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Colossians (2013)

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Colossians  1:15-29

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Colossians 1:15-18 NASB  (15)  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  (16)  For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions 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)  He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.

 

The Icon

It is fairly easy to understand that God, the creator, must be in any sense invisible. The universe is composed of all forms of matter and energy; to the best of our knowledge we cannot see anything, in any sense physical, unless it is composed of either matter or energy or both. It is intuitively obvious that whoever or whatever created the universe cannot be made of the same stuff as the universe — otherwise; the creator would be part of the created universe. That’s nonsense. Therefore God cannot be seen — and has good reason in the Ten Commandments to prohibit the creation of a graven image to be worshiped. No statue or pottery could possibly picture the creator of the universe.

We are told that it is possible to see God, however. Christ tells us this in the Beatitudes when he says that blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Apparently the proper instrument for seeing the spiritual God is the spiritual human being. This is all well and good, but it leaves most of us rather flat. We don’t learn too well from being pure in heart and seeing God. The reason for that is relatively simple: how do you get to be pure in heart if you can’t see a good example of it?

If we are to be imitators of God, we have to have something to imitate. God has provided that in the person of Jesus, the Christ. Paul tells us here that he is the “icon” of God — that is the original word in the Greek. It’s tempting to equate this to a computer icon, and there are some similarities. But the truth is much deeper and more complex. The doctrine of the church has always been that Jesus of Nazareth was, is, always has been, always will be God in the flesh. To see him is to see God. I am not quite sure how this is done — but we celebrate it every Christmas. So if you want to know what God looks like in human form, you look at Jesus of Nazareth. The fundamental moral dictate of Christianity has always been the imitation of Christ, God in the flesh. But that is hardly the end of the story.

Role in Creation

We are told here that Christ is the firstborn of all creation. The word itself, prototokos, is perhaps better translated as “first fruits.” You can see the connection in that we say that a tree bears fruit as a woman bears a child — we have the same parallel in English. This would’ve resonated with the Jewish members of the church, as they would’ve seen firstfruits as something dedicated to God. The firstborn would also resonate with them, because in Jewish law the firstborn gets twice the inheritance of all the others and becomes the patriarch of the clan when his father dies. Moreover, to call someone firstborn implies that there are others; and we shall see that the orthodox doctrine is that Christ is first in the resurrection, but we shall follow.

What is actually astounding is that this same Jesus is said to be the agent of creation. He is, in the philosophical sense, the immediate cause of creation itself; the guy who did the work. Note, please, that this includes not only the physical universe (matter and energy) but also the spiritual aspects of the universe. He gives life to all things spiritual — Angels, fallen Angels, cherubim, Seraphim and human beings. The reason this is astounding is that we find them within the universe which he created. This is become a movie theme as of late; the idea is that the inventor of the game somehow transports himself into the game. In fact, our society’s ignorance is so profound that some of the people who are fond of such movies have accused the Christians of stealing the plot. It goes further than that; not only is he the immediate cause of the universe he is also the teleological cause — he is the reason the universe was created in the first place. Let that sink in for a moment.

He is said here to be “before all things.” It’s a little difficult to speak of someone being in existence before time, because the word “before” implies the existence of time as a sequence. But it’s probably the best way that Paul could put it; time did not exist when Christ did. The physics of this must be very interesting. But it does bring to our minds the fact that the word “eternal” does not mean the same thing as “endless.” It is the compound of two words in Greek which mean “not affected by time.” We remember that one of the characteristics of God as revealed in the Old Testament is that he is unchanging — that is to say, unaffected by time. That same characteristic is shared by Christ.

We're not done with the physics yet. “In him all things hold together.” He is the glue that keeps the universe running. The reason gravity works this morning the same way it did yesterday morning is that he will sit to be so. There is nothing in the laws of physics and says the gravity cannot change tomorrow morning at 9:32 a.m. — yet physicists continue to plan on gravity being exactly the same. It comes back to his unchanging nature — the universe, his artistic creation, reflects the artist. The artist is eternal; the laws of his universe are unchanging.

Head of the Church

What we have said so far is quite a mouthful; Paul is not done. In his description of Christ he has saved the most important thing for last. You might well ask what could possibly be more important than the universe. His answer would be — the church. The church is the climax of his list. Why? It’s because the church is the body of Christ, designed to live forever — to be eternal, like God. The universe will end. The church will not.

Therefore, in that most important spiritual organism Christ has the supremacy as well. The church is his body; he is the head of that body. This is a point about which much dispute has been raised, particularly between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants, who take the Scriptures as their sole guide, see Christ is the head of the church. Catholics, who add to the Scripture, see the Pope as head of the church.

You don’t get to be the head of the church — at least in the Protestant sense — without reason. Christ is the firstborn from the dead. It’s the same word again; he is the first person to be raised from the dead into the new body which we shall all someday have.[1] He is first by right of accomplishment.

The purpose in mentioning this is so that you will know that Christ is preeminent in all things righteous and good. This is why the imitation of Christ is the first principle of Christian conduct — for he is always worthy of our imitation.

Reconciliation

Colossians 1:19-23 NASB  (19)  For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him,  (20)  and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.  (21)  And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds,  (22)  yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach--  (23)  if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.

 

Reconciliation at the Cross

“It was the father’s good pleasure” — an elegant expression this is, meaning that it was God’s will. This is not something that happened unintentionally; the Cross was planned before hand, not invented on the spur of the moment. Its purpose was quite simple: to reconcile all things to himself. This means that not only did he reconcile human beings, but all of creation to himself. The curse laid upon the land at the sin of Adam is now lifted at the cross of Christ. So it is that we are reconciled with God the Father.

The word used for reconcile in this passage could be better translated, perhaps, as “reconcile fully.” This is not a partial reconciliation but a complete one. We use the word in two senses, both of which are valid in this context:

·         The first is in the familiar emotional context of reconciliation — usually accompanied by an outpouring of forgiveness. We say that two people who have been arguing are reconciled by forgiving each other. This reconciliation is an extension of that; it is God forgiving us. In this reconciliation he erases our sins.

·         The second is perhaps less familiar to us, but what have been familiar to the Jew of the time. The law was quite specific about what sin was; you can’t just generally forgive people of things, you have to forgive them of specific sins. The books must balance, the accounting must be right. We sometimes forget that reconciliation is also an accounting term — and the people of this time would’ve understood that. It would mean to them that every specific sin they had ever committed was forgiven, by name and in detail.

If you want to convince someone that you’ve accomplished something which does not necessarily show immediate results, you at least must show them the mechanism by which you did it. If the doctor says you will recover from the infection, you want to see the bottle of antibiotics. You want to see the mechanism by which the healing is done before you will have faith in it. The mechanism by which the healing of your sins is accomplished is the blood of Christ, shed at the Cross. Now you know how it works.

Note, please, that this reconciliation is for “all things” — and he specifically says that this applies to things on earth and things in heaven. You might wonder why he would have to include heaven. But consider it this way: suppose your sins were committed against someone who is now dead and gone. By what mechanism could you possibly seek forgiveness? The answer is found in the blood of Christ, the blood of the innocent Lamb of God. The person who is dead cannot be forgiven without the blood of Christ anymore than you can be. He thus becomes the intermediary between those we have sinned against two are now gone from us and ourselves.

Alienated

Stop me if this sounds too familiar. One can be an alien in a number of different ways. We use the word for a lot of things; for example, little green men from outer space are referred to as aliens. Why is this? Because they don’t belong on this planet (assuming they exist.) We also speak of people who come from another country as being aliens, a particularly if they are not on the path to become citizens. You go from being an alien to our resident to a citizen in our country. But until you become a citizen you are excluded from certain parts of our life, at least in theory. For example, you’re not allowed to vote.[2] Have you ever considered what alienates you from God? Paul tells us right here:

·         The first thing is a hostile mind. Think about some of the people you know who think that Christianity is ridiculous. They are not been used by your beliefs; they ridicule them and actively attack them. If you were a Buddhist, they would not. Nor would they attack you if you were a Moslem. Did you ever wonder why?

·         A hostile mind to God inevitably leads to evil deeds. These things keep you separate from God because you like to hang on to them — and they like to hang on to you. You know how it works; once you’ve done something evil, you have to justify it to yourself. Without God’s forgiveness, it’s the best option you have.

But things are changed — you’ve become a child of Christ. Now, Paul tells us, you are fit to stand before the throne of Almighty God. Let’s take that in a simple example. Suppose, somehow, that you are invited to appear before the Queen of England to be knighted for your services in some sense or another — let’s say you are a rock star. How would you dress for the occasion? I’m not sure what the right protocol is; you might have to buy a tuxedo. But whatever you were, it would be fit for the occasion; you wouldn’t wear your sweat suit and running shoes. It would be very embarrassing if you just didn’t have the clothes at all. How much more, then, is a great thing to know that you are fit to be presented to the Lord of the universe! What could possibly a change to make you so fit to see the God of the universe?

·         First, you are now holy. That doesn’t make you a plaster saint; it means that you been set apart for God. He’s reach down into the common run of humanity and pulled you out and set you aside for his own purposes. You are one of his; you are fit to appear before Him.

·         You are also blameless. The word actually means “without blemish.” I’m not sure we could say this means “without scars.” But it does mean that God is cleaning up our act.

·         Finally, you are “beyond reproach.” What this really means, in the original, is that you are not accused of anything. The reason for this is quite simple; God has told your accuser (Satan) to shut up about you.

If You Continue

All of this blessing and benefit is conditional, as you will notice. It’s not something you can acquire once, but in the photo album, and then go back to living the way you used to. In fact, Paul uses for different ways to say the same thing: you have to continue in the faith.

This makes simple sense. Have you ever had the doctor tell you that you have to take all the pills in the bottle? It’s a common practice of antibiotics that they tell you to finish the prescription, take all the pills, and don’t let the infection come back. The same thing is true with faith; you’re going to have to continue in the faith for the rest of your life if it’s going to be effective.

How do you do this? He tells you here simply that you should not move away from the hope of the gospel. We need to understand what that is. The word “gospel” in the original means “good news” — and the good news in question is that of the hope of the resurrection of the dead. Look at it this way: why should you behave? If the answer is because there may be some vague hereafter, that’s not very much motivation. But if the answer is that those of us who follow Christ faithfully will rise from the dead in physical form, then we have a lot more motivation. God knows we need it.

Rejoice in Suffering

Colossians 1:24-29 NASB  (24)  Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions.  (25)  Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God,  (26)  that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints,  (27)  to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  (28)  We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.  (29)  For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.

 

Do My Share

Paul uses an unusual phrase here: “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Have you ever considered that the suffering of Christ was not sufficient? It’s so appears to be. That, then, would imply that there is some suffering on our part which is necessary; we have our share. That’s something that’s not usually mentioned to new Christians, who are often given the impression that life is going to be a bowl of cherries once they become a Christian. Those with more experience at it have not noticed this particular phenomenon.

Indeed, part of Christianity is stewardship — the idea that God is going to give you a task to perform, a responsibility to carry out. Anyone familiar with this concept knows that stewardship implies a certain amount of suffering. You think not? Have you ever been a father or mother? It is probably the most responsible form of stewardship that most of us will ever get. We often feel a lot of joy in being mom or dad (or grandma or grandpa), but there’s a certain amount of pain that goes with it to. If you’re going to be apparent, you’re going to suffer. Surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to deter most people from becoming parents. It’s just possible that some benefit to this.

Of course, suffering becomes much more bearable when it has a purpose. Those who go to the gym regularly and work out are familiar with the phrase, “no pain, no gain.” You know that you have to sweat and suffer if you’re going to get your body to do what you want it to do. Suffering with a purpose is better. And what is the purpose that Paul gives us here? That we can fully carry out the word of God — in our personal lives, as evangelists to those we meet and as examples to those who look up to us.

Mystery

Paul tells us here that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a mystery hidden up until his time. We need to remember that the modern mystery novel is a relatively recent invention, and Paul’s use of the word mystery is different than the way we would use it today. The distinction is important:

·         We use the word mystery to describe a certain type of problem which is solved in the terms in which it is presented. The solution is neat and tidy, but most of all it is a deductive solution. You figure something out. You follow the clues and determine who did it. It is an analytic solution.

·         Paul’s use of the word mystery is to signify something which has been concealed — and which may be well beyond our capability of “figuring out.” It’s something that’s hidden. There may be clues, but the solution is not analytic or deductive. The solution is creative; God makes something new.

What is that new thing? Simply this: the Gentiles will share in the kingdom of God. Think how radical that must’ve been to the early Jewish Christians! For all their lives they’ve been told that the Jews of the chosen people of God, and the Gentiles are nothing but fodder for the fires of hell. If you’re not Jewish, you can’t go to heaven, God will not bless you, and you are not one of the exclusive, chosen people. More to the point, there’s nothing you can do about it. That same stage of God’s revelation did not make clear — though there were some hints — that the resurrection of the body was something that would actually happen. That is what Paul calls here “the hope of glory.” The word glory has faded from the English language lately, but sometimes there’s nothing else that can be used to describe such a thing. The resurrection of the dead is indeed the hope of glory.

For This Purpose

We said earlier that suffering is much easier when there is a purpose to it. What then is the purpose of the Christian life, as Paul sees it?

·         First, it is to proclaim Christ. The great commission is quite clear: we are to reproduce ourselves. We are to make disciples. This can’t be done without proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Son of the living God.

·         We are to do this with “all wisdom.” In other words, we are to give it our best effort, using every technique and bit of knowledge and sagacity that we possess. We are to behave as if everything depended upon us.

·         But at the same time we are to realize that everything depends on him. We are to do this in his power, not in our own.

As Paul put it elsewhere:

Philippians 2:12-13 NASB  (12)  So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;  (13)  for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

 


[1] The reader should note that the church which the author attends has moved to the "emerging church" theology — which now denies the physical resurrection of the dead. The author disagrees. However, that physical resurrection is not the doctrine taught from the pulpit or endorsed by the eldership. Local readers in particular should know this and be aware of the difference.

[2] In the state in which your author lives it is a common fact that aliens frequently register to vote, which is technically illegal. This does not alter the argument of how things should be.

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