Dead and Alive with Christ, Colossians 2:20-3:4

If there’s a Bible available to you, let’s first turn to I Corinthians 15. To help us understand our text in Colossians we’re going to first do a little study of Paul’s theology and some of the wording he liked to use to explain it. I Corinthians 15:1, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” Notice the phrase that begins v2, “by which [by means of the gospel] you are saved“. It’s like Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it [the gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” It’s the greatest need of every accountable human soul. Its value far surpasses what a vaccine would be that could cure all kinds of cancer and every kind of disease, because that vaccine would only give men and women a few more years of comfortable life on earth. But the gospel is power of God to save from the eternal fires of hell and to make one welcome to the very city of God in the world to come where there is no disease, no death, no mourning or crying or pain. So I want to know what this gospel is more than anything in the world, I don’t know about you. In v3 Paul tells us some primary elements of it. He says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to…” a bunch of people that he lists there. So here are elements of first importance in this gospel that saves. Christ died for our sins. He died to satisfy God’s demand for justice for our sins, so that God could look at us and treat us as though we had no sin. And He was buried. He was for sure dead. And He was raised confirming that all He claimed and promised is true and that resurrection and eternal life really is very possible for us. And God has given us plenty of substantiation of those truths. They were foretold in the Scriptures written hundreds of years before Christ walked the earth. And the risen Christ appeared to many. Paul lists 514 such eyewitness here, and it’s not an exhaustive list. In a court of law if you ever got over 500 eyewitnesses to something with consistent testimony and they had nothing to gain by lying about it, no question it would be taken as a fact. Now, that’s not all that the gospel is. There is more to it. In Romans 2:16 Paul said according to his gospel the day is coming when God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. That’s also part of the gospel. Colossians 1:5 says the Colossians heard of the hope laid up for them in heaven in the gospel. That’s also part of the gospel. But Christ’s death for our sins, His burial and resurrection are, Paul says, matters “of first importance” in the gospel.

But another crucial element of the gospel is what our response must be, how to be connected with the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work, how to appropriate what Christ has done for us. The gospel contains demands, instructions. It is a message to be obeyed. II Thessalonians 1:7-8, Paul wrote, “the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (See also I Peter 4:17.) It’s a message to be obeyed. The obedience it calls for can be worded in different ways. We usually like the plain words faith, trust, repentance, baptism, following Christ, imitating Christ. The apostle John liked to use birth terminology and say we must be born again, born of God, born of water and the Spirit. The apostle Paul often liked to use the language of death, burial and resurrection. Paul taught that we become united with Christ and His redemptive work by undergoing a kind of death, burial and resurrection ourselves. What must die and be buried Paul often called the old self. And that old self is to stay dead. And what must be raised is a certain new self. And this death, burial and resurrection in which we are united with Christ takes place officially when a penitent believer is baptized into Christ.

Let’s look at passage where Paul explains it, Romans 6. We’ll get a little context by starting at v1, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” So Paul is going to deal with this argument someone might make to excuse or justify continuing in sin, just going on willfully practicing sin in their life. The argument is that the more we sin the more grace it takes for God to forgive us. So if we sin more it makes God more gracious to grant us forgiveness. And isn’t that a good thing to give God the opportunity to demonstrate just how incredibly gracious He is? Hmm. Should we do that? Paul says, v2, “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Paul is saying if we’re Christians, if we’re saved, if we stand in the grace of God, then we have died to sin. And the verses that follow in this chapter show us that he has in mind the imagery of slavery. Sin is personified as an old master that we used to serve and who had authority over us and who determined what would happen to us. But now if we’re Christians, if we’re saved, we are dead to that old master, sin. And that means 2 things. It means #1 that our old master sin can’t do anything to us. A master cannot do anything anymore to a slave who has died. Sin cannot determine our destiny anymore. And #2, it means that we do not serve our old master, sin. If a slave is really dead, then that slave does not go out and plow the master’s field or fix his dinner. If we’re Christians, if we’re saved, that’s us in relation to sin. We are dead. Now, how does that happen? How do we become dead to sin? Well, certainly it involves a decision on our part not to serve sin anymore. But a slave is not dead and freed from his master just because he decides “I don’t want to serve my master anymore.” The master will still have say over what happens to the slave even if the slave decides not to serve him. But that decision is part of how we become dead to sin. But it also involves this. Look at v3, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” When we’re committed to serve Christ rather than sin, and in faith and obedience to Christ we’re baptized into a relationship with Him, then in that baptism, Paul says, we come “into His death.” We are connected there with His death. His death becomes ours at that moment. We appropriate it. It comes to apply to us at that moment. And at that moment as far as our old master sin is concerned we are dead. Then look at v4, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” So baptism is a burial where we are untied with Christ and His death. We become dead and buried with Christ in the water, and sin no longer has any say over us at that moment. And from that watery grave we rise to a new life; the old self, the slave of sin, is dead, and a new self, a slave of God, is alive. And Paul is saying we must, with the Lord’s help, keep it that way. The old slave of sin has to stay dead and the new slave of God has to stay alive.

Now, look at 6:17 where Paul refers again to this death, burial and resurrection that we undergo. v17, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed…” Notice the word “form” there. It’s the word “tupos” in the Greek text. It means a semblance, a likeness, a copy, an imitation, or an image of something, or a shape that comes out of cast or a mold, or an impression of a stamp, something like that. Well, what semblance or likeness or imitation or image of the teaching did they obey? Of first importance in the teaching they heard was the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (I Cor 15:3-4). And they obeyed the semblance, the likeness, the image of that that by killing and burying the old self, the old slave of sin, with Christ in baptism, and then being raised up to new life with Christ. And Paul says “thanks be to God that you did that,” because it united you with Christ and freed you from sin.

Let’s look at another one real quick. Colossians 2:11-12, “in Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” If you’re in Christ, if His redemptive work connects to you, if you’re saved, then your faith in the working of God has moved you to undergo a death, a death involving the removal of the body of the flesh. You’ve decided this body doesn’t serve the fleshly nature anymore. That old self is no more. And you’ve been buried with Christ in baptism and raised up with Him.  And when you were united with Him in that, then His status and His righteousness and His relationship with God and His inheritance all became yours.

Now, our text in Colossians (2:2-3:4) is about what it means more specifically to be dead and raised with Christ, how you live, what you do and don’t do, if you are dead and raised with Him. Notice the beginning phrases of the 2 paragraphs here. 2:20, “If you have died with Christ…” And then look 3:1, “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ…” This is about what it means more specifically to have died and been raised with Christ.

Let’s read the first paragraph…

If you have died with Christ… (2:20-23)

The religions of the 1st century, both Judaism and pagan religions, like many religions today, enslaved folks to rules that pertained merely to the material components of the world, what Paul calls here “elementary principles of the world,” rules like “Don’t handle that. Don’t taste that. Don’t touch that.” (See study on Colossians 2:8-19 for further explanation of phrase, “the elementary principles of the world.”) Paul reminds the Colossians that when they died with Christ, they died to the elementary principles of the world. They ended their devotion to religious rules about foods and drinks and material things. But now some of them are being persuaded by some religious teachers in their midst that they’re not suppose to handle certain things or taste certain things or touch certain things. And Paul wants them to see that that’s like bringing back to life the old self that died and was supposed to stay dead. It’s like being of the world again. If you have died with Christ you do not observe for your relationship with God rules that simply have to do with the material components of the world, rules about diet, and clean and unclean things, and that you have do certain rituals when it’s a certain time of the year. That’s the religiosity of the world. You don’t adhere to those kind of laws if you’ve died with Christ.

And in v22-23 Paul gives 3 reasons why we should not concern ourselves with rules like these.

#1, he says in v22, as my version has it, they all refer to things destined to perish with use. Or it could be rendered “they all have to do with things made to perish by being used up” or “by being consumed.” I think he’s talking about the purpose for which God created foods and all the helpful and enjoyable things of his physical creation. They were made to be used and consumed and enjoyed by us. That’s what they are for. God made foods to be eaten. He doesn’t grow a bunch of food on this planet so that it can be left alone and rot. He grows all the food to be eaten by us. God made medicinal plants and oils to be used when we’re sick and hurting. God provided us with natural resources so that we can have houses and transportation and clothing. They are made to perish with use. I think it’s like the statement in I Timothy 6:17 “God richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.” And so don’t listen to anyone saying, “If you want a relationship with God, don’t handle that and don’t taste that and don’t touch that.” No. God wants us to handle and taste and touch the things that He’s made for us.

2nd reason you don’t concern yourself with those kind of laws is that they are according to the commandments and teachings of men. Foolish ignorant flawed human beings are the ones who have decided on these rules. They’re not from God.

And then the 3rd reason not to concern ourselves with these sort of rules is that they are worthless, they’re of no value to changing our hearts. I think that’s the point of v23. He says “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body…” He’s saying, “I admit it looks holy and righteous, it has the appearance of wisdom, for somebody to say ‘God for you I’m never going to eat meat again.’ Or like people do sometimes in places Mexico today, they crawl on their bloody hands and knees for miles to worship at a cathedral. Or to take a vow of silence or vow of poverty and celibacy. It has the appearance of wisdom, it looks like very holy, pious and spiritual. And you might think that afflicting yourself and beating your body down is going to suppress your fleshly desires and is going to make you a more godly and more Christlike. But it doesn’t work. It is of no value against fleshly indulgence.” It doesn’t help us in overcoming fleshly indulgence. If you’re an angry person or a jealous person or an unforgiving person or an alcoholic, or have a problem with some sexual sin, beating your body, denying your body certain foods, dressing your body in sackcloth, is not going to change your heart and your desires. It doesn’t work.

So if the worldly old self is really dead, then you are not submitting yourself to the decrees of worldly religion, to the commands and teachings of men.

Now, let’s read the next paragraph…

If you have been raised up with Christ… (3:1-4)

So the new life in Christ is a life with a new goal and a new focus. Our new goal is v1. Our new focus is v2. And it’s same for both – the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, not the things that are on earth. The things above are what we are to seek. That’s what we’re to be after. They are to be our goal, our objective. And those are the things on which we are to set our minds. They are to be our focus.

Romans 2 beginning at v5 tells about the great day of judgment that is coming when God will render to each person according to his deeds. And it tells us at 2:7-8 that there are 2 kinds of people that will be dealt with in very different ways on this day of judgment.

It says that first there are those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality. They are people who not living for the here and now. What they are focused on and seeking is beyond the here and now. It is to hear Christ say “Well done, My good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” And so they are persevering in doing good in this life. And to those people, Romans 2:7, says God will render “eternal life,” and, v10, they will be given “glory and honor and peace.” Reminds me of Hebrews 11 where it’s describing the great patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and why they lived in obedience to God living as nomads in tents in a foreign country. It says they were looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:10). And they were seeking a country of their own (11:14), a better country, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Heb 11:16). Moses was this way. It says when he had grown up he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. And rather than enjoy the passing pleasures of sin with the Egyptians, Moses decided to be numbered among God’s people and endure ill treatment with God’s people. And it says because he was looking for the reward (Heb 11:24-26). His focus and his goal was on things above. Jesus was this way. Hebrews 12:2, “for the joy set before Him He endured the cross, despising the shame, and then sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” His goal and His focus was the joy set before Him above this world. Paul was the same way. Philippians 3:8ff, he said all the stuff that people take pride in and pursue in this world, all the allurements of this world, money and status and lucrative careers and athletic excellence and all such things, I count it all as rubbish. I want to be found in Christ with the righteousness that God gives in Him. I want to attain to the resurrection of the righteous dead. I want to lay hold of that for which I was laid hold of by Christ. I want the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. And so one thing I do, I press on toward that, I forget what lies behind and I just keep trying to know Christ more fully and just be more like Him. There are those kind of people, oriented toward the things above.

But then there’s a second kind of people. Romans 2:8 says there are those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness. Their focus is on the here and now. Their ambitions, their goals are for the affluence and comfort and pleasure and promotion of self in this world. To them on the great day that is coming God will render wrath and indignation. It reminds me of the fella Jesus told a story about in Luke 12. It had to do with building bigger barns. If Jesus was speaking to us today in our culture, He may have worded the story something like this. “The business of a rich man was booming. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since my product is in such demand?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my little shop and build a bigger shop with an assembly line and hire workers so I can build and sell more, and build more shops in other parts of the country and hire more workers, and eventually delegate all my responsibilities to other people while still owning the company. And then I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have a big steady income for many years to come. Buy a lakefront house in Montana, a nice fishing boat, and just take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.'” But then about the time he was ready to retire, God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?'” Most probably wouldn’t describe him as a bad man. They would describe him as a hardworking successful entrepreneur. But God called him a fool, because his focus and his goal in life was just earthly things, just amassing wealth for himself here.

In which category do you fall? Are your sights set on the things above or on the things that are on earth? What’s the guidepost for your decisions and plans and schedules and how you interact with people and how you conduct yourself? If we’re alive with Christ we’re after the things above.

He further explains in v3, if you’re a Christian, you have died. The old self that lived for the here and now is gone. And your life is hidden with Christ in God. I think when he says “your life” there he means what you live for, what determines the decisions you make and where you go and how you spend your time and how you interact with people… Like some people say, “Football is my life,” or “My career is my life.”  As a Christian your life is hidden with Christ in God. It is heavenly unseen realities that are determining how you live on this earth. Like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were, you live how you live on this earth, because you’re looking for that city and country of God.

In v4 he words it a little differently and he says if we’re Christians, Christ is our life. If we’re seeking heaven, Christ is our life. We’re letting Christ make our plans for the future and handle our finances and tell us how to run our business and raise our kids and treat our spouse and how to deal with that difficult person that works in the cubical next to ours. Christ is calling the shots in our life. Christ is our life, if we’re raised up with Him, if we’re seeking the things above.

And the world looks at us as foolish for letting these unseen things and this unseen Christ control our lives. The world doesn’t see us as having any status or privilege or hope or anything above them. But Paul says in v4 that the day is coming when they will. One day Christ will be revealed in the sky in great glory and every eye will see Him. And if we’ve died physically before that day we will be raised (I Thess 4:13-16). And He “will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory” (Phil 3:21). “It has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him” (I John 3:2). And we will be “caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (I Thess 4:17). And the world will see and we will see how wealthy, how exalted, how blessed we are, how unfoolish, how great our decision was to entrust our lives to Christ.

God has promised that that day is coming. There will be 2 categories of people. To one God will render eternal life, glory, honor and peace. And He will render to the other, wrath and indignation. So we can be in the former category, Christ died for our sins, He was buried, and He rose. We can be confident about it, because it was foretold in the ancient Scriptures and we have abundant eyewitness testimony.  Salvation is available. You need to die and bury that old worldly self in baptism and be raised to new life with Christ, a life ruled by Christ. Don’t rely on any other religious stuff. Just follow Christ. And keep your focus and goal on the things above, not the things that are on earth.

– James Williams

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