Friday, 11 March 2011

Transformed Lives (Col. 3:5-11)

This sermon was preached on 10/3/2011

In this passage, Paul calls his Colossian readers to life transformation. In 3:1-4 he reminded them that they live in union with Christ. Although they cannot see him, they are linked to him and experience the effects of that union in their lives on earth. These effects will be visible, so it is not surprising that Paul, in explaining how union with Jesus shows itself, focuses on visible effects. He urges them to deal with actions and attitudes that are common to unconverted people but which are not to be found among God’s people. The sins that he mentions can be classified as forms of immorality (v. 5) and wrong forms of speech (vv. 8-9). Such sins are visible in their effects and reveal a failure to deal with inner sin. So in dealing with these sins, the apostle does not only mention the sins, he also gives reasons why they should be dealt with.

Right away we can see that Paul stresses the responsibility of the Colossians to work out the heavenly life they now possess through their union with Christ. We need to remember our responsibility because we may assume that since we are united to Jesus spiritual progress will occur without our involvement. That is not the case. We are responsible for dealing with personal sins, and we can see this responsibility in the illustrations Paul uses. One illustration is to execute such sins as enemies (v. 5), another is to discard them as dangerous items of rubbish (v. 8), and another is to put them off (disrobe) as unsuitable items of clothing (v. 9).

It is important to observe that Paul does not suggest a gradual reduction in these sinful practices. He does not propose that his readers should focus on the worst of their sins initially and then deal with less repugnant ones. Instead he demands instant rejection of them. For example, he does not say that one should cease obscene talk first, and then deal with lies. Nor does he indicate that we should gradually reduce the number of times we misuse our tongues. Such a response would be to leave one’s enemy half alive, one’s home half-filled with rubbish, and one’s attire half-unsuitable. Rather, Paul requires a comprehensive renunciation of such sins.

Fear of God’s wrath (v. 6)
What reasons does Paul give for his call to life transformation? The first is that the wrath of God is coming because of sin. Persons will be judged by God on the basis of what they have done and said. A professing Christian will be judged on the same basis. If such a person lives an immoral lifestyle and fails to use his tongue in a right way, God’s wrath will come on him. Of course, if such a person repents of sinful living, he will be forgiven. But if he does not, he will suffer God’s wrath.

It is helpful to realise the difference between true doctrines and wrong deductions. A true believer can never be lost – that is a correct doctrine. A true believer is not perfect – that is a correct doctrine. A true believer can commit outrageous sins – that is a correct doctrine. Some have taken these aspects and argued that it is possible for an individual to be a true Christian and never deal with personal sin. That is a wrong deduction. The sad fact that believers fall does not mean that, in general, they do not make progress in holiness.

Sometimes we can give the impression that believers should not think about the wrath of God. It has been observed that often Jesus spoke to his followers about hell. He told his disciples not to fear those who could destroy the body, instead they should fear God who could destroy both body and soul in hell (Matt. 10:28). It is a wonderful truth that a believer in Jesus is saved from the wrath of God; it is also a sobering truth that causes true believers to cease behaving in ways that incur the wrath of God.

Their previous lifestyle (v. 7)
Secondly, Paul urges the Colossians to use their memories and recall that they too had once lived immoral lives. He uses another word picture, that of walking, to illustrate their habitual way of life. Their lifestyle had been constant in sin, they knew that they were under a strong power which they willingly obeyed. Personal experience confirmed the awfulness of such a lifestyle. Often a few minutes’ reflection on what life was like before conversion becomes an impetus to live a different way.

The old and the new
The third argument that Paul uses is that true believers have put off the old self and put on the new self (vv. 9-10). What does he mean by old self and new self? One answer is that by the old self he means sinful tendencies and by new self he means godly tendencies. The problem with this suggestion is that Paul does not indicate that putting off the old self and putting on the new self are gradual activities. Instead he says that they are decisive. What is wrong with this answer is that it is based on Christian experience rather than on doctrine. Every Christian is aware of continual changes is his spiritual life, of inner conflict with indwelling sin, of desires after holiness. They then assume that here indwelling sin is the old self and desires after holiness are the new self. The consequence is that they fail to realise the radical transformation that occurs at regeneration.

The contrast between the old self and the new self is that between what is earthly and heavenly. Paul describes the earthly in verse 11: ‘Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, ’ and he does so in words that describe groups of people. He mentions ethnic, religious and status distinctions that mark the way people live, and which are very important in their self-perceptions as well as being the cause of troubles in life.

Yet Paul does not regard them as significant for Christian living. I suppose he is saying that earthly privileges and earthly restrictions are of no consequence in living the Christian life. It was not any easier for a circumcised Jew to live the Christian life than it was for an uncircumcised Scythian; nor was it any easier for a free Gentile to advance in holiness than it was for an enslaved Gentile. Instead the Colossians had to realise that a more radical change had happened when they became Christians. At their conversions, each of them became new creatures in a new community, and this new community is the new self.

The old self is life lived in union with Adam and the consequences of his actions when he rebelled against God. If Adam had not rebelled, then the various groupings mentioned in verse 11 would not exist and the sinful lifestyles of each group would not have happened. When a sinner trusts in Jesus, he ceases to be united to Adam, he has new power in his life through being now united to Christ, he becomes a member of a new humanity, and therefore he should live a heavenly life on earth.

This then raises the question as to whether or not ‘self’ is the best word to translate the original text. Literally, it is ‘man’, and I suspect that is how it should be translated. The problem with using ‘self’ is that it suggests an individualistic meaning whereas ‘man’ allows a corporate interpretation. Paul says in Ephesians 2:15 that it was God’s purpose to make a new man composed of former Jews and Gentiles. Here he extends that list of former identities (v. 11). He is stressing that the old man involved wrong social structures and interactions and that the new man involves heavenly structures and interactions.

The new man (vv. 10-11)
So what is life like for those who belong to the new man? Paul mentions two aspects of it. First, it is renewal in knowledge after the image of its Creator (v. 10) and, second, ‘Christ is all, and is in all’ (v. 11). As we can see immediately, both aspects are spiritual privileges. And we can also deduce from Paul’s words that he has an ongoing process in mind, that divine renewing is progressive in the experience of believers. A third detail is that it is corporate in that Paul is addressing the church in Colosse, which is another way of saying that all Christians experience this new life.

I suspect that Paul is alluding to Genesis 1 when he says that Christians are being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator. At the beginning, Adam was created in the image of God and that this image included both character (righteous) and position (dominion). Sadly Adam by his fall into sin lost the full experience of life in God’s image. In contrast, Christians have been recovered from that state and are being prepared for its full experience.

Believers are being renewed. This is a reminder that the Holy Spirit is at work within them. It is also a reminder that spiritual life is always fresh, that the water of life is continually flowing to them from Jesus. Paul reminded the Corinthians that ‘Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison’ (2 Cor. 4:16-17).

Believers are being renewed in knowledge. Their experience of life is connected to experiential knowledge of God. Jesus, in his prayer recorded in John 17, stated that eternal life is to know God and to know himself. This knowledge is not limited to intellectual awareness. Instead it involves fellowship with God. We know God as the Judge who pardons and as the Father who adopts. Further this knowledge changes us and we become like God. Those who are being renewed in this knowledge will not engage in immoral thinking or speak inappropriate words.

The second aspect of the new man mentioned by Paul is Christ is all, and in all. When he says that Christ is all, he means firstly that Jesus is suitable for everyone. We can understand how this is the case by thinking of our conversion when we realised how appropriate the person and work of Jesus were for us in our spiritual needs. Did we engage in immoral thinking or inappropriate speech at that time? Or did we divide ourselves according to race, religious background or social status? The answer is ‘No’.

Paul also means that Jesus is sufficient for all. The Saviour is the source of life, but does that life need to be enhanced by earthly things. A Christian who engages in immoral or covetous thinking is basically saying that what Jesus provides for our souls is insufficient for a satisfying life. Similarly, a Christian who uses his tongue for wrong reasons is also saying that Jesus is insufficient – angry words, malicious words, lying words are usually means of expressing self-importance, are a way of suggesting that Jesus cannot deal with a situation.

Paul concludes by reminding the Colossians that Jesus is in all of them. At a basic level, this means that to covet what another Christian has is to covet what Jesus has allowed them to have; it means that to speak against another Christian is to comment on a person in whom Jesus dwells. Most divisions are caused by wrong forms of speaking. In fact, I cannot think of any that happened through right words.

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