The Incomparable Christ: Exposition of Colossians: The Incomparable Christ – Exposition of Colossians XII

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on November 24, 1996

Colossians 3:1-8


Colossians 3:1-8
Incomparable Christ

Turn with me in your Bibles to Colossians, chapter
3. You remember that all along of our study in this Book, we have said that
Paul has focused on the incomparable Christ. He has attempted to teach us that
Christ is supreme, in Him is all blessedness, and therefore we are not to seek
blessedness outside of Him. He is the all-sufficient Christ. In chapter 1 Paul
focuses on the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In chapter 2 we see the apostle Paul deliver five
warnings against those who might call in to question the all-sufficiency of the
incomparable Christ. We saw him speak against persuasive speech drawing us away
from the sufficiency of Jesus Christ in verse 4 of chapter 2. We saw him speak
against false speculation leading us away from Christ in verse 8 of chapter 2.
We saw him speak against a legalism, a bowing down to man-made rules and rituals
leading us away from the all-sufficiency of Christ in verse 16 of chapter 2. We
saw Paul speak against angel worship and all forms of false worship in chapter
2.

And again at the very
end in verse 20, we saw him speak against the abuse of the body for the supposed
sake of spiritual good. Asceticism, it’s called. All of these things he warns
against in chapter 2. And again he reminds us throughout that chapter that when
we are in fellowship with Christ, when we are in relation to Christ, when we are
united to Christ from that flows all the fullness that we could ever hope for in
the Christian life. We don’t find fullness in the Christian life by starting
with Christ and then obtaining some second subsequent blessing that really leads
us into spiritual fullness, though all fullness is found in Christ. We grow in
that fullness, but it is found in Christ, not by searching some place else.
Forgiveness is found in Christ. There is no name under heaven whereby we can be
saved, whereby we can be forgiven, except His name. And finally, freedom is
found in Christ, for it is only in Christ and under His rule that we find
freedom. These things Paul has stressed in chapter 1 and chapter 2.

When we come to verse
1 of chapter 3, we come to a turning point in this letter. Paul is moving from
setting forth the doctrine of the incomparable Christ, and now he is going to
begin to apply that doctrine to Christian living. Let us now hear the word of
the living God, inspired, infallible, inerrant.

Colossians 3:1-8

Our Lord and our
God, this is Your word, and as such it is meant for our upbuilding, our
edification. It is also meant for our reproof and correction. As we come to
this word, cause us to come with our hearts in such a posture that we are ready
to be changed and corrected by it. This means, oh Lord, that we must come not
judging this word, but being judged by this word. But how sweet it is, oh God,
to be sought out and judged by You and so corrected and sent down the way of
life. Do this for us, we pray, by the work of the Spirit, and cause us to be
hearers and doers of the word, all for the glory of Christ we ask it in His
name, Amen.

As we turn to chapter 3 in the book of Colossians, Paul is now concerned with
the practical effects of his teaching for Christian living. It is not that what
he has been saying in the previous two chapters is impractical. Not at all.
Far from it. In fact, the apostle Paul would argue if we do not understand the
teaching, the doctrine, the theology that he has set forth in the first two
chapters, we will not know how to live the Christian life. And I want you to
see the apostle Paul move in the first two chapters from a focus on the person
of Christ and the work of Christ in chapter 3, verse 1 all the way down to
chapter 4, verse 6 to a focus on Christian living. He moves from telling us who
Christ is, what He has done, how we are united to Him, how we bind all fullness
to Him, to then telling you in light of fact that we have been united to Christ,
you ought to live this way. Paul moves from the person of Christ to Christian
living. Looked at another way, he moves from giving us doctrine of Christ,
doctrine about Christ, theology of Christ, to the topic of godliness or
holiness. Why? Because for the apostle Paul, doctrine never has done what it
is intended to do until it leads us to godliness, because knowing notions is not
God’s ultimate goal for us. Conformity to the image of Christ is the ultimate
goal. And doctrine is for the purpose of leading us to that godliness and
holiness. Another way of looking at it is this way. In the first two chapters
Paul shows us who Christ is and who we are in Christ. Theologians say he shows
us the indicative – what we are, how we are, how we stand in Christ. What we
have been made in Christ. He does that in the first two chapters.

Beginning in chapter
3, verse 1, he tells us what we ought to do because we are in Christ. The
indicative theologians say and the imperatives, what we are, our standing in
Christ, what we ought to do because we are in Christ. In other words, he puts
it this way, to say it in a nutshell. You are in Christ. Now be who you are.
You are in Christ. Now act in such a way that it is consistent with what you
profess to be and what you have in fact been made in Jesus Christ. You are
united to Christ. These truths are true about you. Now live in a way which
reflects consistency which flows out of the reality of being united to Christ.

Those factors remind
us of at least a couple of things, my friends. The first one is this. We must
never underplay the importance of knowing scriptural truth and doctrine. For
the apostle Paul you cannot live the Christian life unless you understand
Christian truth and that means that every single one of us must be a theologian
to some extent. We don’t have to teach a Systematic Theology class or an Old
Testament theology class, but we all must know the basics of Christian beliefs
because without them we can’t live the Christian life. It is incumbent upon us
to know the truth if we are going to live in a way that honors God. In fact, if
we are going to receive the blessing of living in fellowship with God, we must
know the truth, because the truth, Paul says, is unto godliness.

There’s a flip side
of that truth that we must remember as well and it’s this. We must never be
satisfied with mere intellectual apprehension of doctrine of scriptural truth.
We must not be satisfied until that doctrine is working its way out in our
life. For Paul, he expected more of Christians than that we know about God.
There’s a difference between knowing notions and knowing God. We can know a lot
of things about God and never be in a fellowship with Him, a saving relationship
with Him. Paul expects us to live in such a way that we reflect that our
knowledge is not just mental knowledge, it’s not just cognitive knowledge, it’s
not just mental knowledge that we’re nodding our heads in agreement. It’s
something that’s working through the whole of our lives. It’s showing itself
and how we love one another. It’s showing itself and how we are loyal to the
gospel, loyal to Christ, proclaiming His name, and living as if He is Lord in
the world because Paul has told us that He is. We must never be satisfied with
mere intellectual apprehension of doctrine. It must work itself out in our
lives.

Friends, these two
things, these two areas, are things where Christians make grave mistakes today.
Have you ever heard someone say that Christianity is a way of life, not a
doctrine. Well, you hear many evangelicals say that today. But, did you know,
it was the liberals who first said that a century ago? They said it because
they wanted Christianity to be a moral system, not rooted in a system of
scriptural truth. But you can’t have Christianity unless you have Christian
truth, because Christian living is based on Christian believing which is based
on the realities revealed in the word. So if we’re going to grow, we must be
people of the Book. If we are not people of the Book our growth will be warped
in some way if we grow at all. And therefore it is absolutely essential that we
grow in Christ.

Have you heard
someone say Christianity is not a way of life? It’s a person. Sometimes people
say that, and we hear evangelicals say that as well to indicate this.
Christianity is all about a relationship with God. It has nothing to do with
how you live. It doesn’t work itself out necessarily in holiness. Wrong, Paul
said that Christianity is about a person. It’s based upon a person and His
work, and it’s about a relationship with that person. But that relationship
requires us to know something about Him and to do something in light of that
knowledge. And so Christianity is a person, a doctrine and a way of life. All
of those things, not just one of them. And these things we learn as we look at
Colossians as a whole.

Now Paul sets before
us today in these first eight verses teaching about Christian living. If we
were to outline chapter 3, verse 1 all the way down to chapter 4, verse 6, we
would see the apostle Paul teaching us truths about Christian living calling us
to action in Christian living in a variety of fears. In verses 1 through 8
which we’re going to look to today, Paul is telling us about our relationship to
God, and what must be a part of that relationship.

But if we look on
down to verse 9, and then down to verse 17 of chapter 3, we will see Paul giving
us instructions as to how we are to relate to one another in the local church,
in the congregation, in the assembly of God’s people.

Then if we were to
look beyond that in verse 18 and all the way down to verse 21, we would see Paul
telling us how we are to live in the context of our family, in the context of
our home. Family life – Christian living and family life.

And then beginning in
verse 22 and down to verse 1 of chapter 4 he tells us how we are to live in
relationship to those with whom we work, either those who are employers or our
employees.

And finally, from
verse 2 down to verse 6 he teaches us about prayer. So he’s going to specific
spheres of life, and he’s saying this is how your union with Christ works out in
a practical way in Christian living. This is how the supremacy and the
all-sufficiency of Christ works out in your Christian living. Let’s look at the
four imperatives that the apostle Paul sets forth then in these eight verses.
Colossians 3, verses 1 through 8.

I. Christians must set their hearts on things above:
“Seek the things above”
First of al, notice that Paul tells us that Christians must set their
hearts on things above. In verse 1 he says, “Therefore if you have been raised
up with Christ, keep seeking the things above where Christ is seated at the
right hand of God.” What is Paul saying? Paul is saying that we are to set our
affections on spiritual things. That is where our heart is to be. As one old
Puritan said, “Treasures are laid up in heaven only as treasures on earth are
laid down. We set our hearts on things above.” Notice in this passage that
Paul’s structure of what we are in Christ, and what we ought to do in Christ is
intact.

Notice in
verse 1. “If you have been raised up with Christ.” The if is not there
to raise the question about whether you have or not, the point is because you
have
. Since you have been raised with Christ, therefore, live this way.
Paul is telling you who you are, because you as a Christian have been united to
Christ because you have been raised with Christ, therefore, set your affections
on the things above. Set your desires, your yearnings, your heart on the
spiritual blessings and principles which are found only in Christ. The apostle
Paul knows that this is absolutely necessary for Christian growth. And it’s
absolutely necessary for combating sin. Your heart must be set on God. He must
be the one that you’re hungering after. The blessings which are found in Him
must be those blessings which are your first priority. Samuel Rutherford once
said, “Desires or more grace and groanings which cannot be uttered are growing
pains and we should wish to feel them more and more.”

And friends, if we’re not feeling them, it is a sign
that God is not working in our hearts, and that we’d better do something about
coming to grips with Him, doing business with Him, closing with Christ. Because
Christians experience that spiritual hunger for God. Their affections are set
on things above. That does not mean that we are unconcerned with temporal
things. It doesn’t mean that we’re bad businessmen, or bad fathers. The
apostle Paul is going to talk about how to be a good Christian father and mother
and child and businessman, etc. in the next few verses. He’s not saying don’t
be concerned about things, but he’s saying where’s your allegiance, where are
your priorities? What he is saying is very close to what Jesus says when He
says, seek first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness, and all these things
will be added unto you. What do you thank God for most? What do you thank God
for first?

We are in the thanksgiving season. And our brother,
Jeff Elliott, asked me after the service, “You know a good application of this
passage would be just to ask people when you think about thanking God, what are
the first things that you thank Him for?” If they are primarily temporal
things, temporal blessings, that may be telling something to you about the state
of your soul. If you are first thankful for temporal blessings, and not for the
things above, that may be telling you something. Or, if you are thankful of the
temporal blessings, and not focused on the one who gives the temporal blessings,
that may be telling you that something is awry in your priority of life.

Paul says first principle: Set your hearts on things
above. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Is He your
treasure? Are things above your treasure? This is a good test to see whether
we are in Christ or not.

II.
Christians must set their minds on
things above: “set your mind on things above”
Secondly, the
apostle Paul says beginning in verse 2 that Christians must set their minds on
things above. Not only should our affections be set on God, our desires be set
on God, but our minds ought to be set on God. Paul says, “Set your mind on the
things above, not on the things that are on the earth, for you have died and
your life is hidden with Christ and God. When Christ, who is our light is
revealed, then you also will be revealed in glory.” Now that’s a difficult
passage, but at least it means this.

Again, notice again how Paul tells us who we are and
how we should act. “We have died and our life is hidden with Christ.” Because
of that, Paul said, because of that reality, that’s who you are in Christ.
You’ve died, because your life is hidden with Christ in God, therefore, set your
thoughts on heavenly matters. Paul wants not only your hearts in glory, he
wants your thoughts in glory.

Paul says that our thoughts should be focused on
heavenly matters. We should be pondering them. We should be meditating on
them. We should be reflecting upon them. We should be thinking about these
heavenly matters. Set your mind on things above.

And what does he mean when he says “You have died and
your life is hidden with Christ in God?” A mysterious phrase, isn’t it? But at
least it means this. Though who you are is hidden before the eyes of men right
now, you are the body of Christ. Though that may be hidden before the eyes of
men, and though it may be obscured to your own sight as you see your
imperfections, your failings, and the weakness of the church of God, our
sinfulness, our foolishness, the tragic way that we fail to bear witness to who
God is in this world with our lips and our lives. Though that reality may be
obscured in the world, yet your life is hidden with Christ in God. Who you are
is absolutely apparent to the heavenly Father, through the Lord Jesus Christ.

And Paul goes on to say that one day, just like
Christ will be revealed from glory to be not simply the suffering servant, but
the Lord of the world so you will be revealed to be the inheritance of God in
the Lord Jesus Christ. And in light of that fact you’ve set your thoughts in
heaven. Have you ever stopped to ponder your sins and become so depressed that
you could not go on and seeing what you have yet become, in seeing what you do
to your brothers and sisters in Christ and to those who love you the most
because of your sin, willful and otherwise? And sometimes it’s the so-called
unwillful sins that are the most bruising and the most brutal.

Have your ever thought and pondered on that, and have
you ever juxtaposed that with what Paul says here when he says, you set your
thoughts on things above because what you are may not be apparent to the world
and it may not even be apparent to you, but what you are will one day be
revealed. You will be stood before the Lord spotless. No moral impurity, no
imperfection, absolutely complete in Christ and the whole world will know it.
Paul says you set your mind on that. Lightfoot said many years ago, “You must
not only seek heaven, you must think heaven.” Seeking heaven, our affections
are put there, thinking heaven our thoughts are focused on the things which are
above.

Again, this does not mean that we ignore temporal
things. It means that our priorities are set. And as we prosecute our duties
as men and women in this life, we do not forget that we are citizens of a city
with foundations. And though we are pilgrims here, and though we are to live as
obedient Pilgrims here doing the will of God, yet there is another home which
awaits us. And there is a reality about us which is going to be revealed, and
all the praise and all the glory will not go to us, but to the Lord Himself.

III.
Christians must engage in spiritual execution: “Put your sin to
death”
Paul goes on to say in this passage, beginning in verse 5, that
Christians must engage in spiritual execution. Paul says, put your sin to
death. The NIV and the King James catch it better than the New American
Standard does; it’s not just, consider the members of your earthly body are
dead
, it is, put to death sin in your earthly body, in the members of
your earthly body
. Paul is telling us that we are to kill sin. Richard
Baxter once said, “Kill sin before it kills you.” Kill sin before it kills
you. Sin, though it presents itself to you always as something that is good,
will ultimately destroy you. And the apostle Paul is saying in the Christian
life we must kill sin.

I want you to notice that Paul does not make
mortification, the killing of sin, optional. There are some people who speak as
if we can be saved by Christ without His Lordship working itself out in our
life. The apostle Paul says here the Christian will be killing sin in
his or her life
. Paul gives a reason for that. He tells us we are to kill
sin why? Verse 6. Because of these things, the wrath of God will come. Paul
is saying God is going to judge the world by sin, because of sin. And therefore
we must kill sin because God is going to judge sin. We cannot be ambivalent
about sin. We cannot be apathetic about sin. We must kill it, we must seek to
drive it out of our lives.

And notice how close this sin seems to be connected
to our living. Paul says it is in the members of our earthly body. Put these
things to death. He speaks of sin as if it’s a body part. It’s become so
interwoven into our lives it needs to be ripped out and abstracted from our
body, and it needs to be killed. The apostle Paul says we are to put to death
sin. And he tells us specifically five things that must be done. I remind you
that the city of Colossae and the Lychus Valley was a place like much of the
Roman Empire. It was known for sexual immorality. And the apostle Paul zeroes
in on sexual sin. To begin with, he says, kill immorality. Immorality in this
passage refers to illicit, sexual conduct, illicit sexual sins. He says you
kill it. The apostle Paul is speaking to people who have come from that
context. He’s concerned that they’re going to be influenced by the thinking and
the mind-set and behaving of their culture, and he says you kill that kind of
immorality. You kill it.

But he doesn’t stop with the deeds. Notice his next
step. He says kill impurity. Not only immorality, but impurity. What’s he
speaking about? Impurity refers to the uncleanness of our thoughts. Our
intentions. What he’s trying to get into is our heads? He’s trying to get into
your thought life. He’s saying don’t just kill sin in your deeds, your actions;
you do it in your thought life as well.

But he doesn’t stop there. He moves on. He says
kill immorality, impurity and passion or evil desires. What’s he getting at
that there? He’s getting at the will. He’s saying if your desires are not
changed, then your thought life is going to revert to what it was doing before,
and your behavior is going to revert to what it was doing before. You know that
when you sin, if you secretly harbor the desire to continue that sin, you will,
in fact, at some point give in to the deed itself. But if you nip the desire
for the sin in the bud, then you can get it in the behavior, then you can get it
in the thought life. The apostle Paul is saying I want your deeds, your
thinking and your desires to be freed of sin. I want you to attack them. I
want you to kill the sin in you.

And he goes on to say fourthly, that he wants us to
kill greed or covetousness. Paul is saying that wanting things or persons that
do not belong to us is a root of this type of sinful behavior, and therefore,
covetousness is to be put aside. One of the glorious things about covetousness
in the Ten Commandments is this. The other nine Commandments you can do
externally. You can’t covet externally. Nobody can see you covet. Well, all
right sometimes people can see you covet. But you have to covet with your heart
and so the apostle Paul again is getting at the heart. He’s saying I just don’t
want you to be righteous outwardly, I want your hearts to be righteous. So
don’t covet because that coveting is going to lead you into an inordinate desire
for things that you do not have and which do not belong to you, and that’s going
to leave your wills to be affected, it’s going to leave your thinking to be
affected, it’s going to leave your behavior to be affected and don’t do it.

And then the apostle Paul concludes with a death
blow. He says, and by the way, that covetousness is idolatry. And you scratch
your head and you say how can covetousness be equal to idolatry. And Paul is
standing there waiting for you and he’s telling you this way. Covetousness is
idolatry because covetousness is worshiping your own will. Covetousness is
saying, I am setting my will up as the standard of behavior and therefore you
are worshiping your will. And what is idolatry? Worshiping anything else other
than God, in any other way than the way that he has commanded. And so when we
worship our wills, we become idolaters. It’s yet another way that Paul and
Jesus tell us that when we commit one sin, we commit them all, because they’re
interconnected. When you’re covetous, you’re idolatrous. When you are
idolatrous, you are covetous. They are connected. So the apostle Paul says
kill these sins.

Now let me hasten to say that we do not mortify
sin in order to gain favor with God
. God’s favor must rest upon us
before we are able to mortify sin
and that’s why Ebenezer Erskine once said,
“The Christian mortifies sin because he is at peace with God. The legalist
mortifies sin to try to be at peace with God.” We mortify sin in our life not
to gain favor with God. We mortify sin because the grace of God is present in
our lives, and because we desire to be conformed to the image of the one that He
has destined us to be conformed to the image of. Paul says mortify sin. No
passive approach to sin does he have. We are to kill it. We are to mortify
it.

IV.
Christians must lay aside the practice of sin: Put aside sin.
And that leads him to his comments in verse 8. Christians must
not only set their hearts on things above, they must not only set their minds on
things above, they must not only desire to kill sin, but they must lay aside the
practice of sin. Paul says put aside sin. In them, in these things, you also
once walked when you were living in them. But now you also put them aside,
anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive speech from your mouth. Paul says,
‘You congregation, you were once captured by this.’ This is a very encouraging
word as discouraging as it might seem at first. Paul is acknowledging that
these people had real struggles with deadly sins which were destroying their
lives.

Very often, even though we don’t believe in
preparationism, we act in the Christian church as if we have to scrub ourselves
up in order to come to Christ, because we wouldn’t want any unseemly sinners
coming to Christ, would we, at First Presbyterian Church. The apostle Paul says
this godly church at Colossae was filled with people whose lives had been
characterized by anger and malice and rage and all sorts of sexual impurities,
but they’ve been changed in Christ and as a witness to the world. But it
reminds us, my friends, that there is hope for us. Because even if the rest of
the world doesn’t know what’s going on in our hearts, we know what’s going on in
our hearts sometime, and we don’t want the rest of the world to know it because
we don’t think they will accept us. The apostle Paul is saying, I know what
you’re struggling with. Paul wouldn’t be talking to these Colossians about
these things if they weren’t struggling with them. That would be a waste of his
time and theirs. Paul is speaking about these things because these are things
we as Christians continue to struggle with, and the quicker we fess up to that,
the quicker we can get about the working of continuing Christian repentance and
mortification of sin.

And the apostle Paul again says, lay aside this,
specifically. He doesn’t speak in generalities because you can’t fight sin
in generalities
. You’ve got to fight it specifically. Why? Because
when you repent in generalities, you never own up to the reality of the sin that
is destroying you
and destroying the fellowship of God. And so Paul goes to
specifics. Notice what he says. Anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive
speech. Look at the logic again to this bifold description of sin. Anger
refers to that burning hatred for other people. A burning hatred. Wrath in
this context refers to those outbursts of passion, that rage that we have, that
ungodly rage that we have for others. Malice refers to ill-will towards one’s
neighbor. Slander refers to railing or defaming another’s character, and
abusive speech refers to those destructive words that we use to tear people
down. The apostle Paul says people who are captured by sin are people who are
internally conflicted. They are filled with rage, and that rage pours over in
the life of their speech. You want to see a person characterized by ungodliness
and by the grip of Satan on them, they are filled with anger, they are bitter
inside and it pours over in their speech, either in their general speech or in
their abusive speech to other people. And the apostle Paul says to these
Colossians, “Don’t you live that way because that’s not who you are. That’s
what you were, but that’s not what you are now. Be who you are, and therefore
kill sin.”

Now why is he having to say that? Because when we
become Christians, we do not become immediately sinlessly perfected. You can
breathe a sigh of relief. You don’t have to be perfect yet. One day you will
be. Not here, but there. Now, you must grow. Augustine said the church was a
hospital where sick sinners get well and that it is. But those sick sinners are
not being simply ministered to by the great physician of the soul, they are
actively involved in their own treatment. By the Holy Spirit and the work of
sanctification, they strive to kill sin. Are you striving to kill sin? It is
one of the marks of Christian growth. Are you locating, identifying and then
seeking out and destroying sin in your life which is destroying you and
destroying your relationships with others? It’s a sign that the spirit is at
work in you, if you are.

Do you have not a clue how to fight against sin, have
you come this morning not believing, not trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, not
knowing fellowship with Him, let me say very quickly, you can’t fight sin apart
from Christ. You are dead in sin and the only way you can fight sin is when by
union with Christ you have been made dead to sin. Then you can fight the
remnants of sin in your life. And that you can only do by bowing the knee to
Christ and receiving Him as the all sufficient Savior who brings fullness and
freedom and forgiveness. Let’s look to Him in prayer.

Heavenly Father, we bless your Holy Name and ask that
You would cause Your word to break forth in light and godliness in our lives,
for Christ’s sake, Amen.

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