Christ Set Forth

He is the image of the invisible God, the first born 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 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 pre-eminent. For in Him 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 (Colossians 1:15–20). 
The Apostle Paul was full of Jesus Christ. He took every opportunity to speak and write about the Lord Jesus. There was never a wasted moment, never a missed opportunity. It’s a great tragedy to hear sermons without Christ. To quote Charles Spurgeon: ‘The motto of all true servants of God must be, “We preach Christ, and Him crucified”. A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour. If there’s no Christ in your sermon? Then go home and never preach again until you have something worth preaching’. We must preach Christ crucified. The whole Bible points to Jesus Christ and His work of redemption. Every passage, every chapter, every book is about the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the key to unlocking the Scriptures. Do you remember when Jesus meets His downcast followers on the road to Emmaus? Their understanding of His person and work has been clouded by the darkness and despair of Golgotha. What does the Lord Christ do in this situation? He takes them to the Scriptures and ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets He explains to them the things concerning Himself’ (Luke 24:27). Jesus Christ is a light in the darkness. If we have a clear vision and understanding of Christ, we can apply ourselves to the Scriptures and learn more about Him and find our hearts ‘burning within us’ (Luke 24:32).

The passage before us is a brilliant light for understanding not only the Scriptures but all things in life and experience. C. S. Lewis famously said, ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else’ (C. S. Lewis). The vision of Christ at the heart of Christianity enables the eyes of the mind to see that ‘something lives in every hue that Christless eyes have never seen’. This vision of Christ not only saves us and sanctifies us, but helps us to see everything in a new light. There is something beautiful and wholesome in Christ. He is the cure for the darkness of sin and despair. He is altogether lovely, gracious, kind, compassionate, and gentle, merciful, and patient. He is holy, and righteousness, just, good, faithful, and true. He is the great example to the Church of the beautiful life, and Christians ought to reflect something of the beauty and the glory of Christ in their own lives. There’s to be nothing of arrogant self-righteousness in our midst, but a spirit of Christ-likeness, conformity to his image, and subservience to His sovereignty. This vision of Christ set forth by the Apostle in our text should cause us to tremble in holy wonder at the feet of Christ in humility and lowliness. Christ is our King and we must fall down at His feet in wonder, love, and awe.

1] Firstly, Jesus Christ is revealed to be co-equal with God. Paul says, ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (v.15). Within a few decades of the death of Christ, here we find a Jewish Christian declaring the Crucified Messiah as God. It’s incredible. The highest honours of the Godhead are given to Jesus Name. The idea here is that Jesus Christ reveals the glory of the invisible God. The Lord God by nature is invisible. He is a pure and holy spiritual being. You cannot see God or touch God. He transcends physical reality. He is hidden from our sight, and yet in Christ He is wholly revealed. The hidden God is seen expressly in the person of Christ. The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus Christ is ‘the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His person’ (Hebrews 1:3). All the fullness, all the glory, all the brightness of God is manifest in Christ. When Paul uses the word ‘image’, he’s not talking about a photograph or a picture but about the essential nature of God. To make an image of God, as you know, was absolutely forbidden in the Law of Moses (Exodus 20:4), and yet here the Apostle Paul says that Jesus Christ is the ‘image of the invisible God’. It wouldve been blasphemy for a Jewish scholar like Paul to utter such thoughts unless of course they were true.

Paul goes on to say that Jesus is ‘the firstborn of all creation’ (v.15b). He is not saying that Jesus Christ was created by God at some point in time or that Christ is the first creature of many. On the contrary, the meaning is that Jesus Christ is the ‘first begotten’, as the Nicene Creed says Jesus is eternally ‘begotten of the Father before all worlds’. That’s the idea. Jesus Christ existed before creation. He stands above creation. He is first. He is exalted over all things. This verse concerns the supremacy of Christ as the Lord of heaven and earth. The meaning of our text is that Jesus Christ is pre-eminent as the Potentate of space and time. It cannot possibly mean that Jesus Christ is Himself a creature because Paul in the very next verse say that He is the Creator of all things: ‘For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible’ (v.16a). Jesus is the Creator of all things. He stands at the back of everything: space and time, this vast universe, every star, every galaxy, countless great and ponderous worlds, our solar system, the sun, the planets, the earth, the seas, the sky, all life, every amino acid, every protein, every molecule, every atom, every subatomic particle – it all belongs to Him, everything both visible and invisible. Science describes proximate causation – it tells us how things work, but Jesus Christ tells us why. He answers the ultimate question. He is the meaning and the reason for everything. The sunset, the raindrop, the snowflake, the mighty wind, the thunder, the lightning, the crash of the ocean – the beauty and purpose of it all is found in Him alone. He is the answer. ‘He’s not the God of the gaps, He’s the God of the whole show’ (John Lennox). As the Psalmist says, ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Psalm 24:1). Creation is a great theatre wherein Christ displays His glory. It is the setting for the drama of redemption and the agony of the Cross. It is the place of final consummation for the marriage supper of the Lamb with the Church, His beautiful bride, clothed in His righteousness and washed in His blood.

None stand above Him. Not ‘thrones, or dominions, or rulers, or authorities – for all things were created through Him and for Him’ (v.16). The tyrants of this world, the dictators, the lords and ladies, queens and kings, aristocrats and plutocrats, the powerful and mighty, presidents, and parliaments, and prime ministers are nothing compared with Him. He is the Lord. ‘He who sits above the heavens laughs … and He will break the nations with a rod of iron and dash them into pieces like a potter’s vessel’ (Psalm 2:4, 9). He alone is Sovereign. He alone is King. He is ‘before all things’ (v.17). He is before space, before time, before cosmos – He is before all Creation. Yet without Him everything would fall apart. He is everywhere present sustaining the universe by the word of His power. ‘In Him’, Paul says, ‘all things hold together’ (v.17b). He is pulling everything into place. He is ordering all things according to His providence. ‘The whole created order, in time and space, owes its existence to Christ. He is its true origin. He sustains it in being. Without Him, it would have no ultimate meaning’ (Dick Lucas). This is Jesus of Nazareth. This is the child in the manger. This is the man upon the Cross; the man in the upper room with nail prints in His hands, and feet, and side; the man in glory seated at the Father’s side – even the God-man, Christ the Lord.

2] Secondly, Jesus Christ is revealed to be Lord of the Church. Paul says, ‘He is the head of the body, the Church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent’ (v.18). There is much confusion about what the Church is today. Christians talk about ‘going to Church’ by which they mean a building, or a place, or a meeting, or a gathering of individuals, or a particular denomination, or even a Sunday club. That’s not how the Apostle Paul understood the Church at all. The Church, he says, is a body and Christ is the living head. The Church is like an organism. It’s alive. It has a beating heart and a living head. The Church as a loving community is bound together in Christ and should stand in contrast to the world around us. We live in the century of the self, a culture of narcissism which makes man his own prisoner. There is no solidarity anymore. There is no cooperation. There is no community. There is no family. There is only the great idol of the self and the worship of the creature rather than the Creator who is forever blessed. The Church however ought to be radically different to the world as the body of Christ alive in Him our living head. This is how Paul describes the Lord Jesus: ‘He is the head of the body’ – not a pope, not a bishop, not a minister, but Christ alone. Great harm and sadness comes to the Church when men put themselves in the place of Christ. There is no place for tyrants and autocrats in the Church. Ministers of the Gospel have authority only in so far as they preach Christ and Him crucified, and are faithful to the Scriptures, and follow the gracious and lowly example of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are all part of the body of Christ. He alone is the head of the Church. He calls the shots. He makes the decisions and we listen to Him. We gather around His holy and infallible Word as it is given in Scripture. We listen for the voice of Christ in the Bible and we follow Him.

The reference to Christ as ‘the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent’ (v.18b) concerns His resurrection as Lord of the Church. Not only is the Christ the first to rise from the dead, but He’s the first of many – a great multitude from every tribe, and tongue, and nation. We look forward as Christians to a resurrection hope. The idea that God is only concerned about the soul of mankind is not Biblical. We believe in holistic redemption – the redemption of body and soul together. We anticipate glorified bodies in a new heaven and a new earth wherein righteousness dwells. ‘The Church is the company of those who share the risen life of Christ [and know the power of His resurrection]’ (Dick Lucas). When He returns at the end of time, all the dead in Christ shall be raised – all the atoms and molecules of countless billions of Christians will be restored and sanctified and the souls of men and women properly united with the body. Those who are alive in Christ upon earth will be glorified together with the risen saints. There will be a very real physicality about the resurrection and the glorification of the body. Eternity will not be pure spirit, but tangible reality. Even Job under the Old Covenant anticipates this reality: ‘For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. Even after my body has decayed, yet in my flesh shall I see God, whom I shall see for myself with my own eyes’ (Job 19:25–27).

The Lord Christ as the risen Saviour represents the first fruit of those who have died. He rose in the same body in which He had been crucified. He ascended into heaven as a real man of flesh and bone. As the saying goes, ‘There is a man in the glory’. He is coming back with a physical body to judge the living and the dead, and to gather His Church as His beautiful bride. His resurrection is the ‘first instalment’ in cosmic redemption (Karl Barth). He is number one. He is pre-eminent. He broke the chains of death itself and rolled the stone away. He is risen. He is alive forever more. He is the paradigm for the resurrection of the Church as He sits exalted at the right hand of the Father. The Apostle describes this great event of resurrection in the most dramatic terms: ‘Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality’ (1 Corinthians 15:51–53). The trumpet sounds and ‘a sleeping army is awakened to stand on its feet in a flash’ (Anthony Thiselton). Think of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 and how God in a moment by the power of the Holy Spirit brings to them life, breath, and vitality. ‘Resurrection is no harder for God than creation’ (Anthony Thiselton). If God made this vast universe out of nothing by His very speech, then what is it my friends for such a God to raise the dead? If God breathed life into humankind at the beginning, how difficult is it for Him to breathe new life into the dead? If it was impossible for death to hold the Son of God in the tomb, how much more will it be impossible for death to hold the members of His body? The hope of resurrection for those who trust in Christ is certain. He says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whosoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live’ (John 11:25).

3] Thirdly, Jesus Christ is revealed to be the Saviour of the World. Paul says, ‘For in Him 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’ (vv.19–20). The first point to see here is that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ. This is a particular reference to the incarnation – the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ which Paul clarifies in the second chapter by saying: ‘For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form’ (Colossians 2:9). He is everything that God is – all the fullness, all the deity, all the attributes, all the power, all the majesty, all the glory of God is found dwelling in a real man, the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s important to understand this wonderful truth: ‘Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man in one person, and will be so forever’ (Wayne Grudem). The whole of our salvation depends upon this truth. It’s because He is God that He is almighty to save, and it because He is man that He is able to represent mankind and mediate on our behalf.

The reason for this hypostatic union of the fullness of God with the frailty of man is to bring about the reconciliation of heaven and earth and make peace between God and man. This is what Paul says in our text, ‘and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven’ (v.20). The principal idea here is that reconciliation is the work of God in Christ. The word reconciliation means ‘to make peace’ – to make amends for the offence of human sin in the sight of a holy God. The great problem of mankind is this enmity to God. Human sin is an act of rebellion against a righteousness God who cannot turn a blind eye to sin. He cannot simply ignore our rebellion. He is just. He is good. He is by nature loving. How can a just, good, and loving God wink at sin? He cannot – He cannot do what is contrary to His own nature. Amends have to be made. The Fall has to be put right. The demands of God’s absolute righteousness must be satisfied. The wonder of the Gospel is that God Himself brings about the reconciliation through His Son. God is the offended party, yet He brings the peace. Our sin is blight against His honour, yet He so loves the world and desires to make peace with sinful men that He comes Himself in the flesh to interpose His precious blood and make atonement for sin. This is why the incarnation and the hypostatic union are essential doctrines: ‘God must take human flesh to provide the Man who will be able to represent all mankind as the substitute for sinners. It is only through Christ – the God-man – that reconciliation can be attempted and accomplished’ (adapted from Dick Lucas). Christ faces God as a real man, yet as a real man co-equal and co-eternal with God Himself: ‘We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:2). Jesus is our federal head. He is our representative before the Father. If you are afraid to pray, if you find it difficult to approach God the Father, then put your hand in Jesus’ hand and He will lead you. He is the Son of the Father’s love and all who come to God through Him will be embraced as sons and daughters of the Living God.

There is a sober message here as well: the awful reality and the seriousness of sin is seen in need for atonement. Reconciliation comes at great personal cost to the Godhead. The Father gives His one and only Son to die upon the Cross. In the reality of space and time, in the world He created, Jesus Christ manifest in the flesh dies upon the Cross bearing our guilt, and sin, and shame, facing the judgement due to us for our sin, and dying the death we deserved to die. Peace comes to us only ‘by the blood of the Cross’. Our sin is so terrible that nothing but the death of God the Son – the shedding of His blood – could make amends for our guilt and shame. My friends, there’s no room for pride in Christianity. The Christian faith teaches us that we are all – each one of us – sinners. We deserve nothing from God, yet He gave us everything in Christ. It’s all free grace. It’s all His work. All we have to offer is our sin and our shame, yet He gave His Son to die for sins not His own. How can there be pride in our lives? How can there be self-righteousness? How can we look down our noses at others in this world? We cannot. All we have is sin and that’s all we bring to Christ. He alone makes peace by the blood of His Cross.

Forbid it Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

This is our only boast. This is our Gospel – that 'God in and through Christ crucified substituted Himself for us and bore our sins in His own body, dying in our place the death deserved by us, suffering the wrath and judgement of a Holy God in our stead, in order that we might be reconciled to God and brought even into His family and adopted as His beloved children' (adapted from John Stott).

The promise here is not only of personal reconciliation with God, but of cosmic redemption – that the Lord Christ will ‘reconcile all things to Himself, whether on earth or in heaven’. The Lord Christ, as I’ve mentioned already, is not only concern about the redemption of the soul, but also of the physical world and the body. Sometimes I hear Christians say disparaging things about the world and the human body, but there’s no place for such attitudes in Christianity. The error of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism was to seek emancipation from the body and this physical world to a higher world of spiritual forms. However, that’s not the message of the Gospel and the New Testament. On the contrary, God in Scripture is deeply concerned about His creation. He’s not going to leave His creation to be soiled and ruined by sin. The Apostle Paul is teaching us that God in and through Christ will reconcile ‘all things to Himself, things in heaven and things on earth’ – the whole cosmos will be transformed and sanctified by the power and righteousness of Christ. It’s a wonderful thought to consider. The whole universe is being sustained and upheld by Jesus Christ, and waiting to be redeemed and sanctified with His righteousness.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul says that one day ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21). The Apostle Peter anticipates the ‘new heavens and the new earth wherein righteousness dwells’ (2 Peter 3:13). It will be a world of righteousness – every atom and molecule, ever leaf, every tree, every garden, every household, every school, every village, town, and city will sparkle with the righteousness of Christ. It will all be glorious. The children of God will be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and dwell in a place of wonder and blessing forevermore. The idea that we’ll spend eternity as disembodied spirits in a perpetual prayer meeting is absurd. There’ll be a glorious world of righteousness to explore and appreciate, and we shall live every day for the glory and enjoyment of God. It’s a wonderful hope that takes in the whole of creation and all those who turn away from sin and trust in the blood of the Cross. The new heavens and earth will be a world of peace and happiness – a world of love, where all the tears, and sorrows, and hardships of life are washed away. And we have this great hope as Christians that death is not the end. There is more to life than suffering, sickness, old age, and death – there is the hope of resurrection, and the hope of ‘all things’ sharing the wonder of sins forgiven and peace with God. Amen.

References & Suggested Reading  
Barth, Karl, Dogmatics in Outline (1949).
Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (1994).
Lucas, Dick, The Message of Colossians & Philemon (2000).
Macleod, Donald, The Person of Christ (1998).
Stott, John, The Cross of Christ (1986). 
Thiselton, Anthony C., Systematic Theology (2015).

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