Was the Apostle Paul a Gnostic?2
That may strike you as a silly question, but some have honestly wondered in view of what the apostle says in Colossians 3:1-4. There he exhorts the believer to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above,” said Paul, “not on things that are on earth.”
Is there in Paul's perspective and language an encouragement to Christians that they ignore social injustice today in anticipation of the vindication of righteousness in the age to come? Is Paul suggesting that we carelessly exploit the environment now, knowing that we shall one day live in the pristine glory of a New Heavens and New Earth? The answer to these and related questions that reflect a metaphysical dualism between spirit and matter, between heaven and earth, is a resounding NO!
The terms used by Paul (“above” and “on the earth”) are not spatially literal but point to two opposing ethical realms, indeed two antithetical world systems (with corresponding antithetical worldviews). In saying Christ and God are “above” does not mean they are absent from the earth or uninvolved with what happens in the world in which we live. Far less is our heavenly Father unconcerned with this cosmos, given the fact that his purpose is to redeem it and deliver it from the curse (see Romans 8:18ff.). (Don't ever forget that we will live on a redeemed, new EARTH for all eternity!)
To seek and think about “things above” does not mean we are to ignore and neglect the daily affairs and responsibilities of life in the here and now. Rather, Paul is using directional categories to make a qualitative distinction. The contrast between “below” (or “on the earth”) and “above” corresponds to the distinction between the present age that is in rebellion against God and the age to come in which the Lordship of Christ will be fully and finally manifest.
Thus the distinction is not only ethical, it is eschatological. We are to live, says Paul, knowing that the future kingdom has invaded the present. It has been inaugurated through the work of Christ. We live as energized by the powers of the future, even though we still exist in the present. We are to be governed by the principles and values of the reign of God (“things above”), not the dominion of the devil.
Don't think for a moment that Paul is endorsing the view that the world “above” is the truly spiritual and pure one whereas nothing in this life is worth working to redeem or preserve. Salvation is not the release of the spirit from the prison of our physical bodies so that we can live unsullied and unsoiled, soaring in some ethereal realm of a distant eternity. He means that the power and principles of the age to come are to energize us now so that we can influence the earth with the truths and values of heaven.
Paul is not suggesting that we should be careless or indifferent towards the earth or our responsibilities in society. In saying that we should neither seek nor set our minds on “things on the earth” he is not suggesting that we refuse to mow the grass or take out the garbage or play with our kids or be punctual in our appointments. He is denouncing a carnal mindset, a perspective that is fixated on this world system to the exclusion of the kingdom of God.
Some hyper-spiritual people would have you believe that a day meditating on a hillside is inherently more pleasing to God than one in which you faithfully fulfill the terms of your contract with an employer in providing him/her with an effort deserving of the wage you are being paid. Those who fail to observe minimal standards of common courtesy, neglect their appearance, and refuse to devote time and energy to cultivating healthy interpersonal relationships, all in the name of being devoted to God, have fallen into an unbiblical dualism.
In other words, when Paul refers to “things below” or “things on the earth” he has in mind that worldly system under the dominion of Satan, those values and goals and principles that conflict with the revelation of God in Scripture. “Things on the earth” are whatever is driven by pride, greed, lust, and disregard for the glory of God. “Things above,” on the other hand, are whatever reflects the beauty of Christ, whether that be the changing of a diaper, sharing a meal with friends, or celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
But what about Paul's description of Jesus as seated at the right hand of the Father? Doesn't that imply that he is remote and far removed from the circumstances of life on this globe? No! To be seated at the right hand was a common way among both Jews and Gentiles of declaring that someone has been granted the highest honor and favor. It is a description of unrivaled privilege and exaltation, not geographical distance. Paul is emphasizing the supremacy and lordship of Christ, not his withdrawal from earthly affairs. The apostle in no way intends to suggest that our Lord is spiritually absent from the earth or unconcerned about its plight and problems.
In speaking of the “things on the earth” he doesn't mean substance, as over against spirit. After all, jealousy, hatred, and lust are immaterial but most assuredly evil, while our bodies, the stars above, and food are material but most assuredly good. Neither does he mean heaven, as a place, over against earth. This isn't a way of referring to the world as a physical reality but to the world as a system of thought and immoral energy. The “things below” are the selfish, fleshly principles that animate this life as it languishes under the influence of “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4; cf. 1 John 5:19). These lowly, earthbound things run counter to the kingdom of God, whether they be vain philosophies or human endeavors driven by pride and ambition rather than the glory of God.
Our focus on the “things above” is Paul's way of emphasizing our love for the truths of God's kingdom, our devotion to the principles of Christ's lordship, our affirmation and submission to the eternal values that will characterize life in the New Heavens and New Earth.
The real life of the Christian, the true life in the Spirit is not something we live out in some distant realm, detached from and unconnected with the dirt and sweat and frustrations of trying to cope with other fallen folk and our own obligations to them (however onerous they may be). The real, true, spiritual life of the Christian is right here, right now, empowered by the exalted Christ with whom we are forever identified.