William D. Dennison
It should be stated from the outset that Paul wrote his epistles as a pastor to the churches. In the Reformed tradition, we honor Paul as a very articulate theologian. I am not minimizing this approach. Indeed, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul carried the central doctrines of our holy faith to the heights of theological precision. Even so, it is sometimes overlooked that Paul's letters were pastoral. In fact, he is the pastor of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He pastors the church--the flock of Christin resurrection living! In truth, the resurrection of Christ is the central topic of Paul's letters. It is the essential event which controls his entire ministry.
The Centrality of Christ's Resurrection
Christ's resurrection can be demonstrated to be central to Paul's letters (see Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption [Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1987]). In 1 Corinthians 15, for instance, Paul informs us about the effect of the resurrection of Jesus Christ upon the Christian faith. He writes: "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (vs. 14). Furthermore, our testimony is false about the resurrected Christ (vs. 15), and we are to be pitied more than all men because we have a false hope in Christ (vs. 19). Thus, "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (vs. 17). Christianity is futile and meaningless if Christ has not been raised.
The truth is, however, that the faith of the believer is not futile and meaningless because "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead" (vs. 20). Thus, you can see why the resurrection is said to be Paul's central themethe foundation of his ministry to the churches. Christ's resurrection is central because there is no faith, no hope, no preaching, no pastoring, if Christ has not been raised.
Moreover, the centrality of Christ's resurrection is not some abstract theological concept, distant from the believer. Rather, Christ's resurrection is the heart of the believer's existence. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then your life is defined by and in the resurrection of Christ. This is the dynamic of the Christian life! After all, God has brought you into this time when the resurrection from the dead in the promised Messiah has become a reality. History is fulfilled!
The promise of victory over death through the Resurrection is not a mystery to the Christian. We cannot overlook that the Old Testament records events which are a foretaste of the Messiah's resurrection. For example, have you ever understood the events in Genesis 3 in terms of death and resurrection? When Adam and Eve fell into sin, they were dead. They were truly spiritually dead in their sin. When God makes the promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15 ("And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel"), that promise is the resurrection of Adam and Eve. God brings life out of death! In other words, the promise of God to conquer the serpent is the resurrection of Adam and Eve as both of them cleave to that promise in faith.
Later, the exodus of Israel out of Egypt becomes the principal resurrection event of the Old Testament. For over four hundred years, Israel has been in bondage to Egypt (in Scripture, emblematic of the bondage to sin). As God delivers them out of the hands of the Egyptians, he brings them across the Red Sea upon dry ground. Hence, God has redeemed them from oppressive slavery; he has resurrected Israel from a lifeless existence among the Egyptians. Thus, the Exodus is the central resurrection event in the Old Testament.
Even so, according to Paul, the fullness of time has now arrivedthat is to say, redemptive history has reached its fulfilled state. Jesus Christ has come as the promised seed of redemption, the incarnate Son of God, the final atonement for our sins, and the one who has broken the bands of death in the victory of his resurrection. This has occurred so the people of God can have the abundant lifeso we can experience the resurrection life! Jesus Christ removes the veil from the Old Testament's foretaste of resurrection experience, and now he has appeared in history to his disciples, to his people (the church), and to the apostle Paul as the fully manifested and resurrected Lord and Savior!
The Meaning of the Resurrection for Believers
Colossians 3 gives the church a glimpse of what the believer's life means in light of Christ's resurrection. It says that you, as a believer, have already been brought into resurrection-union with Jesus Christ. For this reason, we must correct a common misunderstanding. Usually when believers think of their resurrection, they think that it is an event which will take place exclusively in the futureat the time of Christ's second coming. If this is how you understand your resurrection, then you do not fully understand the dynamic of Christ's resurrection, which took place two thousand years ago. For the Bible teaches that the believer's resurrection took place two thousand years agonotice the past tense in verse 1: "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ" (ASV: "If then ye were raised together with Christ"). Thus, Christ's resurrection is the active dynamic which resurrects all believers (past, present, and future). God the Father did not raise Christ from the dead in isolation. Rather, the power of Christ's resurrection brought life to all his people, those who have lived and those who will live.
I recall hearing a story regarding Rev. G. I. Williamson when he was a pastor in Fall River, Massachusetts. According to the story, Rev. Williamson was greeting his congregation following the morning service. In this cordial atmosphere, a number of fine Christian ladies approached Rev. Williamson and asked him when he had been saved. In other words, when was his personal crisis experience in coming to know Jesus Christ? Before Rev. Williamson could respond, a five-year-old girl standing beside them spurted out: "I was saved two thousand years ago." Oh people of God, do you see the genius of that little girl's response? Her confession demonstrates tremendous insight! The ladies viewed salvation as an individual and subjective crisis experience, whereas the little girl already understood that her salvation was totally accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ two thousand years ago. In other words, salvation is not dependent upon what I do, but upon what Christ has done. At a very young age, that little girl was voicing exactly what the Holy Spirit is teaching through Paul concerning the believer's salvation in Christ.
You may, however, say, "But look, Paul, you do not make sense. Humans still must go through physical death. Physical death is real! How can you say that the believer is already raised from the dead?" Such a comment seems like a good rational objection. However, this objection overlooks the fact that physical death does not determine where one is going to spend eternity. Sin determines where one is going to spend eternity.
Hence, the marvelous joy of the gospel is that Christ has crucified sin to the cross, and by rising from the dead he has put sin to death once and for all for those who believe in him (vs. 3). The sting of sin and death is gone through Christ's victorious death and resurrection. After all, we know that Paul makes this exact point to the Corinthian church: "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (l Cor. 15:55-57; cf. also Rom. 6:6). Henceforth, as the church of Jesus Christ, we do not live under the bondage of sin, but under the freedom of Christthe freedom of the resurrection life!
In terms of the process of redemptive history, the believer's present actual state of existence is one of union with Christ in his death and resurrection. When Christ died, I died to sin! When Christ rose, I rose to eternal life! Therefore, since this is the present state of the believer, verse 1b says, "Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (i.e., in heaven). Verse 2 adds, "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." When Scripture commands us to set our hearts and minds upon things that are above, it is not expressing an ideal which cannot be reached. Moreover, it is not a hypothetical goal which cannot be attained. Rather, this is a command which must and can be followed because the Holy Spirit is applying the power of Christ's death and resurrection to the hearts and minds of believers.
The point is this: if we are in unity with Christ (if we have been resurrected with Christ), then we must be where Christ isin heaven. How can we say that we have been resurrected with Christ if we still set our hearts and minds upon earthly things, the ways of the flesh (Col. 3:5-8)? As a true believer, you cannot set your heart or mind upon the world of the flesh. Hence, in light of the accomplished work of Christ, in a realistic way, true believers have already gone into heaven. Since we cannot be separated from Christ, and since Christ is in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, our lives through faith-union must exemplify that we are in heaven with Christ. Indeed, God commands us to set our hearts and minds upon heaven even as we continue to live on earth (cf. Matt. 6:33).
Living Our Union with Christ's Resurrection
I believe that we can draw this conclusion from Colossians 3:1-4: Resurrection living is heavenly living. This is the foundation of Christian ethics. Christian conduct must be grounded in the victory of Christ's resurrection and the ethics of heaven. Specifically, our ethical and moral conduct must exemplify that we are already in heaven, because in fact, through faith-union with Christ, we are in heaven (cf. Phil. 3:21; Eph. 2:6).
It is not surprising, then, that Paul describes exactly how believers are to live a resurrected, heavenly life in the church (Col. 3:12-17). We are to understand that we have been chosen by God for salvation. We are to be holy, compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient (vs. 12). Why? Because these are the attributes of heaven, and since the church is already in heaven through faith-union with Christ, the church (and each believer) must live in the truthfulness of these characteristics now!
Read on: the people in Christ's church are to bear with one another, forgive each other, and put on lovethe bond of unity (Col. 3:13-14). Why? Once again, because these are the characteristics of heaven. Is it not true that in heaven we will bear with each other, that we will forgive each other as Christ has forgiven us, and that we will be bound together by the love of Jesus Christ? Since this will be true in the final state of heaven, the church, as she is presently in union with Jesus Christ, must possess these characteristics of conduct on earth.
Finally, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, and let the word of Christ richly dwell in you, as you do all things in the name of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:15-17). Why? Because, as we read in the book of Revelation, the final state of the people of God will be to worship the Lamb of God eternally (see Rev. 5). Since the peace, word, and work of Christ are eternal, the church of Jesus Christ must live this truth presently on earth. Thus, the church and her saints have no right to do things for the glory of their own personal name. Rather, they must do all things for the name of the one who is eternally glorifiedJesus!
Hopefully, it is now obvious: the life of the church is a resurrection life and a heavenly existence. That is why the truth of Christ's resurrection is not a once-a-year event which we post on an ecclesiastical calendar at Easter. Rather, through the power of Christ's resurrection, the church's whole existence is a life of resurrection. The church truly exists in heaven, even here on earth, because of Christ's resurrection. For this reason, Paul tells us that our lives are to be dead to immorality, impurity, lust, greed, and idolatry, because these are the characteristics of living under the power of our fleshly nature. Such characteristics do not exemplify the heavenly lifethe resurrection life.
Living the Historical Pattern of Christ
You may have one last question: "How are we in heaven when there is so much sin?" First, as we have already seen, we are in heaven through our faith-union with Christ. Second, concerning sin that still surrounds us, our existence in heaven is one of being hidden. This second point is clear in Colossians 3:3b: "Your life is now hidden with Christ in God." In other words, your life of heavenly and resurrection existence is hidden with Christ from the present evil agefrom the world of flesh and unbelief. Then, as we connect the phrase in verse 3b with verse 4"When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory"something tremendous unfolds before us.
In Matthew 13, we read the kingdom parables. Jesus tells us that the mystery of the kingdom of God is hidden from the world of unbelief, whereas the knowledge of the secrets of heaven has been given to his disciples. In reality, this truth applies not only to Christ's teaching in parables, but also to Christ's whole ministry on earth. Through his teaching and work, the identity of Christ is hidden from the world, whereas it is revealed to those to whom he has chosen to disclose the rich treasures of his kingdom.
Then, at his second coming, Christ will be fully manifested in all his glory. At that time, all humanity will know that Jesus spoke the truth concerning himself, and he will totally disclose the fullness of the kingdom. All those who rejected Christ and his teaching on the kingdom will receive everlasting fire, whereas those to whom Christ has revealed himself will live eternally with him.
Notice the historical pattern of Christ's existence: while Christ is on earth, he lives a life of being hidden until he is fully revealed at his second coming. The pattern is this: from being hidden to being fully revealed or manifested in glory (his final appearance).
Now look carefully at what this scripture says about the life of the believer! As we live on earth, our life is one of being hidden. In other words, what makes you tick as a person in Christ is hidden from the world of unbelief, unless Christ's Spirit decides to reveal the truth of your witness to those around you. Then, when you appear with Christ in glory, those unbelievers who came in contact with you will know that you spoke the truth. Hence, they will be given the eternal punishment of God, whereas, through God's mercy and grace, you will appear with Jesus in all his glory.
Notice the historical pattern of the believer: your life on earth is one of being hidden until you appear with Christ in all his glory. In reality, you are living the same historical life-pattern as Jesus: from being hidden to being revealed in glory.
Now we understand Paul's expression, "Christ, who is your life" (vs. 4). Through the Spirit of God, we are so much in union with Christ that we live the very same life-pattern that Christ lives. Christ's pattern is one of being hidden (on earth) to one of being revealed in glory (second coming). Likewise, our pattern is one of being hidden (on earth) to one of being revealed with Christ in glory (our physical resurrection at his second coming).
What a tremendous gospel we have! We live the exact same life-pattern as our Redeemer and Savior! Truly, this is the rich dimension of union with Christ! Thus, as sin manifests itself around us, we know that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. God's love and grace are preserving us for the day of Christ's final coming. Not even Satan and all his companions can deter what God has worked in the resurrection of his Son. Through Christ's Spirit, the believer is in complete union with the victory of Christ's resurrection, and you live that resurrection presently in heavenly union with your beloved Savior, even as you continue to journey on earth. And finally, "When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory."
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga. This article first appeared in Kerux (1131 Whispering Highlands Drive, Escondido, CA 92027-4961). It is reprinted (slightly edited) with permission. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2001.