Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Okay, so as we get started, let me do a quick poll: How many of you remember the old toy that was called a barrel of monkeys? Are you familiar with the barrel of monkey?
It’s not a fancy toy — doesn’t have Blu Tooth or require batteries or anything like that. It’s just plastic. It’s a yellow plastic barrel full of red plastic monkeys, and their arms were curved, and you attach them to one another, and that’s the game.
Okay, well, with that image in your mind, the barrel of monkeys, let’s look more at Colossians 3:5–11, because what we find in this passage is basically a group of verses that are linked to one another, and then linked to what’s said before it and after it. So all of this is linked and connected together in the same way that we might imagine that barrel of monkeys. Everything Paul says here is shaped with arms that curve [like this].
There is nothing in this passage not connected to something else. It all hangs together. That’s what’s happening here in Colossians, and really, that’s what’s true of Christianity as a whole. It all hangs together.
And therefore, this is why soundbite ethics about how Christians live are not always helpful. Now, what I mean by soundbite ethics is when our friends, or culture as a whole, or even our own conscience, can sort of back us into a corner with questions like: Do you think YES or NO? Or questions like Are you FOR or AGAINST? And sometimes these are easy to answer, but a lot of times these are the kind of questions that are only looking for a five-second response. They’re the kind of questions that just want to know “your stance” on something. Or in other words, they’re are the kind of questions that try to isolate one little plastic monkey, when we keep trying to say, But no, but there’s a whole barrel of monkeys.
That’s why the best way to explain the Christian way of life is not to give soundbites, but to give a story — because Christians have a story. It all hangs together. It all makes sense.
And when it comes to our passage today, the apostle Paul is going to give us specifics here — he is going to talk in detail about how Christians should live — but none of what he says is isolated or arbitrary . . . because he’s working with a barrel of monkeys. Everything he says here has arms that curve.
Okay, so let’s dig in, and to help you keep track with where we’re going, there are three basic movements in the sermon.
- We are going to look at the big picture — get a sense of the whole barrel.
- We’re going to take a key step down in verse 5.
- We’re going to consider the details of what Paul is saying.
The Big Picture
Okay, so first, let’s start with the big picture. This is all that Paul has been saying that now brings us to verse 5. And, of course, he’s said a lot, but there’s a theme that I want to highlight as a summary, and it has to do with the way that Paul has used the power of contrast — contrasting two things with one another.
The first place we see it clearly is in chapter 1, verse 13. Paul says: “[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.”
So the contrast is the domain of darkness, and then the kingdom of Christ. There is the reign and sphere of darkness, and then the reign and sphere of Jesus. And Paul, speaking to the church, says that God has rescued us from the darkness and brought us into the kingdom of Jesus. So God has done that.
And if we were to ask how God has done that, we just need to back up a little bit because Paul starts the letter with another contrast, but it’s more implicit. We see it in the way he repeats that the Colossians have heard the gospel. We looked at this way back in the first sermon of this series. Paul repeats or alludes to hearing at least seven times in these verses, and the emphasis on hearing — how pivotal hearing is in these verses — I think, stands in contrast to not hearing.
Think about it: for years, even lifetimes, the Colossians have not heard the gospel. They have been minding their own pagan business. They have been worshiping their own pagan gods, controlled by the elemental spirits of the world. They have been living their lives in darkness not hearing the gospel — but then they heard the gospel. Epaphras, a hometown boy from Colossae, heard the gospel from Paul in Rome, brings the gospel back to Colossae, and starts telling people the good new of Jesus, and they believe.
So they did not hear (and did not believe), and then they did hear (and did believe), and that’s how God rescued them from the domain of darkness, and brought them into the kingdom of his beloved Son.
See the contrast? That’s the beginning of chapter 1. There’s more.
In the rest of chapter 1, it’s all about the preeminence of Jesus, and then how Paul understands his ministry and his hopes for the Colossians, but by 2:6 we are back into contrast. Paul says there, basically, to center our lives on Jesus, and not to center our lives on anything else (that’s the sermon two weeks ago). And then that leads to the contrast between death and life.
Because we are united to Jesus, when he died on the cross we died with him. When he died we also died — to sin and all the things that used to control us. There is death. And then 3:1 tells us that when Jesus was raised from the dead, we were raised with with him. We were made alive in him and to all that is of him. So we died, and now we are alive. Paul uses this same contrast in Romans 6. He tells us that spiritually we died with Jesus and that we’ve been raised with Jesus, and therefore he says in Romans 6:11: “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Dead to all that; alive to all this. He’s saying the same thing here in Colossians.
So see the contrasts: not heard … then heard; domain of darkness … then kingdom of Christ; dead to sin … alive to God.
And it’s this last contrast that Paul is driving home in the first verses of chapter 3. He says in verse 2: “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth.” But why? Why does he say this?
Paul tells us. It’s because we have died — we have died to those things — and now our lives are hidden in Jesus. We live a certain way because our faith is in Jesus, because our life is hidden in Jesus, or in fact, Jesus is our life, and one day we are going to be with him forever.
That’s what Paul is saying. This is the big picture stuff, the story, that Paul is working with here. And then Paul takes a step down into verse 5.
Stepping Down to the Specifics
This is our second moment. Paul starts verse 5 by telling us to: Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in us. And the “therefore” is where the hinge is. Therefore, because you have died to these earthly things, live like you are dead to them. And when Paul says earthly things here, he goes on to describe what they are. Pastor Joe mentioned this last week. By “earthly things” Paul doesn’t mean bacon or baseball, he means the sins that he mentions in the passage. And we’re going to look at those with more detail, but before we do, I need to show you another contrast, and this is where he gets specific and practical.
Paul is mainly negative in this passage. Notice verse 5 is “put to death” — which is a negative instruction. And then in verse 8 it’s “But now you must put them all away” (or another way to say it is “get rid of them”) — which is another negative. And then in verse 9 he says a third negative, “seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.”
So these are all negative, but it’s only one side of it. Notice in verse 10. He says: “Seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self.” And there’s the contrast in his instructions: he says to put off and put on. We reject one thing, and we embrace another. And this contrast of putting off and putting on is connected to another contrast he calls the old self and new self. We are to put off the old self and we are to put on the new self.
Which means: we quit the person we used to be; and we live the new person we are in Jesus. And when it comes to what the Christian life is, that is the best explanation I’ve got.
We quit the person we used to be; and we live the new person we are in Jesus.
And hopefully you can start to see the barrel of monkeys here . . .
Kingdom of Christ!
Raised with Jesus!
Domain of darkness
Died to sin
See, it’s all connected. And Paul wants us to see the connections. He wants us to see the big picture and the step, and get the contrasts. We have to get this part if we are going to understand the details. And before we look more at the details, let me say one more thing about the contrasts.
And I’m thinking now especially of you men and women who are in the thick of fighting particular sins. Because oftentimes when it’s one sin — like lust, or greed, or anger — when it’s one sin that jabs its fangs into our hearts, we can make fighting that one sin the all-consuming thing in our lives. We can make putting off that one sin become the totality of what it means for us to live the Christian life. Everything gets put through the grid of whether we are not doing that sin. But here’s the thing we have to remember: Paul doesn’t just tell us to put off, he also tells us to put on. The contrast is important, because he’s saying, in other words, we don’t just fight sin, we also pursue holiness. And you need both. You cannot effectively hate sin if you don’t love Jesus. You can’t say no to sin unless you are, in contrast, saying yes to Jesus. And one of the reasons some of you are growing weary in your fight against sin is because all you’re doing is fighting.
You’re just fighting. You’re just trying to put off, when Paul says put off and to put on. Fight sin and pursue holiness — and there’s so much more to say about this. That’s what verse 12 gets into, which is next week’s sermon. So I’m looking forward to that.
But for now, let’s look more at the details of what Paul is telling us to stop doing. We’re taking the third and final move now, into the details.
Considering the Details
These details here have to do with the practices of the old self. These are the things that are characteristic of humanity left in darkness. This is what it means to be a fallen human before the gospel changes us.
There is a list of sins in verse 5, and then a list of sins in verse 8, and I think both lists can be grouped together. And for this first group in verse 5 these are all sins that have to do with sexual immorality, which is the first sin mentioned. [And, I want to be mindful for you here, as Pastor David mentioned; we are going to talk about an adult topic. The text goes there so I’m going to go there; so if you have younger children, you may want to take a water break, or grab a pastry. The nature of this content is rated M for mature.]
Look at verse 5: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Most commentators agree that at least four of these five sins have to do with sexual sin, and it’s likely that Paul has sexual sin in mind for all of them. The first word “sexual immortality” is one word in the original. It’s porneia, and it’s the most general word that can refer to any kind of sexual sin. It basically means “sexual sin.” Then there is “impurity” which is a word that Paul connects to sexual sin at other places in the New Testament. And then there is “passion.” The New International English version translates this word as “lust” — because by passion it means a sinful passion or desire for sex, for what is twisted and not wholesome. So Paul mentions “sexual immorality, impurity, and passion/lust” — all of which are about sexual sin. And then he says “evil desire” which, at other times in the New Testament, is also translated as lust. It’s another word that is connected to sexual sin. So the first four of these five sins are all clearly about sexual sin — sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire — but then Paul mentions covetousness, or greed, and we have to figure out: Is he talking about an entirely different type of sin here, or is greed also connected to sexual sin?
I think it is connected to sexual sin, and I think it’s important that we see the connection. I think it’s important that Paul uses five different words here to refer to sexual sin.
The fact that Paul using five different words to talk about sexual sin means at the very least that sexual sin is complex — much more complex that we tend to make it. Sometimes I think we can oversimplify sexual sin to mainly be an issue of context. When we think “sexual immortality” we tend to think of sex that is outside the context of marriage — and because it’s in the wrong context (outside of marriage) that’s what makes it sin. And that’s true. BUT — sexual sin is more than a matter of context because look what Paul keeps saying here. He says impurity and lust and evil desire, which are not about context, but they’re about the heart. Which means even if the context is right, the heart can be wrong.
Even in the context of marriage, when a man and woman are in the covenant bond of marriage, sex can still be sinful because the heart can still be impure; the heart can still be lustful; the heart can still have evil desire. Context does not change that. It comes back to a matter of the heart, and that’s how I think the word covetousness or greed is connected.
What is sinful at root in our hearts when it comes to sex is wanting our own pleasure at the disregard of our spouses’ pleasure. In other words, we’re greedy. It’s that we want what we want, and that’s what matters most (which applies to whether you withhold it or demand it).
But let me speak now directly to the married men in here for a second, because in general (not all the time), but in general, men desire sex more than women, and if your marriage is going to get this right, the man has to lead here. So men, here you go.
So it’s not hard for us to see how greed distorts sex. Sex is meant to be the culminating act that expresses the self-giving love of marriage. I am for my wife, and my wife is for me. We both work for one another’s happiness. And there are times when we have to go the extra mile for that happiness — when we have to spend a little more energy than usual to make our spouse happy. That is what it means to serve one another. The word here is sacrifice, and it happens for both husbands and wives. It’s also called mutual submission, and it’s a beautiful thing when it happens. But, only one spouse in Ephesians 5:25 is commanded by God to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
And that’s husbands. Married men in here, that’s you. You are commanded by God to lay down your life for your wife. You are the one who sets the tempo when it comes to sacrifice in your marriage. You are the one who has to be the most non-greedy. You are the one who has to be the most self-giving. And this is so true when it comes to sex. Which means, men, listen, your wife is not an object to be used; but she’s a gift to be cherished.
Sex is the culminating act that expresses the self-giving love of marriage, and if I’m called to be the most self-giving that means I must love my wife with a self-giving love especially in the bedroom. I want her happiness above my own all the time, but especially when it comes to sex.
And that’s because when it comes to greed, when it comes to selfishness about sex, or evil desire or lust or impurity or sexual immorality, when it comes to these things, we’ve died to them. That’s who we used to be. That is the old self. We’ve died to the old self, and Paul tells us to put it off. He says to get rid of it. We’re done!
Now down in verse 8 Paul lists another group of sins. These have to do with sinful anger and speech, and we don’t have time to talk about these a lot today, but just note that they matter. How we feel in our hearts and how we talk matters. And there is an angry, vengeful, malicious old self that speaks in a certain ways, and Paul says to get rid of it.
And now, to close the sermon, I want to talk a little more about three words there at the end of verse 5. Paul mentions the five sins, all of them have to do with sexual sin, and then he says, three words, “which is idolatry.” [See that at the end of verse 5]
Now what does it mean? What does Paul mean when he says this?
All the sins that Paul has mentioned are horizontal sins, or in other words, they are sins that we commit against one another. But idolatry is what we might call a vertical sin. Idolatry is the sin of putting something above God. It’s to love, value, worship anything other than God more than God. And Paul says here that these sins committed against one another is actually to do that. We commit idolatry. Our sins against one another are because we don’t worship God as we ought — we’ve gotten him wrong.
A lot more could be said about this, but categorically, so that we’re clear, our sins, whatever they might be, can always be traced back to a worship problem. We’ve put something else — ourselves — above God. That’s always the main problem when it comes to sin, and no wonder then, we read in verse 7, “On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”
Sins against one another doesn’t just offend one another, it offends God. And one day God is going to unleash a final judgment on sin. No sin has ever gone unnoticed. Every sin is accounted for, and one day, it will all be punished. And we should expect that. As humans, because God made us, we all have a cry for justice in our hearts. We all know it’s wrong when bad people get away with doing bad things. The hard thing is accepting that we ourselves are the bad people, that we ourselves have done bad things — which is idolatry. And therefore, we ourselves deserve God’s coming wrath. We do.
The most important question for us is how we escape this wrath. These sins here, sins we have committed, deserve wrath. “On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” And the way we get rescued from his wrath is not by just stopping the sin, it’s not by us trying to be a better person. The only way we are rescued from God’s wrath is by embracing the crucifixion of Jesus as the place where the wrath we deserve was poured out.
I know I deserve wrath. I know on account of these and more the wrath of God was coming for me. I had a target on my back. And the only way I can escape is because the target on my back was put on Jesus, and Jesus took my punishment in my place.
And he took yours, if you trust him.
The old self is no more. Get rid of it, Paul says. Now, in Jesus, because you are in Jesus, you are a new person. And you are being renewed, you are being changed, to be more like Jesus. And therefore we should live like it.
Because here, verse 11, here in the church, in the community of the gospel, we are not defined by the things that used to define us. Our ethnicity. Our religious background. Our social status. Our jobs. We are not defined by these things anymore. Instead, Jesus is all and Jesus in all. Which means it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, or who you used to be, you can belong to Jesus right now if you trust him.
And that’s what this Table is about. When we eat this cup and we drink this bread, we are saying “Christ is all.” We are saying I’m done with the old self, and I’m living in the new self, all because of Jesus.