Seek the Things that Are Above

Scott Aniol

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One of the most well-known verses in all of Scripture about singing is found in Colossians 3:16. And yet, we often quote that verse in isolation and do not recognize the broader context in which Paul gives the command to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. But as I would like us to see from this text over the next couple weeks, there is an essential connection between singing and discipleship that ought to compel us to place a high emphasis upon singing in our homes and churches.

In Matthew 28, Christ commissioned his apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded. In many ways the NT epistles in particular were written to do just that: they teach believers to observe everything that Christ commanded, many times in very practical ways that apply Christ’s teaching to everyday life issues.

The book of Colossians is no different. The end of the book in particular, beginning in verse 18 of chapter 3, deals with how to be a good Christian wife, and husband, and parent, and child, and servant, and master, and even how to relate to the unbelievers around you.

Characteristics of Disciples

But before getting to that very practical application of how to observe what Christ commanded, in the first half of chapter 3, Paul tells us what kind of disciples we need to be in order to live in a Christ-glorifying manner.

He begins by describing the nature of who we are as Christians: “If then you have been raised with Christ.” All who are united to Christ are also seated with him in heaven. Verse 3 alludes to this reality: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ is that we are hidden with Christ in God. The first step to being a disciple is to be in Christ through faith in him.

On the basis of that gospel reality, Paul gives one overarching command that he then fleshes out through the rest of the text: “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.” We are to direct the center of our spiritual desires upon heavenly things, where Christ is, and not earthly things. As disciples of Christ—followers of Christ, we must set our spiritual focus upon him, not on earthly things.

As disciples of Christ—followers of Christ, we must set our spiritual focus upon him, not on earthly things.

And Paul then gives us four ways in which disciples of Christ should set their affections on things above and not on things that are on the earth. We’re not going to explore this at depth, but I just want to briefly survey them as we move toward verse 16.

1. Put to death earthly passions.

First, beginning in verse 5, Paul commands disciples to put earthly passions to death. We are to kill immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness. We are to put away anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk, and lies.

It is important to recognize here that these sins are actually abuses of natural, God-given passions—they are not bad in themselves, but our passions  must be controlled lest they lead us to sin. God has given us sexual desire, but uncontrolled, it leads to immorality. God has given us physical emotions, but uncontrolled, they lead to evil desires and wrath, and so forth.

Altogether, these are what theologians for most of church history referred to as earthly passions. In Philippians 3:19, Paul describes enemies of Christ with similar language: their minds are set on earth things. And he uses a very common Greek metaphor of the day to describe them: “their god is their belly.” In ancient Greek, the belly was often used as a metaphor of physical passions that, left uncontrolled, will lead people to immoral behavior.

But Paul says that a disciple of Christ must kill uncontrolled, earthly passions that lead us to sin.

2. Put on spiritual affections.

Instead, second, disciples of Christ must put on spiritual affections. Verse 12 literally reads that we are to put on “hearts of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” The Greek word translated “hearts” is a word that literally refers to the upper chest. The KJV translated this “bowels of mercy.”

Again, this was a common Greek metaphor. While “belly” referred to physical passions, “chest” referred to noble spiritual affections. So Paul is saying here, disciples of Christ must kill the belly, and put on the chest. Kill earthly passions, and put on spiritual affections. Kill anger, wrath, and malice, and put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Kill earthly passions, and put on spiritual affections.

3. Live in harmony with the body of Christ.

Third, as this moves toward practical application, Paul gives a command for disciples to live in loving harmony with the body of Christ. He says in verse 13 to bear with one another, to forgive each other. Verse 14,

And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

We were called in one body, Paul says in verse 15, but that one body is made up of many members with a diversity of backgrounds and ethnicities and experiences and gifts. Paul describes such diversity in verse 11: Greeks, Jews, circumcised, uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free. That kind of diversity, left to itself, creates chaos.

Rightly ordered love, Paul is saying, will bind God’s diverse people together in perfect harmony in such a way that when disorder threatens the body, the peace of Christ will rule in our hearts. That kind of loving, peaceful harmony is what we were called to in the body of Christ. This kind of loving harmony is why we must kill self-focused passions and put on spiritual affections.

4. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.

And then finally, the fourth command Paul gives to disciples in verse 16 is to “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Discipleship is impossible without the Word of Christ since Jesus said that making disciples fundamentally involves teaching them to observe all that he commanded. In order to observe Christ’s teaching, Christ’s teaching must dwell in us richly.

It is inspired Scripture, Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, that is profitable for discipleship: for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” That’s a succinct definition of a disciple, and that can’t happen without the Word of Christ richly dwelling within us.

Now we could, of course, spend a whole lot more time expanding these verses and the implications of what Paul commands of disciples, but for our purposes it is instructive to summarize with these four commands. Disciples of Christ must:

1.   Put to death earthly passions.

2.   Put on spiritual affections

3.   Live in loving harmony with the body

4.   Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly. This is what it means to seek things that are above.

Next week, we’ll see how Paul’s command to sing fits within this larger theme of discipleship.

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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.