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Lesson 5: Christ Preeminent Over All (Colossians 1:15-20)

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November 29, 2015

In 1835, the great British preacher, Charles Simeon, then in his seventy-sixth year, stood in his pulpit at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge and cited from Colossians 1:18 (KJV), “That in all things He might have the preeminence.” Then he added, “And He must have it; and He will have it; and He shall have it!”

Those impassioned words were repeated to Bishop Handley Moule from memory in 1868 by one who had been there. He reported that Simeon actually rose in height as his soul straightened his body to bear witness to the Redeemer’s glory. The effect was powerful, as seen by the fact that the man could remember the scene and the words 33 years later (H. C. G. Moule, Colossian and Philemon Studies [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 84).

In approaching a text like Colossians 1:15-20, I wish I could preach like Charles Simeon. This passage is one of Paul’s most profound and powerful descriptions of the person of Jesus Christ. One of the most important early church controversies over the person of Christ centered on these verses. Arius, an early church heretic, used “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) to argue that Jesus was the highest created being, but not equal with God. The modern followers of Arius, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, do the same. It’s ironic that the enemy would take the very passage Paul wrote to extol the preeminence of Jesus Christ and use it to pull Him down.

As I stated in the first message on Colossians, we can’t be sure about the exact nature of the false teaching that had infiltrated the Colossian church, but it seemed to denigrate the person and work of Jesus Christ. They may have been teaching that He is not fully God, but rather is the highest of a series of emanations between God and man. They taught that He wasn’t supreme and sufficient for the Christian life. In one of the greatest Christological texts in the New Testament, Paul forcefully shows that…

Christ is preeminent over all that is.

In verses 15-17, he shows that Christ is preeminent over His natural creation, the universe. In verses 18-20, he extols Christ as preeminent over His spiritual creation, the church. To put Jesus as the first created being, higher than any other created being, is to undermine our salvation. As Bishop Moule also stated (preface to Robert Anderson, The Lord from Heaven), “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.” The only proper place to put Jesus Christ is that of supreme preeminence over all, because He is the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh for our salvation.

While Paul is arguing against weak theology, he is doing much more. As Moule also wrote (ibid., p. 73), Paul “is not only discoursing, still less discussing; he is worshipping.” For Paul, theology was not an interesting philosophic topic to debate. Theology always led Paul into worship as he contemplated the excellency and glory of Jesus Christ.

If we miss this sense of wonder and adoration, we’ve missed the heart of the passage. Part of the wonder, as Bishop Moule again reminds us (p. 79), is that the person of whom Paul spoke had so recently lived in a Galilean town and suffered a violent death outside the walls of Jerusalem. The apostles, who had spent time with Jesus when He was upon the earth, wrote of His earthly life and teachings. “Yet,” as Moule says, “in the same breath, and without the slightest apparent strain or effort, they speak of Him, they deal with Him, as the Lord of heaven and earth, nay, in this passage, as the infinite Cause and adequate End of all finite existence” (ibid.).

It’s crucial that we think properly of Jesus Christ. If we don’t view Him as the absolute and sovereign Lord of the universe, we will be inclined to disobey or disregard Him to our ultimate ruin. Martin Luther saw this when he wrote,

If anyone stands firm and right on this point, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, who died and rose again for us, all the other articles of the Christian faith will fall in place for him and firmly sustain him.

So very true is Paul’s saying that Christ is the Chief Treasure, the Basis, the Foundation, and the Sum Total of all things, in whom and under whom all are gathered together. In Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.

On the other hand, I have noted that all errors, heresies, idolatries, offenses, abuses, and ungodliness in the church have originally arisen because this article or part of the Christian faith concerning Jesus Christ has been despised or lost.

Clearly and rightly considered, all heresies militate against the precious article of Jesus Christ. (Cited in “Timeless Insights,” Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, May, 1986, p. 32.)

Paul shows us first that…

1. Christ is preeminent over His natural creation, the universe (Col. 1:15-17).

A. Christ is preeminent over the universe because He is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15a).

Paul means that Jesus Christ makes the unseen God visible. The Greek word, “eikon,” was used of the image of Caesar on a coin. The average person couldn’t see Caesar, but by looking at a coin, they could see what he looked like. Though the word itself does not necessarily imply a perfect image, both the context and many other Scriptures demand that meaning here. God who is spirit (John 4:24) is not visible to the human eye (1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27), but as F. F. Bruce put it (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 57), “In him [Christ] the nature and being of God have been perfectly revealed.”

The Apostle John expressed it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.... No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:1, 14, 18). Jesus told His disciples, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Hebrews 1:3 says of Christ, “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.”

This means that there is no other way to know God than through the person of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” There are not many ways to God. There is only one way—Jesus Christ. Any teaching that makes Jesus less than God in human flesh is not the teaching of Jesus Himself or of Paul and the other apostles. Christ alone is preeminent over all the universe because He alone is the image of the invisible God.

B. Christ is preeminent over the universe because He created it and sustains it (Col. 1:15b-17).

Col. 1:15b: “He is the firstborn of all creation.” As I said, Arius and the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret that to mean that Jesus is the first of all created beings. In Arius’ words, “There was a time when he was not.” But they are wrong for several reasons. First, Paul immediately explains what he means by the term (Col. 1:16): “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.” “By Him” should probably be translated “in Him,” meaning, that Christ is the sphere in whom all things were created. “God’s creation … takes place ‘in Christ’ and not apart from him” (Bruce, ibid., p. 62). “Through Him” means that He is the agent of creation. “For Him” points to Christ as the supreme reason all things were created, namely, for His pleasure and glory.

The Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation [Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York], rev. 1970 ed.) inserts “other” before “all things” at both the beginning and end of that verse (plus twice in vs. 17 and once in vs. 20), even though it is not in any Greek manuscripts. They inserted that word there because it’s obvious that if Christ created all things visible and invisible, then He Himself is not created. As John 1:3 puts it, “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” The fact that Christ created all the invisible powers also shows that the Colossian heretics who advocated angel worship (Col. 2:18) were in error. They should worship the Creator of angels, not the angels He created.

So in the immediate context, Paul means that Jesus Christ has absolute priority over all creation because He existed before it. He states this plainly at the beginning of verse 17: “He is before all things.” This means priority in time. The present tense is similar to when Jesus told the Jews (John 8:58), “Before Abraham was born, I am.” The Jews got the message, as seen by the fact that they picked up stones to stone Him.

Another reason that “firstborn” does not mean that Jesus was the first created being is the broader context of the New Testament. In John 5:18, the Jews were seeking to kill Jesus “because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” If they had misunderstood Jesus’ claims, as a good Jew He surely would have replied, “God forbid! I would never claim to be equal with God!” But instead, He goes on for many verses making claim after claim that only God could make. For example, He said (John 5:22-23), “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” No creature could utter such bold words!

On another occasion (John 10:33), the Jews said that they intended to stone Jesus “because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” Again, Jesus didn’t deny their charge, but rather defended His claim. On yet another occasion, when Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins, the Pharisees reasoned (Luke 5:21), “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” Precisely! Jesus went on to back up His authority to forgive sins by healing the man. And at the climax of John’s Gospel, when Thomas saw the risen Savior, he exclaimed (John 20:28), “My Lord and my God!” Jesus did not rebuke him for blasphemy, but rather commended his faith. So the wider context of the New Testament shows that “firstborn” cannot mean, the first creature.

Beyond that, “firstborn” in the Old Testament referred to the heir and ruler over his brethren. It refers to being first in rank. The firstborn was preeminent over his brothers and sisters. In Psalm 89:27, God says of the Davidic King, the Messiah, “I also shall make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” Thus Jesus is supreme over not only all the kings who have ever reigned, but also over all creation, because He created it.

Not only did Jesus create all that exists, He also sustains it (Col. 1:17): “In Him all things hold together.” This is similar to Hebrews 1:3, which asserts that Jesus “upholds all things by the word of His power.” It means that if Jesus decided to “let go,” the entire universe would disintegrate! Douglas Moo (The Letters to the Colossians and Philemon [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 125-126) explains,

What holds the universe together is not an idea or a virtue [as in Platonic and Stoic philosophy], but a person: the resurrected Christ. Without him, electrons would not continue to circle nuclei, gravity would cease to work, the planets would not stay in their orbits.

He goes on to explain that the Colossian heretics were probably telling people that they needed to find coherence by pursuing their teaching. But, says Moo, “Paul wants them to understand that things make sense only when Christ is kept at the center.” Thus Paul’s first point is that Christ is preeminent over His natural creation, the universe.

Before we look at Paul’s second main point, I need to point out that the theory of evolution, including so-called “theistic” evolution, robs the Lord Jesus Christ of His rightful preeminence as the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists. We should look at God’s marvelous creation, from the smallest level to the enormity of the universe, and worship Him for His greatness! Paul described evolutionists to a T when he wrote (Rom. 1:22), “Professing to be wise, they became fools.” Any rational person should be able to look at something as obviously designed as a gnat, let alone the human body, let alone the entire earth, let alone the universe, and conclude that it did not happen by sheer chance over time!

Yet I have read of evolutionists who seriously say that elephants grew trunks because as they grew bigger and were further from the ground, they needed a tool for browsing for food. “So the trunk was born—probably emerging from the upper lip and the nose …” (Reader’s Digest [4/05], p. 168). Seriously? And evolutionists tell us that 17-year cicadas appear only every 17 years because they developed a sophisticated strategy for survival! Really? Did they get together and vote on it? If they did, how did they actually pull it off? Evolution isn’t science—it’s just absurd! It’s an attempt to dodge the Creator.

2. Christ is preeminent over His spiritual creation, the church (Col. 1:18-20).

Paul makes three points here:

A. Christ is preeminent as the head of His body, the church.

Col. 1:18a: “He is also head of the body, the church.” Scholars debate the source of Paul’s conception of the church as the body of Christ, who is the head, but it may well have been Paul’s first encounter with the risen Savior on the Damascus Road when He heard the Lord say (Acts 9:4), “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Saul thought that he was persecuting the church, but Jesus said that he was persecuting Him (see F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free [Eerdmans], p. 421). To combat the Colossian heresy, Paul asserts that Christ is the head of His body, the church, to set forth His supreme authority over it (Eph. 1:22-23). The members of the body must submit to the head as sovereign.

The analogy has many other ramifications, of course. Just as the head and the body are inextricably joined, so we are united with Christ. Just as the body has many members with different functions and yet is one body, so also the body of Christ. Just as the body is dead if separated from the head, so the body of Christ must draw its life from Christ as it depends on Him.

B. Christ is preeminent as the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.

Col. 1:18b: “And He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” Christ as “the beginning” means that He originated the church. It wasn’t the brilliant idea of the apostles. Rather, it was the creation of Christ Himself. Just as Christ created the first man, Adam, in His image, so He created the new man, the church, in His image (Col. 3:10). It is a corporate man, consisting of the redeemed from various races, but where “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).

Christ as “the firstborn from the dead” points to His resurrection as the first of its kind, supreme over all other resurrections. Although other resurrections from the dead are reported in Scripture, all of these people died again. Jesus alone has been raised with an indestructible resurrection body that is a type of the bodies that we will receive at His second coming. Our new bodies will not be subject to disease, aging, or death (1 Cor. 15:42-44; Rev. 21:4).

The result of Christ’s being “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,” is “so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” Because Jesus died for our sins and God raised Him from the dead (Phil. 2:9-11), “For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

C. Christ is preeminent as the only means of reconciling all things to God.

Col. 1:19-20: “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 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.”

Note three things:

1) Christ is qualified to reconcile all things to Himself because the fullness of deity dwells in Him.

Douglas Moo (ibid., p. 132) paraphrases this, “God in all his fullness has chosen to dwell in Christ.” God’s “good pleasure” points to His eternal decree. Bishop Lightfoot has a scholarly, 16-page excursus on the word “fullness.” He concludes (Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [Zondervan], p. 159, 265) that both to Paul and to the Colossian heretics, the term conveyed the idea of “the totality of the divine powers and attributes.” The heretics claimed to offer “fullness” to the Colossians that Epaphras’ message had lacked. Paul counters by saying that you can’t get any fuller than Christ, because all the fullness of God dwells in Him. As he later states (Col. 2:9): “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.”

2) Christ is able to reconcile all things to God because He made peace through the blood of His cross.

Some erroneously teach that this means that all people and even all demonic forces will someday be saved. But that contradicts many other Scriptures (e.g., 2 Thess. 1:6-10; Matt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 20:10-15). Rather, by “the blood of His cross” Christ made peace with His former enemies whom the Father had given Him (Eph. 2:11-22; John 6:37). And through His death and resurrection, Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities, triumphing over them (Col. 2:15). Someday every knee will bow, some willingly, some forcibly, to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10).

3) Christ’s reconciling all things to God includes both things on earth and things in heaven.

Some explain this by saying that there is a sense in which even the holy angels need reconciliation. But rather, Paul here is probably referring to the new heavens and new earth which will be restored to the glory that the first creation had before the fall of Satan and the demons and the fall of man. Because of sin, the creation was subjected to the curse and to futility (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 8:18-23). But Christ’s victory on the cross was the decisive turning point of history. It guarantees that Satan and his forces are defeated (John 12:31). When Christ returns in His final victory over Satan and all sinners, He will restore both the earth and the heavens to their original glory.

Conclusion

Paul wants every Christian and every person to know that Jesus Christ is preeminent. He is preeminent over His natural creation, the universe. He is preeminent over His spiritual creation, the church. God’s settled purpose is “that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:18b). But, does He have first place in your life? Does He have first place over your thought life? Does He have first place over your words? Does He have first place over how you use your time? Does He have first place over your finances? Does He have first place over your entertainment choices? Does He have first place in everything in your life? As Charles Simeon so forcefully put it, “He must have it! He will have it! He shall have it!”

Application Questions

  1. Can a person who believes that Jesus is not God (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons) be saved? Why/why not?
  2. Is “theistic evolution” a viable Christian view? Why/why not?
  3. How would you refute someone who argued that Col. 1:20 means that all people will eventually be saved?
  4. Why is the goal of solid theology not just knowledge, but worship? Set a goal to read a good theological book next year.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Christology

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