“Preeminent in Everything”
June 20, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We continue, this morning, in our series on Paul’s letter to the Colossians, as we come to Colossians 1:15-20.
Please listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Let your saving hand be close to us,
for we have bound ourselves to your precepts.
We long for your salvation, Lord,
because your law is our delight.
Give our souls life, that we might praise you,
and help us now through your word.
We have each gone astray like lost sheep.
As we come to your word now, we ask you to seek us.
For we have not forgotten your word to us.
Grant this, we ask, in Jesus’s name. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:173-176]
These six verses, that we will be considering this morning, are, as one commentator puts it: “generally, and rightly, reckoned among the most important Christological passages in the New Testament.” [Wright, Colossians, 67]
Here, in just a few verses, the Apostle Paul gives us a deep and profound series of statements about who Jesus Christ is.
Central to our text is Christ’s preeminence, as Paul says in verse eighteen, in “everything.”
Broadly speaking Paul’s statements about Christ’s preeminence fall into two main categories: Christ is preeminent in creation, and Christ is preeminent in the work of recreation.
Within each of those two main categories, he gives at least three places where we see Christ’s preeminence. And so this morning we will first consider three ways that Christ is preeminent in creation, and then three ways in which Christ is preeminent in recreation.
Preeminent in Creation: The Spiritual Realm
So we begin by considering Christ’s preeminence in creation. And we see that in three different realms. And the first is the spiritual realm.
That is most powerfully captured in verse nineteen: “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
Now, if you’re a Christian you might kind of shrug your shoulders at this and say that you already believe this. But let me challenge you that maybe you don’t believe this as fully as you should. Let me challenge you that rather than letting Christ be preeminent in how you understand God and the spiritual realm, you may actually have a tendency to begin with your own assumptions about what God is like, and then fit Jesus into those assumptions, rather than letting him truly be preeminent in your understanding of who God really is.
That might seem like a fine distinction, but one theologian helps us better see the deep significance of it. This is kind of a long quote, and I shared it a couple years ago … but I think it’s worth coming back to.
N.T. Wright says this – he writes:
“A couple of years ago I was part of a panel discussion in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. The interviewer tossed me the question: ‘Was Jesus God?’ That’s one of those trick questions that you can’t answer straight on. It assumes that we all know what ‘God’ means, and we’re simply asking if Jesus is somehow identified with this ‘God’. What we should say, instead, is: ‘It all depends what you mean by “God”.’ Well, what do people mean?
“When people say ‘God’ today (apart from using the word as a casual expletive) they are usually referring to a hypothetical Being who lives at some distance from the world, detached from normal life. This Being may occasionally intervene, but for the most part stays aloof, watchful, vaguely disapproving.
“Now if that’s the sort of ‘God’ you hold – and in my experience it’s pretty common – then of course to ask ‘Is Jesus God?’ is laughable. Jesus was a full-blooded human being. As Wilson is fond of pointing out, Jesus had a reputation for being a party-goer, a drinker. The sort of company he kept made reputable people – including his own family – look down their noses with disapproval. It’s ridiculous to think of Jesus as being ‘God’ in that high-and-dry sense, detached and disapproving. (If you want to see what such a Jesus might look like, the B-grade biblical movies of a few years ago will provide plenty of examples, with their dreary, dreamy Jesus-figures, who made lofty pronouncements and stared into the middle distance as though scanning the skies for angels.)”
So, Wright points out, Jesus, as he’s described in the Gospels, doesn’t look much like the detached images of God we often come up with in our heads.
But what if we turned the way we approach the question around? What if we don’t try to fit Jesus into our assumptions about God, but what if we re-order our understanding of who God is based on Jesus? What if we make Christ preeminent in our understanding of God?
With something like that in mind, Wright continues – he writes: “This is the really scary thing that [some] writers […] never come to grips with; not that Jesus might be identified with a remote, lofty, imaginary being (any fool could see the flaw in that idea), but that God, the real God, the one true God, might actually look like Jesus. And not a droopy, pre-Raphaelite Jesus, either, but a shrewd Palestinian Jewish villager who drank wine with his friends, agonized over the plight of his people, taught in strange stories and pungent aphorisms, and was executed by the occupying forces. What does that do to Christian belief?
“The Christian doctrine of the incarnation was never intended to be about the elevation of a human being to divine status. That’s what, according to some Romans, happened to the emperors after they died, or even before. The Christian doctrine is all about a different sort of God – A God who was so different to normal expectations that he could, completely appropriately, become human in, and as, the man Jesus of Nazareth. To say that Jesus is in some sense God is of course to make a startling statement about Jesus. It is also to make a stupendous claim about God.” [Wright, Who Was Jesus, 51-52]
To say that Jesus is preeminent in the spiritual realm – that he is preeminent in how we understand God, is “to make a stupendous claim about God.” And that is the claim that Paul makes here, and that the Bible makes as a whole.
But is that the claim that shapes your thinking? What tends to be your starting point for how you think of God and the spiritual realm? And even if you are a Christian – maybe especially if you are a Christian – do you see ways that you tend to project your own assumptions onto God, and then try to adjust Jesus to fit with your ideas of God?
Paul tells us instead that Christ is preeminent in the spiritual realm, for in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and so if we want to see what God is like, we need to look to Jesus before we look anywhere else.
How do you need to do that? How do you need to look to Jesus first and foremost to rightly see spiritual reality – to rightly see even God himself?
That is the first point in our text: that Christ is preeminent in the spiritual realm. That is the first realm of creation for us to consider.
Preeminent in Creation: The Human Realm
The next realm for us to consider is the human realm.
Christ may be preeminent in the spiritual realm. But what about the human realm?
But before we even answer that question, we might ask: What, in practice, do we really treat as preeminent in the human realm? Where do we look to understand what it truly means to be human?
In the past many cultures held up certain ideals that people looked to as preeminent pictures of a human life well-lived. And, indeed, we still do that in some ways. We might not agree broadly as a culture about who those heroes are, but each subculture has its heroes that it holds up as preeminent.
But though that is common, it is, arguably, not the strongest pattern in our culture on where we look to find what we should be as human beings.
Charles Taylor, in his short book The Ethic of Authenticity points to a different pattern. He calls it “the individualism of self-fulfillment,” in which “people are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment.” [Taylor, 14]
Many, Taylor explains, have viewed this focus on the self as a form of “narcissism,” “hedonism,” “moral laxism,” or “self-indulgence,” which is different from the “tougher” more demanding perspectives of earlier ages. But, Taylor says, that’s not really the best way to view this focus on the self. [Taylor, 16]
“Talk of ‘permissiveness’ misses the point.” he writes. “Moral laxity there is, and our age is not alone in this. What we need to explain is what is peculiar to our time. It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it. Thus what gets lost in this critique is the moral force of” this focus on the self and on authenticity. [Taylor, 16-17]
Taylor’s point is that most people in our culture don’t view being true to yourself as a permissible indulgence – they view it as a moral imperative, as something the must do … so much so that many groups judge individuals who they see as living in a way that denies who they really are inside, and individuals will struggle with serious guilt over the question of whether they are being true to themselves.
This is the “ethic of authenticity” – the ethic of expressive individualism. In this view, often taken for granted in our culture, we don’t just indulge our inner desires, but we feel it is out moral obligation to look inside, to find what we consider to be our true selves, and to then live according to that – according to what we find in our hearts.
In other words, when it comes to what it means for us to be human, it is our internal self – what we find inside – that we regard as preeminent.
This secular assumption today actually has Christian origins. It began in some ways, Taylor points out, with Saint Augustine. Augustine focused on the reality that because we are made in God’s image, we can learn of God by looking inside. [Taylor, 26; Augustine, Confessions, VI,1,1]
But our modern concept of expressive individualism has taken several turns since Augustine. For Augustine knew that as we looked inside, we not only found the image of God, but we found the ways we fall short of the God whose image we bear.
But when Augustine’s inward turn was taken up by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, a few serious changes were made. First, the doctrine of the fall – the belief that God’s image in us had been marred by the rebellion of humanity, begun in our first parents and continued in our own hearts and lives – that doctrine was cast aside.
But along with that, the Enlightenment thinkers put aside the Bible’s teaching that God had left us with just a marred image in ourselves. He had also given us the perfect image – the perfect image of who he is and who we are called to be – in Jesus Christ.
Because, as Paul writes in verse fifteen, Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God.” And we need to be careful that we don’t miss Paul’s point.
Paul is not just saying again that Jesus is God. He said that in verse nineteen. But in verse fifteen he says that Jesus is the “image” of God.
And with that he points us back to Genesis chapter one, as God was preparing to make humanity, and he said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” And a few verses later we read: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Humanity was made in God’s image. But in our rebellion, we marred that image. But then, Jesus Christ came. And, Paul says, “He is the image of the invisible God.” He bears God’s image perfectly. He bears God’s image without distortion. Which mean that he is what humanity was meant to be – he lives in perfect love for God and perfect love for those around him, he walks in righteousness and holiness, he faithfully and truly is what we were meant to be.
And so he is preeminent not just over heaven, but he is also preeminent over humanity. Because he shows us what it means to be truly human.
We do bear the image of God in our hearts. But our hearts are also twisted by sin. And so, in many ways, when we look inward, what we find is a labyrinth which we cannot navigate alone.
But God has not left us alone. He has given us Christ. And in Christ, who is preeminent over humanity, we see humanity as it was meant to be.
Where do you look for a guide? What do you treat, functionally, as the highest and best guide for the kind of person you should be? What do you treat as preeminent picture of humanity?
Is it someone in the world that you look up to? Is it your own heart and what you find there? Be honest with yourself – more often than not, where do you look?
Paul here calls us to look to Jesus Christ. For he is the perfect image of God. He shows us what we are meant to be as human beings. For in his perfection he is preeminent over the human race. How do you need to look more to him when you consider the kind of person you should seek to be? How do you need to better acknowledge his preeminence over all humanity – including your own?
That is the second thing Paul calls us to here.
So Jesus Christ is preeminent in the spiritual realm. Christ is preeminent in the human realm.
Preeminent in Creation: The Earthly Realm
The third way that Jesus Christ is preeminent in creation is that he is preeminent in the earthly realm.
Christ is preeminent in the world we see around us – the world in which we live.
The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck explains it like this – he writes:
“Creation itself is an act of revelation, the beginning and first principle of all later revelation. […] Every work testifies to its maker […] every creature manifests something of God’s excellencies and perfections. […]
“Moreover, Scripture teaches not only that at the beginning God called the world into being, but also that this world is continuously, from moment to moment, sustained and governed by that same God. He is infinitely exalted above the world not only, but He also dwells in all His creatures in His almighty and omnipresent power. He is not far from every one of us, for in Him we live, and move, and have our being. The revelation which comes to us from the world, therefore, is not merely a reminder of a work of God which He accomplished long ago: it is a testimony also to what God now, in these our times, wills and does.” [Bavinck, 22-23]
God is preeminent in creation because God has made it and so it reveals something about him, and because God every moment sustains it, and so he is always close to this world he has made. But the God who is revealed by creation and present with creation is not a vague deist or ontological concept of God. It is Jesus Christ himself.
For it is by Jesus, Paul tells us in verse sixteen that “all things were created, in heaven and on earth.” He, we read in verse fifteen, is “the firstborn of all creation,” meaning not that he was made but that he holds “supreme rank” over all creation. [Wright, Colossians, 75]
But he not only outranks all that is created, but we read in verse sixteen that “all things were created through him and for him.” And that is a shocking statement.
It was through Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, that all things were made. But not only that. All things were also made “for him.”
And we read in verse seventeen, that even now “all things hold together” “in him.” As the author of Hebrews puts it, “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” [1:3]
Jesus is preeminent in creation: it was made by him, it was made for him, and it is sustained by his power from moment to moment.
But is that really how we treat the physical creation?
I’d say more often than not, it isn’t. Instead, we often treat the physical world as a mostly independent thing that exists for its own sake. And as, an independent thing, we either exalt it higher than we should, or we denigrate it lower than we should.
We either take the beauty of nature – so apparent here in the Pacific Northwest – and we treat the creation as supreme unto itself. Or, to guard against that error, we treat the created world as distant from God, disposable and unimportant.
But both of these tendencies – as different as they are – fail to treat Christ as preeminent in creation.
Think about some of the elements of the earthly, physical realm. Think about its big aspects, like a view of Puget Sound with the sun sparkling on the water, or a view of Mount Rainier on a clear day. Or think about something small and mundane: the rocks in your backyard, the hedges by your house, the spiders’ webs in your garage. Think of something close to you: the taste of an apple, the smell of something cooking, the feel of grass under your feet. Each of those things, and more, exist because Jesus Christ made it. He came up with the idea of it, and then he created it – he called it into existence. But not only that – it exists not only because he acted in the distant past … but each piece of the physical world continues to exist each moment because Jesus actively holds it together – he upholds it by the word of his power. And so, Jesus Christ is intimately involved with the ongoing existence of every physical thing in this world, whether the strange creatures at the bottom of the sea, the galaxies that can only be seen with the most powerful telescopes, or the wood of the pew that you are leaning against right now. Jesus is active in it. It continues to exist because he wants it to.
It was made by him. It continues through him. But not only that – it exists “for him” as we read at the end of verse sixteen. It exists because he likes it. He delights in it. Jesus delights in this physical creation – and it exists, ultimately, for him. Jesus Christ is both preeminent and intimately involved with the physical world around us.
And so the third way that Christ is preeminent in creation is that he is preeminent in the earthly realm.
So Jesus Christ is preeminent in the heavenly realm, he is preeminent in the human realm, and he is preeminent in the physical realm.
In all those ways we see Christ’s preeminence in creation – his preeminence over all that exists.
Preeminent in Recreation
And yet … at the same time, we also see a gap. Because in each of these areas, we see a way in which there is disconnect between the reality of Christ’s preeminence, and its recognition.
And so Christ is preeminent in the spiritual realm, but many – even most – do not recognize it. Most treat someone or something else as if it is preeminent. Christ is preeminent over humanity, but most people deny it and look for the human ideal in another or in themselves. Christ is preeminent over creation, but most people live as if it is not so – severing their spiritual life from their physical life, or worshiping the creature rather than the Creator.
All of creation, as we have said, has been twisted away from Christ in the fall – in the rebellion of our first parents, which all of humanity has continued in ways big and small – living in ways that deny Christ’s preeminence.
The creation needs to be restored. The creation needs to be redeemed. The creation needs, in some sense, to be recreated so that it is returned to the way it is supposed to be and it functions in line with the truth – with the preeminence of Christ.
And Paul acknowledges this as well. And what he says in our text is that just as Christ is preeminent in creation, so Christ is also preeminent in the work of recreation. And his preeminence there takes three forms: Christ is preeminent in the accomplishment of redemption, Christ is preeminent in the completion of redemption, and Christ is preeminent in the application of redemption.
Preeminent in Recreation: Redemption Accomplished
The first of those that we see is that Christ is preeminent in the accomplishment of redemption. And we see that in verse twenty. There Paul writes that through Jesus Christ, God was pleased “to reconcile to himself all things.” Through Christ, God accomplished the work of reconciling all things to himself. And how did he do this? Paul says he did this by “making peace by the blood of his cross.”
As is central to the gospel, and as many of us have heard so many times before, Christ, through the cross, reconciles all who trust in him to God, making peace between God and man. Christ, as we said, lived a perfect life – he perfectly bore the image of God, as man. But then he also died the death that was due to us for our sin – he bore the penalty of our sin so that we could have peace with God. And in doing that, he accomplished our redemption and offered reconciliation with God to all who would trust in him.
Many of us know this. And yet, the truth is that we still often fail to treat Christ as if he is actually preeminent in the accomplishment of our redemption.
Sure, if you are a Christian, then on paper you acknowledge Christ’s preeminence in the accomplishment of our redemption. But so often we are prone to either deny our sin – and so deny the fullness of our need for redemption – or we are tempted to try to earn our redemption ourselves. We try to be good not in order to love God or to express our thanksgiving to him, but because part of us hopes that if we do this or that good thing, it will cancel out something bad that we are struggling with guilt over. We want, in some part, to accomplish our own redemption. But Jesus tells us that that is impossible. Jesus tells us that he must be preeminent in the accomplishment of our redemption – for he has made peace for us through the cross. Our calling is simply to receive it and to live in light of it, and to acknowledge and praise him for his preeminence in the accomplishment of our redemption.
That is the first way that Christ is preeminent in the work of recreation.
Preeminent in Recreation: Redemption Completed
The second way that Christ is preeminent in the work of recreation is that he is preeminent in the completion of redemption. And Paul mentions this in verse eighteen, when he identifies Jesus as “the firstborn from the dead.”
Paul here points us to Christ’s resurrection, because Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the foretaste – the guarantee – of the completion of our redemption that is to come.
The work of redemption is completed in the recreation of all things. The Bible tells us that Jesus will return, and he will make all things new. He will renew this world, eradicating all sickness, pain, death, and brokenness which our rebellion introduced to his world. He will renew all who trust in him, giving us new bodies that will never die again and renewed souls that will never sin again. And he will unite heaven and earth and we shall dwell with God forever. This is the completion of our redemption – this is the new creation that we look forward to.
And the resurrection of Jesus Christ points to the fact that he will be central to – he will be preeminent in – it all. For he is the “firstborn from the dead.” He has already been made new. His body has been raised, never to die again. And in him, redemption is already complete. All that remains is for his power – the same power by which he rose from the dead – to be extended to all who trust in him, and to all that he has made. But he is the power behind the completion of our redemption, and his resurrection is the guarantee of the completion of redemption. And so Christ is preeminent in the completion of redemption.
But once again, we often live in denial of this. Once again, we often look to other things to renew this world and make all things new.
For while we are called on to pursue renewal in many ways – in our own lives, in the lives of those around us, in this world that God has made – the completion of that renewal is dependent on Christ.
But we can be tempted to deny this. We can find ourselves placing our ultimate hope for the completion of such renewal not on Jesus, but in ourselves, place our hope in ourselves, or in our church, or in our government, or in some human leader … and we become convinced that in the right circumstances, we or they could complete the work of redemption – we or they could make all things new and return things to how they were meant to be.
But this denies the preeminence of Christ in the completion of redemption. As much as we can and should strive for good in this world, we must know that the mission will never be complete until Jesus completes it – until he returns and spreads the renewal of his resurrection to all his people and all his creation.
For Christ will be preeminent in the completion of redemption.
Preeminent in Recreation: Redemption Applied
So we see how Christ is preeminent in creation. We see how Christ is preeminent in the accomplishment and the completion of our redemption and our recreation.
How then to we apply these truths to our life? We have acknowledged the many ways we resist – in our thinking or in how we live – how often we resist the truth of Christ’s preeminence. How then do we apply that truth to ourselves?
Some of us look to ourselves to do it. We lay out the task of applying this redemption to ourselves, and we figure out some steps, and we try to power through them.
Some of us look to a community or a system that will do this for us. We realize this is hard stuff, but we tell ourselves that if we can just find the right church – if we can just find the right program – then the right people would be able to apply this stuff to us and to our children. They will be able to set us right.
Some of us look to other people or other spiritual forces to apply these things to us. I remember being struck, back in college, as I studied medieval church history, by how Christians again and again looked toothers to apply to them the redemption Christ has accomplished for them. They looked to Mary, or to the saints, or to the relics, or to the priest, or to someone or something else.
They knew Jesus had accomplished redemption. They knew they needed to get it. And they saw their own shortcomings. And so they looked to Mary or someone else to help apply to them the redemption they knew they needed.
Interestingly, we noted that that turn to other things – to Mary, or the saints, or the relics – usually arose when the church began to see Jesus as more and more distant. When Jesus seemed more distant from the lives of ordinary Christians, Mary was brought in to bridge the gap. And therein lies the key.
Because when we think of Jesus as distant from us, we deny the words of Paul in verse eighteen. For there he tells us that Jesus is “the head of the body, the church.”
Jesus is the head of the Church. Which not only means that Jesus is the Church’s authority (though it certainly includes that). But it also means that Jesus is the one who will care for the Church, who will keep it alive, and who is intimately connected with the Church, and so with all of his people.
Because Jesus is the head of his Church, Jesus cannot be distant. Jesus is close. And to deny that – to deny Jesus’s closeness – is like a living hand denying that it is attached to a head. It is absurd.
If you are a Christian – if you have placed your trust in Christ – then Christ did not just accomplish your redemption in the distant past, he will not just complete your redemption in some distant future, but he is applying that redemption to you even now, through his intimate union with you. For he is the head, and we, his Church, are the body.
We do not need Mary to bring the benefits of Christ to us. At the very same time, we do not need to rely on our own efforts to obtain the benefits Christ has accomplished for us. And we do not need some special and unique leader, or church or spiritual program to make Christ’s work effectual in our lives. Even ordinary Christians like us, in ordinary churches like ours, coming to the ordinary means of grace as we are right now, can receive the life Christ obtained in his redemption, because Christ is our head, and we are his body, and he will care for us, and feed us, and his life will flow to us.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing for us to do. We must make sure we are united to Christ our head by faith. We must strive to cooperate with him by turning to the means of grace he offers us: his word, his sacraments, prayer, and his people. But even as we do, we won’t really be the ones applying his redemption to us. We’ll simply be receiving it. Christ will be the one applying it to us, acting as our loving head.
And as he does, he will again be preeminent – not only in the accomplishment of our redemption in the past, not only in his completion of our redemption in the future, but in the application of our redemption even now.
And so we must turn to Christ, and cling to him by faith. We must look to him in how we think of God, in how we think of ourselves, in how we think of the world we live in. We must turn to look to him to fill our deepest needs: to accomplish, apply, and complete our redemption.
Christ must be preeminent in everything – in every area of our lives that matter.
Because 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
This sermon draws on material from:
Bavinck, Herman. The Wonderful Works of God. Translated by Henry Zylstra, 1958. Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019.
Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Wright, N. T. Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1986.
Wright, N. T. Who Was Jesus? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.
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