Little Church, Big Lie – Part 8: Life in the Graveyard: Colossians 3:5-11

the big lie stencil print on the grunge white brick wall

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.1

I know you have seen movies and television shows where a character stands before the grave of a friend or loved one and speaks out loud to the grass or the tombstone as if the departed were still alive and listening. It’s a great literary device for understanding character’s motivation or feelings. From a biblical standpoint, it’s completely useless because the departed person, for good or ill, is cut off from this world.

Faith Letterpress

In our passage, Paul alludes to a life lived in a graveyard, a person so out of touch with reality that he not only talks with the tombstones but is convinced the dead are as present and active as any living person. The graveyard dweller lives as if he or she is dead. His identity is in the graveyard with stones and bones rather than in real life among the living.

In the Lycus Valley of Phrygia, the spiritual gurus were selling programs to give Christians the “victorious Christian life,” or the “winning walk,” or the ultimate “turning point” in living the fuller life. Paul’s response has been to re-direct the tempted believers back to the reality of Christ alone, back to the “everythingness of Jesus.” He had reminded us that we have been crucified and raised with Christ and that our lives are hidden with Christ in God.

If you have been following along with us, you might wonder exactly what steps Paul could give to counter the programs of the gurus. Maybe you have wanted to pull Paul aside and ask him just what things ARE we supposed to do to overcome sin. If you’re a small group leader, a Sunday school teacher, a church officer, a parent of struggling children you may be asked this question.

What are the steps that enable me to overcome the sin in my life with which I am struggling? We have some idea of the WRONG answers already. We have seen the starvation diets, the fasting and feasting days, the exercise programs, the “spiritual cold showers” that are said to help us manage our sinful desires with rules of, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch….”2

Paul has said these lists “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.3 Okay, Paul. Tell us what is the right way to deal with my sins. I struggle, Paul. I am weighed down with guilt. I am bound up in things I know are wrong. I am attracted to stuff by which good church people would be utterly shocked. Paul, what do I do?

In response, the apostle gives us our three-step program this morning. First, he tells us to act decisively. Second, he tells us to acknowledge our sin for what it really, truly is. Finally, he directs us to see sin from God’s perspective so we can see who we once were as individuals and who we truly are now as part of a re-created humanity.

ACT DECISIVELY (3:5a, 9)

He writes, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you….”4 Puritan writers called this the “mortification of sin.” The grammar Paul uses for the verb “put to death” [ESV] is better rendered count (or reckon) as dead (aor., active, imperative, 2nd p., pl.). “Reckon as dead those ‘members’ of yours which partake of the nature of the old earthly life.”5

The old phrase “mortify what is earthly” [AV] has come to attract the very kinds of lists of do’s and don’ts of ascetic lifestyle that Paul has already warned are worse than useless (2:20-23). That kind of “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch…” methodology avoids dealing directly with the heart of sin that drives the hands of sin.6

Paul tells us to starve our sin of opportunity by reckoning, accounting sin as something dead. Stop living among the tombstones. It’s a mindset; it’s acting out of trust into what you know about who Christ is and what he alone has done. To put something to death, you must cut off its supply lines. Eagerly welcoming bad theology into our hearts (“I will only be happy if …”) leads to sinful acts. Sin is a condition that fosters an attitude: “If I do this, I can be like God; I can eat the forbidden fruit and surely won’t die; I will find the fullness I’m seeking because it’s all about ME!

This doesn’t mean setting a hedge around God’s Law like the Pharisees, branding certain THINGS as inherently sinful (modern equivalents: movies, television, dancing, tobacco, clothing styles, etc.). “Rather, every Christian has the responsibility, before God, to investigate the lifelines of whatever sins are defeating him personally, and to cut them off without pity.”7

In verses 9-10, Paul describes the decisive action as having put off the Old Adam. He doesn’t mean we make certain good resolutions or well-intentioned promises to try hard and do better. He refers to our knowing more of Christ. We change because our New Adam is “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”8 You act according to who you know and trust (either yourself or Jesus).

ACKNOWLEDGE OUR DEEPEST SINS (3:5b, 8)

First, act decisively. Second, Paul wants us to acknowledge our sins on their deepest of levels. In verse 5 he lists: “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.9 Notice how Paul’s list begins with the outward acts and descends into the unspoken things of the heart? The heart of the matter, the heart of all sin, is idolatry – the pursuit of whatever I seek to make myself happy, the walking in my own way.

In Paul’s time, there was a literal connection with the worship of pagan gods (idolatry) and sexual immorality. It was considered an act of religious worship to visit the priests and priestesses of certain temples and have sex with them. It wasn’t simply acceptable; it was religious piety. Even in our modern culture, adultery is still considered at least somewhat of a black mark on a public figure’s character. But in 1st-century Roman culture, visiting temple prostitutes wasn’t adultery, it was patriotic. Good Roman citizens worshiped Greco-Roman gods.

But the average pagan’s worship was not just outward idolatry (the worship of false deities). It was the pursuit of basic human wants to fulfill their felt needs. It was no different on the heart level than my desire for a new car, or a certain amount of income to achieve my “fulfilled” life. Whatever I seek for fulfillment that is not Christ is evil desire, covetousness … idolatry.

If believers have died and been raised with Christ, then they have died to the domination of old habits and instincts. The opposite is also true; these things are dead so far as the Jesus-trusting believer is concerned; these things can no long enforce their claims as they once did and they will never, never deliver the believer the fulfillment they promise because they are dead things.10

But we can never reckon ourselves dead to sins if we refuse to name sin for what it is – the minimizing of Christ and the idolizing of my Old Adam’s desire for its own “fullness.” If the Lord Jesus Christ truly holds all things together; if he is truly and totally sovereign in all things; if he loves me intimately and infinitely; if he is carrying me along for his glory and my good, then I have what I have and lack what I lack for HIS glory and MY good (which is seeing him more clearly and loving him more dearly).

When things are not going MY way, they are ALWAYS going HIS way for his glory and my good. So, when I pursue my wants over Jesus’ wants for me I am idolizing myself on the very deepest level possible and I desperately need to see my sin for what it is – a rejection of Christ, functional atheism. The condition of sin is the condition of pre-occupation with ME. Sin is self-absorption. Sin is, “It’s all about me!

In verse 5 Paul moves from the public sinful acts down to the private, self-focused thoughts. In verse 8, he continues his list by moving from private thoughts to spoken words (inward to outward, private to public). But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.11

“When a tide of passion or a surge of anger is felt, it must be dealt with as the alien intruder it really is, and turned out of the house as having no right to be there at all, let alone to be giving orders.”12 Have you ever caught yourself saying, “I’m sorry; I really didn’t mean to say that” when something mean tumbles out of your mouth? In trying to un-ring the bell, we’re refusing to confront the deep heart-level self-focus out of which our mouths have spoken. Jesus said, “45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).13

When a sinful thought or act has a name — anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk – it becomes uglier; it becomes difficult for us to rationalize away as “concern.” “I’m concerned that Pastor Epaphras left us to visit Rome. He should be here in Colossae instead of hanging out with that Paul fellow. After all, Paul is a prisoner. Pastor Epaphras is putting our church in danger. Clearly, he doesn’t care about us!” What our Old Adam, our flesh, so often labels as a “concern,” Paul calls anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk … deceit.

Notice the beginning of verse 9, “Do not lie to one another….”14 In the context of this passage, Paul is most likely not simply addressing spoken deceit (he’s already addressed that in verse 8). He’s writing about deceiving each other with pretense – pretending to be people who have it all together, who have achieved the “fuller life” the Colossians sought from the spiritual gurus.

It’s not uncommon for small church pastors like me to counsel Christians from other congregations because they don’t want anyone in their church to know they have any problems. They don’t feel safe sharing their struggles in their own church family. They live deceitfully out of self-focused fear.

The church ought to be the safest place in the world for a believer to be himself or herself without any pretense. But when we fail to trust the fact that “There is therefore now no condemnation in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), then we fall back to the Old Adam’s trust of self and reliance upon masks. “If no one sees me eating meat, then I’m really not breaking my Daniel Diet. I’ll just fake it ‘till I make it. After all, it’s all about ME!

When we acknowledge our deepest sins, we stop asking for God to help us stop lust, or malice, or anger, or gossip. I begin repenting over my intense self-focus that turns other people and things and circumstance into slaves of my own agenda. “O Father, my self-worship has made me angry at this person who has not performed in a way that makes me feel special. My self-worship has made me angry over this situation you have sovereignly ordained in my life to force me to flee to Christ. Your Old Adam can manage and organize your flesh and your outward behavior, but only the Spirit of Christ can change your heart. If you’re not sure how to repent on that level, take the bulletin home and start with our Corporate Confession of Sin written as an application for this Colossians series.

SEE SIN FROM GOD’S PERSPECTIVE (6, 11)

Paul has told us to act decisively over sin and to name our deepest sins of the heart. Now he wants us in verses 6 and 11 to see sin from God’s perspective and understand how God is re-making his sin-fractured creatures and creation. Paul points us to God’s coming wrath and to God’s already-visited wrath, and God’s new humanity.

When we are forced to consider one of our sinful actions, we tend to look from a horizontal perspective. We look at others around us and say to ourselves, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as that movie star, that politician, that person in my congregation, that pastor, that spiritual guru in the great Gospel Industrial Complex with open moral failures or questionable theology.” And there are plenty of websites, podcasts, and email discussion groups to stoke your relative morality and your theological righteousness these days with a horizontal perspective.

Wrath coming

Paul writes that because humanity’s self-love acted out in so many ways, judgment is coming. “On account of these the wrath of God comes.”15 Wrath is God’s necessary reaction to his creatures’ self-worship. God’s wrath is the outworking of his holiness, justice, and goodness. Paul told us in Romans 1:18-32 that God’s wrath begins working “in the squalid and degrading effects of sin itself.”16 But the apostle also wrote in Rom. 2:1-16 of the final display of God’s wrath at the consummation of history. Here in 3:6, he uses a present tense (comes, present, middle, indicative) to possibly give attention to both God’s present wrath and his future wrath.

“Part of the horror of hell, it appears, is that those who consciously and continually choose sin instead of God become less and less human, until all that ennobles them as creatures made in God’s image has, by their own choice, been altogether obliterated, beyond hope or pity.”17 Those enslaved to sin begin to lose their humanity. They are, by their happy choice, the ‘walking dead.’ Those who trust into themselves will one day find they have forfeited every particle of God’s image.18 There is no companionship in hell; every pitiful creature living in the presence of God’s holy wrath is so absorbed into self they are lost in the idolatry of their own personal misery and void of anything that could be recognized as human.

Wrath Came (Calvary)

Where can it most clearly see what the wrath of God looks like? It’s in the blood, the pain, the rejection prompting the agonized cry, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” The answer to David’s cry quoted by the Lord Jesus was this: The Father abandoned the Son on Calvary’s cross because people need to see what their sin looks like to God!19 Are you still worried someone in the church might find out about your sin?

God put each and every one of your sins (even the ones you still don’t recognize as sin) on open, public display for all humanity and angels to see when Jesus hung himself upon the tree of judgment at Calvary. Jesus knows ALL your sins more intimately than you. He’s not shocked by them. He paid for them fully and completely. His cross work is the guarantee of his eternal love and his shameless approval of you AND of all your fellow believers!

Remember Who You Were

What is a living, breathing human restored to life in the image of God doing living among the tombstones of the dead? You are no longer dead IN sin; you are now dead TO sin’s enslaving power. You are no longer chained to a tombstone. You are no longer locked into the cemetery. The gate is open. You are free to leave. Paul wrote in verse 7, “In these you too once walked, when you were living in them.20 You no longer abide, walk, live as a slave to your own self-worship. You are totally free to worship the Lord Jesus Christ alone. When you were delivered out of the graveyard, you were delivered into a new humanity in a new community.

Know Who You All Are Now

This is not simply an individual truth. It is a collective truth. Paul writes (3:11), “…Christ is all, and in all.21 How do you think that would transform the quality of our fellowship together if that was the primary principle upon which we dealt with each other not only in this congregation but it all the professing church? What would it look like if we thought, “This is a brother or sister in whom the Lord Jesus Christ is unashamed to dwell.

Do you think we might handle one another with greater respect and love, instead of thinking Jesus is just a little less comfortable living that THAT person than he is in me? When the very first thing we notice about someone in the Church prompts our anger, malice, wrath, gossip, feelings of superiority, then we ought to name our sin of self-worship; we ought to repent and thank Jesus for loving us even in our self-focused sins.

If the first thing we notice about a brother or sister in Christ is NOT that Christ lives in them unashamedly, then we have a deep-seated worldliness and pretense in our hearts.22 We are not considering that God has transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son (1:3), a kingdom of a restored humanity bearing an ever-increasing image of God that knows no barriers of race, language, culture, or economic class and rests entirely in the eternal righteousness of its King.

Since that is what God is re-making in Christ Jesus, who are YOU to tear it down through self-worship? If you’re resting, then you’re not tearing down, are you?

Hear St. Author of Hebrews this morning:

Since therefore it remains for some to enter [God’s rest], and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

“Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 23

 

1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:5–11.

2 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:21.

3 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:23.

4 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:5.

5 F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), 140.

6 N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 139.

7 Id., 139–140.

8 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:10.

9 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:5.

10 Bruce, 141.

11 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:8.

12 Wright, 141.

13 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Lk 6:45.

14 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:9.

15 Trans. mine, Col 3:6.

16 Wright, 140.

17 Id.

18 Id., 141.

19 Sinclair Ferguson, Putting Off the Old (Colossians 3:5-11). Accessed 12/1/16 at: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-091706am

20 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:7.

21 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:11. Emphasis added.

22 Ferguson, op. cit.

23 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Heb 4:6–13.