Breaking Free From the Past
By Brian Bill
In an old Candid Camera episode, an actor is on a busy sidewalk and begins looking at the ground. He walks around a bit and continues to look down. People are passing by him and a few give him strange looks. After a couple minutes, he decides to get down on his hands and knees and begins feeling around with his hands. People begin to slow down and watch what he’s doing. Finally, one person stops and starts looking at the ground. Then another one begins searching the sidewalk.
In a few minutes, the camera shows about a dozen people looking down, some even on their hands and knees! At that point, the actor, who got all this started in the first place, quietly gets up and walks away. No one else notices that he has left. They’re so intent in their search that they never even bothered to ask what it was they were looking for.
This is a good picture of how many people live in our society today. They’re searching for something because they know there’s got to be more to life. But, they’ll never find it if they don’t know what it is that they’re missing. We’re going to discover this morning from Colossians 3:1-11 that if you want to break free from your past, then where you put your eyes is very important. Instead of looking down, Paul challenges us to:
Look up (1-4)
Look out (5-9a)
Look in (9b-10)
Look around (11)
As we come to Colossians 3, we move from doctrine to conduct. This is very similar to the outline of the Book of Romans, where the first eleven chapters contain rich truths and the final chapters focus on how to live them out. The same is true of the Book of Ephesians. What we believe determines in large part how we behave.
Specifically, in Colossians, we’ve learned that if we get Christ right we get everything else right. Jesus is supreme over His creation, His church, and now we’ll see in chapters 3 and 4 that He is supreme over the Christian. There are practical implications that should be evident if one surrenders to the supremacy of Jesus. As such, we move from principle to practice, from the indicative to the imperative, from the “is” to the “ought.” It does little good if we can declare and defend the truth but fail to demonstrate it in our lives. Let’s pray that we’re not like those described in Titus 1:16: “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny Him.”
Warren Wiersbe reminds us that the pagan religions of Paul’s day taught little or nothing about personal morality: “A worshipper could bow before an idol, put his offering on the altar, and go back to the same old life of sin. What a person believed had no direct relationship with how he behaved.” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, page 133). Christianity is much different. Duty is always connected to doctrine.
Paul has been arguing that we are set free from the powers around us, now he tells us that we have been set free for living a life above moral reproach. God’s plan is to first make us new; then He challenges us to live as new people. In short, we don’t have to be like we’ve always been. We can break free from the past, if we know where to look.
Instead of gazing at the ground, we must first look up! We see this in Colossians 3:1-4:
“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. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
This opening phrase parallels Colossians 2:20: “Since you died with Christ…” As we learned last week, since we died with Christ, we don’t have to follow the rules of a hollow and deceptive philosophy. Colossians 3:1 establishes the truth that since we’ve been raised with Christ, we have a new status and therefore a new way of life. We now have a power source for living. Believers have died with Christ, been buried with Him, have been raised with Him, and as Ephesians 2:6 states, we have been seated with Him in the heavenly places. This is our position, but we must appropriate these truths on a daily basis in order to break free from the past.
That’s why Paul writes, “set your hearts on things above.” I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “He’s so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.” While I guess that’s possible, it’s more likely that people today are so worldly minded that they’re no heavenly or earthly good. If we truly set our hearts on things above, we will experience power and freedom here on earth. The word “set” means to seek something out with a desire to possess it. The word is in the present tense, which implies that we’re to continue to seek the things above. It’s not just a one-time decision, but is to be a daily activity.
Jesus put it this way in Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If our focus is on things that will ultimately rust, tarnish, break down, or burn up, our energy and emotions will be misplaced. If we seek out Christ and allow Him to become our ultimate treasure, our hearts will follow.
Knowing that “Christ is seated at the right hand of God” provides a much-needed reminder that Jesus is supreme and in control. This phrase echoes Psalm 110:1, which is the most quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'” Jesus is exalted and sits at the right hand of the Father, which shows that His redemptive work is now complete. The false teachers stressed “heavenly things” also, but Paul was appealing to the highest power of all, Jesus Christ.
The first imperative is to “set our hearts on things above.” The second is to “set our minds on things above, not on earthly things.” This literally translates, “Keep on thinking, as a matter of habit, on things above, not on things on the earth.”
Our feet must be on earth, but our minds must be in heaven. Thoughts can influence actions, so if we place our thoughts above and not on the earth, our behavior will reflect those things that matter to God. This requires tenacious effort on our part because we tend to look down by nature, instead of looking up. But if we fix our gaze on things above, God will change our desires. If we change our mind, God will change our heart.
We need to put our brain in gear by focusing on those things that are spelled out in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things.” By seeking what Christ desires, we have the power to break our obsession with pleasure and the accumulation of things.
In verses 3-4, we’re given five reasons to look up.
1. We’ve died (3a). This looks back to the cross where we died positionally in Christ. As a result, we have no obligation to live like we used to live. Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Because we’ve died with Christ, we should have as little desire for improper worldly pleasures as a dead person would have. We don’t just receive a cosmetic makeover or simply add a Christian veneer that only laminates our life. Our old nature is not renewed or even reformed; instead, it is put to death.
2. Our life is hidden with Christ (3b). To have our lives hidden with the One who is seated at the right hand of God gives us both security and satisfaction. The image here is treasure that is stored away in a secure place. Like a seed buried in the earth, our real lives are hidden from the world, only to be revealed when Christ returns. Our new life is a mystery or secret to those who don’t understand spiritual matters. 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
3. Christ is our life (4a). In a very real sense for the believer, Christ is what life is all about. Without Him we would be dead in our sins. In John 14:6, Jesus said about himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” By realizing that Christ is our life, we can have a new attitude about anything that happens to us. If He is truly our life, we have nothing to fear.
4. Christ will come again (4b). Since Jesus is coming again, it only makes sense that we should be looking up on a continuous basis. The phrase, “when” is better translated, “whenever Christ appears.” The fact of His return is certain but the time is indefinite. Since we don’t know the when, we must keep watching.
5. We will appear with Him in Glory (4c). The verb, “appear” means “to make visible what is invisible.” When Christ returns, the real position of the believer, which has been hidden to the world, will be made known. When Jesus is revealed in His glory, we shall be totally transformed according to 1 John 3:2: “…But we know that when he appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”.
Paul is urging us to look up and remember who we are now, who we once were, and who we will be when Christ returns. Where are you looking this morning? What does your mind focus on? What gets the attention of your heart? Friends, we must make a conscious, deliberate, and daily decision to look up and set our minds and hearts on heavenly things. Our outlook determines our outcome. Keeping our minds and hearts in the right place will often determine where we end up. That leads to the second point.
Not only must we look up, we must also look out. We see this in verses 5-9a: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other…”
Colossians 3:5, in the New Living Translation reads like this: “So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you.” Because we have died and been raised with Christ, we have the spiritual power to slay those desires that want to control us. We have died to sin, but we must render sinful desires as powerless. While we can’t totally eradicate the sinful nature, we can treat it as a morally impotent force. The new life calls for more than jettisoning a few vices and beefing up our spiritual life by going to church once in a while. We’ll talk more about this in verse 10, but what gets renewed is the “new self,” not the earthly nature. Positionally, we’ve died with Christ. Now we need to live it out practically.
Last week we learned that in order to pull the weeds of legalism, we must refuse to judge by externals, we must reject false authority, and we need to repudiate religious rules. But that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want as believers. Grace trumps legalism but Paul makes it very clear in Romans 6:1-2 that we are no longer to let sin rule over us: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
I admire the moral fiber and tenacity of Phinehas in Numbers 25. He’s one of my heroes. As we say today, the dude rocks! He was not afraid to deal with sin. Israel was just about to enter the Promised Land after 40 years of hanging out in the desert. Now you would expect to find them really pumped up and excited about being so close. Instead of thanking God, the men of Israel are sleeping with foreign women and worshiping false gods. Needless to say God’s anger burned against the Israelites and so he sent a plague among the people.
In the midst of God’s judgment, one guy was so brash that he didn’t even try to hide his sin. He marched right in front of the people with a Midianite maiden and took her into his tent to sleep with her. Picture the scene. The people of God are weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting because of their sin and the plague that is wiping them out, and this bonehead walks right by them flaunting his sin. By the way, have you ever noticed how sexual sin can cause a normally sane person to do some pretty stupid stuff?
Well, this is where Phinehas enters the scene. When he saw what was going on, he jumped up, grabbed his spear, ran to the man’s tent and drove the spear through both the man and the woman as they lay together. The plague immediately stopped, but not before 24,000 people were killed. I love what God says in Numbers 25:11: “Phinehas …has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor…” Because Phinehas was looking up, he was also looking out.
Paul wants us to look out so he lists some sensual sins in verse 5. We must slay these with the passion of a Phinehas. Anytime we see these desires begin to awaken in our lives we need to grab our spear and thrust it right through them. We need to be zealous for God’s honor by putting them to death. Notice that we’re not just to put them aside. We’re not to wound them or even ask them to leave. We’re not to experiment or play around with them, rationalize them or even explain them away. Instead, we’re to kill them. We’re to thrust our spears right through them.
Some of you are not going to like hearing about these sins. Maybe you came to church today to be encouraged with a positive message. Listen carefully. Negative warnings and commands grow out of the positive truths of Christian doctrine. Here’s another way to look at it. God loves you too much to allow you to mess up your life with sensual sins. He’s not a killjoy. He made you and knows what is best for you. That’s why He wants you to live in purity and enjoy sexual expression within the bounds of monogamous marriage.
Did you know that Paul talks about sexual sin more than any other sin? I think there are at least three reasons for this.
1. Sexual sin is different than any other sin. 1 Corinthians 6:18-20: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” The emphasis we hear today is on “safe sex,” but let me tell you that there is no prophylactic for the soul. Sexual sin will take you further than you want to go and cost you more than you want to pay. We need to understand that sexual expression is not just something we do; it reflects who we are.
2. Sexual sin was and is everywhere. Sex outside of marriage was accepted as the norm in Paul’s day and was actually part of many pagan religious rituals. I don’t need to tell you how pervasive sex is today because you see it everywhere.
3. Sexual sin destroys people. Satan knows that he can trip up almost anyone by using sex. David was wiped out for a period of time because of his sin with Bathsheba. Marriages are destroyed on a regular basis because of infidelity. Sex was Samson and Solomon’s downfall.
Paul lists the sins that we’re to put to death.
Sexual immorality. This is a general term and refers to any from of illicit sexual behavior. We derive our word “pornography” from this Greek word.
Impurity. This is marked by a mind that is filled with sensually suggestive thoughts that reads sex into even the most wholesome of situations.
Lust. Lust seeks quick fulfillment and always wants more. Love takes work and deepens over time. Lust focuses only on the senses, but love uses the senses to cherish the other and to nourish the soul.
Evil desires. Our physical desires are divinely given but they become evil when they are motivated by the sinful nature and are executed for evil ends. Since desires lead to deeds, we must purify our minds and hearts.
Greed, which is idolatry. This is the sin of always wanting more. In this context, it may apply to the greed for satisfying evil desires and for sexual immorality. The person who is never satisfied with what he has is usually envious of what others have. This leads to idolatry, when things and people end up taking the place of God.
In verse 6, Paul states that because of these things, the wrath of God is coming. In this context, first of all, it could refer to the judgment of God that we bring on ourselves according to the principle found in Galatians 6:7: “A man sows what he reaps” and what we see in Romans 1:24 where we read that “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts…” Secondly, this wrath is “coming.” Presently, it abides on all who have not trusted Christ and are designated as “children of wrath” in Ephesians 2:3. If a person does not come to saving faith before they die, they will experience the righteous wrath of a holy God.
Friend, if you’re involved in immorality, you need to follow two dictums:
Don’t do it! Stop right now. Confess it to God and to whomever you are wronging.
Don’t view it! Be careful about what you put into your mind. Get rid of pornography. Get a web blocker. Watch what you watch on TV and in movies.
The Bible is clear in its teaching on this topic and can be summarized this way: Abstinence for the single, and monogamy for the married.
God’s wrath is balanced within His holiness by mercy, compassion and love. He is repulsed by sin and yet is committed to us in love. Jesus will give you grace but He also tells the truth about your sin because He is the perfect embodiment of both grace and truth. Just as He told the woman caught in adultery to “go now and leave your life of sin,” so too, He calls us to look out and stop what we’re doing so that we can follow Him completely.
Verse 7 reminds us that this kind of behavior belongs to our old life and should not be part of our present pattern of living: “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.” We need to put the past behind us and refuse to resort to a lifestyle that no longer reflects our true identity. In verse 8-9a, we’re told to rid ourselves of social sins. By the way, we often dismiss these sins as the “little ones” that we can overlook. Paul doesn’t. If you thought you cruised safely through the first list, you better fasten your seat belts.
The image here is that of taking off old smelly clothes. When my dad would take care of us kids growing up, he prided himself on never having to change a dirty diaper. When asked how he accomplished this feat, he would grin and say, “Oh, it’s actually pretty easy. I would just put on a clean one right over the dirty one!” That probably explains why I am the way I am today.
Before we can put on the new, we must first take off the old. The verb “rid” calls for immediate, decisive resolution. Before new garments of righteousness can be put on, the old rags of sin must be discarded.
Anger is a continuous attitude of hatred that remains bottled up within.
Rage is what comes bursting out, often uncontrollably.
Malice is an attitude of ill will towards a person. It’s often a hidden hatred of the heart that takes revenge in secret.
Slander is when we destroy another person’s good reputation by lies, gossip and the spreading of rumors.
Filthy language is crude talk or abrasive words and is often filled with swearing and sexual innuendo.
Lying to one another disrupts unity by destroying trust. It tears down relationships and can lead to serious conflicts.
These behaviors have no place in any Christian or in any church. They are part of the old life, the “dirty diaper,” if you will. We must resolutely “rid” ourselves of the repulsive sins of sex and speech so that we can “put on” the attitudes and actions of Christ.
After looking up and looking out, if we’re serious about breaking free from the past, we must also look in. We do this by recognizing the truth about what happened at conversion. Look at the last part of verse 9 and verse 10: “…Since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
We’ll pick this up in greater detail next week but I want you to notice that “you have taken off your old self” and “you have put on the new self.” This is not a command to keep but a truth to claim. It’s already been done. We are exhorted to stop doing certain things because we can stop. We are different therefore we can act differently. As we look in, we realize that we are no longer what we once were.
The new self has been put on and yet it is “being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” We are created in the image of God but because of our sin, that image has been defaced. God’s purpose is to restore His image in us. Warren Wiersbe puts it this way: “We were formed in God’s image, and deformed from God’s image by sin. But through Jesus Christ, we can be transformed into God’s image once again.” This is where we take the responsibility to renew our minds according to Romans 12:2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”
That leads to the fourth aspect of breaking free from the past: we must look around and see others as Christ does. Notice verse 11: “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” The word “here” indicates that in Christ there should be no barriers of nationality, race, education, social standing, wealth, gender, religion, or power. The gospel breaks down walls of ancient prejudice. Paul lists four groupings that need to dissolve in the church.
Racial distinctions. The spread of the Greek culture could make a Greek person feel proud and privileged and therefore look down on Jews. A Jewish person would regard Gentiles as heathen and immoral, and outside of God’s grace.
Religious distinctions. The false teachers taught that circumcision was important to the spiritual life but Paul made it clear that this act of surgery gave one no advantages in Christ.
Cultural distinctions. The Greeks considered any non-Greek to be a barbarian and the Scythians were the lowest barbarians of all and were considered little better than beasts.
Economic distinctions. There was a huge cultural and economic chasm between slaves and those who were free.
All of these human barriers belong to the “old man” and not the new one. Friends, since Christ dwell in all believers, regardless of background or social status, we must make sure we are not allowing any division or prejudice to take root in our lives. The stigma of being different must be loved away as we strive for unity within diversity. Christ is all and is in all.
Stop looking down. And stop searching for something that will never satisfy. Instead, seek Christ by looking up…and live Christ by looking out, looking in, and looking around.