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.
Jonathan Edwards is considered the greatest theological mind in American history. He was also one of the key leaders of the Great Awakening of the 1730s. During this period of revival there were many conversions. These new believers organized themselves into small groups for prayer, singing, accountability and encouragement. People became intense, zealous and earnest about their faith. Unfortunately, there were some emotional excesses that took place. As a result, a group of pastors arose who opposed the revival. They began to speak out against it, creating a division among colonial evangelicals. Those who supported the revival were called the New Lights, and those who opposed it were called the Old Lights.
The distinction between these two groups was subtle, but there were immense differences in the way the two groups approached Christian living and worship. The primary difference had to do with the mind. Both groups agreed that Scripture was their authority, and that God renews and utilizes human reasoning. However, there was a distinction in the way the two groups viewed the affections. Edwards emphasized that the intellect without true affections is an insufficient spirituality. In other words, when the Holy Spirit awakens someone, God renews not only his intellect but also his affections (or righteous desires). The Old Lights were suspicious of an outwardly emotional faith. They proposed that the guide for all religious affairs should be an enlightened mind and not elevated affections. They associated the affections with the passions of one’s lower nature that needed to be restrained by the higher faculty of reason.
Navigating this debate is still important today. We distinguish spiritual passion from mere intellectualism. Or, to put it simply, we believe that we should have a heart and passion for God. But this does not negate the mind. Rather, when the mind is fully engaged with the things of God, a proper passion will arise in the heart.
Out of this conflict, Edwards wrote what is considered a masterpiece in the history of Christian literature, A Treatise on Religious Affections. His main point was, “True religion consists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart.”
The essence of what Edwards writes is the same basic truth that Paul was expressing in Colossians 3:1–4: True spirituality is a passionate pursuit of heavenly realities. Because our true identity is in Christ, who is above, we must focus our will and affections on things above — in other words, on what is heavenly and eternal.
Seek Things Above
Paul directs our focus with two commands. First, he exhorts us to pursue heavenly realities with all our hearts. The term seek means to search purposefully. It signifies an urgent quest that engages our will. We are to be as earnest in seeking Christ as the shepherd who sought his lost sheep or the woman who sought her lost coin or the father who sought his lost son (Luke 15).
The center of our intense search must be Christ Himself. The heresy in Colossae promised spiritual fulfillment through keeping Old Testament laws and regulations. However, these were only pictures pointing to Christ, the fulfillment and end of the law (Rom. 10:4). Imagine a soldier taking pictures of his wife and children to war. Upon his safe return home, who does the soldier want to hug and kiss? Would it be his wife and kids or pictures of them? Fill your hearts with Christ. The more you pursue Him, the more you will want to pursue Him. Christ is to be the center and source of all our joys. We must be personally convinced, as Paul was, that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
As we delight in Christ and our position in Him, it is critical that we recognize what position Christ Himself is in. He sits “on the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). He is Lord! Commitment to pursuing Christ means living in the reality of His preeminence over all things. We are to dedicate every area of our lives to His loving Lordship so that we entrust to Him our entire future, family, finances and friendships along with our talents, time and treasures — all of these to Him. We cannot revel in the benefits package of our position in Christ and forget the related obligations of being a servant of Christ.
Set Your Affections on Things Above
Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
Secondly, Paul exhorts us to develop a mindset of singular devotion that believes and embraces the rule of Christ over our lives. In order to demonstrate heavenly conduct, we must adopt a heavenly outlook. True spirituality requires choices about what we think and love. It is very difficult to seek things above when our affections are somewhere else.
In this letter Paul charges us not to set our affections on the things that rob us of a heart for Christ. He warns us of the spiritual dead-end street of mystical pursuits and legalistic rules. He also commands us to ruthlessly deny ourselves of mind-controlling sexual thoughts. These are to be totally abandoned for Christ. Paul urges us to fix our thoughts on our identity in Christ. We are to believe what God says about us and constantly adjust our thinking to that reality.
It is noteworthy that Paul aims to capture the gaze of our affections. Thomas Chalmers, a well-known Scottish theologian of the nineteenth century, wrote a message entitled, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. Chalmers’s premise is that it is virtually impossible to displace love for something evil simply by exposing it as empty and worthless. An effective change can come only when you set forth another object, in this case, God, who is more worthy of one’s heart affection and attachment. He states, “The heart shall be prevailed upon not to resign an old affection, which shall have nothing to succeed it, but to exchange an old affection for a new one.”
In other words, we could spend a lot of time telling ourselves to stop thinking about ourselves so much. We could vow to deprive ourselves of legitimate joys and beat ourselves up, literally or figuratively. Or we could start spending a lot more time making God’s Word at home in our lives and thereby treasuring Jesus Christ. We have so much trouble fighting sin, not usually because we do not know what is wrong with it, but because we do not have a more powerful loyalty and affection for Christ to overwhelm it.
Errant theology often promises heavenly blessings detached from earthly obligations. For example, the ancient Gnostics viewed the body as inherently evil material, whereas the realm of the mind is inherently good and spiritual. Consequently, some Gnostics entertained spectacular meditations on mystical ideas but were quite sinful in their lifestyle. Like the false teacher in Colossae, they had devised methods of creating a virtual heaven removed from moral responsibilities.
As we will repeatedly discover in the following chapters of this study, life in Christ is focused above but takes place here below. Christianity is not escaping to virtual reality but bringing heavenly reality to earth. Paul says we must seek and set our affections on what is above, but that does not mean we ignore earthly realities. We should watch the balance of our checking accounts and give some thought to our appearance and study biology and socialize with friends. But there are two common pitfalls. On one hand it is easy to view earthly pursuits as the primary reality and not passionately seek Christ day by day. On the other hand, it is tempting to assume we are Christ-centered because we have good theory when our actual speech and behavior indicate otherwise. Seeking things above is true Christianity — a practical life of pleasing the Lord (see Eph. 5:10). If Christ is our life, we must pursue Him earnestly, adopt His mindset, and apply His grace to everyday living here and now.
Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards (New York: Leavitt, Trow & Co., 1844), 3:5.
Thomas Chalmers, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” in Master Sermons of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Gaius Glenn Atkins (New York: Clark, 1940), 4.
This post is from Seeking Things Above: A Study in Colossians by Steve Pettit. Copyright 2016 by Bob Jones University.
This post is part of the study designed to correspond with the 2021 Spring Chapel Series. Watch the chapel message below:
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