Seek the Things That Are Above
Bethlehem College & Seminary Chapel | Minneapolis
I began my college years 55 years ago this fall in 1964. I began my seminary years 51 years ago in 1968. I mention this because, looking at all of you when we gather for chapel, I feel some of the wonder of those days. I think, what an amazing thing that most of you students have fifty-plus years in front of you on this earth. Fifty years!
And then I think of the thousands and thousands of ideas that will come at you in these fifty years. Ideas about what is real — what reality is. Ideas about the mindset or disposition you should have in view of this reality. Ideas about how to get this mindset or this disposition. Ideas about what kinds of behaviors should flow from this mindset. Thousands and thousands of ideas, like incessant waves of the sea, will roll under the boat of your mind — some small, barely noticed and some huge, almost capsizing your life.
And then I think: What should happen to you in these years at Bethlehem College & Seminary? What can we do together in these years so that you see reality for what it is — what it really is? So that, without any presumption of becoming God, or omniscient, or infallible, nevertheless, you see — really see and know — some central and all-encompassing realities, so that ten thousand glittering waves from the world can roll under your boat without turning you into fools.
See Unbelievable Certainties
One answer is that we can point you to some of those great realities that God has revealed — great certainties — and we can show you the mindset or the disposition of heart and mind that correspond to that reality, and we can show the path into that mindset that God has revealed, and the path of obedience that flows from it. And we can show you how to see all these things for yourself, so that fifty years from now, you will still be discovering more and more from God’s revelation, and perhaps standing before some group of young people with joyful and thankful memories of your college and seminary years.
Colossians 3:1–4 pulls back the curtain on realities that are unbelievable except by the miracle of God’s Spirit — realities that you cannot know from any other source than the Bible — realities that are so astounding that if you see them for what they really are, you will be radically, pervasively different from people who have not seen and do not believe in this reality.
And Colossians 3:1–4 calls us to have a new kind of mindset or disposition that accords with this astounding reality. And it points us to the pathway into that mindset, and then launches us onto the path of obedience that flows from it in Colossians 3:5–4:6.
So we will leave that path of obedience for Dieudonné Tamfu (and others) in a couple weeks. And we will focus on the reality, the mindset, and the path into the mindset in the hope that you will see the reality for what it is, and be shaped with a mindset that conforms to this reality, and know the path that leads onto this mindset for your next fifty years. Let’s read the text:
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)
Five Foundational Realities
So first we will focus on the astounding realities that God reveals here — I see at least five of them — and then briefly on the mindset that conforms to these realities, and finally on the pathway on which we pursue that mindset.
1. God Himself
The first and most foundational is the reality of God.
Colossians 3:1b: “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
Colossians 3:3: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Without the objective, external, self-existent reality of God, nothing in these verses is real. It is all religious make-believe. And we should be aware that in Paul’s day and in our day, many religious people in churches make their living by playing religious make-believe. Life is vastly more complicated than the simple division between atheists and theists. Thousands of theists don’t believe in God. They believe in the idea of God. They believe in the power of myth. And the God-myth is the most powerful of all.
“Thousands of theists don’t believe in God. They believe in the idea of God.”
Thousands of pastors (call them liberal, progressive, modernist, post-modernist, whatever) do not believe that your idea of God needs to correspond to any objective reality outside of you. What matters, they would say, is that your idea of God must have a good effect on the world. Religion is valuable, the myth is beneficial, the idea of truth is useful, if it helps you be a healthy and tolerant person.
But when Paul says in verse 1 that Christ is “at the right hand of God,” and in verse 3 that “your life is hidden with Christ in God,” he does not mean that Christ is at the right hand of an idea or that your life is hidden with Christ in an idea. The God of Colossians 3 is the same God as in chapter 1. He is the Creator of all things (1:16). He was there before anyone had any idea of whether he was there. He is the Creator of all human minds, including those who imagine that he does not exist as any objective reality outside our thoughts.
He has an eternal, uncreated image of himself — his Son (1:15) — in whom is the fullness of deity (1:19; 2:9). And by his Son he holds all things in existence (1:17). He loves his Son infinitely (1:13), and he sent him into the world to bear the punishment for all the sins of his people (1:14; 2:14). He is not an imaginary creation of the world. The world is the creation of God, and it is not imaginary.
Colossians 3:1–4 pulls back the curtain, as does all of Scripture, on the most fundamental reality of all: God.
2. Christ at God’s Right Hand
The second reality revealed in these verses is Christ seated at the right hand of God.
Colossians 3:1b: “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
This is the eternal, loved Son referred to in Colossians 1:13. Once he was dead (1:18, 22; 2:12, 20). Now he is alive, because God raised him from the dead (2:12). Three positional things are said in Colossians 3:1 about this eternal Son of God and Christ (Messiah) who entered history, died, and rose: (1) He is above: “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is.” (2) He is at the right hand of God. (3) He is seated.
1. He is above. Not just above the clouds. And not just above some space and some stars. But he is above all the stars and all the space. He is not partially above this created order. He is absolutely above creation. For he is at the right hand of God, and God is not God’s creation.
And yet there is a mystery here. As the mystery of the incarnation was the penetration of the divine into the realm of creation, so the mystery of the ascension is the penetration of the creation into the realm of the divine. For today Christ is the God-man — very God and very man.
2. He is at the right hand of God, the place of highest honor, dignity, power, and authority — not below, not above God, but acting as God, and God acting through him, as chapter one (verses 15–20) so beautifully describes. Peter describes the power of this place at the right hand like this: “[He] is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22). All the powers of the universe are under Christ. And Paul adds that this position authorizes Christ to intercede for us (Romans 8:34): “[He] is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
3. He is seated, meaning his great, decisive, saving work is finished. Hebrews 1:3: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Christ is above, seated at the right hand of God.
3. Death Left Behind
The third reality Paul unveils is that, as a believer in Christ, your death is behind you. It has already happened. And your life is not what the world thinks it is. It is hidden from the world — indeed, hidden from you — with Christ in God.
Colossians 3:3a: “You have died.” (The worst is behind you, no matter how much you have to suffer.)
Colossians 3:1a: “You have been raised with Christ.” (The resurrection you await is as sure as the one you have already experienced.)
Colossians 3:3b: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (As secure as the union of the Father and the Son. Infinitely, gloriously secure. But not yet manifest to the world. Hidden.)
The reason I said that these realities are true of you, if you are a believer in Christ, is because of a little phrase in Colossians 2:12:
[You have] 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.
Baptism signifies by immersion in water and the coming up out of the water that we died and were buried and rose with Christ. And Paul makes explicit that the internal instrument of the Spirit that united us to Christ in reality was faith. “Through faith in the powerful working of God” we died and rose with Christ.
This is one of the greatest realities in the universe: that you (and every true believer in Christ) have passed from death to life (1 John 3:14). Your most terrible experience of death is behind you. And your most glorious experience of life awaits you. No matter how horrible the suffering and death that awaits you, it is as nothing compared to what lies behind you. And no matter how ecstatic the life of this world proves to be for you, it is as nothing compared to what is hidden with Christ in God, at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
Getting a hold of this reality — and being held by it — is utterly crucial for survival as a Christian and your thriving in ministry to others. Two great glories, past and future, bracket and hold up all the pain and frustrations and ambiguities and uncertainties of this life. Behind us is the glory that our death is past. The worst is over. It happened on Good Friday. Above us and before us is the glory that our life is absolutely secure with Christ in God and will someday be manifested in glory.
But in between, where we live, is profound hiddenness. Colossians 3:3b: “Your life is hidden.” The glory is hidden. Your death with Christ is hidden. Your resurrection is hidden. The true you — your true life that will be so much more glorious than your present life that you will say, “This life in this world was scarcely life at all compared to my life that was hidden for me in God” — this glorious life is hidden for now. We walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). To be sure, faith has its kind of seeing (2 Corinthians 4:4), but it does not yet replace hiddenness.
Oh, that God would grant you to see that what you can’t see is more glorious than all you can.
4. Christ Will Appear
The fourth reality Paul unveils in Colossians 3:1–4 is that Christ is going to appear.
Colossians 3:4: “When Christ who is your life appears . . .”
Christ is here now. He is right now reigning over the world. You can’t lift your finger apart from Jesus Christ. Donald Trump can’t stick one hair in place apart from Jesus Christ. Brexit will happen or not according to Christ. I will live to the end of this message or not by the will of Christ. He is here. But oh, how hidden is the presence and power of Jesus Christ.
“Your most terrible experience of death is behind you. And your most glorious experience of life awaits you.”
And Paul is saying in verse 4, “It will not always be so.” The hiddenness will come to an end. And all those who thought, “All that matters is our ideas of God, all that matters is the power of myth and the pleasures of imagination” — all those will cry out for the mountains and the rocks to fall on them to hide them — to make them hidden — from “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
He is coming. He will appear. All the hiddenness of his presence and his power will be over. Forever.
5. Hidden — but Soon Revealed
And the fifth reality is that your hiddenness will be over as well. You will appear with him in glory.
Colossians 3:4: “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
To be sure, Jesus said that we should let out lights shine now so that others can see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). But no one did more good deeds, more glorious deeds, more God-revealing deeds of love than Jesus, and only a handful of people glorified God because of Jesus in his lifetime. They killed him. We should expect no better. “Think it not strange when the fiery ordeal comes upon you” (1 Peter 4:12 my translation). It’s not strange. It’s part of the hiddenness of your glory.
So, yes, let us seek to reflect the glory of God now. We must. But what a defeated and hopeless life we would live if we thought, “This is my real life: this measure of holiness, this measure of purity, this measure of Godwardness, this measure of joy, this measure of glory. This is the real me.” No. That is not the real you.
When Christ who is your life — the Creator of your life, the Sustainer of your life, the Redeemer of your life, the Pattern of your life, the Treasure of your life — when he appears, then, and only then, will it appear who you really are, for you will shine like the sun when you appear with him in glory (Matthew 13:43).
Your New Mindset
Those are the realities Paul reveals in Colossians 3:1–4. Then he calls for us to have a mindset — a disposition, a temperament — that conforms to these realities. Colossians 3:2 “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
Now, I believe that what Paul means by the “things that are above” are the five realities I have just tried to describe. And the things that are on the earth are any ideas or behaviors or institutions in this world not rooted in and shaped by these realities.
But here’s the problem with translating Paul’s language with “Set your minds on” in verse 2. You can set your mind on something and disagree with it. You can set your mind on something and dislike it.
That is emphatically not what Paul means by the command phroneite. This is exactly the word (and the word form, phroneite) he uses in Philippians 2:5 translated, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Have this mindset, this attitude, this disposition, this temperament, this way of thinking and feeling and responding that Christ had.
That’s the idea here. Paul is saying, “Be shaped in your way of thinking, your emotional life, your pattern of attitudes and responses, your preferences in people and entertainment and clothes and jobs and leisure — in this total set of your mind and heart, be formed by the realities that are above — the realities of God, and Christ seated at the right hand of God, and your true life hidden with Christ in God, and your death behind you, and the spectacular public appearance of Christ, and your appearing with him in glory.”
Let your way of seeing the world, thinking about the world, feeling about the world be shaped and governed by these realities.
Relentlessly Pursue Heaven
Finally, Paul points us to the pathway that leads to that mindset. Colossians 3:1: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.”
Seek. This is the pathway to the mindset shaped by the things above. Seek them. Pursue them. Chase them. Track them down. Seize them. Hold onto them. Gaze at them. Dig into them. Understand them. Taste them. Savor them. Treasure them.
“No one gains the mindset of heaven passively. You seek it or you don’t have it.”
This is not passive. No one gains the mindset of heaven passively. You seek it or you don’t have it. But beware. The only seeking that succeeds is the seeking by those who are dead. The only seeking of life hidden with Christ in God is the seeking by those whose life is hidden with Christ in God. You are not seeking to make the death or the life happen. You are seeking because they have happened.
Colossians 3:3: “You have died.” Colossians 3:1: “You have been raised.” You are not seeking this death. That’s behind you. You are not seeking this resurrection. That’s behind you. You have died. You are raised. That’s the basis of your seeking — not the object of your seeking. This is the very essence of Christian effort. We seek and crave and pursue the realities that are above because we are above.
So let me say again, the pathway to the mindset that is shaped by the realities that are above is relentless, passionate seeking. “Seek the realities that are above.” They are found in the word of God, Colossians 3, and all the Scriptures.
Seek them. Don’t be passive, especially in these golden years of college and seminary. Seek them. Find them. Meditate on them. Treasure them. Until your whole way of thinking and feeling and responding and acting is shaped by them.
- Christ seated at the right hand of God,
- your true life hidden with Christ in God, your death behind you,
- Christ appearing at last in power and glory,
- and your appearing with him, shining like the sun.