The Risen Christ and the Things Above
Adapted from a Sermon by Horatius Bonar, 1867
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (2) Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (3) For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (4) When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Colossians 3:1-4
The word "if", in this place, is not meant to express doubt. It doesn’t imply that those "saints ... at Colossae" (Col 1:2) were uncertain as to whether they were risen with Christ. Rather, it is the apostle's way of expressing the surest of all certainties. He uses it in the same way in Romans chapter 5, "if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God," (Rom 5:10) and also, "if many died through one man's trespass." (v.15) So that it might better be translated "since," as assuming the fact, and setting it down as beyond all doubt.
There is no support given here to uncertainty or non-assurance on the part of a saint, as if he were not entitled to say more of himself than "If I am a saint." The gospel does in no way, and by no word, directly or indirectly spoken, encourage uncertainty, or give us reason to call it humility.
The result of a believed gospel is not uncertainty—but certainty; not trouble—but peace; not the continuance—but the expulsion of all anxiety. The gospel presents me with that, in believing which I am entitled to say, "I am a child; forgiven, saved, risen." Such is its nature that, in receiving it, so far from being brought into uncertainty, or kept in uncertainty, I am relieved from all uncertainty; my soul is set at rest. I am not only justified—but commanded to claim my son-ship. My not claiming it, my standing still in doubt as to reconciliation between me and God, shows that I have not yet fully understood the freeness and fitness of the grace which the gospel makes known. For God here presents to us such a gospel as to force each hearer of it to face this alternative—either to doubt the good news, or enter into conscious friendship with himself.
Sad it is that uncertainty such as this should be so common, as if there were no sin in it, no blame attaching to those in whom it exists; as if God's sovereignty would account for it entirely, and as if man's rooted self-righteousness, his evil heart of unbelief, were not the true and real cause.
Yet sadder still, that man should be contented with this uncertainty; soothing his conscience to sleep with the idea that he may be a Christian though he has no assurance; even more, that his very doubtings are the best evidences of his faith; as if unbelief could be the fruit of faith, or distrust the offspring of confidence! Surely matters have come to a low point indeed, when such is predominantly the case; not in rare examples—but in innumerable instances; when assurance is the exception, and doubting the rule; when peace with God is strange in the Church, and uncertainty stains with gloom, the religion and the life of so many who call themselves Christians.
May we not ask, “What is there about this uncertainty, which is so attractive and loveable, that we should fondle it so tenderly, and cling to it so desperately? Does it bring peace?” That it cannot do—for its very nature is to distract and trouble us. Does it console us under the pressure of life's trials and calamities? It cannot; for it is itself our heaviest burden. Does it heal our wounds? No; it is daily inflicting wounds—but healing none. Does it sweep off the clouds that overshadow us in our pilgrimage, or brush aside the entangling thorns and briars of the wilderness? No; it is itself the thickest cloud, the sharpest thorn that can wound us. Does it raise us above the world, or make us holier people? That it cannot do. It drags us down, and hinders all holy walking. Does it enable us to serve the Lord more truly or fervently? No; it keeps us in dark bondage; so that thus chained and imprisoned, we cannot serve him. Does it conform us to the image of God's Son? No, not at all; in him we see the true filial spirit and the devoted life; and how can these exist in us so long as we do not know in what relationship we stand to God; so long as we are uncertain whose we are, and whom we serve.
If, then, uncertainty is such a thoroughly unprofitable thing; if it is such a hindrance, such a sore evil, such an enemy to our souls, why nourish it as many seem to do? Why cling to it, instead of casting it away? Why not abhor it, and ourselves because of it?
The condition, then, of a saint, is one of certainty. That certainty is this—he is risen with Christ. It is not that he ought to be risen, or that he hopes to be risen—but that he has risen. This is the blessed fact that forms the beginning of his history as a saint. This event stands at the very threshold of his career; or rather is what makes up its very start. His life is the life of a risen one. His story is that of one who has risen. He cannot tell of his change without telling of resurrection. He cannot speak of his new course and conversation, without referring to resurrection. He cannot account for the high level on which he stands, or the privileges which encompass him, or the hopes that rise before him, save by tracing all these back to this one source, resurrection.
What, then, is the meaning of this fact or event in the life of a saint, which forms the beginning of his history?
It cannot in any way be understood of the resurrection of the body, which is the Church's hope. For that is altogether future; and is, besides, connected with the second coming of the Lord, whereas what we see here is connected with His first. The privilege or blessing, pointed at by the apostle here, is something past, something which had began when they believed; whereas the resurrection of the body is still a thing for which we wait and long.
And the apostle's statement cannot simply mean that the resurrection of Christ has secured to us certain blessings, or opened a door for us into the participation of certain privileges, or made sure to us the title or right to certain future glories. All this is true; but it is much below the whole truth, and only very partially expresses the apostle's great idea regarding the standing and privilege of a saint.
He is telling us in what light God looks upon the soul that has believed on his Son, and therefore in what light we are to look upon ourselves. He is showing us under what special character God is dealing with us; on what footing he has set us; to what extent he is placing to our credit the work of his Son; in what way he regards him as our complete substitute--and us as doing, suffering, passing through, and deserving--all that he did, suffered, passed through, and deserved.
And so, pointing to the cross of Christ, he says, that cross was your cross—You were “crucified with Christ," (Gal 2:20) and on that cross you endured the wrath which you had brought upon yourselves; you paid the whole penalty, so that there is not a penny of it remaining unpaid. Pointing to the death of Christ, he says, that death was your death—You “died with Christ;" (Rom 6:8) it was you who then died, and in dying met the full demand of the inescapable sentence; "The soul who sins shall die." (Ezek 18:20) Pointing to the grave of Christ, he says, that grave was your grave—You “were buried ... with him;" (Rom 6:4) there you lay, victims to the law's righteous requirements, and the Lawgiver's righteous execution of these in full; there you lay, during the three days in which your Substitute was lying there, just as those who have refused the Substitute will lie eternally, bearing the penalty which no time can cancel or exhaust.
Pointing to the resurrection of Christ, he says—That resurrection was your resurrection; "You rose with Christ;" (Rom 8:11) having exhausted every claim against you, and paid to the full each penny of the righteous penalty, so that law has nothing now to demand of you. Yes; it was you that rose two thousand years ago, when your Substitute arose. In rising, you left behind you in the grave all the guilt that brought you there. It was the prisoner's dungeon in which you were laid; but you have come out from it, because the reasons why you entered it no longer exist. It was law that chained you there, and it is the same law that now unchains you; because it has nothing now to say against you. It was righteousness that cast you into that prison, and barred its gates against your return from it; and it is the same righteousness that has brought you out in triumph, having found far more and stronger reasons for your deliverance than for your imprisonment.
And so you have come out from the cell to which your transgressions had consigned you; and not as one that has evaded justice—but as one who has satisfied it to the full, having given it far more than it sought. You have come out, not with the marks of a wrongdoer upon you, not with the shame and stigma of your former life, to darken and disgrace you—but as one risen to a new life altogether; a new life in the eye of righteousness, in the eye of the law, and in the eye of God; as one entirely separated from his former self; between whose present and former self there is such a great gulf fixed that he is entitled to say, I am no longer the same individual, I have acquired a new personality, a new legal identity.
The mighty truth here taught is, in fact, just this—Being identified with our Substitute in death, we, that is, our former self, perished. That death destroyed our identity; it cut the legal link forever between our present and our former selves, so that the law cannot identify us as the individuals against whom it sought to urge its overwhelming claims. It is baffled; it is brought to a stand; and to every one of its charges we can confidently plead "not guilty," on the account of not being the same individuals against whom the charges are laid. Again; being identified with our Substitute in resurrection, a new personality has been formed; a new individuality has been established in law; and it is on the footing of that new personality, that new individuality, that we stand, and stand against every accusation that the law without, or conscience within, can press against us.
In believing, this identification between us and our Surety took place. In believing, we became legally one with Him, in death and resurrection; that is, we died and rose again. In believing, the mighty legal spell was brought about, the mighty legal miracle was accomplished, whereby our former self passed entirely away, and a new self came up into glorious being.
Neither is this new personality a mere figure, or fiction, or romance. Those who never realized the seriousness of that central doctrine of the Word of God--the substitution of the righteous for the unrighteous, nor tasted the peace which comes from the knowledge of that substitution--may say that this is only a figure of speech. But they who feel that this legal transference of guilt from themselves to their Surety lies at the root of all their peace and hope, will neither be stumbled at the apostle's statement in our text, nor look upon it as mere poetic speech. For whatever difficulty there may be in understanding the nature of the transaction, or the very manner in which it is accomplished, still the thing itself is sure, and its results, in so far as God and we are concerned, are of the most real and blessed kind.
It is on this new legal personality that God acts in his treatment of us. It is on this ground that he bestows his favour, and pours out his blessings. He deals with us, not according to what we were—but according to what we have now become, in consequence of our oneness with him in whom his soul delights. This oneness is our claim for blessing. This is the plea which we present, and which we know God rejoices to accept.
Why, then, should there be such unwillingness to identify ourselves with the Son of God? Is oneness with him so shameful, or so terrible a thing? Is our own identity so precious a thing that we are unwilling to part with it, and to sink it in his? Surely this cannot be. What can be more blessed than to lose ourselves in him; to be so completely identified with him that the law and the Lawgiver should treat us as entirely one! What can give our souls a surer resting-place than the knowledge that this treatment of us is the very thing that magnifies the righteousness of God, and enhances the glory of his incarnate Son!
This new identity or new self is not a thing which is gradually formed; accomplished step by step as we advance in likeness to Christ; it is not a thing dependent upon our graces, a thing which is more or less complete, as we are more or less holy people; it something which has to do with state, not character; a thing of law, not of moral fitness; it is therefore formed at once—the moment that we believe. Then we become one with a dying and rising Saviour; as truly and thoroughly one with him as we will ever be during a whole long life of holy living.
In believing, we are crucified with Christ; we die, and are buried with him. And in this way our former self is gone. It perishes. Twice over it is declared to be gone; once on the cross, and a second time in the grave of Christ. Then we rise to a new life, and acquire a new self—a new personality. We emerge out of the grave, where we had been buried with Christ, new men; not the same individuals in the eye of the law—but others altogether. We obtain a new life, a risen life, a life corresponding to that of him who rose as well as died, who was not only delivered for our offences—but raised again for our justification. We have what is pictured in that wonderful and precious ordinance of Baptism, that visible sign that the Lord has given us to impress these truths on our minds and hearts.
We “have been raised with Christ.” He is the risen Head, and we the risen members "have been raised with Christ!" It is not merely that we are forgiven, reconciled, justified—but we have entered on a new and more elevated condition of being, a resurrection-life, a life which is truly the pledge and anticipation of the glorious state of being which is finally to be ours in the day when this mortal body will put on immortality, and death will be swallowed up in victory. This resurrection-life let us realize as already ours; ours in right and title now, soon to be ours in reality, when He who is our life will appear.
The expression "with Christ," which the apostle uses here, is one which applies to much more than resurrection. All that we receive we receive with Christ; in conjunction with him; as sharers with him in what he has received from the Father. We are not simply said to receive blessings from Christ or from the Father for Christ's sake—but to receive them from the Father as joint-possessors, joint-claimants, joint-heirs with the Son. "We have come to share in Christ;" made fellow-partners with him in all that he is and has. He is ours, and all that he has is ours. The love with which the Father loves him, the blessedness with which the Father has blessed him, the honour with which the Father has honoured him—all this he shares with us as being one with him; the members of his body; the bride in whose love he rejoices.
And as it is on this oneness between us and Christ that God acts in his treatment of us, so it is upon this that we are to act continually in our communion with him, and in our whole life on earth. Our life is to be the life of risen ones. Our whole walk and conversation are to be those of men who feel that they have died and risen, and that in this sense also they have become new creatures in Christ Jesus; old things having passed away, and all things having become new.
It is to this that the apostle refers in the words of our text, when he says, Since "then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God," as if he would remind us that they who have died with Christ have died to all things beneath; and that they who have risen with Christ have, by their new life, been brought into connection with the things that are above. Their death with Christ forever cut the ties to earthly things; their resurrection with Christ fastened at once and forever a new tie which links them to what is heavenly; their former connection with what is earthly has come to an end, and a new connection has begun with heavenly things; they are to be not so much dwellers upon the earth as inhabitants in heaven, like angels come down to visit earth on some gracious errand, yet still mindful of their own proper home, their true descent, and rank, and character. "Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." (Phil 3:20) And if our citizenship is in heaven, should not everything about us, everything said or done by us, correspond to this dignity?
What have Christ's risen ones to do with the vanities, or grand displays, or pleasures of earth? The world has its own followers, and these things are for them! But for us who are risen with Christ, there are other things provided. We have other company, other joys, other hopes. Earth has detained us too long; heaven is now the home of our hearts. Seek the things that are above!
Do we not need this guidance? Are our eyes not ever turning downwards? Are we not, like Lot's wife, too often looking back, remembering that Sodom out of which we have been taken? And what attraction do we find there--so fascinating, so irresistible--that we experience such difficulty in looking upwards? Is the bleak desert fairer than the blue starry heavens? Is the society of the world better than the companionship of God and Christ and the eternal Comforter? Strange that we should need a command to do what seems so natural, so unavoidable, so blessed! Yet we do need the command; and that not once in a lifetime, when some sore temptation besets us—but each day and hour!
Set your hearts on things above! Heaven and the things of heaven; God and Christ, the kingdom, the city, the glory, the crown—these are all above, and these are our treasures; why then should we still cling to earth and mind the things below?
The Word of God cannot be more clear. "Do not love the world”, John writes “or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." (1 John 2:15) “You adulterous people!”, writes James, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
Do not love the world! for if we love this world we cannot love the world to come; if we love this world, we cannot love the Father; if we love this world, we cannot seek the things above. The friendship of the world is enmity with God, and therefore companionship with the things of the world will unavoidably hinder us from setting our affection on the things above. There must be no compromise, no lingering, no half-heartedness. All must be decided; for what can be more expressive of decision and unwavering consistency than the idea of our being actually risen people! This sets aside all vain excuses, all idle pleas for mingling with the world. Either you are risen, or you are not risen.
If you are not risen, then, of course, there can be no appeal of this kind to the conscience at all. Go on in your worldliness; fling yourselves headlong into the torrent of earth's vanities; but know that the end of these things is death!
But if you are risen, then there is an end of all debate. The point is settled. The Christian cannot take part with the world in its follies, and entertainments, and sins! What, risen with Christ and yet a worldling! Impossible. Risen with Christ, yet singing its idle songs, hurrying through its mazy dance, partaking in its amusements and celebrations! Impossible. If you are risen with Christ there is no alternative; you must seek the things above.
The apostle evidently takes this for granted; that there is no alternative in such a case. The un-risen may seek the things below—but the risen must seek the things above. The un-risen may linger amid the vanities of earth—but the risen must set their affection on the things of heaven!
The things that are above, are those on which our eye, our heart, our hopes, are resting; we are seated with Christ in heavenly places, and therefore our delight is in the things connected with these heavenly places; we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” (Heb 12:22-24) And having come to these, we are familiar with these; we live among these; we realize these more truly than the things physically around us, which we hear, and see, and handle.
These are the scenes, and sights, and sounds, which occupy our souls! We have ceased to be citizens of earth's polluted cities; we are citizens of the New Jerusalem which comes down out of heaven from God. We have ceased to be inhabitants of earth; we have become the inhabitants of heaven. We have ceased to call anything on earth our own, for we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, so that all things are our heritage; as it is written, "He who overcomes will inherit these things." (Rev 21:7) We have a home—but not in the palaces or haunts of the world; a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
The things that are above are the ones that are real and the enduring; therefore we seek them, for everything that is below is shadowy and transient; passing away like the morning mist. The things that are above, are the things which are suited to our risen natures, therefore we seek them. All other things are repulsive, unattractive--because they are unsuitable and incompatible with our taste and nature; they have nothing in common with us, nor we with them.
The things that are above are the satisfying and gladdening--and therefore we seek them. Nothing here on this polluted earth, can fill us, nor impart one hour's real enjoyment. But the things above both fill and gladden; we feel, even in the anticipation of them, far more of rest and peace diffusing themselves through our souls than in the full possession of what the world calls joy.
The things that are above are infinite and eternal. All else are narrow and limited; they have at the most but a life-time's duration; no more. But the things above have no limit either as to space or time. All that is connected with them is without bounds; so that we can look forward to an enjoyment of that which never will fade, or change, or ever come to an end! Of this we have the pledge already, and the reality will not be long to follow. It only awaits the coming of Him who is to shake the things that can be shaken, “so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.” (Heb 12:27)
And so, the things that are above are those around which all our hopes and joys are gathering day by day. They are our portion, our heritage, our treasure. What do we have on earth to compare with them, or to desire beside them? Day by day they are gathering more of our hopes and joys. One by one the affections are loosening from the things of earth, and fastening themselves to the kingdom that is to come. One by one the objects of endearment here are detached from us and pass upwards, becoming part of the things above.
We begin to feel as if heaven contained far more of our heart's affections than earth; and as if the command to seek the things above were becoming easier and more natural, seeing we have so many fewer objects now to love on earth, so many more to love in heaven. And as flower after flower is transplanted from the wilderness below, to the paradise above, we feel as if that paradise were assuming more and more truly the aspect of our real and proper home; the home of our kindred, and the home of our hearts; the home into which no foe will ever enter, and out of which no friend ever departs; the home where the shadow never falls—but where the sunshine ever rests. "For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes!" (Rev 7:17)