[K:NWTS 6/3 (Dec 1991) 27-37]

The Old Man

Colossians 3:1-18

David L. Roth

There you are. I was just thinking about you. I was reading in Genesis and I could see you standing there naked in the garden of Eden. Yes, I know, you had on your fig-leaf camouflage. But you knew you were still naked, didn't you? 

Of course, you weren't alone in your nakedness. Everyone else was there too: Greeks, Jews, barbarians, Scythians, slaves and freemen. And maybe you didn't notice—I hope you didn't notice—I was there too (and, it seemed to me, more naked than any of you). We were all there as I read; blush-warmed faces, hunched shoulders and senses straining at the dread approach of God. 

I wondered as I read, how we ever expected to live down that moment. You know, the chagrin. The shame. Our lips still moist from the fruit of ill-gotten wisdom. And there we stood, using for cover the very trees we should have hung from. I wondered too at that voice that now seemed so different: "Who told you that you were naked?"

Indeed, if not from God, then where did our wisdom come from? Could it have been from outside of the garden? After all, we were supposed to have been on our guard against something or someone. Come to think of it, when we were sent from the garden, the cherubim were given what was once our guard duty. And we actually became part of what they were guarding the garden against! What had we done—Adam, you and I?

Do you remember how we knelt in the dust east of Eden? How we raised handfuls of that cursed soil prayer-like to the sky? And how we let the dust pour down between our fingers? And how those dust clouds became the very substance of our dreams? Remember the great towers, the fortified cities and the name we would make for ourselves? Those were some dreams alright. Dreams of what we would bring forth from out of the dust. A new garden perhaps? Or maybe even heaven itself! (How little notice we gave the legless beast—was it smirking?—as it watched us there on its belly in the dust. Was it proud of us or did it just know something that we didn't?).

You remember how we poured ourselves into that dust, don't you? How we tried to bring life out of the dust as God had once done? But no matter where we cast the seed of our heart, in the end, all we harvested were more handfuls of dust. What happened, anyway? Had not the imago Dei become Homo sapiens? What then did we have to show for all of our "god-like" understanding?

Tell me. What have we ever been able to add to our existence that God had not already given us? Arrogance? Okay, arrogance. Lies? Well, yes, and lies. And I guess there's gossip, and hollowed-out hearts of spent lovers, and a native language of four-lettered words, and impotent consciences, and crushed spirits, and jealousy, and rage, and vindictiveness, and brutality, and . . . shall I go on?

No. You remember, don't you? We had come to know evil as a husband "knows" his wife. We wore evil until it became our skin. There was now something so very familiar about it as it looked back at us in the mirror. We who would be wise, did we not now know both good and evil? But were we really "wise like God" as the serpent promised? You know better now, don't you? The more we knew evil the less we really knew good—the less we knew God. And professing to be wise we became fools. 

We were all as one man then. And since. No, I'm not forgetting Babel. It's just that however divided we became among ourselves, we still stood as one man in our heart against the heart of God. We stood there naked of righteousness before the Holy One. And we knew it. And it galled us to no end. There just had to be a way around God to life.

Together we were the legacy which is the "old man". "Old" because he is from the dust of the earth. "Old" because, like the dust, he is perishable, dishonored, weak and natural. And "old" because this man belongs to the age which is passing away. This man "shall surely die."

The New Man

But "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!" God was known in the first place because he chose to be known. Indeed, he created us to know him. Our rebellion, therefore, could not hide God. For he had chosen before all time to make himself known to us through his Son. 

Knowing this, I could hardly just stop reading there. Reading about the "old" man, I mean. There had to be more. And, in fact, there was. As I continued reading I could make out another garden—Gethsemane this time. A garden of the "old" man. But I did not see us there. Not at first, anyway. Instead, I saw the Son of Man. This "last Adam" was not cowering beneath the trees of this garden when God came to him, as had the first Adam. No, this Adam stood face to face with God—without blush and without shame. 

Further on, I could see this very same Son of Man, now as naked as we could make him with our sins and driven from the garden of man. Still, I did not see him hiding behind a tree. On the contrary he was hanging from it! Hanging for all to see. Hanging for God to see. "For it was the Father's good pleasure for all fullness to dwell in him, and through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross.... And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet he has now reconciled you in his fleshly body through death, in order to present you before [the Father] holy and blameless and beyond reproach" (Col. 1:19-22).

Through baptism we were buried with this Jesus. And so for us—for you and for me—the "old" man died as he surely must. Because God does not set aside his own righteousness in order to embrace us in his love. Instead, he raised us with Jesus in his own righteousness so that we would be "wise like God"—not to know evil, for it has no place in the Holy One, but to know good. And in knowing good—knowing it as a husband "knows" his wife—we would be knowing God. We would be knowing him as he created us to know him.

Jesus is the "head of the body" and "the first-born from the dead," says Paul. He is the "new man". "New" because he is not from the earth but from heaven. "New" because he is imperishable, glorious and strong. And "new" because this man is of the Spirit. This man shall surely live—as God lives. And by his indestructible life we live too; we who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved.

Another Time, Another Place

With this, I found myself in Colossians 3 and paused there a while. No, "pause" isn't the right word. I think "linger" is more what I did. Yes. I lingered there as Paul explained something of what our being bound to Christ by the love of God means.

Paul got my attention there by doing something I hadn't really expected. I'm used to people appealing to future consequences as a reason for doing the right thing. You know, like Peter does in 2 Peter 3. There Peter warns us that the Lord will come someday, unexpectedly. So we ought to watch how we act and always be ready for that great and terrible day, because you just never know.... 

As I said, though, Paul doesn't do this. Oh, he certainly doesn't ignore the future character of heaven and all that that means. But, instead of using this kind of temporal language, Paul begins here with spatial language. It's not the "when-it-comes" of heaven that concerns him so much as the "where-it-is." 

You see, by being bound to Christ we have been taken to the place where he is—"above". We are "above," says Paul, "above where Christ is seated ...." And since heaven is in this sense "here" for us, we ought to expend our energies on the things that are here before us—"the things above". "Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth" (v. 2). Heaven is "here" for those who are bound to Christ by the love of God. We should, therefore, remember our place. And it should make a difference in our lives. Of course heaven is not yet fully realized. For the time being we still live in earthen vessels. You know the verses on that. We live by faith, not by sight. I suppose we could think of this situation as the "here/not-here" of heaven. (Which compliments the somewhat familiar temporal language, "now/not-yet"). Heaven is "here" to us even while we breathe the stale, sulphurous air of this present age. 

It's certainly true that this age is tethered to the patience of God. And he will certainly come someday (the not-yet) and will bring heaven with him (the not-here). That's our hope. But it is primarily the "here" and "now" aspects of heaven—the things of faith that Paul just discussed—that provide the foundation for his exhortation in this particular passage.

Here and Now

I guess I found Paul's approach so striking because we stand in the milieu of backlash against being "so heavenly minded that we're of no earthly good." Here in his letter to the Colossians, Paul says that it's actually better to set our minds exclusively on heavenly things than on earthly things at all! Surely you can see why he got my attention, can't you?

You see, until this sank in, I had been taking it for granted that heaven was largely future and pretty much remote from my present life. It's hard not to treat heaven as something to be somehow balanced with this present life. After all, too much attention to heavenly things gets in the way of earthly things, doesn't it? Even though I had never questioned the "higher" quality of heavenly things, I do, after all, have to live here on earth (till Christ comes again or I die, anyway). Right?

Thinking about the things of heaven seemed rather like sticking my head in the clouds. Entertaining, perhaps, but not too practical; what with all there is to do here in the real world and all. But then there are feelings of guilt if at least some time isn't spent on religious things—"the things above".

"Okay," I thought, "what will it be like in heaven then? What will we do? What will we feel like?" No, I was wrong. This is not at all what Paul is getting at. He is not encouraging speculation about the world to come. Besides, that sort of thinking usually overlooks the fact that our present bodies are ill-suited for life in heaven. When we get to thinking about it, heaven seems a little alien or weird to us. Maybe we even become a bit anxious over whether we will really fit in there and be happy. But in these earthly bodies heaven should feel that way. We will have bodies suited to heaven when the time comes. And then we will be able to "see", "touch", "hear", "taste" and "smell" heaven. I mean that the Lord will give us appropriate "senses" for heaven. He will surely make us able to experience and know the place he is preparing for us. And the Lord will certainly fill-up those "senses" with himself. And then we will no longer have to struggle to unify our experience with God's revelation of himself. We won't feel so torn between two worlds. We will be suited to heaven and will "glorify God and enjoy him forever." We will feel at home in heaven. After all, we belong there. 

Be that when it may though, the point is that Paul has in mind the "here" and "now" of heaven. He is not referring to a someday, somewhere of the pearly gates, halos and harps idea of heaven either. There is a difference between being heavenly minded and being merely interested in things of heaven. The one requires all of the resources of heart, mind and strength under Spirit-sway. The other, merely an inclination toward speculation.

I came to see that the heavenly things Paul has in mind are the things that result from the presence of heaven. The things which come from our being bound by God's love to Christ, who is himself in heaven now. Pearly gates, harps and angel's wings? No. Telling the truth (v. 9). Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (v. 12). Bearing with one another and forgiveness (v. 13). And, above all, love (v. 14). These are "the things above" that Paul has in mind. These are the things we should "keep seeking."

We are seeking heaven, not in the manner of the old man, but in the new. Heaven is not just a ritual or noble act away. We are not merely biding our time here on earth until we 'stand before St. Peter' someday. For the new man already lives in heavenly places by virtue of what being loved by God in Christ means. You know what I mean, don't you? Compassion does not exist because of human beings. Kindness and patience are not expressions of anything we grew outside the garden so long ago. Neither is love something we came to know by eating of that forbidden knowledge tree. These things are not of the earth, but of heaven. These are "the things above".

Knowing evil had made all of these things (love, kindness, humility . . .), knowing evil had made them all seem rather elusive and fleeting in our experience. But now knowing God, or rather, being known by God, has made these heavenly things seem like our very own belongings. This is "the true knowledge" that we have as fruit of our being bound to Christ by the love of God. And so, walking in the Spirit—doing these kinds of spiritual things—is walking in heavenly places.

Paul says, "Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth" (v. 2). Verses 5-9 explain what the earthly things are that he has in mind. Then there is a transition in verses 9-10. The "old man" that belongs to the earth is replaced by the "new man" that belongs to heaven. And finally, in verse 12 through, say 16, he tells us what the heavenly things are too.

Paul's contrast, then, is not between angelic choirs, pearly gates and harps on the one hand and caulking the tub and making brownies on the other. He is talking about compassion, kindness and love on the one hand and filthy language, malice and greed on the other. "The things that are on the earth" (v. 2) are "immorality, impurity . . . and greed" (v. 5). They are "anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech" (v. 8). Oh yes, and lying (v. 9). These are the very things that are baiting the wrath of God.

So, must I really know good and evil to be "wise like God"? Must I "get it" when someone tells a dirty joke, in order to be wise? Must I look at sexually suggestive material to find the inside track—to be wise? Does understanding "the way it is" require me to lie to the Internal Revenue Service? Is going along with slanderous comments about others the way to wisdom? Should I honk the horn or gesture my anger at thoughtless drivers? Is this how to prove that I am aware of reality? Is this being "wise like God"?

Well, until now, I might have been inclined to refer to a future time of reckoning. You know, "Someday I'll have to answer for how I live my life here on earth. So I'd better try not to do those kinds of things." While true, that is not Paul's point. And anyway, there was always the feeling that I was somehow wiser than the "goody-two-shoes," straight-laced kind of person. Knowing good and evil did seem to make me "wise" (though, of course, "wise" is probably not the word I would have used; but the idea is the same).

In light of this Colossians passage, though, I am more inclined to ask myself: "Where am I right now? On earth biding my time until I get to heaven someday? Or am I at Christ's side in heavenly places right now?" Indeed, maybe I should ask, "Is it practical and wise to stand right in front of God and taunt Him with the things I say and do?" 

Our ethics are not merely a reaction to some sort of system of rewards and punishments. Yes, there are rewards and punishments. But our ethics and morals are expressions of the life of Christ in us. For it is not out of Christ's life that we draw selfishness, rudeness, lies, pigheadedness or anything like that. But we do draw from his life love, kindness, gentleness, self-control and truth. They are evidence of our being in heaven, because these things are of heaven and not the earth. 

You see, there is no way we can rely on a supposed remoteness of heaven (either in time or place), to soften the guilt of doing evil here and now. For we are not, in fact, remote from heaven and the presence of God. And this is Paul's point. The issue isn't what you have to do to cope with this life while waiting for the next one to come. It has more to do with just where your life is right now and what that life means here and now. And, again, Paul's point is that having our life hid in Christ, being a new man, being in heavenly places, this all means that the things of heaven must replace the things of earth. The new man must replace the old man. Love and kindness, truth and gentleness must replace greed and selfishness, lies and malice.

Our life is not in the food we eat, the house we call home, the friends we keep, the children, our vacations, our accomplishments, nor in the daily routines and ruts we find ourselves in. If you take from me my wife, my kids, my home, my food, my vacations, my accomplishments, my routines and my self-esteem, I will still be alive. Even if you try to take the life that is in my blood, I will still flourish with life. I live because the fountain of my life—the fountain of your life too—is in our Lord and Savior. Our life is in Christ.

Now, I said earlier that in this passage, Paul doesn't appeal to the someday of heaven. Well, that's not entirely true. He does, in fact, bring together the presence of heaven with the future revealing of Christ (vv. 3, 4). At that future time we will see what we now only believe. We will see then where our life has been all along. And we will see this reality no longer as through a glass dimly. We will "see" just as the servant of Elisha suddenly saw that he was already in the presence of a heavenly host. For when Christ, who is our life, is revealed, we will be revealed too.

It is in this context that Paul says, "Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus ...." This is not a reference to eloquence in our words or craftsmanship in our deeds. Indeed, this is not a proof text on "excellence" at all. Paul is not so much concerned here with earthly performance of tasks as he is with our seeking the things above. The point is not the quality of the "whatsoever we do," it is the motive, the internal principle that animates the "whatsoever we do" that concerns Paul here.

It is as an expression of our conscious presence before God, in Christ, that wives ought to be subject to their husbands; that husbands ought to love their wives; that children ought to be obedient to their parents; and so on (vv. 18f.). These things arise out of our plan to glorify God, our "seeking the things above." These things arise out of an attitude bent on Christ. And so things like this are heavenly.

In so conducting ourselves we are walking in heavenly places. These are the heavenly things that we are supposed to be devoted to. Not as acts belonging to an ivory tower or idle speculations on another world. They are practical, here and now kinds of things. They are the practical response to reality. And they are things done in thankfulness to God rather than as ways of coping with a remote deity or an active conscience. We are to be so heavenly minded that we actually end up being of great earthly good! This is being "wise like God."

Now and Then

From Paul I moved on in my reading. I came to a river of life flowing from the throne of God. I saw there the tree of life and there were no cherubim keeping us from it anymore. Indeed, there was no longer even a curse at all. I even took heart at the voice of my Lord calling for me instead of looking for a place to hide. You and I could now freely eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God. And I saw us there—clothed this time! Clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, our Lord. And we no longer knew evil, only good. Our faith had melted into sight, our hope into rejoicing and our selfishness into thankfulness to God. "For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes the things sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations" (Is. 61:11). Even so, Lord come.

Escondido, California