Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Preeminent Christ – Col. 1:15-22




As we come to the end of the year 2018, we can probably all look back on the year and find a thousand reasons to be thankful and to see God’s grace in our lives.  It is true, of course, whether we see it or not!  And yet, at the same time, we would have to be blind not to look at the surrounding culture, which is becoming increasingly ungodly and hostile to the Christian faith, and not also find a thousand reasons to be dismayed.  And so here in the second decade of the twenty-first century we need to be ready to face an uncertain future with courage and faith.  We need to be ready to live as people who are pilgrims in a strange land.

As Christians, this means you and I have to absolutely committed to the lordship of Christ over our lives, even as others refuse to acknowledge his lordship at all.  Being a follower of Christ does not have the same cultural value as it did a few decades ago.  It is not a plus in your value column but a very big minus.  It’s no longer a wonderful bonus but woeful baggage.  So we will never remain faithful to Christ in a generation that hates him with a renewed and increasingly violent rage unless we are absolutely convinced he is who the Christian faith claims that he is: the Son of God and Savior of the world.

But how are you going to be that kind of person?  First of all, we need to be reminded that we are not the first to face cultural opposition to the faith.  What we have experienced in the last couple hundred years here in the West is an anomaly in the history of the church.  Even in our own day millions of believers all over the world face daily persecution.  And yet the church remains, and the faith grows even in the face of great opposition.  The same history that tells us that persecution is normal also tells us of a church that has been victorious over our vicious foe, the Devil.  Our Lord’s prophesy of the church has been vindicated over and over again: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).

And then we need to be willing to hold the faith with courageous conviction.  Are you convinced that Jesus is who he said he was?  Can you say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:68-69).

Athanasius was one such man.  He lived in the fourth century (296-373 A.D.), walking through the heat of debates that raged in the church about the deity of Christ.  He was a contemporary of Arius (though about 40 years younger) and actually served with Arius for a time in the same church in Alexandria, Egypt.  Arius was deposed in 320 for teaching that the Son of God was the first and greatest of God’s creatures, that there was a time when the Son was not.  It was in response to this teaching that the Council of Nicaea (325) was convened, which gave us the Nicene Creed.  However, this was not the end of the story; even though the overwhelming majority of the bishops signed the Creed, in the years following the council, there was a lot of debate and confusion over exactly how believers should view the person of Jesus Christ.  While most of the disagreements were between those who were essentially orthodox, yet this controversy gave an opportunity for the Arian party to make some serious and dangerous advances in the church.

Into this environment stepped Athanasius, who made the aim of his entire life and ministry the defense of the orthodox doctrine of the Son of God.  He was the bishop of the church in Alexandria from 328 to the end of his life.  He not only participated in the Council of Nicaea, he vigorously defended it against all comers.  Although the debates centering around the deity of Christ would not be finally settled until the Council of Constantinople in 381, several years after his death, yet his witness and ministry was, under God, a vital element for the final victory of orthodoxy over heterodoxy. 

It wasn’t easy: he was exiled five times by various emperors, spending seventeen of his forty-five years as bishop in exile.  And yet he never wavered.  According to the historian Edward Gibbon, Athanasius demonstrated “what effect may be produced, or what obstacles may be surmounted, by the force of a single mind, when it is inflexibly applied to the pursuit of a single object.  Then immortal name of Athanasius will never be separated from the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defense he consecrated every moment and every faculty of his being.”[1]  Like Luther would 1200 years later, Athanasius stood against emperors and false churchmen in support of truth at the hazard of his own life and ministry.  And yet, his courageous stand was crowned by God with victory.

What made Athanasius so courageous is that he understood the magnitude of what was at stake.  Debating the deity of Christ is not merely a cerebral and impractical matter that is fit only for scholars to debate.  The very life of the church depends on getting this right.  More than that, he understood that our eternal life depends on the fact that Jesus Christ is, in his divine nature, eternally and unchangeably and gloriously God over all.  He wrote:

No-one else but the Savior who in the beginning made everything out of nothing, could bring what had been corrupted into a state free from corruption.  No-one else but the Image of the Father could re-create human beings in God’s image.  No-one else but our Lord Jesus Christ, who is life itself, could give immortality to mortal humans.  No-one else but the Logos, who imparts order to everything and is the one and only-begotten Son of the Father, could teach us about the Father and destroy idolatry . . . He revealed Himself in a body that we might see the invisible Father; He suffered our insults that we might inherit immortality.[2]

I want each one of you to have the same conviction about Christ that Athanasius had.  In the face of a hostile society, you will be tempted to fall away from Jesus Christ unless you are absolutely convinced that he, and he alone, holds the keys to eternal life, that he is the Son of God, and the only way to the Father.

Now in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity which we have been considering the past few weeks, understanding who Jesus is, is absolutely crucial.  It is understanding that Jesus is himself divine that is the linchpin to the doctrine of the Trinity.  If you believe in the true and full divinity of Christ, chances are that you are going to be orthodox in your understanding of the Trinity.

In our last message, we considered John’s witness to the divinity of Christ, in terms of the glory that he manifested in his earthly life and atoning death.  However, there are a lot of folks out there who think that John represents an aberrant witness to the person of Christ.  Some will say that John does not represent the earliest witness to the faith of the church.  Though this is ridiculous, and can only be maintained if you argue that John’s gospel was not written by the apostle John (which is a very tenuous claim, to say the least), yet I want to show you that the other authors of the NT also clearly affirmed the deity of Christ.  In particular, I want a very important passage in Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  This passage is interesting, because, although it doesn’t say, “Jesus is God” in so many words, yet its testimony leaves us with the unavoidable conclusion that Jesus Christ is none other than the eternal Son of God who shares the very nature of the Father.

The Preeminent Christ

Speaking of the Son of the Father (1:13), Paul writes that he “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him where all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in the earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist.  And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.  For it please the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” (15-19).

Some people will take passages like this and focus on words like “firstborn” and “beginning” in order to cement the claim that Paul believed that Christ was a creature just like you and me.  But before we consider the import of these words, think about what the apostle is claiming about Christ here.  He is claiming that Christ is the creator of all things (16).  Think about that: the entire witness of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that God is the creator of all things.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” exactly what Paul here ascribes to Christ.  In contrast to the false gods of his day, the prophet Jeremiah makes this claim for the true God: “He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heavens by his discretion” (Jer. 10:12).  Again, this is exactly what Paul says of the Son of the Father.

He is not only the creator of all things, but by his providence he holds all things together (17).  In other words, Christ is the ultimate explanation for the laws of physics and chemistry.  It has been rightly said that though the laws of physics explain many things in the universe, one of the things they do not explain is the existence of such laws.  In contrast, the late Stephen Hawking has written that “because there is a law of gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”[3]  He uses this logic to get around a creator, but such a statement begs the question: why is there a law of gravity anyway?  Paul’s answer: because Jesus Christ created it!

Now such descriptions don’t fit the idea that Jesus Christ is a creature just like you and me.  They are properly descriptions of someone who eternally shares the very nature of God. 

Of course, some pseudo-Christian groups will argue that God created Christ, and then Christ created everything else.  The Jehovah’s Witness actually insert the word “other” in their translation in verse 16.  But that is not what Paul says here.  He says that “all things” absolutely were created by him; in other words, if it was created, Christ created it!  This precludes the idea that Christ is a created being, unless you are willing to believe that he created himself.  In fact, Paul goes on to be as inclusive as possible: he created all things “visible and invisible.”  This includes angelic beings (cf. 2:15, 18).  Christ is the creator, not just of dirt clods and mountains and animals and people; he is also the creator of the invisible unseen world of angelic beings.  This precludes the idea that the Son of God is an angelic being, even if he is supposed to be the first and greatest of them all.

Now let’s consider some of the other descriptions Paul gives to Christ in these verses.  First of all, he is said to be “the image of the invisible God” (15).  Now man in general is said to be the “image and glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7).  After all, human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).  However, when mankind fell in sin, the image of God in man was effaced; consequently, one of the goals of redemption is the restoration of the image of God in man (cf. Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).  However, in Rom. 8:29, Paul says that “whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”  Putting Rom. 8:29 together with these other passages, we see that being recreated in God’s image is the same thing as being recreated in the image of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  How could this be?  It is possible because, as Paul says here, Christ is the “image of the invisible God”: that is, he is the perfect representation and likeness of God’s nature.  “Christ is then the image of God in the sense that He is like God. Indeed, He is the exact likeness of God, like the image on a coin or the reflection in a mirror.”[4]  He is like God because he shares God’s nature, being God’s Son.  As such, his being God’s image didn’t begin with the incarnation; he has from eternity been the perfect image and representation of God.

The author of Hebrews uses a similar expression to describe the Son of God in the opening words of his epistle: “…in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the world of his power” (Heb. 1:2-3, ESV).  To call a mere creature the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature is ridiculous.  These words describe the eternal Son of God, who shares deity with the Father and the Spirit.  This verse is very important for another reason; the phrase “the radiance of the glory of God” points to one of the illustrations the early church fathers used often to illustrate the fact that though the Son is distinct from the Father, he shares the undivided nature of God, like a beam of light from the sun.  You look at the sun and you see light; you are bathed in its light through the beams of light it sends to earth.  The beam is not the sun, but they both share the nature of light.  Thus, in the Nicene Creed, Christ is said to be “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of the same essence as the Father.” 

Second, Paul writes that Christ is “the firstborn of every creature” (15).  Now here the heretics will pounce.  “Firstborn” can indicate the first of several sons to be born, and so they want to take this to mean that Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creatures.  In other words, they want it to mean “first created.”  But this is not what Paul is wanting to convey; nor is it what the words means.  Rather, he is wanting to convey the ideas of pre-existence and preeminence.  Being created, or even having a beginning, is not the point here.

In the ancient eastern culture, the firstborn son had certain privileges and status that the younger sons did not have.  Hence, over time, “firstborn” came to denote priority in rank, sometimes without respect for time.  This can be seen in a number of OT uses.  For example, in Exodus 4:22, the nation of Israel is called God’s firstborn, even though Israel was not the first nation God created.  Or, in Ps. 89:27, king David is also celebrated as God’s firstborn, although he was the youngest of Jesse’s sons. 

So here, when the apostle says that the Son of God is the firstborn, he is not making any statement about the creation of Christ, but rather that he is pre-existent to and preeminent over all creation (cf. ver. 18).  “Firstborn,” doesn’t mean “first created,” but first in position and rank over all creation.  As the creator of all things, he is its Lord and King.  Even if the term carries with it temporal connotations, as James White points out, in any case the term does “not speak to creation but to birth, and such a term could easily refer to the Son’s relationship to the Father, not to any idea of coming into existence as a creature.”[5]  The Son is the Son of God the Father, and as such is eternally begotten of the Father.  Though it is difficult to know what this means exactly, it in no way points to the Son as having a beginning at some point in time.  As N.T. Wright points out, though the word firstborn “conveys the idea of priority in time and rank . . . to opt for temporal priority does not imply that the pre-existent Son of God is merely the first created being. … It is in virtue of this eternal pre-existence that the Son of God holds supreme rank.”[6]

In verse 18, the apostle explicitly ties the idea of being “firstborn” to preeminence: he is “the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.”  The point here is not just that Christ was the first to rise from the dead, but rather that in his rising from the dead, he has done something definitive and as the result holds first place over all.  He has not just risen from the dead: he is the resurrection and the life. 

The point of the apostle is to show that Christ is first over all, preeminent, exalted.  This is not the description of a creature, but of the Creator over all: God eternal.  As Brian Hedges has put it, “Paul’s argument for the Son’s supreme status and authority as the image of the invisible God, the ruler over all creation, the head of the church, and the firstborn form the dead now culminates in this exalted claim.  As the Lord of creation and new creation, the Son holds complete supremacy and claims full rights of ownership.”[7] 

It should therefore not surprise us that the apostle goes on to write, “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” (19).  What does this mean?  Given what the apostle will say in 2:9 (“For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily”), the fulness here is God’s fulness.  (ESV translates, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”)  Though we are invited to pray that we might be filled with all the fulness of God (Eph. 3:19), the fullness there is not that of deity as it is here, but the fullness of the communication of God’s love to sinful men.  Again, to quote N.T. Wright, “It is appropriate that Christ should hold pre-eminence, because God in all his fullness was please to take up permanent residence . . . in him.  The full divinity of the man Jesus is stated without any implication that there are two Gods.  It is the one God, in all his fullness, who dwells in him.”[8]

What difference does it make?

Some might say, and have said, “But what difference does it make, as long as we believe in Jesus?”  Well, it makes a world of difference.  To believe in Jesus doesn’t mean anything unless you believe in the Jesus who is revealed to us in Scripture.  We need to understand that we are not called to believe in a man of our own imagination who just happens to have the name Jesus, but that we are called to place our confidence in the Christ who is revealed to us in the pages of the New Testament.  Paul himself exhorts the Colossian church, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (2:6); in other words, as you received him as preached by the apostles, live your life in that faith (cf. 1 Jn. 4:6).

Moreover it is serious because a Christ who is not God cannot do what is at the heart of our faith: namely, faith in a Savior who has conquered sin and death for us.  A mere man cannot be a substitute for others in this case, for he cannot bear your guilt before God and punishment upon himself, and he cannot purge your sin.  Yes, it takes a man to stand in for another man (the reason the animal sacrifices of the OT were insufficient), but it takes God to completely atone for our sins.  Think of it: if there it a hell that is the just punishment for sins, how could any mere man quench the fires of hell for other sinners, let alone himself?  If God is infinitely holy and our sin is infinitely heinous and deserves an infinite punishment, then man alone cannot atone for sin.  Only an infinite God could bear an infinite punishment.  In other words, in order for atonement to happen, a God-Man must be our substitute.  This is the heart of the Christian faith.

This is why the apostle, having said about Christ what he said in verses 15-19, can go on to say, “And having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven, and you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight” (20-22).  Only the God-Man of verses 15-19 can accomplish the reconciliation of verses 20-22. 

Because Christ is the God-Man, we can have absolute confidence that he has actually and completely purged the sins of all who put their faith in him.  First of all, he has “made peace through the blood of his cross.”  Peace with who?  Certainly, given what he writes in Eph. 2, and verse 21, this is peace with God.  This is a peace that goes both ways, for God is no longer our enemy because our penalty has been paid, and we are not longer enemies toward God because one of the effects of the atonement is not only justification but also sanctification, so that our hearts are changed and we love God instead of hate him.  The effect is summarized in verse 22: “to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.”

Moreover, since Christ is creator over all, his work of reconciliation extends to all his creation.  By the cross, he will not only bring about salvation for sinful men and women but will also finally bring all the fallen elements of creation into harmony and peace (cf. Eph. 1:10). 

Finally, note the finality of redemption: “having made peace.”  On the cross, our Lord’s last words were, “It is finished!”  He is a successful Savior; he will have the price of his redemption.  Therefore those who trust in him can be fully assured that their sins will be completely purged.

All this makes sense only if Christ is the God-Man.  We can see clearly from these verse that the apostle Paul believed in the deity of Christ with just as much conviction as the apostle John.  Let us too, join with the apostles in a firm belief in the full deity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father shares the undivided nature and essence of the Godhead.  But let us go further: for the demons believe and tremble.  Let us go on to love him, to trust in him, and to obey him.  Faith without works is dead.  What we need to live the Christian life in any day and any place is that firm confidence, bestowed by the Holy Spirit, that rests in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  And the witness of Scripture is that all who place their faith in him will never be ashamed.



[1] Quoted in Nick Needham, Two Thousand Years of Christ’s Power, vol. 1 (Christian Focus, 2016), p. 228.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Quoted in John Lennox, God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? (Lion Hudson, 2011), p. 16.  There are several problems with this statement, including the fact that if there is a law of gravity, then there is something, not nothing.  Moreover, to say that the universe creates itself is to make the remarkable claim that the universe existed before it existed, which is absurd to say the least. Hawking was far, far more intelligent than I will ever be or even could be, but baloney in the mouths of the brilliant is still baloney.
[4] Curtis Vaughan, Colossians and Philemon (Zondervan, 1980), p. 38.
[5] James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Bethany House, 1998), p. 113.
[6] N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: TNTC (IVP, 1986), p. 71.
[7] Brian Hedges, Christ All Sufficient: An Exposition of Colossians, (Shepherd Press, Kindle Edition), loc. 754.
[8] Wright, p. 76.

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