This past Sunday was an opportunity to participate in a Reformed worship service at Bellville Reformed Church, the mother church for the Reformed church plant in the southern suburbs. For those who could not make it or who would like to reflect more on the service, the following is the liturgy and the sermon.
The liturgy from the morning service at Bellville GKSA, Sunday, September 9, 2012 (remember that this is not the only way in which the Reformed tradition has structured a liturgy):
Hymn of praise from Hebrews 12
Invocation (Psalm 121.1-2)
Hymn of praise from Psalm 27
Confession of faith (Nicene Creed)
Reading of the Law (Ten Commandments)
Hymn of confession and praise from Psalm 32
Prayer of confession, petition and illumination
Hymn of praise from Psalm 73
Sermon on Colossians 3.1-4
Closing prayer of application
Hymn of praise from Psalm 16
Prayer of benediction from Numbers 6
The following is the manuscript of the sermon from Sunday. For other sermon resources, please look at the resources page.
Seek those things above (Col. 3:1-4)
One of the things that can be difficult to understand about the Bible is that it is a book written a long time ago. Is it possible to relate to the people, places and ideas that we find in it? One of the challenges facing the modern preacher is to help you find eternal life in God’s Word that is old, but nevertheless always new! In our passage this morning, we will consider how God is speaking to us today as we find our lives drawn into the world of the Bible. Just like the Colossian Christians, we must find eternal life in Jesus alone: who is the fulfillment of God’s Word. But this simple message of salvation is unfortunately often under attack and in danger of being twisted, even by those in the church.
The church at Colossae was no exception. In this case, the purity of the gospel was being threatened by a subtle form of worldliness or worldly religion that had contaminated the church and was unsettling the Christians there. Basically, false teachers had crept into the church teaching that believing in Jesus is not enough to escape God’s judgment. Instead, faith in Jesus must be supplemented by super-spiritual acts such as abstaining from certain kinds of food and drink, worshipping angels and having access to special knowledge about God. In other words, salvation equals Jesus plus requirements not found in Scripture; eternal life equals faith plus keeping manmade rules. (Verslossing in Christus was volgens hulle nie genoeg om die ewige lewe te bekom nie.) In the face of this false gospel, Paul wants to redirect the Colossians back to Jesus alone as the source of eternal life. By the end of chapter 2, Paul has finished telling the Colossians and us where not to find eternal life – that is below, in the world and according to its rulebook.
In Col 3:1, Paul admonishes the Colossians and us in no uncertain terms where to find salvation – that is above, in Christ. (Paulus leer dat redding net van bo, in Christus kan wees.) However, to appreciate the force of Paul’s words here, it is worth considering in more detail this form of worldly religion or false teaching that had unsettled the faith of the Colossians. Why were they listening to the false teachers? How could they allow the false teachers to judge and bully them? The thing about the false teachers is that what they were teaching sounded so “right”, so “biblical”. And to some extent they were correct. They knew that all mankind has a problem: we are all sinners and therefore stand guilty before holy God. So naturally we want to be free of this guilt. But how is this possible? Here is where the false teachers went horribly wrong: their solution to the problem of sin and guilt was in fact no solution at all. According to them, faith in Jesus is only part of the solution. The rest of the solution depends on man and his efforts. So the false teachers insisted on beating their bodies and depriving themselves in order to keep their sinful passions under control. They insisted on special acts of religious devotion to please God. (Die dwaalleerraars het aangedring op godsdienstige rituele om God te behaag.)
As a result, the Colossian Christians doubted that faith in Jesus was enough. They were being intimidated into believing that God needed their good works as well.
Can you relate to this? Do sometimes see the sin that infests your own heart and feel the guilt that starts to strangle your soul, and you wonder whether maybe I should add something to my faith in Jesus – just in case. So before you know it, its Jesus and no alcohol; Jesus and no nicotine; no nice dinners out; no beach holidays; no golf… Surely God is impressed with my self-control. How about: Jesus and the number of books I have read about him? Jesus and my sacrificial service to him? Surely God is impressed with my heartfelt devotion to him. How about Jesus and my subculture of Christian friends; Christian business; Christian politics; and Christian music? How easy it is for us to move away from the simplicity of justification by faith alone through grace alone, and add to it a thousand different spoken and unspoken rules for gaining favor with God. We are no different from the Colossian Christians. We too must be careful, lest we too are drawn away from the freedom we have in Jesus Christ.
The thing is, the thread that runs through all of these man-made rules – all these methods for becoming right with God – is that they all belong to the world: a world in bondage to sin. In the case of the false teachers, in their sinful pride they thought they new better than God. Instead of listening to God’s Word about salvation, they trusted in their own worldly wisdom; they trusted in themselves. (As gevolg van al hierdie wereldse reels raak ons so besig met reels en regulasies en mis ons God.)
Brothers and sisters, this is a reminder of the desperate state of the human heart: that we always pervert God’s gifts, especially the best of them – Jesus. Our sickness is our pride that does not like to come to God with empty hands and freely receive his gracious gift of salvation. Rather we feel better about ourselves if we work; if we can contribute something to our salvation; and if we can take a bit of God’s glory. Think for moment about Adam in the garden and the pride that drove him to eat of the forbidden fruit. Consider the Israelites who thought they could spice up worship with their idols of gold. And how about those holier than thou Pharisees who were always nitpicking at Jesus for his so-called uncleanness. In each case, God’s promise to save and to save by his Word alone was not enough. This reality of the human heart Paul is all too aware of. So in the beginning of chapter 3 he directs the Colossians away from the world dead in sin towards life in heaven. He directs the Colossians away from manmade rules and traditions that produce false faith and false worship, and he turns them – in fact he commands that they turn – towards the Word of God. (Paulus beveel die inwoners van Kollosse om terug te draai na die Woord van God.)
So we come back again to the all-important question: where is our true and ultimate life found? Where must our faith look for salvation? In Col. 3:1-4, Paul gives us the answer in no uncertain terms. True and ultimate life must be sought in heaven and not on earth. Paul tells us that the difference between the two sources of life – heavenly and earthly – cannot be more radically opposed to each other. No matter how much sweat, toil, bodily discipline, self-deprivation, human wisdom and spiritual zeal we exert, we cannot escape this world of sin doomed for destruction. It is futile to look for a solution to sin and find peace with God on earth. But God’s Word says that if you have faith in Jesus alone, he promises to share heaven for you.
Listen to Paul’s incredible and otherworldly words in Colossians 3:1, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” When Jesus rose from the dead, he opened the way to heaven for all who trust in him alone. If this is true – and it is – then Paul admonishes us to seek those things above. We are to seek those things above because heaven is where Jesus is, the source of eternal life. In contrast to earth below, where sin and death reign supreme, heaven above is a place of sinless perfection and eternal life. Notice that Paul describes Jesus as “seated” and not “standing” “at the right hand of God”. What is the significance of this? It symbolizes that the work of Jesus on our behalf is complete. He alone satisfied God the Father in winning salvation for his people: by faithfully obeying the law and dying for our sin, and then being raised to new life! If you have faith this morning, God has raised you out of this world of sin on the triumphant shoulders of King Jesus – so, therefore, seek those things above!
In v2, Paul repeats the admonition of v1 to set one’s mind or heart on those things above, but now adds: “not on things that are on earth” – to highlight the contrast again for us. Here Paul is recalling the worldly religion of self-righteousness being pushed by the false teachers. Perhaps it is helpful to pause for moment and clear up a possible misunderstanding. Paul is not saying that we should abandon or despise our earthly callings, vocations and pleasures. They are ordained by God and are good, even if they do distract us from God at times, which can be a problem. Rather Paul’s focus here is on the gaping divide between the message of salvation that comes from man below and the message of salvation from God above. (Paulus fokus op die verskil tussen die boodskap wat van onder (die aarde) en die boodskap wat van bo (Christus) kom.) He wants the Colossians to get the gospel right. Simply put: if Christ is no longer on earth but in heaven, and the risen Christ is our source of life then we must seek those things above!
In v3, one could say Paul brings together the two new realities that should define Christian faith in one short sentence. Both of these realities have been proclaimed and defended by Paul in the book so far. “For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Brothers and sisters, in these few words we find the heavenly atmosphere that gives life to the soul, the eternal food that nourishes faith. Paul exclaims, “you have died.” But, in what sense have we died? And how? Paul is not saying that our existence on earth has come to an end. But rather that our life in a world held captive to sin has ended. Our sinful existence as the ultimate defining reality of our lives is over. How? At the cross Jesus died and was judged in our place for our sin. Therefore, by faith God treats us as if we had never sinned: as if we are dead to sin.
The other crucial reality that makes our faith soar toward heaven, the other truth that makes heaven the defining reality of our lives is that Jesus did not remain under the power of death, but was raised to new life. Therefore, by faith we not only share in Christ’s death to sin at the cross but also in his heavenly life, which is why Paul can say “our life is now hidden in him”. Think about it. Raise your minds heavenward to where Christ is. Consider the stupendous and otherworldly implications of your faith. Do you struggle with sin and guilt this morning? Maybe you have an anger problem; maybe you lust after money; maybe you have committed adultery; maybe you come from a broken family; maybe you have little money or you are lonely. But is this how God judges and evaluates you? Do these things – does anything in this world or any sin you struggle with – define your life in the ultimate sense? Not according to Paul; not according to God’s Word; not in God’s kingdom! Why? Because you and I are dead to sin and dead to the world. Our lives are hidden with God in Christ in heaven: pulsating with resurrection power and indestructibility. This is your life. Seek it in Jesus. Find it above.
In v4, you could say Paul in a sense comes back down to earth again, having firmly grounded the Christian life in Christ who is in heaven. We end our passage on a note of expectant longing. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Paul has called the Colossians and us to a Christian life of seeking those things above. But those things above have not come down to earth yet. The life that God promises above we don’t yet experience in all its fullness. We must still wait. But Paul provides certain hope for our faith while we wait and long for heaven. The Bible calls us pilgrims in this world, but we don’t wander aimlessly. The Bible calls us exiles in a foreign land, but we will not always be away from home. This is because the unshakeable promise of God is that when Jesus returns in final judgment we will most certainly share in all the fullness of his glorious life – no longer by faith, but by sight… Nothing between now and then can change this reality. (Met die wederkoms sal ons in Christus se glorieryke bestaan dee.)
In closing I would like to answer one final question that is not explicitly in our text but that nevertheless cries out to be answered. Perhaps you’ve been asking it all along this morning? If we are called to seek Jesus and his kingdom, where can I be sure to find them? Basically, they are found in his Word. Yes, we are to read God’s Word, meditate on it, and pray it. But I would like to draw attention to the fact that God promises to meet with his people in a special way, like no other, when we are gathered together like this under the ministry of the Word in corporate worship. In fact, the church is the only institution in this world that the Bible equates with the kingdom of heaven. When we come to together like this each Sunday to do that which the world considers absolute folly, things we all to often find ordinary and dull, what has God promised to do? He promises to bring heaven down to earth!!! He promises that through the preaching of the Word, he will give us Jesus. In the waters of Baptism is God’s certain pledge that our sins are forgiven. Through the Lord’s Supper he promises to feed our souls with the body and blood of the heavenly Lord Jesus. Through the ministry of the Word and the sacraments God seeks us and serves us with Jesus – so that we might seek him. We respond in faith and by joining the angels in heaven in worshipping the risen Lord Jesus. Do you want to know where Jesus can be found breaking in from heaven on earth? Does your faith need renewed strength to seek after Jesus? (Kom elke Sondag na die erediens, sodat jy weer jou lewe in Christus mag vind.) Come to church each Sunday so that you might find your life in Jesus once again; so that you can, in turn, then go out into the world as fearless pilgrims and exiles living by faith in Jesus, joined to him by his Spirit and with the certain hope of heaven. Amen.
Bellville GKSA, September 9, 2012