Colossians 3:2 says, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things,” or, as the NET puts it, “Keep thinking about things above, not things on the earth.” To set one’s mind on something is to choose to think about it, influencing one’s goals and guiding one’s course of action. The first part of the chapter is worth quoting in full to give the proper context:
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:1–17).
Colossians was written by the apostle Paul to the church in the city of Colossae. The culture of Colossae was thoroughly pagan and immoral, as it was in most of the Roman world—and as it is in much of the world today. The Christians in Colossae, however, could no longer take their cues from the world around them. They had to take direction from “above.” Although physically in the world, they were not to believe the same things that the culture around them did. They were not to behave according to the standards of the culture around them. That would be taking their cues from “below.”
Paul describes the “below” culture in a number of words and concepts: anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language, lying. The “above” culture, in contrast, is characterized by compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, peace, singing, worship, and gratitude.
How are we to cultivate the values that are from above while living below? It takes a concentrated effort. We must “set our minds” to it. We are inundated with messages that promote the “below” behavior. If we listen to the radio, overhear conversations at work, read billboards, watch the news, read the newspaper, flip through a magazine at the doctor’s office, watch TV programs or movies, etc., we will be constantly directed to embrace values that are clearly from below. Even if the messages we receive are not overtly immoral, the perspective is one that excludes God and prioritizes things as though life on earth is all that matters—our happiness and fulfillment (the “right” to be happy) are top priority. If we want to be directed “from above,” we must make an effort to counteract the messages that are omnipresent in our culture. To set our minds on things above, we must read and meditate on Scripture, attend church, listen to uplifting music, and read things that turn our hearts toward God. This is a recurring theme in Scripture:
Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Matthew 6:19–20, 33: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
1 Timothy 6:17: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
Following his contrast of things below and things above in Colossians 3, Paul goes on to give a list of standards for Christian behavior that make absolutely no sense in today’s culture. Everything about the individualist, self-centered priorities that have high value today run counter to the type of restraint and sacrifice that Paul enjoins in verses 18–22:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”
The only way that a person can live according to the above dictates is if he or she is taking directions from somewhere other than the secular culture. Thinking on “things above” (the truths of God’s Word) not only guides us in what we should do but gives the reasons we should do it (grace, our position in Christ, our eternal reward, etc.). As we believe the truth “from above” more than the lies “from below,” we will start to act like creatures born from above, who have been raised with Christ (Colossians 3:1) and seated with Him at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 2:6).