SERIES: Colossians: Christ is the Answer
The Primacy of Christ’s Supremacy
SCRIPTURE: Colossians 1:15-23
SPEAKER: Brad Harper
Introduction: Almost a hundred years ago the famous World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago. Even in those pre-automobile days some 21 million people visited the exhibits. One of the major features of the exposition was the World Parliament of Religions in which representatives of the world’s great faiths met to share their best points and possibly come up with a new world religion.
The great evangelist D. L. Moody saw this as a great opportunity for evangelism. He and his associates preached all over the city to thousands. Moody’s associates wanted him to attack the Parliament of Religions for its watered-down message. But Moody refused, saying, “I am going to make Jesus Christ so attractive that men will turn to him.” Moody knew that there is nothing so powerful as the simple message of the supreme and all-sufficient Christ to draw people to true faith. As it turned out, more people came to Christ during this campaign than at any other time in Moody’s ministry.
In virtually all of his letters the apostle Paul finds a way to remind believers of this most important fact in all human history: Jesus is Lord. In the book of Colossians Paul sets the tone for the whole letter with an exposition on the lordship and supremacy of Christ. It’s a passage which spells out in no uncertain terms who Christ is and what he has done. It leaves the believer with plenty to think about in regards to all that means to our daily lives.
Let’s read Colossians 1:15-23:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
As pastor Mike mentioned last week, at least part of Paul’s motivation for writing this letter was to address a heresy that was creeping into the church at Colosse. We don’t know exactly what that heresy was. The emphasis of this passage leads many to believe that Paul was challenging an early form of the heresy called Gnosticism which affirmed that Christ was not really God, but rather he emanated from God to create the world, kind of like a god with a small “g.” Furthermore, salvation was not by anything Christ did, but by the attainment of an esoteric spiritual knowledge of the kind to which Christ himself had attained.
In this passage Paul shatters such a low view of Christ by affirming his absolute supremacy.
The scope of Christ’s supremacy
As Paul surveys the scope of this truth, he begins by proclaiming that …
He is supreme in eternity. He does this by affirming that Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” “Image” is the word from which we get the English word “icon.” An icon is a religious portrait, but the Greek word goes further, suggesting that Christ is not just an external portrait of God, but that he is the manifestation of God’s very nature. The writer of Hebrews reiterates this idea when he states that Christ is the “radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his being.” (Hebrews 1:3)
What Paul is saying to these Greek Christians is, “Look, Christ is not just some demi-god messenger of the real God to be worshiped along with a million other gods. He is the eternal visible manifestation, in every aspect, of the invisible God of the universe. He is not some arbitrary production of God; he is God made visible.”
The Colossians needed to hear that Christ was God in the flesh because they were being taught otherwise and doubts had developed. But how can this reality affect those of us who already know, and have long been committed to, this very basis fact of the Christian faith? For us, this affirmation can remind us that if we want to get a picture, an image of what the invisible and untouchable God is like, we can look at Jesus. Jesus reminds us that the awesome and unfathomable God of the universe is a God of compassion, love, and sacrifice who can truly understand our needs. In Jesus, I can know God and draw close to him.
Next, Paul affirms that Christ is not just supreme in eternity, but is supreme over all creation.
He is supreme over creation. Paul tells us four things about Christ’s supremacy over creation. First, he says that Christ is the firstborn over all creation. “Firstborn” is a term which in ancient culture signified the place of highest honor, power, and significance. It was to the firstborn male child that virtually all the power of the father passed. So also, all the power and honor of the Father is given to Jesus.
Some cults have tried to make this passage say that Jesus is the firstborn of creation, signifying that he was a created being and not God at all. But surely Paul’s next affirmation eliminates such a possibility. For he says Christ is the creator of all created things. Paul addresses every possible category of created beings—those on earth, those in heaven, those we can see, those we cannot see, whether earthly rulers or angelic powers. Christ is none of those things but, rather, is the creator of all those things. He echoes the statement of the apostle John in the first chapter of his Gospel, where he says “without [Christ] nothing was made that has been made. ” So, Christ could not have been made, for he is the maker of all that has been made.
Third, Paul tells us that Christ not only created all things, but that all things were created for him; thus, he is the goal of all creation. Everything was created for his glory. Now that’s a wonderful theological reality, but what does it really mean to me? Think about it for a moment. You are a creation of God, sitting right there in what my friend George Andrews calls a 75-minute seat because no human should be asked to sit in these dreadful chairs for even one more minute.
You are created to bring glory to Christ. Christ himself finds joy in you. He looks at you with an attitude which says “What a marvelous person I have created! With every godly act and intention of your heart you make me so pleased. Sometimes I even gather the angels together to see you and say to them, ‘Look at how this creation of mine chooses to do what is good and righteous.’” We were created for the glory of Christ. And what greater power and honor could we be given than to be able to bring glory and joy to the creator of the world simply by living our lives to honor him?
Finally, Paul says that Christ is the sustainer of all created things. As the ancients wondered what makes the stars and planets move in an orderly fashion, so scientists today wonder what it is that keeps the elements of an atom in harmony. Paul tells us that it is Christ.
At the bottom of whatever natural explanations there are for the fact that the universe does not just fly apart is the sustaining power of Christ, the creator. In fact, it was this very belief which served as a major factor in the scientific revolution after the Middle Ages. The creators of the scientific revolution were primarily Christians, who believed that the world could be understood by man only because it was created and held together by a reasonable God.
Having illustrated Christ’s supremacy over creation, let’s examine the third area where Paul explains that Christ was supreme.
He is supreme in the church. In verse 18 Paul says, Paul continues to narrow the focus of Christ’s supremacy. He has gone from the endless breadths of eternity, to all creation, and now to a specific realm of humanity, the church.
I believe what Paul is doing here is thinking back to an illustration he used earlier in 1 Corinthians 12, where he likened the church to a human body with the members making up the various parts. The head of that body is Christ. What is the significance in the fact that Christ is the head of the church in this bodily illustration? First, it signifies that the union between Christ and his church is very intimate. Christ is so closely connected with his believers that he is actually part of our group. So it is that Christ could affirm that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, there he is also.
Second, it signifies that the church is the means by which Christ carries out his work in the world. Though Christ is the head of the body, he is only the head: he is not the arms or legs or hands. What that means is that whatever Christ is going to do in the world until he returns, he will essentially accomplish it through us. It’s mindboggling to think that he wouldn’t have some kind of backup plan, but we’re his only chosen method for reaching the world. That means that if my co-worker, or my doctor, or my neighbor is going to hear about Christ, I might have to be the one to tell him. For Christ will most likely not speak to them in a blinding flash of light or supernatural skywriting. It’s a sobering thought!
Finally, Christ being head of the church means that believers are part of a living organism and are vitally joined. What makes us so vitally connected is not the similarities between us all in terms of how we experience life, though there are surely many of those, but simply the one overwhelming fact that Jesus is Lord of each of our lives and is Lord of the Church.
A couple of nights ago I was listening to Dr. Dobson’s program when Chuck Colson was his guest. Chuck had just been lecturing at Harvard University, where he was appalled to find that when he spoke of universal absolute truths, it was almost as if no one knew what he was talking about. He went on to comment that he believes that one of the greatest factors tearing at the fabric of this country is an almost complete loss of the concept that there is any such thing as absolute truth.
The growing perception of the relativity of all truth in our country continues to leave us with less and less of universal significance to bind us together. But of course, this is not the case in the church, or at least the evangelical church. Sadly, Colson related that over 5O% of people surveyed in evangelical churches felt that there was no such thing as absolute truth. How can this be in light of Christ’s statement that he is the way, the truth, and the life?
Friends, even in the church we have been affected by this relativizing trend. And though surely even the scriptures do not teach that all truth is universal, or that everything which is true for you is true for me, they do teach us that the foundational truths of life are universal. The paramount of all those truths is that Jesus is Lord. And it is that truth which we must concentrate on in the church more than any other. We will not all have the same agendas, standards, or visions for our homes, our careers, or for the church. We will disagree about a lot of things. But the more we elevate the importance of our own agendas, the less we focus on the one universal truth which alone can solidly bind us together—that Jesus is Lord of the church. I believe Paul would tell us that a commitment to focus on this one universal reality is the only thing which can maintain a healthy unity between the diverse membership of a very imperfect body.
At this point Paul goes into a transitional statement. In vs. 19 he begins to tell us that God had an eternal purpose and that there is great benefit for the human race which results from the supremacy of Christ.
The specific benefits of Christ’s supremacy:
Believers are reconciled to God. Only God himself could bring reconciliation to a world which was separated from him. Only the supreme creator could bring peace to a world which was helplessly and unalterably at war with him.
Having stated in general terms that Christ in his supremacy brought reconciliation to the world, he then brings this truth right down to his reader’s own level. He tells them, in effect, “In fact, youwere once alienated from God. Your behavior was antagonistic to his ways. And you knew that, but you frankly didn’t care. So not only your behavior, but even your attitude about it made you God’s enemy. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death (because you believe).”
So, what does it mean to be reconciled? Paul’s own words explain it in 2 Cor. 5, where he remarks, “…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them…. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Reconciliation was accomplished when God took our sin, which separated us from him, and placed it on Christ that he might pay its penalty of death in our place.
It is just possible that here we see an aspect of Christ’s supremacy which is even greater than his ability to speak the universe come into being. Here we see the supremacy of his love. For Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” While we made ourselves Christ’s enemies, he counted us his friends and died for us.
The story of God’s love for us in Christ is one that we in the church hear again and again, but how can we ever tire of hearing it? The ultimate dilemma of the universe is that a holy God created humans for a loving relationship with him and then gave them the ability to forever ruin that relationship by sinning, which he knew they would do, seemingly destroying whole purpose of the endeavor right from the start.
But as Dorothy Sayers has commented, “Whatever the answer to the problem of evil, this much is true: God took his own medicine.” Only God, only the supreme Christ could solve the problem. And he did it at the cost of his own life. It’s a story we should repeat in the church again and again, as the hymn writer has said, “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love.”
So the specific benefits of Christ’s supremacy include the fact that believers are reconciled to God. But there is a purpose and benefit even beyond that. In addition to Christ’s unique and supreme ability to take all of our sin upon himself, he alone is able to make believers holy before God.
Believers are made holy before God. Now I must confess to you something which, I’m sure, is no great revelation. When I look at God and then look at myself, I don’t feel very holy. In fact, I usually feel distinctly unholy. So how is it that the work of Christ on the cross has made us holy? I believe this takes place in three ways or stages. Notice first that we are to be presented holy in God’s sight. So there is one sense in which how we see ourselves is not really the issue; it’s how God sees us that matters. What this tells us is that Christ’s power of reconciliation is so great that God can actually see us as totally forgiven and righteous persons even though we continue to sin.
A second way believers are made holy before God is what may be called “progressive sanctification.” It’s the process of becoming more objectively like Christ in the real world. In the passage Mike dealt with last week, the Apostle Paul tells the Colossians that he prays that they will grow in their knowledge of God. Here we have an indication that God will be working in us for our entire lives in the process of becoming more like Christ.
Finally, there will come a time, when Christ returns and we are with him forever, that stages one and two will culminate in a third stage, where we will be both holy in God’s sight and holy in reality. For, as the apostle John writes, “When He comes, we will be like him, for we will see him just as he is.”
I want to share something about being made holy by Christ that is most encouraging to me. Paul notes that Christ has made it possible for us to stand before God without accusation. People who know me well can point to my life and make plenty of valid negative accusations. And my wife, who knows me best, can probably point out at least three or four negative aspects of my character and behavior. But the fact is, because of Christ I can stand before God in the midst of my sin and, just as Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, God can say to me, “Brad, you have no accusers. You are forgiven and free. Go and sin no more.” As we all take a sober look at our shortcomings and sin, what reality could be more encouraging?
Now we come to the final thought of this passage, a postscript, if you will, on Paul’s discussion of Christ’s supremacy.
A challenging postscript on Christ’s supremacy: the benefits of Christ’s supremacy require an ongoing faith.
Paul has expounded on the wonder of Christ and his work on our behalf and explained that he alone could bring us these benefits of reconciliation and holiness. But then he throws in a zinger. He exults in the supremacy of Christ and joyously proclaims to us, “You were enemies of God, but Christ has reconciled you to him and has presented you and will continue to present you before God holy and blameless … if, you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.” Wait a minute, what’s with the catch?
As most of you know, the question of whether a believer can ever lose his salvation is an age-old one. And it’s a legitimate question, for the fact is that there are many passages in Scripture which indicate that a believer is chosen by God and secure, while there are others, like this one, which seem to place the condition of continued faith upon ultimate salvation. The tendency through the ages has been to choose which side you’re on and then just interpret all the challenging verses to mean something different than the plain sense would indicate. It’s much more healthy and honest, I believe, to teach each passage in light of its context and let the chips fall where they may.
So what does this passage mean? I hate to get technical, but in the original Greek language this is a first-class conditional sentence, which indicates that the writer assumes the stated condition will be met. In other words, Paul is saying, “…if you continue in the faith, and I assume you will ….” Paul’s emphasis in this whole passage is not on the responsibility of the believer but on the majesty and all-sufficiency of Christ and his work. Nevertheless, we must not just blow off this word of caution. What Paul saying here is that experiencing the benefits of Christ’s supremacy requires a true and, thus, an enduring faith. The price of Christ’s grace was too high for us to receive its fullness simply by mental assent to his deity, followed by a total lack of life commitment.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the courageous German pastor and theologian who gave his life for the church in a Nazi concentration camp writes: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin … are thrown away at cut prices…. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, … communion without confession …. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again. Such grace is costly because it … costs a man his life …. It is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life.” [i]
Bonhoeffer, I believe, echoes the sentiments of Paul, who would tell us that what God has done for us in Christ cannot be earned. Indeed, it can only be accomplished by the supreme God-man and received freely by believers. But its true reception is always accompanied by a living and enduring faith. Only by this faith do we receive the peace and joy that come from being reconciled to God and made holy in his sight.
Conclusion: So, what do we take home with us from such a majestically theological passage? First, we ought to take with us a reminder of just who this savior is who gave his life for us. Perhaps the words of a familiar hymn can stick with us today.
Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature,
O thou of God and man, the Son;
thee will I cherish, thee will I honor,
thou my soul’s glory, joy and crown.
He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He alone is worthy of glory, honor and praise. It is this one who has sacrificed his life for us.
Second, we must leave here honestly asking ourselves if his objective supremacy is being made real in our lives on a daily basis. Maybe you’re a Christian, but you feel distant from God rather than reconciled to him. Maybe you feel less holy than ever. And maybe you just don’t care. If you want to do something about it, maybe you just need to let Christ be supreme in your life again. The fact is that Christ is supreme whether we want him to be or not. He has risen from the dead and he is Lord.
Whether he is Lord of our lives is another story. My little boy loves the story of Cinderella. He loves the scene where she dances with the prince. And he loves to reenact that scene with me. But he always wants to be Cinderella. So he looks at me and says, “Daddy, you be the prince.”
Today we need to look at Christ and say, “You be the prince, you be the Lord, not me.” In so doing we, like Moody, will make Christ so attractive by our lives that others will not be able to resist him.
DATE: January 19, 1992
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, page number missing.