So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1–3)
As a young Christian I was often warned not to be “so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good.” But in the verses above, Paul urged the fledgling Colossian believers to be more heavenly minded, not less. “So if you have been raised with Christ,” he instructed them, “seek the things that are above” (Col. 3:1, italics mine). The apostle wanted them to desire, pursue, and run after heavenly things. He also told them to “set [their] minds on things above,” which implies thinking about, reflecting upon, and contemplating heavenly things. The New Living Translation captures it well: “Set your sights on the realities of heaven” (Col. 3:1 NLT).
Paul was not merely making a suggestion. In the original Greek, the verbs are in the imperative mood. That means he was giving a command. They are also in the present tense, which implies continuous ongoing action. Paul, then, was insisting that the Colossians do this, keep on doing it, and do it always. His concern was not that these young Christians would be too heavenly minded, but not heavenly minded enough. He wanted their earth to be crammed with heaven.
Not, however, so they would despise earthly things or withdraw from the world. Not in order to avoid present suffering by escaping into a pie-in-the-sky future. Suffice it to say, the heavenly mindedness Paul wanted them to seek after was for the sake of, not the denial of, the earth and the world. That’s why he spent the rest of his letter telling the Colossians how they should conduct themselves in a wide range of practical, down-to-earth contexts and relationships (Col. 3:5–4:6). He discussed everything from personal morality, relationships in community, worship, marriage, parenting, work, time management, and relating to outsiders. Paul then urged them to focus on heavenly things so they could truly and rightly engage in earthly things.
The apostle believed—and so have wise Christians ever since—that if you want to properly love this present world, you must think about the next. Your heaven will determine your earth. So if you want to change earth, set your mind on heaven. As C. S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’” If you aim only at earth, “you will get neither.” For the sake of the earth, then, Paul wanted the Colossians to be more heavenly minded, not less.
Where Christ Is Seated at the Right Hand of God
He also wanted them to seek after and set their minds on the realities of heaven for the sake of knowing Christ. Because, according to Paul, heaven is “where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). Now when we think about “where Christ is,” most likely “seated at the right hand of God” is not what comes to mind. Paul told us to “set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2, italics mine). But when we think about Jesus, that’s often the very thing we end up doing. We bring him down to our level and view him from the perspective of earth below, not of heaven above where, according to Paul, he is seated now.
As a result we think of Jesus either from the horizon of the past (what he accomplished on earth for us through his life, death, and resurrection) or from the horizon of the future (when he shall return to judge and to reign over the earth). And, of course, there’s nothing wrong in doing that. In the New Testament he was often viewed from both of those horizons. But this is incomplete. What’s obviously missing is the horizon of the present—what Jesus, as the one who has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, is doing now.
No wonder Paul urged us to seek after and set our minds upon things above. He wanted us to understand and encounter Jesus from the horizon of the present, from the perspective of today, not merely from the perspective of yesterday or someday. And, by the way, today—the present—was the dominant horizon of the New Testament writers, the way they most often viewed Christ. If then we read the story of Jesus only or primarily from the horizon of the past or the future, we will inevitably misread and misinterpret it.
When we think of heaven, for example, we think primarily about the future. Heaven is the place you go after you die. In heaven you’ll be with Jesus and the saints and your loved ones forever. There will be pearly gates and streets of gold, and no more crying, suffering, or pain. In heaven we will gather around the throne with people from every tongue and tribe and nation to worship and praise God forever. We can cite particular scriptures that describe all these things happening in the heaven of the future. And we should. Thank God for the blessed hope that we have!
But the “things above”—the heavenly realities Paul wanted us to seek after and set our minds on—are not primarily in the future yet to come. Instead, he wanted us to fix our gaze on the heaven that is already present, where Christ is ascended, seated, and reigning at God’s right hand. We think of heaven as a place we go to after we die. For Paul and the writers of the New Testament, it was, above all, a dimension Christians inhabit now.
In biblical cosmology, as N. T. Wright explained in his book Surprised by Hope, heaven and earth are not different locations, far apart from each other. They are different dimensions of God’s creation (Gen. 1:1). Heaven and earth can overlap and interlock with each other. They’re not like oil and water that don’t mix. In fact, because heaven relates to earth tangentially it touches and permeates earth. So the poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is right: Earth is “crammed with heaven.” (source)
Though the original close, intimate connection between the two has been deeply ruptured by humanity’s fall into sin and evil, God has been faithfully at work in a redemptive process slowly repairing the connection. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension are at the very heart and center of that process. In the end when Christ returns, the connection will be fully restored. The two will be joined together as God intends (Rev. 21–22). The last line of the hymn, “This Is My Father’s World” sums it up well: “Jesus who died will be satisfied, and earth and heav’n be one.”
That is why Christ’s ascension from earth to heaven is such a significant event. It further establishes and forges the connection, forever binding heaven and earth together. In the divine-human person of the ascended Christ, they have been and are now bound together eternally.
And that—we can’t emphasize it enough—is the dominant horizon of the New Testament for viewing Jesus. Not from the horizon of the past or future, but from the horizon of the present, where the ascended Christ is sitting in heaven at God’s right hand. The fact that today he is reigning as the ascended Lord both validates and vindicates his yesterday (Christ’s life, death, and resurrection) and assures and guarantees his tomorrow (Christ’s final return and victory).
When I am trying to get this across to a group of pastors and Christian leaders, I often start by asking them a question: What Old Testament verse is either directly quoted or alluded to in the New Testament more than any other? The vast majority don’t know. You should see the puzzled looks on their faces. Most are hesitant to even venture a guess.
So I say, “Let me help you. Is it:
(A) Psalm 23:1: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’;
(B) Leviticus 11:45: ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’;
(C) Isaiah 53:5: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities’; or
(D) Deuteronomy 6:5: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’”?
Most of them lean toward D. Since it is the Great Commandment, it would seem the logical choice.
But then I smile and say, “Actually, it’s none of the above!” They usually laugh and protest. Then I give them the correct answer. It’s Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (NIV). And that verse, I inform them, is either directly quoted or alluded to in the New Testament some twenty times. Now they are even more puzzled and surprised! Why that verse? It’s certainly not the verse we would have picked! What is it about that verse that caused the New Testament writers to keep coming back to it?
This gets us thinking in the right direction—in considering the significance of Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father. In future blog posts I’ll tackle this issue. I write about it more in my book, The Unseen Real: Life in Light of the Ascension of Jesus. Get it here.