Whenever we discuss the incarnation of Christ, or His death and resurrection, or His ascension, we are talking about something that is much more important than simple location. We are not just interested in certain powerful works that He performed, but rather are interested in the meaning of those works. In the ascension of Christ, we are not interested in how He moved from here to there. His ascension was the occasion of His investiture to cosmic office. In other words, we are called upon to live our lives here in the light of His transcendental authority. And so this brings us to consider the ethical ramifications of the ascension of Christ.
The skeptic may want to allege that we are talking fairy tales about a divine being going up to a sky castle. But if we hear the story correctly, our response should be, “Man, that’s ethically serious.”
“If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:1–5).
Summary of the Text
The Scriptures teach us that Christ is the archetypal man, the Adam of a new race, the representative of all who have faith in Him. Just as we all sinned when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, because he was our representative and federal head, so also the obedience of Christ is our obedience—on the same grounds. He is an Adam, our federal head. By faith, we experience everything He experiences. When He died, we died (Gal. 2:20). When He was buried in the cave, we were buried in the cave with Him (Rom. 6:4). When He rose from the dead, we rose from the dead in Him (Eph.2:5-6). And to the point of our celebration today, when He ascended into the heavenly spheres, we ascended together with Him (Eph. 2:6). From His suffering, which is ours by grace, to His glory, which is also ours by more grace, the whole story is one of a salvation on earth which is anchored in the heavens. It began there, and it ends there.
So turning to our text, if we in fact are risen with Christ, then this should orient us to those things which are above (v. 1). The location of this “above” is identified as the right hand of God, where Christ is seated (v. 1). The Colossians are told to set their affections there, and not down here on the earth (v. 2). The reason for this is their prior participation in the death of Christ (v. 3), and as a consequence, their life is hidden with Christ in God (v. 3). Our life is hidden with Christ, and Christ is in fact that life. When Christ, who is our life, comes again in glory, then we will be manifested there with Him in that glory (v. 4). And so here we see the ethical ramifications of the ascension. Mortify, put to death, Paul says, your members which are down here on the earth (v. 5). He then lists those members, all of which appear to be sexual in nature—fornication, uncleanness, inordinate passion, evil desire, and covetousness—which amounts to idolatry (v. 5). One of the central reasons why our generation is caught in a morass of sexual deviance is because we have forgotten the transcendent reality of Christ’s rule.
A Hard Juxtaposition
Because of the work Christ has done on our behalf, we have a new identity in Him. Because of this work, the old man has been crucified, and reigning sin no longer has dominion. This is why Paul can address this letter to the “saints and faithful brethren” in Christ (Col. 1:2). This is who they are. But they (and we) still have to deal with remaining sin, and that is what Paul is dealing with here—our members which are on the earth.
So when it comes to the Christian life, there are three mortifications that we have to understand. To mortify means to put to death.
The first mortification occurs at conversion, when God by His grace puts the old man to death. “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal. 5:24). This occurs when God rototills a weed patch, transforming it into a garden.
The second kind of mortification occurs here, in our text. Paul is addressing saints who are already saints, but who have allowed certain weeds to grow up in their garden. But this is a garden, not a weed patch any more, and so the weeds must be put to death. “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth” (Col. 3:5). The command here is an aorist imperative, meaning that it is a definitive, over and done kind of action. Kill those weeds.
The third kind of mortification is a daily thing, an ongoing thing. “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:13). So if we continue with the gardening metaphor, this is a mortification of weeds that a good gardener performs, as she goes out every morning at 5 am to weed. It has never been the case (when a good gardener does this) that she comes back with nothing.
Gunk in Your Brains
Someone who is being moral isn’t thinking about how moral he is. Being moral and being moralistic are quite different. Moralism is a fussy sort of business, avoiding things that it wishes it didn’t have to avoid. Moralism suspects that the non-believers out there are having a good time, and wants to put a stop to it. At the end of the day, moralism is frankly impotent.
The liberating power of grace is found in this. God wants you to contrast your affections on things above with your inordinate affection for things below. He wants you to put them into the same sentence. He wants you to set the transcendence of the risen Christ on one side of the balances, and your favorite porn site on the other. He wants you to evaluate your life with a Temple measure.
Your members which are on the earth have this resilient characteristic—nothing earthly can put them to death. No sword fashioned down here on earth can penetrate the hide of any of these creatures—every blow glances off.
You are the saints of God, which means that you have gunk in your brains. Do not be astonished at this. You are saints and faithful brethren, just like the Colossians. They had gunk in their brains too. But notice what Paul is up to here. He does not say to leave the gunk behind because that gunk is sinful and bad. That is true enough, but it doesn’t work. He says to leave it behind because Christ has ascended into the heavenlies, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.