Here’s an excerpt from my recent sermon on Colossians 2:20-3:11. Audio here (re-recorded at home).
It’s a shocking truth to declare but it’s at the heart of the gospel: Jesus loves sinners. His love is for you, even in the midst of that sin. To preach this way is not to condone sin but to show it in all its sinfulness.
Full sermon text below…
She managed to reduce her sleeping to about 90 minutes every other night. And of course, being so saintly, she slept on a wooden board.
Her diet was also strange. She was famous for eating only a spoonful of herbs a day. Sometimes though she’d spice things up by eating the pus from a cancerous sore! It was to teach her not to be afraid of death. If she had to eat anything else she was well known for shoving twigs down her throat to bring up the food she couldn’t bear to have resting in her stomach. She was, and still is, revered for such ‘holiness’ and many other aspiring saints copied her behaviour – and continue to copy it. But you won’t be surprised to learn that she died of starvation and in her own words she was suffering to atone for the sins of the church.
This is Simeon the Stylite. He was a monk of the 5th century who got into ‘fasting’ from an early age. He could hold out for the whole of Lent (46 days!) without food. In addition he would wrap palm fronds tightly around his waist until they cut into his flesh and the wounds grew over it. But aside from these acts of obvious holiness, the world remembers Simeon for something even more bizarre.
One day he climbed up a pillar. And he stayed there. For 37 years. Until he died. People brought him bits of flat bread and goat’s milk while he endured 37 Syrian summers and 37 winters. He never came down alive. Yet he spawned a whole movement of copycats – the Stylites! Many, many others embraced such suffering as a path to true holiness.
And to all the Catherines and Simeons of the world Paul says, v20:
20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Whether in the dark ages, the first century or the 21st century, the temptation to be a Catherine or a Simeon is huge. Especially if you think you’re doing it for God.
And while we might not be as dramatic as Catherine or Simeon, how often do we beat ourselves up for God whether figuratively or literally. How many of us think that the truly holy life just boils down to v21: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch!”
Actually this false view of holiness is as old as Adam.
Remember back in the garden? The garden of Eden was not a place of rules. There weren’t big “Forbidden” signs everywhere. There weren’t big maps with red sections showing the out of bounds areas. There was only one command in all creation. History has never known a time so free from law. The LORD simply said, don’t eat from one tree in all the world.
But do you remember what happened when Satan tempted Eve. Eve immediately added to that one law of God. She told Satan “we mustn’t eat it, and we mustn’t touch it or we’ll die.” The LORD never mentioned anything about touching. And yet human nature is always to add rules. There’s actually something perverse in us that wants to wrap rules around us: Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.
Maybe Eve thought that adding a rule would help them to obey God. Well it didn’t work did it?
Multiplying rules NEVER works. Adam and Eve did handle, touch and taste the fruit and plunged the world down into curse and frustration and death.
And ever since, humanity has been trying to reverse the curse. We’ve wanted to succeed where Adam and Eve failed. We’ve been trying to gain salvation by obeying the rules.
But it doesn’t work. Verse 23:
23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Do you remember how Jesus spoke to the Pharisees in Matthew 23? The Pharisees surrounded themselves with laws, but inwardly they were lawless! That’s what Jesus says in Matthew 23, verse 25:
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Isn’t that fascinating? Surrounded by laws, but full of lawlessness. They are like a whitewashed tomb. What a fantastic image. Think of the Middle Eastern sun shining on a perfectly whitewashed tomb. Looks brilliant. Inside: death and stench and rottenness. That is every moralist without Jesus Christ. A whitewashed tomb.
Jesus is clear and Paul is clear: rules are not the answer. Both Jesus and Paul will tell us that rules are actually a massive part of the problem.
In Colossians 2 and 3, Paul lists 5 powers that humanity groans under. 5 powers that are opposed to us. And right in there among them is the law. Let’s look at these powers.
The first power is “the world” – v20. The world is a system opposed to God and it’s something that people “belong” to.
Second there’s the “flesh”. Our translation calls v23 “sensual indulgence”, but more literally it’s the indulgence of the “flesh”. The flesh is the sinful nature we were born with and it demands to be indulged in all kinds of selfishness. We inherited it from Adam and it sticks to us like skin to our bones.
Third there’s the “devil”. In v20 the “principles” of the world are spiritual forces who serve the “Prince of this world” – the devil. Paul is actually talking about supernatural evil forces, sometimes translated as ‘principles of the world’, sometimes as ‘elemental spirits.’ These principles serve the Prince of darkness and they are much stronger than we are.
So that’s a familiar trio – the world, the flesh and the devil. But add to this, number 4: Wrath.
If you look to chapter 3:6 you’ll see that the wrath of God is coming upon all this godlessness. This world-system is under judgement, it will be condemned. There is an unavoidable judgement that will come crashing down on the world.
But, fifthly, here’s the shock. “Law” belongs to these five powers that oppress humanity. We often think “law” is a help to lift us out of our predicament. We think of rules as a solution – Paul says law is a major part of the problem.
But that’s our predicament. Trapped under the powers of: the world, the flesh, the devil, God’s wrath and law. This is where we are. This is planet earth as we know it. And there’s only one way out.
Death. The doors are locked, no-one gets outta here alive.
You can hear some of the Colossians saying, “Wait, what if I obey lots of rules!” Paul says, “Are you kidding me? That’s part of the problem, no-one gets outta here alive!” And they say “Well what if we’re really religiously observant, we’ll celebrate every Sabbath, every new moon, we’ll even get circumcised, right lads?” And Paul says “The doors are locked, no-one gets outta here alive.”
We are trapped under these powers, slaves to the world the flesh and the devil, facing the wrath of God and no amount of legal obedience can ever save us.
But… Step forwards Jesus Christ.
He comes into this world, He takes on our flesh, He fights the devil, He faces God’s wrath and He lives under God’s law.
Of course He lives under God’s law. He was the One God’s law was always pointing to.
To take just three examples from Colossians 2: Circumcision – v11. All circumcision in the OT was about the cutting off of Christ, the Seed of Abraham.
Or, v16, all that stuff about New Moon festivals was about how, through Christ’s resurrection, He would renew the whole world.
Or again, v16, all that stuff about Sabbath was about the rest that Christ would bring through His death and resurrection.
All those things, v17, were shadows of Christ’s work. And when He came He lived out the reality.
So when I read the law I’m reading about THE Righteous One. But THE Righteous One is not me. It’s Jesus.
And He came into the world, He took on our flesh but He also took on the law. And He fulfilled every last word. He dotted every i, and crossed every t.
Then, in fulfillment of the law, He was cut off. He died on the cross. And He took our old sinful flesh with Him. That’s what verses 11-13 were all about – our flesh has been crucified. And then v14, the cross was also the cancellation of the written code, with its regulations that was against us – the law has been crucifed. And v15 it was the disarming and triumph over the powers and authorities – the devil and his minions have been crucified.
Jesus described it in John 12 like this:
31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. John 12:31-32
So the devil and his powers are defeated. But also the world has been judged. And God’s wrath HAS fallen. All on the cross. All five powers defeated on the cross.
The cross is not just the death of Jesus. Jesus has taken our side and taken on Himself all the powers that oppress us – the world, the flesh, the devil, God’s wrath and law. And on the cross, it wasn’t simply Jesus who was put to death. The world was put to death. Our flesh was put to death. The devil was put to death. God’s wrath was put to death. And the law was put to death.
Thank God for that. Because, as I said, there’s only one way out of our predicament.
But it doesn’t have to be our death. Christ died for us. So that now we can die in Him.
So Paul says to all Christians in v20: you died with Christ.
When we trusted Jesus we came to Him as our shelter and refuge, our way through death. But that means we died IN Him.
So you have a choice. You can die UNDER the powers of this world. Or you can die IN Christ and allow His death to count as your death. And if you do that then the world, the flesh, the devil, God’s wrath and God’s law are past tense realities for you. You HAVE died with Christ to all of that.
So forget your petty legalisms that make you feel safe and superior. Forget your little rules to make the world manageable and to earn favour. V23, forget your self-imposed worship, your false humility, and your harsh treatment of the body.
Do we have any Catherines or Simeons here? Are you always punishing yourself? Always beating yourself up? Perhaps even literally?
Christ HAS crucified our flesh, Christ HAS done away with away our sinful selves. Christ was punished on the cross. And He didn’t do it so that you could go on punishing yourself. It’s finished. It’s over. It’s paid. It’s complete. Your sinful self has been put away in Him once and for all. What we could never do with all our self-atoning, self-punishing, cutting and starving and spiritual sulking and acts of penance. What we could never do with all of that nonsense, He DID on the cross.
And you have died with Christ to this death-bound, rule-heavy world-system.
Therefore – isn’t the translator’s heading at the top of Chapter 3 an absolute travesty. As though Paul is now going to tell us a GOOD set of rules to make us holy. This is the worst translator’s heading in the history of translators headings. But anyway, let’s not get distracted by that travesty. Chapter 3 verse 1 has such good news. Not just that we’ve died with Christ, but we’ve also been raised with Christ.
We have come through all that death and out the other side. Just as Christ lives beyond the powers of the world, the flesh, the devil, wrath and law. If you belong to Jesus – so do you.
Read v1 with me:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Now what does all this mean? You died? You have been raised? When, how? How can Paul talk like this?
Some of you yesterday sent me text messages to helpfully remind me of the rugby score. I was grateful for this messaging service provided free of charge which informed me that the English rugby team beat the Australian rugby team. Except that’s not how these friends tend to phrase such news. They usually say “We beat you.” Now much as they wish they were playing at Twickenham I might be speaking out of turn here, but I suggest that they contributed not one a calorie of effort toward England’s win. And much as Australia wish I was playing for them, I didn’t contribute to their efforts either. But still – I’m prepared to say: “You beat us.”
What do I mean by that? I mean that your representatives beat my representatives. But we are so identified with our representatives that their victory is our victory, their defeat is our defeat.
But listen, that’s peanuts compared to what happened when Jesus Christ rose up from the dead. When He shouldered sin, evil, law, wrath and hell and then burst out of the ground to ascend to the throne of the universe – that was the greatest victory imaginable.
But His victory really IS our victory. Because it’s not like in sport. We haven’t just picked a winner and cheered Him on. No He has deliberately taken our side. He’s decided to step into our shoes, He didn’t have to, He could have left us to get swallowed by sin and Satan and hell. But He stuck up for us, He came to the fight and He fought our corner. He was born INTO our humanity. We are bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh. That’s how united we are. And then Jesus lived our life, died our death, rose again and sent us His Spirit. Now the Spirit has united us to Him. He was born into our kind of life, and by the Spirit we are born again into His kind of life. Now we are One Spirit with Him. We are – body, soul and spirit – united to Jesus. So close that we are IN Him. You can’t get closer than in can you?
And so, v1, since He was raised, we’ve been raised with Him. Verse 3, our life IS HIDDEN with Christ in God. Verse 4, Christ IS our life.
Do you see how Paul puts all this as a matter of FACT. You have died, you have been raised, Christ IS your life. Paul doesn’t say, “Try to put Jesus first in every aspect of your life.” It’s really tempting to do that as a preacher. “Is Jesus number one in your life? Well enthrone Him on the throne of your heart!” You hear that sort of stuff from preachers, but you don’t hear it from Paul. Paul just says “Christ IS your life.” “He HAS sat down on the throne and you HAVE sat down on the throne of God with Him.” It’s not that you should hide your life with Christ in God. Your life IS hidden with Christ in God.
Fact. If you belong to Jesus where are you right now? You are seated on the throne of the universe. We don’t just have friends in high places, we ARE in high places. And how does God feel about us? Well we’re hidden with Christ, united to Him. So how does He feel about us? Chapter 1:22: We are HOLY in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation. That is a FACT. If you belong to Jesus that’s where you are, seated where Christ is seated, loved with the very love with which God loves His Son.
And Paul declares these truths to the Colossians, knowing what they’re like. He knows, v5 that they still have an earthly nature. We don’t have our resurrection bodies – our current bodies are from Adam, we haven’t yet received our renewed bodies from Christ and so we’ve got a flesh-problem – an earthly nature. And so Paul knows that, v5, we struggle with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. We are lusters. But Paul says to lusters, you SIT on the throne of God, embroiled in pornography as you might be, consumed by inappropriate feelings for another, perhaps even committing adultery or sorely tempted to, or your heart is in love with money and it’s ruining your life. ALL the while you are Loved, Honoured, Enthroned at the heart of heaven.
Or maybe your struggles are v8: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language. We’ve thought about lusting. Here’s loathing. You have cut people to shreds with your words, you have destroyed reputations, you have spread gossip like wildfire, your anger and bitterness consume you and others, and Paul says, “You are at the right hand of the Father, united to Jesus, eternally loved.”
Or, v9, you are just living a lie. We’ve had lusters, loathers, here are the liars. You’ve been covering your tracks all your life, you’re not straight with people, lies just trip off your tongue without a second thought. And Paul says “In Christ you are holy in God’s sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”
And you think – no wait, that can’t be, I can’t be united to Jesus AND embroiled in such sin? And Paul says “Well no you can’t. But you ARE!”
All the people struggling with verses 5-9 are people to whom Paul declares verses 1-4. Or put it another way. Paul pronounces verses 1-4 over a people he knows are struggling with verses 5-9. He knows they are full of lusting and loathing and lying and he says – the fundamental truth is this – You belong to Jesus, You are IN Him, You have died to every sin, every rule, every drop of God’s wrath – it’s all been taken in Jesus. And you are in Jesus, risen again in Him ascended to the right hand of the Father and your life is utterly safe with Christ. You are so united to Jesus that the only way you could now go to hell was if Jesus went to hell.
These are the kinds of truths Paul pronounces over lusters, loathers and liars.
We usually think that lusting and loathing and lying distances ourselves from Jesus. When we sin we imagine that we slide away from the right hand of God and into the outskirts of His presence. We might even wonder whether we fall completely out of His love altogether. But no our union with Christ is not broken by sin. Christ is more powerful than sin – He is more determinative of our identity than sin.
We usually think, the Christian who goes to the brothel leaves Jesus at the door. Paul says no. Read 1 Corinthians 6 and you’ll see that the Christian who goes to a prostitute takes Jesus with them. That’s how united we are to Jesus.
And you say – that’s horrible. How can we drag Jesus into all that?
Exactly. So, v5, put it to death.
You ARE Christ’s – that’s your true identity, these sins aren’t you. So kill em off. Don’t argue with them. Don’t reason with them. Don’t analyze them. Don’t stare them down. Don’t wrestle with them. Your dead to that stuff now.
It’s like, we are in our Head the LORD Jesus. Colossians has described Jesus as our Head a number of times. So our Head is very literally in the clouds. And we’re united to Him. But our bodies have all these parasites on them. Head in the clouds but our bodies have these sins clinging to them. And they’re impostors. They don’t belong to the life of heaven. And if they don’t belong to the life of heaven, they don’t belong to you. So kill em.
When sins become apparent, kill em. Don’t kill yourself. Don’t whip yourself or cut yourself or punish yourself. Don’t atone for yourself. Don’t spend your time in a spiritual sulk because now that you’ve sinned you realize you’re not as holy as you thought you were. Your sins shouldn’t surprise you. You live on planet earth don’t you? So you’re going to discover lusting, loathing and lying in yourself. Don’t act all shocked, like you’re too holy to struggle with that. If, v5, you have an earthly nature – and looking around I don’t see anyone with a resurrection body yet – well then you have an earthly nature, therefore you have sins. Don’t act all shocked next time it becomes apparent you struggle lusting, loathing and lying.
But don’t take those sins too seriously either. They don’t define you. Jesus Christ defines you. And so for that reason kill em.
Do you remember when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus had been dead for four days. He was rotting in the Mediterranean heat and people were remarking about the smell. Jesus raises Lazarus with a word and the bible says
“The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”” John 11:44
Can you imagine if people tried taking Lazarus’s grave clothes off and Lazarus said, “Actually I kind of like them.” His friends would say “Lazarus they stink of death.” Lazarus would say “Yeah but they’re comfy.” “Lazarus, you don’t belong to the grave, take off your grave clothes, walk in the light.”
Sins are like grave clothes. Your sins are like grave clothes. Whatever lusting, loathing or lying appeals to you, it’s like the strips of linen and the face cloth after four days of decomposition. They’re putrid but comfy. But when Jesus raised us from the dead, He didn’t raise us to be zombies, still attached to the old life. He raised us for freedom. He HAS taken off our old self and crucified it.
you have taken off your old self with its practices
Jesus took all that stuff away from you. Don’t snuggle up back to your grave clothes. Instead v10, remember what HAS happened:
You have put on the new self.
Isn’t that interesting? You HAVE put on the new self. You have a NEW self to be.
And maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t know how to live my new life. The bible says I AM new, I feel stuck in the old life. The grave-clothes of sin are all I know. How do I live this new life?”
Keep reading v10:
[Your new self] IS BEING renewed in knowledge in the Image of its Creator.
Knowledge. You need to KNOW Jesus. That’s it. You and I need to know Jesus. As we know Jesus we ARE being renewed according to the Image of our Creator. And of course, Paul has told us in Colossians 1:15 the Image of our Creator God IS Jesus. As we know Jesus we will become like Jesus. That’s a guarantee.
That’s why Colossians 3 begins that way. Verse 1: Set your heart on things above. Verse 2: Set your mind on things above. Does that just mean, Think about lovely heavenly things. No specifically, set your mind on Christ seated on the right hand of the Father.
Behold Him there the risen Lamb,
My perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I am,
King of glory and of grace,
One in Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood,
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Savior and my God!
You know what kills sins and renews your new self. Knowing Jesus. You will never kill off your sins by trying to stare them down. Stare at Him. You’ll never renew yourself by looking at yourself. Eyes off your sins. Eyes off yourself. Set your heart, set your mind on Christ. He IS your life.