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“Changed into His Image”

Colossians 3:1-17
Bob DeGray
July 12, 2015

Key Sentence

Discipleship means putting off the old and putting on Jesus.


I. Seek the things that are above (Colossians 3:1-4)
II. Put to death what is earthly (Colossians 3:5-11)
III. Put on, as God’s chosen ones (Colossians 3:12-17)


The Scarlet Tanager, which I talked about in Children’s Corner, is a great illustration of the life of a disciple. Discipleship is very much like molting. We are called, as followers of Jesus to put off our old plumage and put on new plumage in his image. But like a Scarlet Tanager in the spring, most of us are not yet fully molted. We have put off some of the old feathers of the natural self, and we have only partially put on the new feathers of Christlikeness. We are in process, a work in progress. And yet this process is really what growing as disciples is all about –putting off the old and putting on Jesus.

This morning I want to walk through 17 verses in Colossians 3 which teach us to put off the old and put on the new. This is one of my favorite texts in Paul because it’s so practical and clear. It tells us to set our minds on things above, to put off a whole bunch of old habits and characteristic sins, and to put on a lovely array of Christ-like habits and disciplines. If we pay attention to Colossians 3 we will move further down the road of being changed into His image.

So let’s begin with Colossians 3:1-4 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

A believer in Jesus has a new orientation, from earth to heaven, from the temporary to the eternal, from my life to my life in Christ. Paul brings that out using a technique he’s fond of: these verses alternate between the indicative, facts, and the imperative,. Your behavior is not based on feelings or opinions but on realities, spiritual facts. If we trust what Paul proclaims to be true, that the facts of God's salvation are found in Christ Jesus, then we also trust that God's grace will transform us to live in accordance with those facts. Our minds are in fact renewed to know God's will; our sin nature has in fact been "crucified with Christ" and replaced with the Spirit of the Risen Lord. Our vices have been exchanged for virtues. For Paul, our transformed lives are the only logical result of our participation in Christ's work.

So Paul begins chapter 3 with an indicative: you have been raised with Christ. He expands this with two others: your life is now hidden with Christ in God and you also will appear with Christ in glory. These facts about God's salvation surround and focus the critical imperative statements: set your hearts on things above, and set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Paul's point is this: the natural, even logical, response to our participation in Christ's triumph—indicated by where he now sits at the right hand of God—is to exchange earthly norms and values and ways of doing things for heavenly or Christ-like ways of thinking, feeling, and doing. For Paul this exchange is the central reality of our new life, the practical focus of our discipleship.

Do you see this? “Set your minds on the things above.” Focus on the eternal realities revealed by the triumph of Christ. Because Jesus died and rose, you too, by faith died with him and you are raised to life in him. Your life is hidden with Christ in God. Do you believe that? It doesn’t feel that way. It feels like your life is just going on. But from the only viewpoint that matters, God’s, your life is radically changed. In God’s sight you no longer live the earthly life where sin condemns you to death. Now you live in Christ and the power of his risen life is at work, so that when Christ who is your life appears, you will appear with him in glory, that is, glorified, transformed into his likeness.

Your life is hidden in Christ. The only reality that makes a difference now is Christ raised, Christ seated at the right hand of God, Christ coming in glory. You are no longer living for yourself or by yourself. So sin is fading and loneliness is fading as the life of Christ grows in you, little by little, day by day, three steps forward, two steps back, but the beginning of that final transformation.

I want to illustrate this week using three brief biographies. The first is someone you’re probably aware of, St. Francis of Assisi. Born to a wealthy merchant father, Francis grew up a child of privilege. He was a magnetic personality and as a young man he was a ringleader among Assisi’s younger set.

Pastor Tim Suttle of Redemption Church in Kansas City says “Francis grew up in an honor/shame culture. Public honor was sought, hoarded, flaunted. Shame was hidden. As a result people often became insecure, cruel, neurotic, and even violent attempting to pursue honor and avoid humiliation. Francis tried to play the game. He joined his father’s business. He went off to war. But he suffered as a prisoner of war, and returned to Assisi completely disillusioned. He saw that the real flaw in his culture was that it placed human identity exterior to the person. “I am what I do,” “I am what people think of me.”

What Francis learned is that we are God’s beloved children, and no shame can take this away from you, no honor can add to it. God’s love was a gift. When Francis let go of the incessant need to impress and achieve, he found that all of the insecurity and anxiety melted away. He found that his identity was no longer based on the exterior, but in the interior where he was inhabited by nothing less that the Spirit of God. He learned, Suttle says “what Paul was saying in Colossians 3:3, ‘Your real life is hidden with Christ in God.’”

What Francis did was stunning. He stepped off the performance bandwagon and let go of any means of gaining honor. He sought only to take the lowest place. In the process his interior life grew enormous, toward God and toward other people. He was, Suttle says, “perhaps, more like Jesus than any other human person I’ve read about. I’m trying to learn the lessons of St. Francis, and make his example a constant part of my life. I am not what I do. My identity is not wrapped up in my accomplishments. My identity is hidden with Christ in God. My truest identity, what I am before anything else, is that I am a child of God.”

That’s the power of these verses. The spiritual reality, that our lives are now hidden with Christ in God has the power to change everything. Like St. Francis, like Tim Suttle, we can set our minds on what is true and really real, and find peace for the journey. But if the reality is to work itself out, into our lives, into our relationships, into our discipleship, we need to take Paul’s very practical advice to molt. To put off the old plumage and put on new plumage.

Verses 5-11: Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

Verses 9 and 10 are the fundamental teaching: put off the old self, put on the new self. But it begins in verse 5, “put to death what is earthly in you.” Paul said earlier don’t set your mind on earthly things. Instead, put these things to death. First, “sexual immorality," which translates porneia, the most general Greek word for illicit sexual activity. It is porneia, in Matthew 19, that is the sole ground for divorce. So pornography and any sexual activity outside the marriage of one man and one woman would be included in this term.

"Impurity" (akatharsia), is sometimes used of physical impurity, but usually has a moral connotation, uncleanness in thought, word, and act. “Passion,” pathos, essentially means "feeling" or "experience," but it came to be specially used of violent and uncontrolled emotions. The next phrase, "evil desires" is similar but more general in meaning. So, for example, if a love triangle develops and a man kills another in a fit of sexual jealousy, that would be ‘passion,’ But a cruel desire to take another person’s wealth or reputation would be evil desire. And either of these could include a destructive addiction like alcohol or drugs.

The last item on the list is “covetousness,” or “greed.” The Greek word is broader in meaning than ours. It encompasses “greediness, rapacity, and entire disregard of the rights of others.” One commentator says it is “the arrogant and ruthless assumption that all other persons and things exist for one's own benefit." This attitude is called "idolatry" because it puts self and things in the place of God.

Paul pauses to remind his readers that it is just these kinds of sins, and the ones that follow, that lead to the wrath of God. They are rebellion against him and lead to separation from him and punishment deserved. And all of us, Paul says, walked in these things at one time. They were our way of life. But now that we are in Christ, that doesn’t need to be true. So, he says, you must put off, put to death, put away. If you were exposed to ebola, one of the things they would do is dispose of your clothes and everything that might be touched by the virus. In the same way, Paul says, treat these sins like the plague.

His second list includes sins of attitude and speech. Anger, wrath, malice, slander and obscene talk. Certainly these can be separate characteristic sins, but for way too many of us they come as a package. Anger over some sense of having been done wrong, or having missed out or having been thwarted leads to an explosion, wrath that pours out in verbal and even physical abuse. But when that first explosion passes, anger can easily take on the more quiet forms. Malice, a fixed disposition of intentional, even vicious ill-will. And that often leads to slander, to evil gossip that speaks the worst of a person over and over. Finally, the sin of lying is given special attention, possibly because it is such a clear imitation of our enemy, who Jesus called the father of lies. At any rate, the separate treatment makes the command even more emphatic: stop lying.

So how are you doing on all these? I’ve often said that we each have characteristic sins, and I suspect most of us can find our own weaknesses pretty well covered in this expansive, general list. Most of us could easily slide in to many of the other sins on the list as well. The only notable thing I see missing is pride, which Paul usually includes on his lists, but for some reason doesn’t here.

So having given us this checklist of sexual sins, addictive sins and relational sins, and having reminded us that all of us walked in these sins at one time, Paul now tells us that all these are part of the old self which is to be put off, the old and broken feathers of our former life which we are to shed so that we can “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” I’ve been saying all morning that we are being made into the image of Christ, but Paul actually says the image of the creator, which we would normally take to be the Father. But in chapter 1 Paul said that all things were created through Jesus. That’s probably who he means by ‘creator’ here.

And look at verse 11. In this new community that he is creating, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Christ is everything, and he is at work in us to make us into his image. When we finish molting we will be like him.

The great hymn writer John Newton is my example of someone who truly put off the old self as he was renewed in the image of Christ. In his best loved hymn, Amazing Grace, he calls himself a wretched man, and that’s one of the more gentle terms he uses to describe his pre-Christ life. Newton was nurtured by a Christian mother who taught him the Bible at an early age, but died when he was 7. At 11, Newton went to sea with his father, a merchant captain, but he was often in trouble because of his "unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint." In his twenties he was press-ganged onto the H.M.S. Harwich, but he rebelled against the discipline of the Royal Navy and deserted. He was caught, put in irons, and flogged. He ended up on a slave ship, but he remained arrogant and insubordinate, and lived with moral abandon: "I sinned with a high hand," he wrote, "and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others."

He took up employment with a slave-trader named Clowe, who owned a plantation of lemon trees on an island off Africa. But he was treated cruelly. Soon his clothes turned to rags, and he was forced to beg for food. He signed on with a ship bound for Liverpool, but it was overtaken by a great storm. Newton was reading Thomas a Kempis's The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by the "uncertain continuance of life." He also recalled a text in Proverbs, "Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity."

He converted during the storm, but did not immediately change his character or habits. In fact he served as the captain of a slave ship, though he now tried to restrain the worst excesses and sought to "promote the life of God in the soul" of both his crew and his African cargo. After securing an office job in 1755, Newton began to hold Bible studies in his Liverpool home. Influenced by the Wesleys and George Whitefield, he became increasingly disgusted with the slave trade and his role in it. Soon he was ordained as a minister, and in 1764 took a parish in Olney in Buckinghamshire. He began to write hymns with a poet named William Cowper and in 1773 they published the famous Olney hymnbook. In 1787 Newton wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade to help William Wilberforce's campaign to end the practice—"a business at which my heart now shudders," he wrote. Recollection of that chapter in his life never left him, and in his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, "I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?" He had put off the old self and made his life count by fighting against the evils that had enslaved him.

The third section of the text finishes the progression: we set our hearts and minds on things above, and in that light we put off the old self and put on the new self, which is molting into the image of Christ. Verses 12-17: Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The ‘put on’ is more fun, but perhaps much more challenging than the ‘put off.’ We could spend two or three weeks on these verses, but let’s just walk through them quickly as key behaviors of disciples, key behaviors of Jesus imitators. Just as Paul grounded the first section in the theological truth of our death to self in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so here he grounds our new life in the theological truth that we are chosen, holy and beloved. We are not in this discipleship transformation game by ourselves; God has chosen us to be holy and loves us unconditionally with a life changing love. Only in this love, in dependence on Christ can we hope for heart change and transformed lives.

So, put on compassionate hearts. Jesus was compassionate. He stomach wrenched for all kinds of people and all kinds of needs. Kindness: he responded to his own compassion with care and concern; not with condemnation, but with acts of kindness backed by a heart of gentleness and love. And he was humble. We have far more reason to be humble than Jesus did. We fail at these things; he was perfect. But he was humble, submissive to the father, made himself a servant and then a sacrifice. The imitation of Jesus as the suffering servant will not save us, nor anyone else, but it may be the greatest imitation.

Patience. This is a hard one. Even after we spend years putting off anger and wrath and malice, they can still pop up when circumstances get rough or God seems to be taking a long time to intercede. When the time gets long our patience gets short. But Jesus modeled patience, with his disciples, with Peter, with us. Can we be impatient toward one who has waited so long for us to get going?

Verse 13 is based explicitly on the example of Jesus: bearing with one another, or putting up with one another and if you do have a legitimate grievance against someone, forgiving, just as the Lord has forgiven you.

Verse 14: And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. I love that image as well. All these virtues are Christlike, but love is like the conductor of the orchestra, who guides each part to its right moment and keeps them all in place and in tune so that they produce a perfect harmony.

This is discipleship in its most practical form. In my relationships with other people, believers, non-believers, family, friends, co-workers and church people, am I compassionate? Do I really care? And do I show compassion by kindness? Do I approach situations, conflicts, or counsel with humility, meekness, trusting God to provide answers. Do I sacrifice for others, which is what Christ’s humility led him to. Do I have patience or am I quick to confront? Do I judge with a harshness Jesus never uses with me? As I put on each of these layers, am I covering them with love, a true concern for the well-being of others. That outer garment of love is the image of Christ.

True discipleship is deeply relational, but the Christ like character of a disciple must be wedded to the habits of a disciple. Don’t miss this. Verse 15: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” Jesus is not only at work to transform our character and behavior into his image, but also to transform us inwardly from people who are conflicted within to people who are trusting within, from people who are battered by fears to people who are confident, from people who are always on the edge of conflict with others to people ruled by peace in our community. Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart. He’s offering it, but you have to give it the throne.

And be thankful. One of the key disciplines of a disciple is to look at circumstances and prospects and give thanks that God knows what you need. Give thanks for what he is providing, and do it even when circumstances are troubling or tragic. You don’t have to give thanks for tragedies, but if you are a disciple, you do give thanks for God and his love even in the midst of tragedies.

Verse 16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” We said two weeks ago that a disciple is one whose life is changed by his Master’s words. That extends to the church as well. A disciple making church is one that takes the Word of God seriously. We are also to take worship seriously. Of all the people in the world it is the ones who most closely follow Jesus who should be the best at worshiping him.

Thankfulness comes up again in verse 17: Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. A disciple who is being transformed into the image of Jesus has the privilege of attributing every good thing to the Lord Jesus.

All of our Christlike words, all of our Christlike deeds should bring glory not to us but him. Thankfulness means that even though we have responsibility to fix our eyes on the things above and even though we have responsibility to put off the old sinful earthly ways and put on the new self, we know that ultimately we cannot do this work; we are being renewed in the image of our creator. And so we are thankful to him, even though we are still molting.

My third example of Christlikeness is someone who spent his whole life putting on the new. You’ve probably never heard of Cornelius Winters. He was part of the English branch of the great awakening in the 1700’s. He was a friend of George Whitfield, a friend of John and Charles Wesley. Though he was more Calvinist than Wesleyan, he followed the Wesleys to Georgia and ministered in Savannah. He had a real heart for the African American community there, but after a few years he felt called to return to England. He became a pastor and schoolmaster who made an impact on countless lives over forty years.

William Jay wrote a biography of Cornelius Winters. This account repeatedly calls the reader’s attention to his kindness, to his innocence, in a positive sense, to his humility, his extreme generosity, his peaceful spirit, his concern for his pupils and parishioners, his unwillingness to get involved in petty squabbles, to the point where he willingly preached in Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Anglican churches and Calvinist churches without arguing.

William Jay devotes a hundred pages to a eulogy published shortly after Winters’ death. If I tried to condense it, I’d end up just making a list of the qualities we’ve seen here in Colossians 3. Winters was one of those people who put on Jesus. Here’s one paragraph: “So full of the meekness and gentleness of the Prince or Peace was he, that a friend, of very discriminating judgment, more than once said after Winters had been the subject of conversation, “I have long thought he is more like Jesus Christ, than any man on earth." The biographer says “I hope I shall be excused for these insertions. The gratification they afford while writing them, is beyond expression. And much of the pleasure arises not only from my regard to a character, the like of which I despair to see again, but from a conviction that the praises here bestowed upon him, do not savour of the falsehood, or lavishness of common eulogy.” In other words, Cornelius Winters was the real deal.

Francis of Assissi was the real deal. His life was hidden in God with Christ. John Newton was the real deal. He put off the old self with its miserable practices. Cornelius Winters was the real deal, “more like Jesus Christ than any man on earth.” May we be the real deal. May we set our minds on things above. May we put off earthly ways and put on Christlikeness, changed into his image.