fear God (v. 22). Do your work with gusto, because God will reward you (vv. 23–24). Are you in authority? Then be just and fair to those in your care, because you have a boss in heaven (4:1). Pray without ceasing. And, seriously, did I mention be grateful (v. 2)? Pray that the missionaries would be fruitful and bold (vv. 3–4). Show the world how the wise walk by taking time away from the Devil (v. 5). Use salty language, the kind that gives grace (4:6).
The heavenly mindset spends a lot of times thinking and attending to the things of earth. Family, neighbors, church, job, earthly joys—the person whose mindset is governed by heavenly things intentionally and deliberately considers and engages them. The heavenly mindset is profoundly earthy, but it is fundamentally oriented by the glory of Christ.
And I like that word “orient” a lot. It implies that love for God guides and governs all of our other thoughts, desires, and actions. Christ is the North Star, the fixed point that helps us to navigate our ship through life. To be oriented by the glory of Christ means, first, that Christ is the supreme object of our desire. To use Paul’s language here, Christ is our life (3:4). This is like what Paul says about himself in Philippians 1:21. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” If Christ is your life, if living is Christ, that means that you view death, which is the loss of every good thing on earth, as gain, because you get more of Christ.
But orienting your life by Christ doesn’t simply mean making him the supreme object of your desire; it also means making him the supreme model for your desires. When our minds are set on Christ, on the things above, then all of our other desires are ordered properly. It’s not just that we love him; it’s that we love everything else that we love in him. Which means we love them in the way that he wants us to love them. In other words, setting your mind on things above means that you love God and that you love what God loves, that you supremely desire God and rightly desire that everything God desires.
That’s what I think is implied in Col. 3:5. What keeps the good desire for sex from degenerating into immorality, impurity, passion, and evil desire? What keeps a good desire for created things from falling into covetousness and idolatry? Answer: We love sex in the way that Christ wants us to love sex. We take our cues from him, so that he sets the boundaries and the contexts for our enjoyment of sex or creation or culture or whatever. He becomes the sun at the center of our solar system that makes all of the planets orbit properly.
Now there are many more things that need to be said about this subject. That’s why we’re going to devote a whole sermon series to it in June. And if you have particular questions about this topic, about how love for God relates to love for God’s gifts, then I want to invite you to email them to me or to Pastor Jonathan. Your questions can help us to target that series better.
But for now, I want to press Colossians 3:1-4 into our lives in two practical ways. How do we grow into our heavenly mindset that is fixed on Christ above all, that is confident that our identity is found in him, and that eagerly looks forward to his appearing when we will shine like the sun?
- Regular Devotions. By devotions, I have in mind what is typically called a “quiet time” My term for it is “direct Godwardness” since it is time in which our thoughts and affections are focused directly and intently on God himself. A regular devotional life, in which we read the word of God and seek his face in prayer—adoring him, confessing ours sin, giving thanks, and making requests—is essential to cultivating a mind that is set on things above. You cannot set your mind on things above if you never take time to direct your attention to things above, to Christ and the gospel and the glory of his appearing. A regular devotional life anchors us in the love of God and helps to order our desires and set godly boundaries on our affections for the things of the world. It helps to keep our love of created things from becoming idolatrous. In such times, we remind ourselves that we are hidden with Christ in God and that our future is secure, and this enables us to put to death those earthly passions. If you need help in cultivating a devotional life, I want to heartily commend Pastor David’s book Habits of Grace. It’s an excellent one-stop shop for growing in your desire for Christ and the things above.
- Corporate worship. Pastor David calls corporate worship “our single most important habit,” and I heartily agree. Now, in one sense, there’s no need to decide which is more important: personal devotions or corporate worship? Individual direct Godwardness or corporate Godwardness? But in our individualistic age, I think it is important to stress the centrality of meeting together to seek the things above with God’s people. Worshiping with God’s people. That is corporate Godwardness, in which we set our minds on him, but we do so with many other minds in the room (and around the world). We lift up our prayers to him, but we do so with the prayers of his people. We raise our voices to him in song, but we do so adding our voices to a chorus that magnifies his great grace. Corporate Godwardness is the anchor for our week. We worship the living God on the Lord’s Day, and we walk through the gospel (Call to Worship, Confession, Consecration, Communion, and Commission) as a way of fixing and orienting our hearts and minds and actions. We gather here together in expectation and faith that God will meet us here and his grace will collide with us and we’ll see the worth of Jesus, who is our life, and that sight will transform us from one degree of glory to another.
In the absence of corporate worship and personal devotions, we will inevitably anchor ourselves in something else. It’s not a question of whether we’ll have our minds set on something and by something. The only question is what that something will be. Will it be the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or will it be our jobs, or television, or the internet, or our families? All of these are good as planets in our solar system, but they are terrible as the sun. If we try to make them our sun, if we set our minds on them and seek them supremely, they fall apart and fail us and go wrong. So how do we know if our personal devotions and our corporate worship are fulfilling their purpose and anchoring and orienting our lives? Let me close with a handful of tests to determine whether your direct Godwardness and your corporate Godwardness are rightly orienting your indirect Godwardness, your daily life?
- How often does direct godwardness (however brief) spontaneously erupt? As you go about your day, do you find yourself regularly going godward with prayers and supplications and requests and thanksgiving and adoration? Is God always in your field of vision, so that no matter how intently you’re focusing on the task at hand, direct communion with him is never far away? Is he always present, even when he’s not being addressed?
- Is there an increasing awareness of God’s presence in everything you do? In other words, is there a growing sense that you’re never far from God, that he is always close at hand, that he is always marking you and speaking to you and guiding you through life?
- Do you find yourself desiring to linger in prayer or song or Scripture reading? When life thrusts itself upon you again, and you must put down your Bible in order to make breakfast for your kids or head off to work, do you find yourself wishing you had a few more minutes? More importantly, do you eagerly look forward to the next time that you can be alone with God?
- Is the Word of God fresh in your heart? Or is it a dead letter, a sign that you’ve been merely checking the devotional box on your to-do list?
- Finally, and most importantly, is there fruit in your life? Are you making progress in holiness? Can you see evidence of growth in godliness over the past six months, twelve months, two years? Not that there aren’t still struggles or setbacks. But are you slowly and steadily becoming a more loving, joyful, caring, patient, thankful and humble person? Are you less angry, proud, boastful, and anxious?
Let’s end where this passage begins. All of these efforts to actively orient our lives by God must flow from the fact that we have died with Christ to all rules and regulations and have now been raised with him and hidden in him. Our labors to fix our minds upon him must be rooted in the finished work of Christ. And it’s this finished work that we celebrate together every week at the Lord’s Table.
The Lord’s Table
As the pastors come up, set your mind here on this table. In one sense, it’s a thing on the earth. It’s about as earthy as you can get—simple bread and wine. But it represents the things above. At this table, heaven and earth meet. The heavenly grace of God signified in the lowly things of earth. And that’s true of everything in this service. God has come down to meet us in this simple auditorium. Or he’s caught us up into the heavenly places with him. Both images are true. And the meeting of heaven and earth here, together, reverberates out to the rest of our lives. Grace is concentrated here in this service, so that we discover just how present God is to us throughout the week. He is near at hand; he is with us always, to the end of the age.