As we continue in our study of the book of Colossians this morning, we’re going to have an opportunity to consider both the person and work of Jesus Christ—who he is and what he has done. Having looked at who the Colossians are last week—how these believers came to faith and how their lives—their trust in Christ and love for all of God’s people—exhibits that faith, we’re going to consider in more detail the source and object of our faith, Jesus Christ, the Son of our heavenly Father.
Now our faith is a mysterious one, isn’t it, for we are called to have faith in a God whom we cannot see. As John tells us in John 4:24: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” If “spirit” refers to the non–physical, the problem for we who are physical is how can we worship a spirit we do not see or know? How can we know God if he is spirit? How do we express reverence or adoration or devotion to a God we cannot see?
This morning’s passage makes me feel grateful—not for the first time—that I was born after the time of Christ’s incarnation. Though God certainly did make himself known to his image bearers from the time of Adam and Eve and following, this appears to have happened by means of theophanies or visible manifestations of God—sometimes by means of speech, sometimes by visions, sometimes by angels, once by a burning bush, and once even by Balaam’s ass, among other partial, albeit adequate, means of self-disclosure.
Yet in the fullness of time, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, God makes himself fully known in the fullness of Jesus Christ, his Son. As we noted last week, when Philip asks Jesus in John 14 “8 Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answers him, “9 Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” This morning’s passage reminds us of this profound truth: If we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father; if we have seen Jesus, we have seen God. And it’s important to notice the language Paul uses. Unlike what I’ve been doing, in Colossians 1 Paul doesn’t refer to Jesus, but to the Son and to Christ. I remember years ago having my dissertation advisor correct some writing I had done in which I was using “Jesus” and “Christ” interchangeably. He pointed out that Jesus refers to the man we see portrayed in the Gospels but it takes faith to proclaim Jesus is Christ. This is an important reminder especially as we study the words of the apostle Paul. It’s easy for us to assume that the name “Jesus Christ” is like the name “Laura Quay” or “Jinsook Kim” or “Ed Orth.” But it isn’t. To say “Jesus Christ” is to say “Jesus is the Christ—the Messiah.” “Jesus is God in the flesh.” So “Christ” is God and as God, he has existed for all eternity. But when this eternal God took on human form, he took on this form in the person of Jesus who, from the womb, was fully and completely God and from the womb was fully and completely human.
Paul is highlighting this truth in vv. 15–20—that Jesus Christ wasn’t an ordinary man but was in fact the Son of God incarnate. And some believe that in these verses Paul uses an early Christian hymn to counteract some of the false teaching taking place at Colossae. Regardless Paul begins by noting that what the Old Testament states about who God is, is also true about his Son—and then some. The “then some” is that in Jesus Christ, we have (verse 15) the image of the invisible God. Though Genesis 1:26 tells us that God has made us in his image, here we learn that the Son is the image of God; the Son is the visible representation of the invisible God—the physical manifestation of the spiritual God—he is none other than God in the flesh, God in human form. So though John is correct in stating that God is Spirit, in Jesus Christ we not only have God in Spirit who has ever existed, but also God in the flesh—God whom we can hear with our ears—and see with our eyes—and touch with our hands as John states in I John 1:1–3.
But what does it mean when Paul states that the Son is “the firstborn over all creation”? Well, in one sense Christ is God’s “firstborn” in that he is God’s “only–born.” Christ is and ever has been the Son from all eternity. Some of the early church creeds try to capture this mystery by stating he is “eternally begotten of the Father”—in other words, Christ’s identity is that he is eternally the Son, even as the Father’s identity is that he is eternally the Father, and the Holy Spirit is eternally the Spirit—one God in three persons. So part of what is being disclosed here is that the Son has been the Son for all eternity.
Now Paul isn’t using “firstborn” in the sense we might understand it—the first child born to parents. What he is further pointing out is that Christ is firstborn in the sense of having all of the rights and privileges of the firstborn son of a monarch. Christ is Son and he is King and he is ruler of all. After stating that the Son is the firstborn over all creation, in verse 16 Paul says “For”—in other words he is firstborn in the sense that “in him all things were created” and verse 17 he is firstborn in that “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” and verse 18 he is firstborn in that “he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead.” In other words, “firstborn” here means that everything that exists, exists because of Christ and everything that exists, exists for Christ. As H.H. Bruce has noted (Commentary on Colossians), Christ is prior to all creation and, as firstborn of God, he is heir to all creation. In other words, Christ is firstborn in that as God, the eternal Son exhibits all of the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of God himself.
Let’s consider each of these. The Son is firstborn because “in him all things were created” (verse 16) starting with “things in heaven and on earth.” Now when we think of “all things” we tend to focus on the earthly, on the things that we can see and hear and touch. In other words we tend to limit ourselves to the world of senses. But as we saw last week, one way that Scripture is able to deepen our understanding is by expanding our understanding of reality. We should see a connection between us as having been made in God’s image and the Son as being the image of God for to be made in the image of God means that we are more than merely physical beings; we are also spiritual beings who have been made by God to understand spiritual realities—who have been made by God with a capacity to know, love, and have faith in him who is Spirit.
The “all things” in verse 16 includes more than the earthly realm; it is also the heavenly realm. “All things” is more than just the visible, it is also the invisible—“whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” all things have been created through him and for him. The foursome noted here—thrones, powers, rulers, and authorities—reflect common Jewish terminology for various rankings of angels, of spiritual beings. So the point being brought home here is that the Lord God—the Lord Christ— made everything there is. He is, as John Stott has observed, not only the God of nature, but also the God of “super-nature”; he is God not only of the natural realm, but also of the supernatural realm. There is nothing in this world that has created itself. Everything that exists has its source, its origin, its beginning in God; Everything that exists has its source, its origin, its beginning in Christ the Son.
But the whole of the created order has not only been created through him but also for him. So not only is nothing that exists self-created, nothing that exists exists for itself—not the sun, not the moon, not the stars, not the flowers, not the trees, not the animals, not even us. All of it exists at his pleasure; all of it—all of us—exists because of him; All of it—all of us—exists for him. Have you ever been out on a walk and happen upon a tiny flower that is so beautiful and delicate, you feel grateful for having seen it? And have you ever wondered as you were enjoying its beauty, “What if I hadn’t come by here today? There would have been nobody to enjoy such beauty. No one would have ever known the existence of this little flower.” Well, that isn’t quite true. I’m certain that there are thousands of flowers—and birds—and animals—and underwater sea creatures—and stars—and galaxies that no one—despite our many advances in exploring the heavens and earth and even, most recently, that much debated pseudo-planet Pluto—has ever seen nor will they ever see—and yet God sees them. All that exists exists for him, for the Son. It all exists at his pleasure and for his pleasure. Remember that beginning in Genesis we are told that when God finished creating this world, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31). And Paul is connecting this God in Genesis with the Son—with Christ himself, through whom and for him all things were created.
This beautiful hymn reflecting upon God’s Son goes on to note in verse 17 that Christ is before all things and in him all things hold together. In other words not only has God in Christ created all things but he also sustains everything that he has created. The God who reveals himself—who discloses himself—in Scripture isn’t like the god of the deists who creates a self-sustaining world and leaves it to run on its own, like a clockmaker creating a clock. The God who has given us his Word and himself, remains involved in the world he has created. If he were to withdraw his presence for even a millisecond, everything that exists would cease to exist for in the Son, all things hold together.
But the Son is not only the Creator of all things visible and invisible; he is not only the Creator and Sustainer of nature and supernature. In verse 18 we see that we—the church—are a part of that creation. Christ is the head of the body, the church. I remember serving on a panel discussion once and hearing a fellow panelist refer to the church as human institution much like any other institution—whether Microsoft or a college or a homeless shelter. But Scripture tells us the church is an institution like no other. The parallel to the church’s existence isn’t Microsoft but Abraham. Had God not singled out Abraham and determined to make a nation out of him and his seed, there would be no people of Israel in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, Israel exists because God created this nation, this people, for himself. And so it is with the church. Though the church is populated by people, it exists because of God; it exists by and for Christ; it is both a natural and supernatural entity. And as the body of Christ, the church is now the instrument God uses to carry on his work on earth. As Christ’s body, we are to love and care for those around us even as Christ did when he was on earth for he is still our head and we are called to follow our head and live as he lived, both individually and corporately.
Another way of thinking about this is that apart from Christ, there is no Christian. Apart from Christ, there is not church. Christ is the head, he is the beginning of the church. When he rose from the dead he did so as one who is firstborn so that in everything he might have the supremacy. In other words Jesus Christ is Lord over everything in authority and power and status. And the reason for such supremacy, as Paul continues to highlight, is that the fullness of God dwells in him, verse 19, because he is God. This is why Jesus can say to Phillip that to see him is to see God.
Brothers and sisters, are we aware that when we gather each week, Christ is in our midst because he is the head of this body—because he is the head of this—and every—church? Are we really aware that as God’s body, his church, his temple—God in Christ is present with us each week—right now—by his Holy Spirit’s presence? In Christ, God was pleased to have his fullness dwell and in Christ’s church, God is pleased to have his Spirit dwell that we might have fellowship—this very moment—with our heavenly Father and with one another.
Verse 20 goes on to tell us that not only was God pleased to have his fullness dwell in the Son but also that through him he was pleased to reconcile all things to himself. For those of us who know Christ and his Word, we understand why it was necessary for God to reconcile all things to himself—why it was necessary for God to restore friendly relations between us and him. Returning to Genesis, when God created our first parents, Adam and Eve, he created them with the ability to experience fellowship with him, and with each other, and with the created order. But when Adam and Eve chose to follow the serpent’s—to follow Satan’s—temptation, they chose friendly relations with God’s enemy over friendly relations with God. And when they made this decision, everything changed. They went from seeing God as a friend to seeing him as an enemy as they feared him and hid from him; they went from seeing each other, to use Adam’s words about Eve, as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” to blaming one another and the serpent for their succumbing to temptation; they went from having the whole of the garden of Eden to lovingly enjoy and care for to seeing the ground cursed and producing thorns and thistles. This is why humans are in need of God’s reconciliation—of his restoring the once friendly relations that existed—and only God in the flesh, was able to make peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Because the judgment was due to a man’s disobedience, a man had to make it right; but because the trespass was against the eternal God, only one who was God could forgive man and bring about the needed reconciliation. So in the eternal Son taking on human form in Jesus Christ, we have the example of what God always intended for his image-bearers—that we turn to him at all times and follow his ways; and because the Son was also Christ—was also God—his death on the cross is sufficient to cover all of our sins and appease God’s wrath. For, as we studied a few weeks ago, without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. This is how serious sin is—this is how serious turning to our ways rather than God’s ways is. Sin requires blood to make things right. The sacrifice of animals in the Old Testament was temporary; the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is final. It is once and for all.
Paul highlights this reality in verse 21 that—once we were alienated from God—we were enemies in our minds because of our evil behavior. But now—verse 22—God has reconciled us by Christ’s physical body through death to present us holy in his sight. Isn’t this the whole point in conversion—of coming to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ? That we might go from being enemies of God to being friends of God? That we might go from behaving in ways that are harmful to us to ways that fulfill the holiness God intended for us from the beginning? Coming to faith in Christ is about understanding that because of the Fall, from the time we are born, we are born as God’s enemies in the sense that we are actively opposed to his ways and standards and, like Adam and Eve when they were tempted by the serpent in the Garden, we question the truth of his Word and we question the truth about who he is, his goodness. It’s in this sense that Paul is able to observe that once the Colossians—and we—“ were alienated from God and were enemies in [our] minds because of” or another translation is “as shown by” your evil behavior. In other words to be God’s enemies is to live according to what we think is right rather than what God states is right.
And the purpose of reconciliation with God is to restore us to the holy state from which we fell—to make us without blemish and free from accusation. This is possible because of the Son’s obedience—because of Christ’s obedience—so that if we have placed our trust in him as the Colossians have, when God looks at us he sees not our obedience, not our holiness, but that of Jesus Christ, his Son. He is the lamb without blemish; He is the one who is free from accusation; He is the one who has taken on our sin and become a curse on our behalf; and He is the one who, in exchanged for taking our sin, gives us his righteousness that we—individually and corporately—might be holy and without blemish and free from accusation even as he is. This is why we can be here this morning worshipping our holy God and Father.
But, as we continue to see in Scripture, it isn’t enough to say our trust is in Christ. The evidence or our belonging to him is to be evidenced in how we live, verse 23—we are to continue in our faith, established and firm, and not move from the hope held out in the gospel. If we say we are Christians, if we say we have faith in who Christ is, this should be evidenced not only when things are going the way we would like them to, but also—and especially—when they are not. It is easy to trust Christ when we are feeling well—and have enough food to eat—and have a place to live—and have clothes to wear—and have people to love. But do we trust in him when we don’t have these things? Paul admonishes us not to move from the hope the gospel holds even when our world seems to be unraveling before our eyes.
Another way of saying this is that coming to faith in Christ enables us to understand God’s Providence—his spiritual care over us in all circumstances. Even if we suffer; even if we struggle with depression; even if we are lonely; even if we feel as though no one understands us or what we are going through; even if we struggle financially; even if our children—or friends—or spouses—aren’t perfect; even if we feel we aren’t very good, God loves us and cares for us.
Coming to know Christ, God’s Son, as Savior and Lord means that we go from spiritual darkness to spiritual light; from spiritual blindness to spiritual sight. The difference between someone who is a Christian and someone who isn’t is that Christians are enabled, by God’s indwelling Spirit, to view and understand our lives through the eyes of Providence, through the eyes of knowing that come what may, we can be confident of God’s love and care over us. Even when we mess us. Even when accusations made against us may be true, if we turn to him, he promises to give us his righteousness. God will never leave us or forsake—he will never give up on us. He has both given us his righteousness and he has promised to make us righteous even as he is by his indwelling Spirit. This is the gospel that we have heard—and which has been proclaimed—and of which Paul himself became a servant.
Brothers and sisters, please pray with me.