Please turn with me to Colossians 1:15-20. It appears to be an ancient hymn that was sung and known by a number of churches. The Apostle Paul either wrote it himself or he thought, this says what I want to say and so he included it in his letter and thus we regard it as inspired.
By way of historical context the Apostle Paul is in Rome at the writing of this book to the Colossians where the Book of Acts leaves him. You will remember that he was brought to Rome as he appealed to Caesar concerning his own innocence in the accusation of distorting the Jewish faith. We finished the Book of Acts with these two verses. “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Acts 28:30-31
So whatever the circumstances of his first Roman imprisonment we ought not to think of him as being separated from everybody else, shut up in some dank, underground hole where the lighting is always poor, he is always cold and shivering in some corner, and where only the jailer comes by to slip some gruel under his bars once a day. Here the verses in Acts tell us that he provided for his own nourishment out of his own purse. No doubt sympathizers and friends were allowed to see him, bring him goods and he was able to speak with many and continue to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel. The conditions were such that he had access to writing materials and so it was from here during these two years, around 60 A.D., that he wrote Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon.
Epaphras who, if not the first was one of the first to bring the Gospel to Collosae, made his way to Rome to report to Paul some disturbing matters facing this young church made up mostly of Gentiles. As I said last week they seemed to be a combination of Judaizers and those who hold to an early form of Gnosticism that came along and upset the Colossians with their teaching. The doctrines that these teachers are emphasizing, among other things, are having the effect of diminishing the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul writes this letter in response.
What we believe to be true about Jesus not only impacts how we live day to day but it will most certainly affect our eternal destiny. If people get this wrong, they get a whole lot wrong with it. The chief reason why the gospels were written was so that its readers could give an informed answer when they stood before the judgment seat of Christ and he looked them in the eye and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Remember Peter’s succinct reply, “You are the Christ of God.”
Well, if you will, here in our text this morning we have the Apostle Paul’s more elaborate reply in the third person. Paul, who do you say that Jesus is? As I read these six verses, follow along and reaffirm your own faith. Christian, who do you say that Jesus is?
I decided to take the passage in two parts because to me it was like sitting down to a very delicious but also very, very rich dessert. To more fully appreciate what we have set before us we need to take our time and push it away, let it digest and savor these sweet affirmations. Last week we considered five of them.
Jesus is the image of the invisible God; he is God in the flesh. Seeing him is seeing the Father.
He is the first born of all creation. God the Father bestowed upon him the supreme position of eminence. Why? Because by him, through him and for him are all things; he is Creator, Sustainer and Heir of everything; which is to say he is supreme over the universe. That is the first half of vv. 15-17.
We have had a week now as it were to let that settle in and savor that and so we come back to our dessert and finish it. The second half of vv. 18-20 which asserts these four new affirmations: He is supreme over the Universal Church, he is the head of the body of the church, first born from the dead, he is fullness of deity and reconciler of all things. We will take them in that order.
Verse 18: He is the head of the body, the church. There are two meanings to his headship: organic and ruling. The organic sense means that Christ as head is the source from which vital energy, nutrients and all that is necessary for life, flows out from. He causes his church to grow and keeps it growing. All that she needs flows from him. As the Psalm has it all her fountains and springs are in him.
We can come back from war without an arm or leg or both. We can lose our limbs to illness—diabetes for instance. We can lose the use of all four of our limbs in a diving accident as experienced by Joni Eareckson Tada or we heard about the minister just moments ago in a bicycle accident. But we can still go on to live a happy, productive life that is not without its challenges to be sure. But we can never lose our head; we can never be separated from our head and still live a normal life. It is vital to our existence. In this sense Jesus is the organic head of the body. The body has no life apart from him and we will surely die without him.
He is also the church’s ruling head. To be the ruling head means to have authority over the body, the church. Calvin thinks this is the sense Paul had in mind here. It is Christ alone who has authority to govern the church. Authority is the right, the claim, the fitness and the power to control. So as head he alone has the authority to direct and control the church’s belief and behavior.
How do we experience this? How does he make his authority felt and known to us? The professing church, those who claim to be Christians, usually have one of three ways of understanding their view of the Scriptures. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches find God’s truth in the interpretations of Scripture that are embodied in their own tradition and consensus. They view the Bible as God-given truth, but they insist that the church must interpret it and is infallible when it does. By contrast individuals labeled liberal or radical, modernist or subjectivist, find God’s truth in the thoughts, impressions, judgments, theories and speculations that Scripture triggers in their own minds.
The preferred answer is the historic Protestants who find God’s truth in the teaching of the 66 canonical books. It receives them as inspired, inherent, and sufficient that is telling us all that Christ wills to tell us and all that we need to know for salvation and eternal life. It is clear, that is straight forward and self-interpreting on all matters of importance, and so to honor the Lord Jesus Christ as head in this sense means all our ideas about him should be measured, tested and where necessary corrected and enlarged by reference to Biblical teaching. As head he is not only the source of our life and well-being he has authority over every local church that has ever or ever will exist. He has authority over the universal church. That is the first affirmation.
The second affirmation is found at the end of v. 18. He is the beginning, the first born from the dead that in everything he might be preeminent. Calvin said he is the beginning because he is the first born from the dead; the beginning of a second creation. He is the first to be resurrected. Others were raised before him, of course. Elisha raised the only son of the Shunammite woman and Jesus, of course, raised Lazarus, but only to die again. Jesus was the first to receive his resurrection body and so Paul, in I Cor. 15:20, refers to our Lord as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To say that Jesus is the first fruits or the first born from the dead or the first to enjoy his resurrected body implies many, many more will follow and inherit a new body at the resurrection. We can hardly take in what that would be like if we give it a thought.
No longer mortifying our sins! All that is over; no longer struggling to believe a truth like Romans 8:38-39. Everything pertaining to sanctification is over and glorification begun. No more the frustrating, depressing, self-condemning two steps forward and three steps back, in these our regenerate but severely compromised bodies. As Paul would say, “We have these fragile jars of clay.”
Dr. Packer has a wonderful description of glorification. He says it is a work of transforming power whereby God finally turns us into sinless creatures in deathless bodies. The idea of our glorified final state includes: [and listen how many times you hear him use the word perfect, because glory is perfection] “It includes perfect enjoyment of seeing and being with the Father and the Son; perfect worship and service of God out of a perfectly integrated nature and a heart set perfectly free for love and obedience; perfect deliverance from all that is experienced as sinful, evil, weakening and frustrating; perfect fulfillment of all our desires; perfect completion of all that was good and valuable in this world’s life, but that had to be left incomplete because desire outran capacity; an endless personal growth in the encompassing of all these perfect things.” Is there anything there that sounds boring to you?
Where did the idea of playing a harp on a cloud forever and forever get stuck in our heads about what the sum total of our existence in our resurrected bodies would be? The thought that thrilled me more than any other in pondering all this is this one. In our resurrection bodies there will be a never ending, ever increasing discovery of more and more of our Lord’s glory with greater and greater joy in him. There our knowledge of him will always be accurate but never complete because the finite cannot take in the infinite. There is no chance to be bored in glory. Our understanding and estimation of the Lord Jesus Christ will always, always be growing. The frontiers of our understanding and estimation of him will always, always be pushed out. He is the first born from the dead, the first to inhabit his glorified resurrected body, but we are sure to follow. That is the second affirmation.
The third affirmation comes in v. 19. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” He is the fullness of deity. Paul would use that again in Colossians 2:9, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” Apparently the full deity of Christ was at stake in the Colossian heresy or it just was not rightly understood and embraced. But I have come to have a lot more sympathy with that young church in Colossae the more I have pondered this passage because I take for granted what has been handed down through the centuries about my Christology and what I understand to be true of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is both God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever. We have come to accept that he is 100% God and 100% man in one person forever. If all I had was my Bible and 75 good years to study and meditate and do nothing else but that, I am sure I would never in my wildest dreams have reached that formula all by myself. But once I hear it, it makes all the sense in the world and passages in my Bible are opened up to me.
So what I would like us to do for these next few moments is to try to imagine the steps it took to get to that place that Jesus is 100% man and he is 100% God in one person. Imagine yourself to be living in Nazareth and you have watched Jesus grow up and there was no body who doubted his humanity. Of course he is man! What else would he be? He nursed, he cried, he slept, he grew, he worked, he tired, he sweat and he worshipped God just like the rest of us do. Of course he is man—100% man! The villagers probably thought, “Though I have never heard an unkind word spoken by him, though I have never seen him to be insensitive to others or being selfish, I will grant you he has an impeccable public image, but he is just like us! He sins in thought, word and deed. We just don’t see his sins of word and deed. But surely he has sinful thoughts.” And so they conclude he is an upstanding man of integrity with an unusual amount of self-control. He bridles his tongue better than any. That is probably the first things that you and I would conclude growing up in Nazareth.
Over time I suppose his wisdom and keen insight into life and our holy faith would be added to our high opinion of him. “Wow, he’s got insights! What is not to like and admire about him?” But then something radically changes around his 30th year of life. At John’s baptism the inauguration of his ministry, the time had come for the Father to glorify the Son. Now this incredibly wise and insightful young man of integrity becomes an itinerant preacher, teacher and rabbi. Folk are coming to hear him and cannot believe what he is saying. Wonder of wonders, he turns water into wine. Some say they saw him walk on the Sea of Galilee. Then right there in the Temple he gave a blind man back his sight. Now crowds are gathering, even from Gentile cities and regions, because God has visited Israel and raised up a prophet like Moses. If that is all he ever did, he would have been loved by all the people.
But along with these miraculous signs and wonderful, amazing teaching with authority, he sprinkled some sayings that were upsetting. “Before Abraham was, I am. Your sins are forgiven. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. I and the Father are one.” Now this prophet like Moses has said too much, he has gone too far. The people are divided about him. Of course some believe he was who he claimed to be—God, eternal God, and the God of the cosmos somehow, in this body, right in front of them, a body like ours! How can this be? Jesus of Nazareth is also God with us? We have accepted all along that he is 100% man. Now we have to think of him as God too? God and man, how do we hold these two together? I wonder if the Colossians believed that Jesus was 50% God and 50% man, or 75% God and 25% man. I don’t know what the combination is but we all would think that you can’t have more than 100%, right?
There is no one like him. We don’t have a category for him and so I find it hard to fault the Colossians in the year 60 A.D., just 30 years after the Lord rose from the dead, for not having a Christology as fully developed as our own. We owe so much to our fathers. Whatever the particular heresy or deficiency, it amounted to not ascribing the fullness of deity, 100% God, to Jesus. The full complement of divine attributes is to be found in him. That is what this means. The totality of God with all his powers, attributes and glory belong to Jesus the Son of God. In his Godness Jesus possesses infinite eternal and unchangeable wisdom; infinite eternal and unchangeable power; infinite eternal and unchangeable holiness, justice, goodness and truth. To think of Jesus as 50% God and 50% man is to insult him. To think of him as 99.99999% God and only .000001% man is still to ascribe less than the fullness of deity to him and to offend him. He is the fullness of God.
We come to our last affirmation. If v. 19 tells us nothing of God’s fullness is lacking in Christ, v. 20 asserts that nothing in the universe is outside the range of God’s reconciling work in Christ. Verse 20 reads, “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” He is a reconciler of all things.
Many years ago in our Presbytery we had the pleasure of having a pastor by the name of Dick Lucas, an Englishman, join us. We were meeting at Hillcrest and he held a special seminar for the Teaching Elders and took us a little further about how we get at the main meaning of a text and go about preaching the text and so forth; and I appreciated so much what he had to say. And so when I saw that he had a commentary out on the Book of Colossians at our General Assembly, I snapped it up. This is what he says here under this point: “The need for reconciliation between God and his creation implies, of course, an already existing state of strife and disharmony. A gigantic rupture has taken place dislocating the relationship between God and man and throwing into disarray the whole created order. The world knows no settled peace. Futility and decay are the hallmarks of creation. Hostility and evil are the hallmarks of mankind.”
Reconciliation means the ending of enmity and the making of peace and friendship between persons previously opposed. Our reconciliation, the reconciliation we enjoy as Christians with our Maker should amaze us twice; first, because it is the Lord Jesus Christ who took the initiative to make peace with us. Usually when two parties are estranged there is enough blame to go around on both sides. Peace is made usually in one of two ways. As parents we know this very well. Our kids are still young, at home, they are not getting along or squabbling over something and we give them a little time to work it out, they don’t do it and so we enter in. We get between them and say, “Okay, I am going to intercede and I am going to settle this. You are going to let her wear that because she let you wear that yesterday. So give it to her! We’re done! Let’s be at peace.” Now usually that makes one party very happy and the other party just has to deal with it because a third person stepped in to make peace happen.
The other way peace is made is when one of the parties, recognizing they have fault in all this, and their conscious bothers them and they see their sin, confess it and come to the other person, apologize and do all that they can to make restitution and peace. Usually what that does is warm up the heart of the other person and they think to themselves, “Well, they have come that far and apologized, I have fault here, too.” And so they make peace together. But it is much rarer for reconciliation to be made because the only perfectly innocent party initiates and does everything necessary to make peace. Everything!
Bear with me on this illustration. I use it with my juniors at Covenant High School when we survey the Book of Romans. When we come to chapter 5 and we take the truth of vv. 8 & 10 together, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us……For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
I say to my students, let’s say that my Satan-worshipping neighbor cusses at me every chance he gets. If we happen to arrive home from work at the same time, he hurls abuse at me. I get my mail, mow my lawn, wherever he sees me outdoors, he threatens me. He even tells me he is practicing voodoo on my children. Though I have never been able to catch him in the act, my property is being damaged—car tires slashed, graffiti on my garage and house. One morning I get up to get the newspaper and I find that my cat has been dismembered on my front porch. I cannot prove he is responsible, I have never seen him do this damage, but all the signs point to my neighbor. Very early one morning I hear a strange noise outside my bedroom window. I peek out and there is my Satan-worshiping neighbor pouring gasoline all around the foundation of my house. I run downstairs and come up behind him and shout, “What are you doing?!” Startled, he collapses, I wait for him to get up and he doesn’t get up. He’s not breathing, his heart stopped. I call 911 and ride with him to the emergency room. The doctors are able to get his heart beating again, but his recovery is so slow. He is weeks in the hospital, languishing there, getting worse and worse. I decide to visit him and while I am there I learn that his one and only kidney stopped functioning. Guess who has a perfect match for his kidney? When I last asked that question to my high school students they said, “You’re dismembered cat?” So I give him my kidney and he recovers. He becomes a Christian and apologizes for all the evil he has done to me and my family. I, the offended party, initiate peace with one who is hostile toward me without cause by donating one of my kidneys.
That is the second thing that should amaze us about the peace of God. Christ, the completely innocent party, not only takes the initiative to make peace, but in order to achieve it he has to become so much more than an organ donor. He pays for the peace with his very life. Our text says, “…by the blood of his cross.” Having been made in the image of God we have a sense of fairness about us that we can’t ever get too far from. We understand one eye for one eye. We understand one tooth for one tooth. We understand one life for one life. But how does one human life atone for the sins of all of God’s elect? How can that happen? What kind of single human life could cancel out the debt of a countless host of lies? A life that was both authentically man, 100% man, and yet mysteriously 100% God. The worth of the one man was of infinite value and more than sufficient to cover all of our sins, past, present and future, all of our sins of omission and commission, all of our sins of thought, word and deed; and not just ours, but every Christian who has lived before us and every Christian who comes after us, the Universal Church. An infinite God was offended so a sacrifice of infinite worth was needed and offered to bring about our reconciliation. This is the Gospel, this is the heart of the Gospel.
So it seems to me that, in sum, Paul is saying to the Colossians in this hymn that the Lord Jesus is not only supreme over the universe because he is the Creator, Sustainer and Heir of all things, he is supreme over the Universal Church. If we do not bow before him and him alone as one who has the right, the power and the authority to direct all of our beliefs and behavior; if we do not worship him as 100% God, fullness of deity in bodily form; if we fail to believe his sacrifice is of infinite worth and more than sufficient to work our perpetual peace, then our Christ is too small. Our Christ is not the Christ of the Bible.
Now you Chronicles of Narnia lovers will remember this from Prince Caspian. We are on page 136 and Lucy hasn’t yet seen Aslan. She has been longing to see Aslan, the Christ figure. She is sleeping and is awakened; she is summoned and has this irresistible calling, this voice is calling her near.
“A circle of grass, smooth as a lawn, met her eyes, with dark trees dancing all around it. And then—oh joy! For He was there: the huge Lion, shining white in the moonlight, with his huge black shadow underneath him.
But for the movement of his tail he might have been a stone lion, but Lucy never thought of that. She never stopped to think whether he was a friendly lion or not. She rushed to him. She felt her heart would burst if she lost a moment. And the next thing she knew was that she was kissing him and putting her arms as far round his neck as she could and burying her face in the beautiful rich silkiness of his mane.
‘Aslan, Aslan. Dear Aslan,’ sobbed Lucy. ‘At last.’
The great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large wise face.
‘Welcome, child,’ he said.
‘Aslan,’ said Lucy, ‘you’re bigger.’
‘That is because you are older, little one,’ answered he.
‘Not because you are?’
‘I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.’
Brothers and sisters, in heaven the frontiers of our minds and hearts will continually be pushed out so that at each sighting Christ will be bigger and bigger and bigger, forever and forever and forever. Hallelujah! Amen.