King Jesus the Founder of the Kingdom Col 1:15-17 (Part 1) Dr A Assumang
Advancing the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ in a Disorderly World
When I last joined you in the summer, we noted that Col 1:12-14 broaches the theme of the letter. It describes the founding of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the kingdom that you and I belong to, and are called to advance in this disorderly world. But before Paul proceeds to explain how this advancement occurs, he describes the Founder of this kingdom in Col 1:15-23a. Let me read the whole passage first:
“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 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. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 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. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven”!
What a tremendous passage this is! Doesn’t it naturally transport us into the realms of worship! Paul holds up the Lord Jesus before us and declares: Here is your King’s banner. Behold His flag, His standard. Behold your king who leads you into battle to advance His kingdom in your disorderly world. As one of His generals, Paul more or less proclaims Jesus to us this morning and calls upon us the foot soldiers to stand at attention as the King comes to inspect His troops ready for battle. That is the gist of what we have here. Make your formation behind your king!
It is often the case that many Christians forget that they are indeed called Christians; that they are named after Christ! But the fact is Christ is the root of the name Christian. Christians follow Christ. Not a Church. Not a denomination! Not a religion. Not a set of principles and rules! Not a particular form of ritual and practices. Christians follow Christ. As James puts it, we are called by “the Noble Name” (James 2:7). When we go into this disorderly world, what we put on offer is Jesus and Him crucified. All of us are like Paul. We are chosen and saved, as Ananias was told in Acts 9:15, “to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel”. That Name is what we have on offer to the world. The Name Jesus! It is the name that defines us. We are what we are because of Him! So simple a truth! Yet we too often forget! Well, what Paul does here is to hold Jesus before the Colossians as their king, and in so doing define who they are.
Last Sunday, I was with the Kings Baptist Church in Cleethorpes where we reflected on some of the memorable one-liners that Pilate uttered when Christ the King was brought before him, according to John’s Gospel. One of those one-liners was when Pilate brought Jesus to the balcony of his headquarters, with Jesus scourged and bleeding and dressed in a purple royal robe and with a crown of thorns upon his head. And I imagine Pilate went near Him, took the Lord’s right hand, lifted it up into the air and shouted out loud, of course he did so sarcastically, derisively, and contemptuously, but he shouted out loud nevertheless: “Behold your King” (Jn 19:14)! Friends, what Pilate unknowingly, ironically and scornfully did that day, Paul does here in Col 1:15-23 reverently and worshipfully. Behold Your King! Behold Him, the Founder of Your kingdom. All hail King Jesus! All hail Emmanuel! King of Kings; Lord of Lords, Bright Morning Star!
As I mentioned the last time, this passage is extremely important that it deserves a whole series of sermons on its own. Let me make three introductory comments about this passage before we look at it in details. In the first place it is one of a few passages in the New Testament devoted to a sustained description of the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In that sense Col 1:15-23a belongs to a special elite class of passages, with John 1:1-5, Heb 1:1-4, Phil 2:5-11 and a few other verses in Revelation. Our passage shares that exalted place in the New Testament. So we are entering holy ground this morning. Remove your sandals, my dear brothers and sisters, remove your sandals!
Secondly the clauses and the phrases in the passage are so crisp, rhythmic and poetically arranged that it has led many Scholars to label it, or at least part of it (1:15-20) as a Christ hymn. In other words, it sounds like the lyrics of a song. Not all scholars agree with this view. And even among those who agree, there are differences of opinion as to whether it was a hymn that previously existed before Paul quotes it here as part of his letter, or a new hymn that the Apostle himself has composed and is now sharing it with the brothers and sisters in Colossae.
Whichever view is correct, Paul has certainly worked this hymn well into the letter that even if it was written by someone else, he has made it his own, and as good preachers do, adapted it into his letter. Regardless therefore of who originally wrote it, this hymn tells us something very important about the worship of the first Christians. Their hymns were focused on exalting Jesus. Their worship was all about Him! Every Sunday, when the first Christians gathered, they did what, according to Rev 5:9-10, the twenty-four elders in heaven did when the Slain Lamb took the scroll from the One who sat on the throne. John says, they sang a new song: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” That is what they sung. In other words, every Sunday, the first Christians practiced for heaven. And Col 1:15-23a was one of their songs. So must we!
The third comment I need to make is about the structure of the hymn. It is evidently made up of two stanzas. And Col 1:17 around its middle summarizes the whole hymn. The first part of the verse, 1:17a: “He is before all things” summarizes the first stanza, and Col 1:17b “in him all things hold together” summarizes the second stanza. In other words 1:15-17 is the first stanza, and speaks of Christ and Creation. The second stanza, 1:18-23 speaks of Christ and Recreation. The first stanza describes the Rulership of the King over God`s Creation. And the second stanza describes the Redemption and Reconciliation of Creation through the King. The first stanza summarizes what happened in Gen 1:1-3:15, and the second stanza summarizes what has been happening since Gen 3:15. As I say, this is rich stuff indeed and we can go on and on reflecting on it.
For today and when, God willing I visit you again on Remembrance Sunday 9th November, I want us to look at this passage at a broad level, just skimming over the surface, and as I say perhaps in the future we shall return to it and dig deeper. A very good way of doing this is to look at how the passage describes the relationships between Christ and God, and creation. In that sense, the passage has five movements. We will deal with the first two today
1. The King’s Relationship with God His Co-Existing Father 1:15a
2. The King’s Relationship with God’s Creation 1:15b-17
3. The King’s Relationship with God’s Church 1:18-19
4. The King’s Relationship with God’s Cosmos 1:20
5. The King’s Relationship with God’s Children 1:21-23a
The King’s Relationship with God His Co-Existing Father 1:15a
Paul first says, this Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (1:15a). What a profound statement to make! The Bible everywhere emphasizes the invisibility of God. Paul himself describes God in 1 Tim 1:17 as “King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever”. First Jn 4:12a says, “No one has ever seen God”. Hebrews 11:27 says, “[God] is invisible”. And many more verses like that. We sometimes sing the hymn Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes, most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise! We sing that song and rightly so.
Well this morning, Paul says, Jesus “is the image of this invisible God”. This Immortal, Invisible Only Wise God that we sing of and to, He is Visible in and as Jesus. Jesus is all of God that we can see. Just as the pictures we see on the television screen represent the invisible electrons which have hit the back of the screen at various different frequencies and speeds, so also it is that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He is all of God that we can see. The word “image” here in Col 1:15a is not speaking of an inferior representation, as if a cartoon is drawn to give you an idea of what the real thing looks like. In fact in ancient Greek thought, an image was regarded as the more perfect form of the real thing. So to call Jesus the “image of the invisible God” is to say that He is the perfect representation of God whom none can see. Hebrews 1:3 says the same thing: “[Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”. If you want to see God, look to Jesus. For He is His exact representation! That was also John’s testimony: “No one has ever seen God; he said, the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Jesus Himself told the disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). To put it simply, friends, Jesus is God. The reason why Christians worship Jesus is this: He is God in Person, who therefore is worthy of our worship!
Occasionally, you meet people in churches, sometimes Church ministers and theologians; especially people who have grown in a western culture where they had hitherto not seen other religions in operation before but have now become exposed to them in this country. And they are surprised that devotees of these other religions are often as pious and as religious and in fact sometimes with better ethical conduct than some of us. They see people of other religions like that, and they think: Oh, there is not much of a difference between Christianity and these other religions.
Not too long ago, I attended a conference on Johannine discipleship and during the coffee break; one of my fellow speakers said exactly that! That he found the Moslem religion simpler and more straight forward than Christianity. They have clear-cut rules on what to do and not do. They have explicit regulations on how and what and when to pray. Which posture to adopt in your prayers! Where to face in your prayer. When and how much fasting you have to do, and so on! And he spoke of that religion with a feeling of even envy. Because his denomination was always arguing about almost everything! And here you have a religion that appears so organized and so explicit. So he envied them! You know, there are people like that in some of our churches. They compare and they feel that there is no need to make sharp distinctions between Christianity and these religions. They even think we are worshipping the same God and what’s not.
Well, let me say this to you, my dear friends. Jesus your king “is the image of the invisible God”. That is how wide a gulf it is between the Christian God and what these religions proclaim. You will have to cut out a chunk of the Bible, in fact the whole New Testament; you will have to cut it all out from the Bible, in order to make the so called God of other religions the same as the God of Christians. We worship Jesus as God. That kind of worship, Judaism and Islam regard as idolatry. Let me put it another way. If you refuse to worship Jesus as God! If you hesitate from acknowledging Him as the “exact representation of God”! If you are reluctant to hail Him as the image of the invisible God! If you are unwilling to worship Him! Well, then I am afraid you cannot call yourself a Christian. That is how wide the gulf is between Christianity and these religions.
The King’s Relationship with God’s Creation 1:15b-17
Paul then moves on to talk about Jesus’ relationship with God’s Creation. He says six things, the first more or less summarizing the rest.
Jesus is Pre-eminent over Creation (1:15b)
Paul says Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation”. A lot of people find this word, “firstborn” difficult to understand. The Jehovah’s Witnesses for example argue that it means that Jesus was the first to be created. This of course is incorrect, for, as we find in the very next phrase, he says, “by him all things were created”. The Bible would be contradicting itself in a most spectacular way if that were the case. No! In the ancient Jewish conception, the word “firstborn” was a title of rank rather than a statement of chronology. To be called firstborn did not necessarily mean that you were born first. It means you have the title of pre-eminence. Of course while this title of “firstborn” customarily went to the one who was born first, in reality it could go to anyone. So for example as we all know, Esau was born first, but he despised the title of firstborn, sold it away for pottage, and Jacob became firstborn. It is in the same sense that God promised David in Ps 89:27, “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth”. In other words, I will give Him the pre-eminence and the supremacy. It is the same thought that is expressed here in Col 1:15b. Jesus is the firstborn of all creation means he holds the title, the entitlement to all of creation. He inherits it. As I say, this first clause summarizes the rest of the things Paul says about Jesus’ relationship with creation.
Jesus Produced all of Creation (1:16a)
Secondly, he says, “For by him all things were created” (1:16a). And in case we have missed what all things are, and so are tempted to exclude something special and extraordinary in creation, the Apostle goes further to catalogue the taxonomy of the universe, the way they “scientifically” did it at the time: all things “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (1:16b). In other words, whether in historical, or geographical or spiritual phenomenon! Whether in the political and non-political realms! Whether in the simplest of systems or the most complex of ecosystems! Whether normal, supra-normal or paranormal! All things were Created by Christ! Regardless of your taxonomy of the world, whether Darwinian or Creationist! Christ created them all! Amen!
Jesus is the Prime Agent of All of Creation (1:16c)
Thirdly, he says, “all things were created through him” (1:16c). He is the Agent of creation. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:3). Are you still in any doubt about who your King is?
Jesus Possesses all of Creation (1:16d)
Fourthly, Paul says, all things were created “for Him” (1:16d). Of course, that should be, for He is the firstborn, the inheritor of creation. Creation was the Father’s gift to the Son. You know, my brothers and sisters. There is a supreme purpose for redemption. God has good reasons why He has not and will not give up on His creation. Someone may say, if creation is all gone wrong, why doesn’t God just call it quits and start afresh all over again? Why doesn’t He create a new Adam who will obey Him? Why doesn’t He spirit us all away, wipe the slate clean and start afresh? Well the reason is simple. Creation is the Father’s inheritance for His Son Jesus! He couldn’t just abandon this inheritance? He must redeem it for His Son! It is all for King Jesus. Amen!
Jesus Precedes All of Creation (1:17a)
Fifthly, Paul says in 1:17a, “He is before all things”. The “before” here, is spatial rather than chronological. It means He is the Leader and the King of Creation! Once again, we know He is not created. He was there before all things were created. He was there when God said, “let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26). And then accordingly, man was made in the image of God. He is indeed Above all powers, above all kings; Above all nature and all created things! Above all wisdom and all the ways of man! You were here, before the world began! Above all kingdoms, above all thrones! Above all wonders the world has ever known! Above all wealth and treasures of the earth! There’s no way to measure what you’re worth…And so the hymn goes! That is what He is! He is before all things because He is God! Worship Him!
Jesus Preserves All of Creation (1:17b)
Then finally, Paul says in 1:17b, “in him all things [all creation] hold together”. “Hold together” in a physical spatial sense! He is more or less the Force that keeps the planets in their orbit! Hebrews puts this even more graphically: “He upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3)! That is who Jesus is! But “hold together” may also be in the logical sense, not just physical spatial gravitational sense. He gives sense to creation! It is only in Jesus that this universe makes sense!
I don’t know about you but this passage makes me feel light headed and giddy! Jesus is worthy of our worship. Because He is God in the flesh! Because He is Pre-eminent over all of Creation! Because He Produced all of Creation! Because He is the Prime Agent of Creation! Because He Possesses all of Creation! Because He Precedes all of Creation! And because He Preserves all of Creation! Seven reasons to worship Jesus! Seven reasons to rise and worship Him again with the hymn, My Jesus, My Saviour!
My Jesus, my Saviour
Lord, there is none like You
All of my days, I want to praise
The wonders of Your mighty love
My comfort, my shelter
Tower of refuge and strength
Let every breath, all that I am
Never cease to worship You
Shout to the Lord, all the earth, let us sing
Power and majesty, praise to the King
Mountains bow down and the seas will roar
At the sound of Your name
I sing for joy at the work of Your hands
Forever I’ll love You, forever I’ll stand
Nothing compares to the promise I have in You