What are "things above"?

When Paul exhorts the church in Colossae to "set your minds on things above" is he being an escapist (see Colossians 3)? A naive paternalist detached from the toil and struggle of this life? A Gnostic dualist dividing sacred and secular, spiritual and material? Just focus on going to heaven!

What are the "things above" of which Paul writes? Are we to look up, literally, toward some place in the sky where Christ lives? He ascended upwards, right?

The ancient cosmology of the Hebrew imagination viewed the world as sort of a giant snow globe, with the earth as a flat place set upon pillars. Underneath the ground we find Sheol and up in the sky we find the layers of heaven, the closest heaven being the very air we breath and the furthest layer of heaven being the dwelling place of Yahweh Elohim. 

Courtesy: John Walton

But we see in the Story of God a meeting of heaven and earth

Eden was the first temple, a God-space where heaven and earth met in "very good" state of shalom. God's space shows up when Abraham sees the flaming pot of God's presence pass through the carcasses of animal sacrifices. God's space shows up in the burning bush and the very ground where Moses was standing. God's space intersects earth on Mount Sinai (or Horeb) with Moses and the reception of the torah. Heaven comes to earth in the first tabernacle. God's space shows up in the pillar of fire and cloud which led the Israelites through the wilderness. God's space comes to earth in the first temple in Jerusalem. Heaven comes to earth as Elijah is swept away in a fiery chariot. The Biblical narrative has a plot of heaven coming to earth, with "temple" imagery and language coloring the scrolls of Scripture with vibrant hues. 

It's quite remarkable and something which I was totally oblivious to as a child. I thought heaven was "up" (those in the Southern hemisphere lose out, I guess, because they are just further from heaven!), a place with sort of an other-worldly zip code. The goal was to "go to heaven when you die." That's why Jesus came and died on the cross, right? So that I could go to heaven when I die? 

But that's not the Biblical story. 

That's not the whole gospel. That's not the apocalyptic revelation of John the Revelator, the final testament of the Hebrew & Christian scriptures. 

"And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them" (Revelation 21:3)

So, when we read in Paul's letter that we are to fix our gaze, our attention, our thoughts, our mind upon "things above" - what does he mean? 

Well, certainly, he does mean that there is a concrete reality that Jesus the Messiah is alive and he is seated as King over the cosmos. So, to put our attention there, firmly with Christ, that is the Christian hope. We don't have to fear any earthly or demonic "power". We can see that the distorted lovely things that satan twists and to which our rebellious hearts attach, the wool has been pulled back from our eyes. We can see that Christ is our life. He is the true and better Adam. He is reigning and ruling with total authority over all powers seen and unseen. (And we reign now with him, Paul tells us, don't forget!) He's conquered every enemy, including death. For those who have given their allegiance to him and consider themselves as his apprentices on this earth, he promises to return and establish his garden-city of justice, mercy and peace upon a renewed earth where sin, death and satan no longer cripple our imago Dei humanity. 

So, for those "in Christ" (i.e. those liberated from the kingdom of darkness, and now experiencing adoption as Abba's child with a promised inheritance to come), our desires and attention and habits are fixed upon "things above" - that is things that are not wrapped up in our "earthly nature". We have new eyes to see that those old ways are tantamount to drinking water from a poisoned well. We have a new life now and the Helper from God (i.e. Holy Spirit) is here helping us to live consistent with our new reality as heavenly temples - a God-space on the earth where heaven is crashing into reality all around us. We are hosts of heaven, both individually and corporately (though, it seems Paul's emphasis is much more on the latter, given his Hebrew, collectivist worldview compared to our modern, Enlightenment-tainted individualist anthropology). 

So, to return to "things above", I imagine Paul would want us to see that the lovely things God has created (true, good, beautiful things on this good earth such as our own bodies, literature, science, or wine) are not the ultimate things. We have rebellious hearts and a real enemy and worldly anti-God system all around us who seek to turn our gaze away joyful allegiance to Christ and toward mammon (the god-like powers of greed, material wealth and earthly treasures), manipulative speech or self-seeking sexuality. 

"Things above" would include the things found just few sentences later in Paul's epistle: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, forbearance, forgiveness, peace, gratitude and songs, poems and words of praise directed toward our victorious King whose kingdom of light dawns upon us. 

"Things above" is never mean to lead us to escapism or dualism. It is always meant to lead us into the life of the Triune God who dwells with us now by his Holy Spirit and into the life of our Bridegroom, King Jesus, who will return to this earth in majesty to dwell with his Bride. It is always meant to lead us into love for the Bride - the church, the ekklesia, the called-out ones, the holy ones, the saints, the disciples, the apprentices of King Jesus. It is always meant to direct our attention to "be the church for others" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). 

Christ Jesus did not go to the cross so that we could walk around the earth as a holy huddle ignoring the pain and injustices around us while our noses are glued in our Bibles and minds are bound up in a future "above" heaven. The incarnation of Christ affirms this life, this humanity, these earthly days, even as we groan and struggle and join him in his continued assault against the kingdom of darkness until the "whole earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD." (Habakkuk 2:14) He died to conquer this present age and liberate us so we can join him now in his kingdom coming to earth as it is in heaven (where his reign and rule is totally accomplished). This is much bigger, more robust, more beautiful, more true and more comprehensive than just the individualist narrative of going to heaven when I die (though, the gospel of the kingdom does certainly encompass the grand hope of joining God in paradise after this present body "dies", but in actually the Biblical future hope is moreso about "life after life after death"!) This vision of what Jesus did on the cross and in the resurrection and in the ascension scares the enemy of God.

We do look forward, though, with our secure hope in our victorious King Jesus who will return to the earth and we appropriately long for the day when we will dwell with him. Until then, we labor as heaven's ambassadors.


(These are musings of a not-there-yet apprentice of Jesus. I don't claim to have all the answers, nor have I arrived. I'm hopefully learning as I write and express my convictions and always welcome comments and questions.)


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