Paul's Prison Epistles: Paul And The Colossians


Focus on Heavenly Things: Colossians 3:1-2

Our old unregenerate spirits had no moral ability or desire. But our renewed spirits have both moral ability and desire. When we were spiritually dead, before we were regenerated and united to Christ the king, it would have been useless for us to focus on spiritual things, or “things above,” even if we had wanted to. But now that we are regenerate, the most reasonable thing for us to do is to focus our new lives in a new direction. Our spirits have been made new; now we are spiritual people. And the most logical thing — and the most natural thing, and the most beneficial thing for us to do as spiritual people — is to focus on our spiritual lives. And so, Paul continued in Colossians 3:1-2 by writing this exhortation:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2).

Because we are seated above with Christ, we should focus our minds on things that pertain to heaven. We are now aware of the true authority structure of the universe; we know how the world works and what things bring true blessings. And this knowledge should change the way we live our lives.

Now, at some points in history, Christians have mistakenly thought that when Paul said to focus on heavenly things and not on earthly things, he meant that we should withdraw from the normal human life in order to pursue heaven without distraction. The medieval ascetic monks are a good example of this type of thinking. Some lived as hermits, sequestered from the rest of society. Some sat in caves or on top of poles for huge periods of time. Others caused themselves physical harm. They earnestly believed that the best way to grow spiritually is to escape the influence of the normal, unspiritual world. But they were wrong. In fact, in some respects, they made the same mistakes that the false teachers in Colosse had made.

The famous educator Booker T. Washington, founder of the school that is now called Tuskegee University, is credited as the author of this American proverb:

One man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him.

In many ways, Washington applied to human relations what Paul taught about the inner lives of Christians; that is to say, if we focus all our energies on suppressing our sinful desires, we are still focusing on sinful desires. Yes, suppressing sin is a good thing, even a good work. And Paul encouraged believers to put their fleshly sins to death. But Paul’s point was not simply that we must adopt a new approach to earthly matters; it was also that we should refocus our attention away from earthly matters and onto spiritual matters. But the “spiritual” or “heavenly” matters Paul had in mind require our participation in the world. Consider his words in Colossians 3:12-16:

Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:12-16).

To be heavenly minded is to focus on the one who has ascended to heaven, namely Christ, in order that we might be more like him while we are here on earth.

And notice the kinds of matters that Paul called “heavenly” or “spiritual.” Most of them are interactive virtues, virtues that are primarily, and in some cases only, expressed toward other people, such as compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, and peace in the context of community. These virtues cannot be exercised apart from active life in the present world.

Click here to watch Paul and the Colossians, lesson two in the series Paul's Prison Epistles.