The New Humanity in Christ

January 21, 2024 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Humanity: Made in the Image of God

Scripture: Colossians 3:1–17

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

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

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing 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. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 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. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Last week we started a 4-part sermon series on humanity and what it means that God made human beings in his image. We opened with Psalm 8 and then saw that Hebrews 2, reflecting on Psalm 8, argues that God became truly human in the incarnation, in Jesus, so that in Jesus we might become truly human as well.

Truly human? You mean, apart from Jesus we human beings aren’t real human beings? That’s what Christians believe?

Well, that’s right. Again, we saw last week that one of the crucial points of being made in the image of God is that we are meant to represent God to the rest of creation. And we are meant to represent him not just in conduct, ruling and reigning over creation. We are meant to represent him in character, too. We are meant to rule and reign over creation in a particular way, namely, as self-giving lovers.

Too often, we are anything but that. We show in ourselves the tendency to be self-promoting takers. Instead of being the benevolent rulers of creation, we act more like malevolent dictators of creation. No surprise, then, if it sometimes seems like creation itself is in rebellion against us.

So, a central point of the Christian faith is that Jesus came to make us truly human. That’s what we ought to mean when we say that Jesus came to save us. He came to make us truly human. And it is within that context, within that framing of the biblical story, that we come to see more thoroughly what it means for Jesus to save us from our sins. Sin is what keeps us from being the true human beings we were meant to be.

So, let’s talk about sin this morning. The story of sin and salvation from it is the story of how we fell from glory, how we find hope in Jesus for that glory we are meant to have, and also how we can begin to pursue that glory in Jesus right now.

The Fall from Glory

First, the fall from glory. Anyone remotely familiar with the Bible knows that the Bible insists we have a sin problem. That is, we keep doing it. But these days, we have a sin problem in a different sort of way. We seem to not even really know what it is. That might be part of the reason why we keep doing it.

Sin Is Lawlessness

Here in Colossians 3, we find some examples of particular sins. Verses 5-9 names some of them. These are examples of sin, but how might we define it?

First John 3:4 gives us a definition. “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” This is pretty straightforward. Sin is breaking God’s law. Adam and Eve sinned when they ate from the tree that God told them not to eat from (Gen 3:6). And you and I sin when we do what God says not to do, or when we do not do what God says we must do. Simple enough, right?

But remember the story of humanity and why God made us in his image. That story insists that we have to say more about sin. We cannot simply leave it as an issue of us violating God’s law, and yet that’s typically all most people ever think about it. If that’s all we have to say about it, we will often end up with some very unbiblical views about God and his laws. We will also end up with some very unbiblical views about ourselves.

Sin Is Defilement

From time to time my children have come to me to ask, “Dad, is it a sin to . . . (fill in the blank).” How shall I answer that question? We can go to our Bibles and see if it explicitly names that particular issue as a sin. But usually the issue is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, so we end up trying to discern if it is tangential to some sin that is specifically named. That is a fine way to go about it, but Jesus suggests another way to do it.

In Mark 7, Jesus made a surprising statement when he said this. “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” When pressed to explain, Jesus said this: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mk 7:14-23). To defile means to cause something sacred to become unsacred. It is an important concept in Judaism, but for our purposes, we might think of what happens when your favorite pair of jeans gets old or gets a stain in it that won’t come out. They have lost their value, and now, instead of wearing them when you go out for a nice evening, you wear them when you go out to paint or to work in the dirt.‌

The point is that sin, whatever it is, can also be detected by what it does. It defiles human beings. It makes us something less than what we were meant to be.

Sin is a big deal not because it is the breaking of some arbitrary rule that a divine dictator has established. God’s laws are not in place to keep us from “being who we really are” or trying to prevent us from having too much fun. It is the exact opposite. What sin does to us is make us less than what we were designed to be. Sin defiles us because sin dehumanizes us.[1]

Romans 3:23 puts it this way: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That does not mean that we have all tried but fallen short of God’s demands for us, leaving us with the impression that God is asking us to do the impossible and then threatening to punish us for failing at the task. What this verse is saying is that, by sinning, we all have declined from the “glory of God” in which we were created. God made us in his image, crowned us with glory and honor (Psa 8:5), but in our sinning we have lost something of that glory.[2] Not that it has been removed. But the image has become defiled.

The Defilement of the Earthly

Here in Colossians 3:5, Paul tells the believers to “put to death what is earthly in you.” He’s talking about the defiling effects of sin. He’s telling us to get the dirt off.

But don’t start there. What Paul has been arguing up to that point is absolutely critical to understanding what he expects believers to be able to do in verses 5-11.

You see, we have fallen from the glory that God has always intended for us to have. But let’s be clear about what the Bible tells us is the hope for that glory to be restored.

The Hope of Glory

What are we to do about the defiling reality of sin? If, because of sin, all of us have declined from the glory of God, what is our hope for having that glory restored? Interestingly, Paul has already answered that question directly. Look back at Colossians 1:27. Here he says that God has made known a great “mystery” that was “hidden for ages and generations.” What is it? It is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Sin Is Not Outside of Us

All human beings have some sense that we were made for glory, so we all take some approach to coping with the devastating defilement of sin. The Christian solution is unique, in a category all by itself.

There are two basic strategies that are employed by most people. In Colossians 2, Paul warns us about falling into those strategies. In verse 8 he says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

The first strategy is mentioned in verse 16. “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” The regulations of Judaism, based on the Mosaic Law, specified the kinds of food and drink one could consume, and the typical holy days one must observe. These regulations were what were meant to separate the Jew from his pagan neighbor and indicate that they were counted among the people of God.[3] But a lot of other people employ the same strategy. It’s the strategy of identifying the problem as something outside of us. Religious and non-religious people alike might see some created thing as the embodiment of sin and insist on staying away from it.

But Jesus insists, again in Mark 7, that “there is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him.” No created thing can be the source of sin, since God decreed that everything he made was good. Watch out for those who imply that sin is located in something outside of us. The holiness God demands is not attained by staying away from things that are outside of us. The problem with sin is not solved by abstinence, by fasting, by self-denial of “earthly” or “material” or “physical” things. This is what many well-intended Christians think is the way forward. Stay away from “worldly” things and you’ll be on your way to holiness and to true humanity.

Coping with Sin Inside of Us

The second strategy is alluded to in verse 18. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in details about visions . . .” This strategy recognizes that the problem of sin must be inside of us, so it insists on a particular type of spirituality to deal with it. Interesting isn’t it that so many “non-religious” people today still identify themselves as being “spiritual” nonetheless and recommend all sorts of spiritual practices—meditation and mindfulness or whatever—in order to find your true self. Of course, there are plenty of Christians who will tell you that this is the way to have your quiet time or your daily devotions and that if you do it some other way, or even neglect doing it, well, no surprise that you had a bad day.

What’s the problem with this strategy? Let’s just read what Paul says in the last verse of Colossians 2. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23).

I don’t have to tell you of those who seem so religious, so holy, so godly but end up being exposed as very immoral people. The news will tell you all about self-righteous religious hypocrites. You’ve probably even met some of them. If not, let me introduce you to one.

During prayer week this year, I set out to attend all six nights. That’s a great thing to do, isn’t it? Maybe even expected for one of your pastors, right? Problem is, there was something congratulatory I felt about it as I got to day 3. I could perceive some self-righteousness I felt about my religious devotion to go pray with you all every night for a week, especially since no one else was going to do it. So, in the mercy of God, the last night, which happened to be my birthday (and yes, I was fully intending on going to reach perfection!), my wife forbid me to go because she was taking me out on a dinner date to Red Prime. Of course, I can still feel good about myself that I made it 5 out of 6 nights, which is why I am confessing this before you today!

Christ In You

What, then, is the solution? Paul says it is Christ in you. We cannot find our true selves, we cannot have any hope of glory, if we deny ourselves something outside of us, because there is a problem within. But neither can we find our true selves by only looking within and trying to fix ourselves by our own efforts and practices.

You see, what we need is something outside of us that can come into us and change us, restore the glory we were meant to have. That’s what we have in Jesus. Jesus redeemed us from the dehumanizing chains of sin so that we are free to find our true selves in him. But only in him. Any discussion about what kind of “worldly” activities we can or can’t do, or about what kind of “Christian” spirituality we must begin to practice, all while marginalizing what Christ has done that puts a whole new perspective on both is nothing better than what you can find anywhere else.

The Pursuit of Glory

That’s why, when we get to Colossians 3:5, we must read it in light of all that has been said so far, and at the very least with what has just been said in the first four verses of the chapter. This is how, with Christ as our hope of glory, we can begin even now to pursue that glory in him.

Dying and Rising with Christ

Chapter 3 begins by speaking of us who believe in Jesus as having been “raised with Christ.” That’s because, a few verses earlier, Paul has already spoken of us as having died with Christ. Dying and rising with Christ. This is what it means for us to be united to him. This is what it means to be a Christian. It is how we find in Christ who we are truly meant to be.

Every true Christian must be identified with Christ in his death as well as in his resurrection. This is the reason why we are commanded to be baptized as a sign that we have so identified with Christ.

To die with Christ means that the rules and regulations of the world no longer apply to us. That does not mean, of course, that we can now live by our own rules. It does mean that the ways of the world that are being shoved down our throats as the pathway to our true humanity must be rejected in favor of the cross-shaped way of our Lord. We find our true selves as we take up our cross and follow him. It's the path of self-giving love, not self-preserving liberty.

But we are also raised with Christ, and we must now set our minds on things above. This does not mean that we disengage from the world in which we live and hope for a disembodied heaven to be our final home. It means, rather, that we mediate on the life of the true human who is now enthroned as the Lord of the world, for, as verse 4 says, he is our life.[4] And when he appears, right here on earth once more, then we will also “appear with him in glory.” We will be seen “in glory,” as we were always meant to be.

Put Off, Put On

It is in this context, then, that we come to verses 5-11. “Someone who truly understands who he or she is in Christ is further along the road to genuine holiness than someone who, in confusion, anxiously imagines that the new life is the result, rather than the starting-point, of the daily battle with temptation.”[5] You must come to verse 5 with verses 1-4 firmly rooted in your mind. This is who I already am in Christ. I am meditating on the true humanity, who has been seated as Lord of the world, so now, “Put to death what is earthly in you.”

The attempt to change ourselves apart from consistent meditation on who we are meant to be in Christ is doomed to fail. The ancient Greek philosophers were all about the pursuit of virtue, and the attempt to become truly human. We can learn a lot from them, but for philosophers like Aristotle, success in this project led to pride. Whereas for Christianity, success in this project could only end with a virtue that was never prized by the Greeks: humility. Just listen to this description of true humanity in verses 12-15.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing 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. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

This is what happens when we find our true selves in union with the true human being. When we pick up his cross, when we die and rise with him, this is what it begins to look like. If it doesn’t look like this, then we are not following the cross-shaped path of our Lord. We are following some other path in the pursuit of our true humanity.

The Body of Christ

These verses end on a practical note.

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. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col 3:16-17).

This kind of sounds like a worship gathering, doesn’t it? Indeed it does, for as verse 15 says, we “were called in one body.” And, oh, how we need this body!

Back in Colossians 2:17, Paul already told us about this body. There we are told that one of the reasons Christians are called to a different pursuit of glory is because the shadows of Old Testament prophecies have given way to the daylight of New Testament fulfillment, “the substance” which “belongs to Christ.” That word substance is the Greek word for body, and we might translate the verse this way: “These things are a shadow of that which is coming, that is, the body of Christ.”

This is what we need, a body, something outside of us, that can come into us and turn us into the human beings we were meant to be. Once we have that body, once we have the substance, we don’t need the shadows anymore.

The communion of saints, the church gathered in worship—where “Christ is all and in all” (3:11)—is called in Ephesians (1:22-23) the body of Christ. No wonder, then, that the Bible insists we will be unable to find our true selves by ourselves, separated from the body of Christ.

We need each other to help us find our true selves, to put off the old self and put on the true humanity, so that, as verse 17 says, “in whatever we do, in word or deed, we might do it all in the name of Jesus with thankfulness to God the Father through him.” It’s an ongoing project, to be sure, one which will take a lifetime. But slowly but surely, because of the body of Christ, we find our true selves as we grow into maturity together in Christ.

All of us are partners in this project, and we’ll talk more about that next week.


[1] N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 194.

[2] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 2nd ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018), 247.

[3] N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (InterVarsity Press, 1986), 124.

[4] Ibid., 136.

[5] Ibid.

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