Colossians 1:15-20

I invite you to turn to Colossians 1 this morning. I will read vv. 15-20 both this morning and next Lord’s Day morning as we consider this very rich paragraph. You remember I began a series titled “The Quotable Paul” which gives me the liberty to bounce around. Paul said so many things worth taking note of. We will look at the substance of vv. 15-17 this morning though I will read through v. 20.

Colossians is pretty well accepted to be written during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment approximately 60 A.D. Along with Colossians, Philippians, Ephesians and Philemon are regarded as Paul’s “prison epistles.”

During Paul’s three year ministry in Ephesus, Epaphras, was converted and he went on to Colossae and he could not help but to speak of the grace of God he found and over time a church was planted there, mostly made up of Gentiles. But sooner or later other teachers came along to this young church and stressed other things like food laws, festivals, circumcision, secret knowledge and human wisdom. It is likely that the Colossian heresy was a mixture of an extreme Judaism and an early stage of Gnosticism. The sum total effect however diminished the person and work of Christ and Paul wants to address that. So with vv. 1-14 and the customary thanksgivings and prayers given, he launches into this breathtaking confession of who Christ is. It is thought that these verses before us might very well be an apostolic hymn known and sung by many of the churches in Paul’s day not unlike Philippians 2:6-11, that lovely paragraph addressing the Lord’s humiliation and then his exaltation.

It makes no difference if this is original to Paul or not. He thinks it suits his purpose just fine so he uses it, the Holy Spirit uses it as well obviously, and Paul reminds the Colossians of the truth about the second person of the Trinity. Their Christ was too small, too inadequate, to insufficient. This morning we are going to consider Christ being supreme over the universe and the latter half of this paragraph we are going to consider his being supreme over the universal church.

So, as I read this morning let’s all of us, each and every one of us, reaffirm these truths about the Lord Jesus Christ beginning in v. 15.

Read scripture.


So Paul makes some wonderful affirmations here. The first is that he is the image of the invisible God. We might think to ourselves, but aren’t we all? Aren’t we all made in the image of God? “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Is that all that Paul is saying here, that Jesus is like us in our humanity a true picture made in the likeness of God. I think he is certainly saying that and much more.

Philip Hughes says the principle idea intended is that of “exact correspondence.” This correspondence involves not only an identity of the essence of the Son with that of the Father but more particularly a true and trustworthy revelation or representation of the Father by the Son. So Jesus can say to his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” The Son is a mirroring forth of the Father. Children, if this helps, when the Father looks into the mirror he sees the Son. The author of Hebrews says Christ is the exact imprint of his Father’s nature. The glory of God’s nature, character, power and purpose is now open to view in the person and role of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. He is the image of the invisible God in that sense. He is God.

Secondly, he is the firstborn of all creation. We see that, too, in v. 15. Firstborn has two meanings in scripture. It speaks of a biological birth order: the first son to be born, the first to come out of the womb. And in this sense, Reuben, was Jacob’s firstborn son. But it has a second meaning. It refers to order of eminence or importance a position of privilege and priority and dignity bestowed upon someone.

David was not Jesse’s firstborn son in the biological sense. He had several older brothers. But in Psalm 89:27 he is said to be appointed the Lord’s firstborn; that the Lord bestowed upon him the position of eminence over the nation as king. The Aryans error of old and their contemporaries, the Jehovah Witnesses, failed to make the distinction between these two uses of the term “firstborn.” They came to Colossians 1:15 and in an effort to be true to this passage concluded that if Jesus is the firstborn of creation he must have had a beginning. There must have been a time before he was created. He was created first and then he became the agent by which everything else was created. If he was created, then he cannot be God and he cannot be eternal. He may be more like a super-angel, the first and finest of all creatures called “god” [with a small g] by courtesy because he is far above and better than the average man, even the best of men.

So the next time that a Jehovah Witness comes to our door, [and they are so confident that they can use our very own Bibles to show us that Jesus was not God,] and they take you to Colossians 1:15 and say, “See he was the firstborn of creation.” We take our Bibles back from their hand and turn to Psalm 89:27 and we say that Jesus is a firstborn in a similar sense that David is a firstborn. God rightfully bestowed upon him the supreme position of eminence, privilege and priority because he is of the same essence, substance, power and glory. He is God! And then we say with all due respect to our Jehovah Witnesses, “Your Christ is too small.”

The burden of vv. 15-17 as I understand it is to affirm that Jesus is supreme over the entire universe. And v. 16 tells us why he is supreme. It reads again, “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.” If I shrink that down: “For by him all things were created, all things were created through him and for him.” So by him, through him and for him were all things created. These three prepositions indicate that Christ is the Creator, Sustainer and Heir of all things, or the source, means and goal of everything. I am going to use that as my outline for the rest of what I have to say this morning.

“By him all things were created…”He is the Source, Creator of all. To be sure all three Persons of the Trinity are credited with creating, but none more emphatically than the Lord Jesus Christ. We have it here in the text before us, “For by him all things were created,” and we have it in Hebrews 1:2, “but in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by his Son, …through whom also he created the world.” We have it again in John 1:3, “All things were made through him [Christ], and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

So we can go to the creation passages of the Bible and read the Lord Jesus in there. We can do it in Psalm 104 or we could do it in Genesis 1, “In the beginning God [Jesus] created the heavens and the earth.” “And the Lord Jesus said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” “And on the seventh day God [Christ] finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” “All things were made through him [Christ], and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

Because of your generosity Lisa and I had the unforgettable pleasure to stroll along the banks of the river Seine in Paris last July. We saw several artists along the banks capturing the river with Notre Dame in the background or the Eiffel Tower depending on where you were on the river, or sometimes lovers toasting each other or picnicking while boats slipped by in the background—we saw many pictures done by the artists.

I marvel when I see someone look at something, a reality, and then be able to transfer that so well onto canvas. That is amazing, that is a true gift. I tried my hand at drawing years ago and gave it up with the encouragement of those around me. It is very impressive to see someone capture the likeness of something and put it on a canvas. It is even more impressive when they are not looking at anything. They envision it in their mind, a particular scene or portrait, and they put it there on the canvas for us to see. That is an amazing gift and that is a wonderful kind of creating. But I have yet to see, and I dare say you have yet to see, any artist anywhere say, “Let there be an easel,” and there was an easel. “Let there be canvas,” and there was canvas. “Let there be colors of all kinds,” and there was a rainbow of colors, and so on. That is creating!

The author of Hebrews says that by faith we understand the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what was seen was not made out of things that are visible. The Lord was not looking at a likeness when he created Mt. Rainier, he dreamed it up in his imagination and then he spoke it into being. He did not form it out of some eternal dirt and stone combination of material. He spoke it into being out of nothing—ex nihilo.

We read about the four living creatures in Revelation 4 with eyes in front and behind. The first like a lion, the second like an ox, the third with the face of a man, and the fourth like an eagle, each of them with six wings full of eyes all around and within. He conjured all of that up in his mind and then spoke it into being—ex nihilo. This kind of artistry and creativity puts him in a class by himself.

Now, not being one who is keenly interested in insects, unless they are in my house, if you told me there were over 12,000 different kinds of insectsI would believe you. I would say, wow, that is quite a number, 12,000 different kinds of insects! But if you told me that we have classified over 12,000 different kinds of ants alone, and were still counting, 12,000 kinds of different ants! Now that is impressive. Still more so, if you told me we have classified not 12,000, but over 300,000 species of beetles and weevils alone, I would say, “Why would Jesus bother with so many tiny, seemingly insignificant, little creatures?” Why would he trouble himself designing and bringing them into being? I think he means to overwhelm us with his imaginative creativity, his creative power and attention to detail.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum from the tiny to the grand and great; try to imagine a star 186,000,000 miles in diameter. From my front door to my parents front door in Dover, Delaware is about 3,000 miles. I can picture 3,000 miles as I have made the trip a few times. But I cannot picture what 1,000,000 miles looks like and so I am asking us to do the impossible to imagine a star 186,000,000 miles in diameter. The way I will help you picture that is to picture the circle that the earth makes around the sun. Picture the sun, then the earth going around it, and 93,000,000 miles on this side of the sun, and 93,000,000 miles on the other side: a huge 186,000,000 circle. Now put one star in that circle filling it up to its rim. That is what astronomers discovered about 15 years ago and they are calling it the Pistol Star. It glows with the energy of 10,000,000 of our suns. I wonder how long the Pistol Star has existed and we tiny, “Johnny come lately,” earthlings are just discovering it 15 years ago. Isn’t that amazing?

I asked myself why would the Creator, Jesus, bother not with the Pistol Star, but bother with us? Why would he bother with us? That is the point of Psalm 8. I look at the stars, I look at the heavens and I think to myself, ‘What is man that you would even take thought of him?’ I think he wants to stagger our minds with his explosive creative power. I wonder what discoveries our grandchildren’s generation is yet to make about the universe.

Preparing for this sermon I came across a hymn that actually uses the word telescopic in it. It goes like this:

          “God of everlasting glory filling earth and sky everywhere your wonders open to our searching eye. In our telescopic probing, light years from our world, in the atom’s theoried structure, science has unfurled. As we push man’s frontiers forward into outer space reaching for the stars and planets still your hand we trace.” John Peterson

As overwhelming as the Lord’s creation is it was never intended to be an end in itself. It was meant to lead us and introduce us to the artist behind it all, the Creator. This is a quote from J.I. Packer’s less known classic Growing in Christ. He says, “You have seen the sea, the sky, sun, moon and stars, you have watched the birds and the fish. You have observed the landscape, the vegetation, the animals, the insects, all the big things and the little things together. You have marveled at the wonderful complexity of human beings with all their powers and skills and the deep feelings of fascination, attraction and affection that men and women arouse in each other. Fantastic, isn’t it! Well now, meet the one who is behind it all. As if to say, ‘Now that you have enjoyed these works of art, you must shake hands with the artist. Since you were thrilled by the music, we will introduce you to the composer.’”

Creation was meant to introduce us to the Creator and yet so many of us made in his image get it wrong. I would like you to listen to these two very different responses to how we came into being. First is by the famed paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould. He says: “We are because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age because a small and tenuous species arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago has managed so far to survive by hook and by crook. We yearn for a higher answer but none exists.” Now contrast that with Frank Borman who commanded the first space crew to travel beyond the earth’s orbit. Looking down on the earth from 250,000 thousand miles away he radioed back: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He said later on, “I had an enormous feeling that there had to be a power greater than any of us, that there was a God, that there was indeed a beginning.” The heavens declare the glory of God!

I remember how I first marveled when I saw the craters on the moon through my telescope as a young teen. That distant, luminous old friend now took on a third dimension. Look how much more detail you can seen through the telescope! I remember how fascinated I was to see the translucent skin of a leaf under my microscope. Such attention to detail, so beautifully ordered; and all of this, most of the time—craters or translucent skin of leaf—hid from our un-appreciating, naked eyes everyday. We miss it!

Whatever else the Lord Jesus has spoken into being from nothing heretofore undiscovered, and therefore un-appreciated, whether it simply sits at the bottom or it grows or swims in the Puget Sound, or orbits trillions of light years beyond and dwarfs the Pistol Star, we earthbound creatures have not begun to finger the fringe of the outer garments of this highly sophisticated and well ordered universe. But for us who have been given eyes to see, the universe’s message is unmistakably clear: Christ the creator is very, very, very big! You and I are very, very, very tiny!

Colossians if you do not credit and honor him as Creator overall, then your Christ is too small. By him all things were created. No one and no thing brought him or herself or itself into being. None of us are self-existent or self-sustaining, which is Paul’s next point. “All things are through him,” we get toward the end of v. 16 and stated another way at the end of v. 17, “and in him all things hold together.” He sustains all he has made, he has to. The stability and all things great and small, visible, discovered or undiscovered, depend on him. We hang on him! Again, the author of Hebrews says, “Christ upholds all things by the word of his power.” So by his word they were spoken into existence and by his word they were upheld, kept in being, sustained, even governed.

This is from Packer’s helpful Concise, Theology, “If creation was a unique exercise of divine energy causing the world to be, providence is a continued exercise of that same energy whereby the Creator keeps all creatures in being and involves himself in all events. The model is of purposeful, personal management with total hands-on control. Jesus keeps all creatures in being.” Psalm 145:15-16 says, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.” I take so much for granted.

“…and you give us our food in due season…” Back in Joseph’s day in Egypt they were forewarned that there would be a seven year drought and famine. They heeded that message and took steps to make sure that they would not run out of food. But what if the Lord decided to remove his sustaining hands from wheat, from corn, from rice for seven years and we never got a warning? What would our grocery stores look like without those products in them? I think of the cereal aisle alone—how empty that aisle would be! I take so much for granted. I go to work, I get paid, I go to the grocery store, I eat, I go to bed and I start all over again. I hardly give a serious thought to the farmer, more still, to the One who sustains and causes seeds to sprout and grow and waters the earth. For many of us, here is a scary thought; what would happen to the United States and all the world economy if the Lord withdrew his sustaining graces from the coffee bean for seven years? Let’s not dwell there too long! He gives us our food in due season! And what variety of food! How many flavors of coffee have you tasted this month?

“He satisfies the desire of every living thing.” The Lord sustains us not only by the food he spoon feeds us with but even with fevers. Fevers! This is from John Piper’s Godward Life and he is quoting from Luke 4:39, and he makes some devotional comments. “‘And standing over her [Peter’s mother-in-law] Jesus rebuked the fever and left her.’ [John writes] A fever is a chemical reaction in the cells of the body producing excessive heat in response to infection [he will be the first to tell you he is not that kind of doctor.] It has to do with molecules, electrons and the laws of physics and chemistry. In his divinity Jesus designed those laws ages ago, and in his divinity he sustains them so that they work for us daily.”

So if I understand what Dr. Piper is saying, the next time I get a fever it is as if the Lord is saying, “Rick, something foreign has invaded your body through that cut in your hand and if it gets up a head of steam it will surely kill you. It needs to come out or be neutralized. But it is so small you can’t detect it now so in order to nip it in the bud I am going to set off this chemical reaction producing excessive heat all over your body and that way the cells that I made will release neutralizing chemicals to kill the invaders and you will take all this serious enough to seek out medicine which I also created for your healing.”

Jesus designed and sustains laws of physics so that they work for us daily. How else can we be reasonably sure that when our plane takes off on time in Seattle it will land on time in Dallas? When the pilot made the emergency landing in the Hudson River not that long ago I was doubly amazed! I was amazed to see his ability to react and see that the Hudson River was his only option and he guided the plane onto the water. The second thing that amazed me perhaps even more was that the airplane, which weighs 75 tons, was too heavy to stay in the air because the engines failed and yet still light enough to float atop the Hudson River until everyone could be rescued from it—75 tons…..because Jesus sustained the laws of physics that day for those people; because the designers of the airplane counted on those laws of physics to work for them.

He also involves himself in all events. This is Charles Spurgeon: “I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes; that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit as well as the sun in the heavens; that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses; the creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of a devastating pestilence; the fall of leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche.”

Jesus creates, he sustains, he exercises purposeful, personal management with total hands-on control. Colossians, I want you to know, I want you to feel how dependent you are moment by moment on that all sustaining power of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you don’t credit him as the self-sustaining Being upon whom all other beings are kept in existence, well then, your Christ is way too small. He must be worshipped as Creator, Sustainer and Heir of all things. “All things are for him,” we see that at the end of v. 16 which means he directs all things to their appointed end which is himself.

The commentator, William Hendrickson, said “The Son is not only the one to whom all things owe their origin as the divine agent in their creation, but is also the goal of their existence.” Creation’s chief end is to glorify God, man’s chief end is to glorify and enjoy him forever.  All things must contribute glory to him and serve his purposes. They must! Each little flower that opens, each little bird that sings, all things wise and wonderful the Lord Christ made them all. And he made them to publish and serve his glory. Some rational creatures serve him wittingly by glorifying his mercy. Others serve him unwittingly and glorify his justice. We all glorify him and serve his purposes, we cannot help that.

It seems to me that Paul’s message to the Colossians is very much the same message it is to us this morning. If the Lord Jesus Christ is not God himself, if he does not occupy the place of preeminence over the universe, if he is not worshipped as Creator, Sustainer and Heir of all things, then our Christ is too small. We need to have the frontiers of our mind and heart pushed ever outward to rightly estimate and honor him as supreme over the universe.

Where do we begin? The late Donald Coggan a former Archbishop of Canterbury often used this story. “There was a sculptor once who sculpted a statute of our Lord and people came from great distances to see it. Christ in all his strength and tenderness. They would walk all around the statute trying to grasp its splendor. Looking at it now from this angle, now from that, and yet its grandeur eluded them until they consulted the sculptor himself. He would invariably reply, ‘There is only one angle from which this statute can truly be seen. You must kneel.’” That is where we begin to rightly estimate and honor Christ over the universe—on our knees.