Our Identity, Our Obligation
Posted On April 27, 2018
In the opening three verses of Colossians 3, Paul explains our identity in three declarations:
You are dead.
You have been raised with Christ.
Your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Paul says you are dead (Col. 3:3). That is full of irony, isn’t it? Dead people can’t read. We presume Paul’s dead, too. Dead people can’t write. What Paul means is that our old self, our pre-conversion, pre-regeneration self is dead. This is not the first time Scripture declares living people dead. The curse, back in the beginning in Genesis, declares that the very day on which Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit is the day that they die. The “we” who were dead in sins and trespasses, that “we” is now dead. Wasn’t it John Owen who referred to Christ’s work as “The Death of Death”? One way to understand what Paul is telling us when he declares “You are dead,” is to see that the “dead” us is dead. Conversion is the death of our dead self.
The second declaration adds that we are alive in Christ, that we have been raised with Him and are alive in Him. This is our new reality. We are no longer our selves, we are now Christ’s. Our new identity is found in our union and communion with Christ, the one who walked out of the tomb, past the rolled-away stone, and then ascended to the right-hand of the Father.
One more thing, our true identity, who we are, is hidden with Christ—that’s union and communion with Christ, again—in God; “hidden” here likely means secure. There is One who has brought us from death to life and has placed in union with the Triune God. We are tucked away securely and snugly in God, safer than a hidden pirate’s treasure. Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on this phrase as meaning, “Our true life is grounded firmly in eternity.”
Hidden also means veiled. Read on from Colossians 3 verse three to verse four:
When Christ who is your life appears,
Then you also will appear with Him in Glory.
Our full identity is yet to be realized. We are not invisible, hidden out of sight. But who we are has not been fully unveiled. Theologians call this the already/not yet. We live, as it were, between the beginnings of our new identity and the full realization of our new identity.
Those three phrases explain our identity. Our identity then leads to our obligation. Paul speaks of our singular obligation in two ways:
Seek the things that are above.
Set you minds on things that are above.
This is the classic Hebrew literary technique of parallelism. We find it all over the writings of Paul, a highly trained Hebraist. Parallelism is used for emphasis. People repeat things for emphasis. People repeat things for emphasis.
Paul wants us to know without uncertainty how we should live. If we are dead to this world, then it follows that we should not seek it, devote our attention to it, and cling to it. If we are dead to this world, we will have the right ordering of our priorities, distinguishing the eternal from the temporal.
But, seeking the things that are above is not escapism. Again, Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers some help here. He says, we “are not those who walk with their heads in the clouds,” uncaring about the world, content at injustice, content at sin. Instead, he says, “We, especially because we set our minds on things that are above, only protest all the more tenaciously and resolutely on this earth.”
Our obligation is not to escapism. Our obligation is look at this world and to live in it from an eternal perspective.
Our identity and our obligation, as explained by Paul in Colossians 3:1-3, has all kinds of applications. How can any of us engage in any form of ministry if we do not see ourselves as dead? If we vainly cling to our self, we will not be very useful in the service of others. If we are not dead, then we will protest our rights, our freedoms, our agenda. If we are dead to all that, however, we will be freed up to serve others, to seek God’s will, and to live for God’s glory. The same is true for our relationships.
The same is true regarding how we view hardship and suffering, setbacks and failure. The same is also true, by the way, for how we view successes and prosperity. No matter what we encounter, we will always be at home in it, at peace with it—if we know our identity and our obligation.