LETTER TO THE COLOSSIANS

The Preeminence of Christ

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Colossians 1:15-23

INTRODUCTION

Because the basic belief of Gnosticism was that matter was evil and the soul/spirit good, Gnostics had to come up with a theology which protected the goodness of God and yet preserved the evil of matter. They did this by claiming that God did not create the material universe. Instead an aeon (pron. eee-ahn) emanated from the original perfect God; from this aeon emanated another aeon; etc. Each aeon was more imperfect than the one it sprang from. (If you think of it as God cloning Himself, His clone cloning himself, etc., then you get an idea of the Gnostics' view of God.) One of these aeons (clones) was Christ. He was not necessarily the greatest of the aeons. He was simply the One who communicated to the human race certain secrets/mysteries which enabled the Gnostic to escape hostile forces on his way to heaven. When you combined all these aeons (clones), you came up with the pleroma (play-row-mah) which literally means "the fullness."

This view of the universe resulted first in the belief that a multitude of aeons (clones) existed. Christ was one of the aeons but just one; moreover, He was not even necessarily the primary one. The Gnostics became fascinated with the concept of multitudes of aeons. They even ranked them, calling them "thrones," "lordships," "rulers," or "authorities." Paul's response to this was once more Christ. The focus of the believer should be preeminently upon Him.

Now all of this might seem a little strange to us; however, many times Christians fall into similar traps. One Christian faith focuses on saints, not just the biblical saints, but upon non-biblical saints: St. Christopher, St. Francis, St. Sebastian, etc. Although they would never claim that these saints were divine or more important than Jesus, their preoccupation with the saints argues otherwise.

Once more it is easy to bash our Catholic brothers; however, what about those of us from a more evangelical persuasion? How preoccupied are we with angels? Touched by an Angel was not made popular by atheists but by conservative Christians. Concentrating on angels is not wrong; however, did that show seem to be over preoccupied with angels? Out of the numerous episodes on angels, only one mentioned Jesus. In addition, some Baptists treat their ministers like God. Whatever a major pastor says goes for that Christian. I believe in ministerial loyalty; however, I do not believe in ministerial worship. The true worth of the minister is based upon his ability to lead others into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. If that minister has not drawn you closer to Jesus, then no matter what else he has done, he has failed. It really is all about Jesus.

This view of the universe resulted second in the belief that the universe was hostile to mankind. The world itself was evil. Evil clones separated man from returning to his original home and from experiencing salvation. Fear was a logical outcome of this theological system. The Christian response to this once more centers in the person of Jesus.


CHRIST PREEMINENT OVER THE OLD CREATION (1:15-17)

Although the Col. 1:15-20 is a short passage, it nevertheless ranks as one of the most important passages in the NT. It along with Phil. 2:5-11, John 1:1-18, and Heb. 1:1-4 gives the deepest insight into the person of Jesus Christ. the NT would be greatly impoverished if these 4 passages including Col. 1:15-20 were absent from the NT.

Far from being one of many clones of God, Christ has a unique relationship to God and to creation. Paul first states that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (1:15). The phrase "image of God" refers to Jesus' ability to reveal God to you and me. If you look at yourself in a mirror, you see your image. Because modern mirrors are so good, you see in the mirror an perfect image of yourself. In the same way Jesus is the mirror of God because in Him we see the perfect image of God.

Why is Jesus the exact image of God? Because He is God the Son. The NT assumes that we understand that children are like their parents. Whereas it is true that Nathan and Molly are their own persons, it is also true that in many ways they are like either Nancy or me. They get their eyes and hair from Nancy. Nathan's personality more resembles Nancy's, while Molly's more resembles mine. They both get their love for chocolate pie from me. While to a degree it is true that children are like their parents physically, it is especially true spiritually that God's Son is like Him. In fact He is the "spitting image" of His Father (John 14:9; Heb. 1:3). Whereas Jesus is not the Father, He is so much like Him that when you have seen Jesus, you have for all practical purposes seen the Father.

This is an extremely important issue for today. First, too often we hear about the Jews worshiping God or the Muslims worshiping God as if we are all worshiping the same God. If the NT is true, then that claim is entirely false. Ask a Muslim or Jew if he worships the Father of Jesus Christ. He will completely deny that. Yet the Father of Jesus Christ is exactly who the NT claims we worship. Second, this issue helps us understand who we are worshiping. There are numerous views about what God is like; however, realizing that Jesus is the exact image of the Father removes all speculation. We know exactly what God is like because He is exactly like Jesus.

How does this work? How many of you, when you pray to God concerning someone who has wronged you, ask God to punish the person hurting you? Now pray that prayer to Jesus who is the spitting image of the Father. How can I pray that Jesus punish my persecutor when He actually prayed that God forgive those killing Him? That prayer is self-contradictory. Well, if I can't with intellectual honesty pray that prayer to Jesus because of what He is like, then I can't pray it to God who is exactly like His Son Jesus.

Everything we say about God must harmonize with what we know about Jesus; otherwise, according to the NT it is not true. It is true that one day when we see the Father face to face (Rev. 22:4) we will learn more of God than could have ever possibly learned about Him on earth; however, what we learn will only deepen what we have learned about Him in Jesus. It will never contradict, only deepen.

When we hear the phrase "image of the invisible God," we are invariably reminded of Gen. 1:27 in which Moses says that we are created in the image of God. For over 3000 years God's people have speculated on what it means to be made in the image of God. Based upon the teachings of Irenaeus, Catholics teach that the image of God is man's ability to reason, to think. They claim that the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26) is man's moral behavior. They then claim that in the Fall only man's likeness fell, not the image of God within him. As a result man is able to come to know God apart from the Bible because his reason has not been affected by the Fall. (Baptists reject this because they believe that the entire person fell into sin, the rational as well as the moral element.) Others claim the image of God refers to man's ability to relate to others, while yet others claim it refers to the emotional and intellectual sides of a person. Because of Colossians 1:15 we are no longer forced to speculate what it means to be created in the image of God. Christ is that image of God. As a result when God created us, He created us to be like His Son Jesus.

The way God created the universe was something like this. The Father is the Architect of creation. He designed creation. What did He use for inspiration? His Son Jesus Christ who served as a type of model or prototype for creation. (Notice that He created all people with this purpose. He didn't create some to be in the image of Christ/God and others not in this image. He created all to be in the image of Christ/God. The idea of God creating some for eternal damnation is thoroughly non-Christian.)

The next phrase "the firstborn of all creation" has been the subject of much needless controversy for the past 1700 years. For example, Jehovah Witnesses claim that this phrase proves that Jesus is not God but a created being instead. The only problem with this is that by the third century BC (300 years before Paul wrote Colossians) the idea of birth had receded into the background while the idea of first came to the foreground. When the Jews translated the OT into Greek (the Septuagint), they used this same word to refer to David as the "firstborn" of all the kings of the earth [(Ps. 89:27: "I will also make David my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.") Notice that the phrase "highest of the kings of the earth" explains what the psalmist means by "firstborn."]. Now no one believes that David was the first king born. Even Saul was born before David. Rather it meant that David ranked as the greatest king of all time. According to A. T. Robertson, one of the greatest Greek scholars of all time, this word then came to be used as the superlative of the word "first." Just as we say "good," "better," and "best," we would in a way say "first," "firster," and "firstest," so the word "firstborn" means "firstest." In other words, nothing and no one created outranks Jesus. He is the firstest over all creation because as God the Son, He is greater than anything created.

In v. 16 Paul states why Jesus is preeminent over creation: "For IN Him all things were created in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or lordships or rulers or authorities; they are all created THROUGH Him and FOR Him." The three prepositional phrases are vital for understanding this verse: "in Him," "by Him," and "for Him."

"In Him" refers to the fact that when God started creating, He did nothing apart from Jesus Christ. Everything that the Father did, designed, thought about, etc. with regards to creation He did with respect to Jesus Christ. There is an indissoluble link between Jesus and creation. It is for this reason that out of the Trinity Jesus is the One who came to earth to become man.

"By Him" refers to the fact that Jesus was the agent of creation. God is the One who designed creation, while Jesus is the One who did the actual work. Because the Holy Spirit was also involved in the process of creation, the following analogy best explains the dynamics of creation. The Father served as the Architect of creation, while Jesus served as the foreman of the project. The Holy Spirit served as the actual construction worker who did the hands-on work.

Finally, "for Him" refers to the fact that Jesus is the goal of creation. All things have been created for Jesus' pleasure. All of creation, the visible and the invisible, the world of man and the world of angels, has been created for Jesus Christ. God created all people to be like Jesus Christ. Salvation is nothing less than restoring mankind to that original purpose. Because all of creation has been created for Jesus, on that day "every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father." Moreover, on that day, because we have been created for Jesus Christ, we will be just like Jesus so that we may see Him just as He truly is (1 John 3:2). Salvation then becomes nothing less than restoring man to God's original purpose for him--to be like Jesus, the image of God (Paul expresses the same thought in Rom. 8:29).

Paul sums up this section by stating that Jesus is before all and that in Him all things hold together. He outranks every created thing because as God the Son He has existed eternally, even before any created thing existed. Moreover, He outranks creation because He sustains creation itself. The idea that God created all things, flung them out into space, and then left them alone contradicts the biblical view of God's relationship to the universe. Christ not only created but also sustains it. According to Paul if you remove Christ from the universe, it will cease to exist.


One major result of this belief is that Christians should be able to face life with complete confidence and joy. Too often we think of Satan in terms more powerful than he deserves. Although the word "Satan" literally means "the Adversary," he is not literally Christ's adversary because he is no match for Jesus. When you read the first 18 chapters of Revelation, you feel like Satan is truly a powerful being. (He may be powerful in relation to us but not in relation to Jesus.) In Rev. 19 when Satan throws his minions at Jesus and His armies, the battle is over even before it is begun. Jesus takes the beast and the false prophet by the nape of the neck and throws them into the lake of fire. (He does the same to Satan at the end of His thousand-year reign.) Satan is no match for Jesus because whereas Satan is simply a created being, Jesus is the eternal God the Son who actually created Satan. As a result, we should walk out of our doors each day fully confident and joyful because nothing comes to us until it has been filtered through the wise and loving power of God's Son.


CHRIST PREEMINENT OVER THE NEW CREATION (1:18-20)

Next Paul claims that Jesus is preeminent over the new creation, the church. He states this by claiming that Jesus is the head of the body, the church; He is its beginning, the first born from the dead. Whenever the NT says that Jesus is the head of the body, it can simply point to the fact that Jesus and His church are organically related to each other. In other words, we are identified with Christ because His Spirit lives within us. As a result, we share His destiny. (The idea of the head experiencing something the body does not would be absurd.) For this reason, because Jesus the head experienced resurrection, we as His body will one day experience resurrection. Even though we are members of His body, our resurrection does not guarantee the resurrection of other Christians, whereas His resurrection does guarantee the resurrection of the rest of the body.

That Christ is the head of the body has another implication for the church. In many respects the head has authority over the body. The head/brain is the source of thought and of control over the body. As a result when Paul claims here that Christ is the head of the body, he means that the head has authority over the body. He is preeminent in His relationship to the church.

Paul next states that Jesus is the beginning of the church, the first born from the dead. The second phrase actually explains the meaning of the first phrase. He is the beginning of the church because He was the firstborn from the dead. Once more the idea of "birth" does not play a significant role in the phrase "first born" for the simple reason birth had no part in Jesus' resurrection. It is used in the sense of the superlative "the firstest." In a sense Jesus was the firstest, the most first from the dead. Because He was the absolute first to rise from the dead, He is the beginning of the church, an entity which is characterized primarily by resurrection.

Because Jesus is the head of the body and the beginning of the church, He has first place in every thing regarding the church. This is based upon the ancient belief that things or persons which are prior have precedence over things and persons which come afterwards. John the Baptist stated this very principle: "He who comes after Me has a higher rank than I because He existed before me" (John 1:15). Philo, a first-century philosopher, claimed that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had precedence over later philosophers because they preceded them in time (so much for an evolutionary theory). While this appears to be true in the physical world, it is especially true in the spiritual realm. Christ not merely precedes all others because He was before them, He precedes them because He is the preexistent Son of God whose ministry in the world brings eternal life to the rest of His creation.

Paul next states two reasons why Jesus is preeminent over the new creation, the church. First, He is preeminent because "God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him." When Paul uses the term "fullness" (pleroma, pron. play-row-ma) he is applying a key word used by the Gnostics. The Gnostics understood it to refer to the sum total of all the different clones of God. Paul though uses it to refer to everything it takes to be God. In other words, all that it means to be God, Jesus is. Although Jesus is not the Father, He is still as much God as the Father is God. No one other than the Spirit can claim this for Himself; as a result, in Jesus' relationship to the church, He is preeminent.

The second reason Jesus is preeminent over the church is that God was pleased to reconcile all things through Jesus, literally every created thing, things in the heaven and things on the earth. This encompasses the material heavens and earth, and the spiritual realm of heaven. Everything that has been created has been reconciled to God through Christ. (We will return in a moment to what Paul means by reconciled.)

How did God reconcile the world to Himself through Jesus? By means of the blood of the cross. Behind this statement lies the image of propitiation . The ancient peoples believed that whenever their gods were angry at them, they would propitiate (remove the gods' wrath) by offering a sacrifice to the gods. The gods would see the sacrifice on the altar and no longer be angry with the people; instead they would be at peace with them. The same idea lies behind this verse. Because of people's sins, God poured out wrath upon the people. Christ's death on the cross though was the means by which God removed His wrath so that from now on we have peace with God.

What does Paul mean when he says that God reconciled the whole created universe (physical as well as spiritual) to Himself? Is He referring to universal salvation for the whole world? Notice that Paul did not say that the whole universe was saved. He just said that it was now reconciled to God, that is, it will one day be totally at peace with God. There is a vast difference between the two. Peace can be both positive and negative. Christians are at peace with God in a positive way. God has brought us into the peaceful relationship with Him like that of a father to his children. On the other hand, non-Christians (including the demonic realm) are going to be at peace with God in a negative sense. They are going to be at peace with God in the same way that a conqueror is at peace with the vanquished. Hitler Germany was at peace with the US after WW2; however, it was the kind of peace that result from conquest, not from willful submission.


APPLICATION OF RECONCILIATION TO CHRISTIANS (1:21-23)

Paul now applies the concept of reconciliation specifically to Christians. First, he states the spiritual condition we were in before Christ reconciled us: "you were estranged and of a hostile attitude with your evil activities." Paul calls sin for what it really is, rebellion against God. Our present society thinks that the problem with people is that they are either uneducated or poor. Well, Grey Davis was educated, and he about ruined California. Rush Limbaugh received the highest salary ever given to a radio personality, and yet he is probably going to face criminal prosecution for obtaining prescription drugs illegally. If you educate a person and give that person money, you've basically made a rich, smart rebel out of him, especially in his relationship to God. (Now this does not apply to just some people; Paul's statement applies to all of us. See also Rom. 5:8-11 where Paul discusses this in more detail.)

Paul states that the result of this reconciliation for Christians is that Jesus will during the day of the Lord present us into His presence holy, blameless, and irreproachable. It is tempting to think of these terms as applying to sacrificial animals. For example, these same terms were applied to the Passover sacrificial lamb. Yet, Paul used just these same terms about the church in his letter to the Ephesians, which was sent to the church at Ephesus at the same time he sent this letter to the Colossians. In Ephesians Paul uses these terms to describe the church as the pure, spotless, holy and blameless bride of Christ. It has behind it the idea of the beautiful bride. Notice that Paul does not say that we are already this kind of person. Rather he is saying that this awaits the Christian on Judgment Day when his relationship with Christ is consummated. At the present time these attributes should be being developed in the Christian; however, full consummation awaits the Day of the Lord.

In v. 23 Paul seems to make this conditional: "IF you remain grounded and settled in the faith and are not moved away from the hope inspired by the good news." This is where our English translations fail us. There are 4 different ways to say "if" in the Greek. This verse is using way #1. Paul is literally saying, "If you remain grounded, and you are, . . ." It is almost as if he is saying, "Since you are remaining grounded." It's not quite that strong, but it is sure close enough. Paul is not doubting that the Colossians will remain grounded. He is confident that they will. Persevering doesn't save you; it just simply shows that you have been saved.

What is behind the idea of grounded and settled in the faith? It's the idea of a person whose life is built upon a sure foundation. It recalls Jesus' statement that a person should build his house upon the rock and not upon the sand. The rock in this verse is the faith. Faith here can mean 2 things. First, it can refer to the act of believing in Jesus. Second, it can refer to what we actually believe, the claims Paul makes about Jesus in vv. 15-20. Whereas you can't discount the first, it seems like Paul is emphasizing the second use of faith.

Whereas it is important that you believe, it is doubly important what you do believe. Two men are looking at 2 lakes frozen over by winter temperatures. The first man has great faith that he can run out on the lake and be OK. The second man has little faith; he just knows that he is going to sink once he gets out in the middle of the ice. One thing they don't know is that the first lake is covered only by a thin layer of ice, while the second lake is covered by a thick layer of ice. No matter how much the first man has faith, he's going to sink out there on the lake of ice, while the second man is going to be OK even though he is shivering with fear. Believing is important; however, what you believe is just as important or even more important. Paul's claims for Christ are not simply great for discussion and study; they are necessary parts of a Christian's belief system towards Christ.