“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…” (Colossians 1:15-16)
How long has it been since you went outside at night and looked up at the at the stars in the sky? You know the feeling you get? Gazing at the stars, you begin to imagine how vast the universe is, and how small the earth is (and we are) by comparison. It’s a feeling like awe mixed with humility, and for those of us who know God there is amazement and praise mixed in too.
There’s a saying that was popular a few years ago: “Don’t tell God how big your problems are, tell your problems how big your God is.” In a way today’s scripture readings send a similar message. They all point to God’s absolute power, including His power to save. But I’m not sure the old saying is right about one thing: I think it’s OK to “tell God how big our problems are”. In Psalm 38 King David certainly does not hesitate to go into detail about how big his problems are! He’s passionate and descriptive, and I think God appreciates the honesty and directness. David also knows that in spite of the situation he finds himself in, his present and future are secure in God’s hands. He says in the end, “It is for you, O LORD, that I wait; it is you, O Lord, who will answer.” (Ps 38:15)
In his letter to the Colossians Paul likewise expresses confidence in God’s power to help and preserve his people.
The letter to the Colossians is an unusual one (as Paul’s letters go), in that he is writing to a church he didn’t start, to people he never met. The subject matter is also not typical for Paul. Many of Paul’s letters are written either as a follow-up to his missionary journeys, or to settle differences between church members. There’s none of that in this letter.
Apart from offering some fatherly advice on how to live a Christian life, Paul basically has two reasons for writing this letter:
- To prevent potential problems in the Colossian church, and
- To express his gratitude and some words of encouragement.
The potential problems in the Colossian church are only hinted at in the first chapter of Colossians. In later chapters Paul expresses concerns that the Colossians are surrounded by a culture in which other spiritualities and philosophies are popular topics of conversation and practice. He was also concerned that problems in the church a few miles away at Laodicea – mentioned in Revelation Chapter 3 – might spread to Colossae. (Paul intended that this letter be read in the church at Laodicea as well, as he says in chapter 4.) Paul begins to address these potential problems in our reading from this morning, but only by inference.
Paul also wants to send thanks and praise to this faithful church in Colossae. He leads off his letter saying “I have received glowing reports about you” – about your faith and hope and love for the saints. Paul is in prison as this letter is being written, and he takes great comfort and encouragement from hearing these reports… which are being given to him by the Colossian’s own pastor, who just happens to be sharing Paul’s jail cell! Paul and Epaphras are encouraging each other, keeping the Colossians in prayer, and together sending them a word from the Lord.
In their prayers for the Colossians, Paul and Epaphras ask the following: “that [the Colossians – individually and collectively] may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will… in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… so as to walk worthy of the Lord… pleasing to him… bearing fruit in every good work… increasing in the knowledge of God… be strengthened with all power… for all endurance and patience… with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified [them] to share in the inheritance of the saints.” (Col 1:9-12)
That’s a mouthful! But they ask with confidence, knowing who it is they are talking to. The saviour, Jesus, not only gives the Colossians a share in the inheritance of the saints, but gives them an anchor of hope that cannot be moved. Paul is sure of the Colossians’ salvation. When Paul talks about certainty and confidence, he immediately looks to Jesus. And starting at Colossians 1:15 Paul’s words become passionate and poetic – in the original Greek it almost sounds like Paul is singing. (In fact many Biblical scholars believe Paul was either quoting a hymn or paraphrasing one because the language is so beautiful.)
Paul says, “this Son of God, this Jesus, in whom we have redemption and forgiveness of sins: Jesus is _____.” Fill in the blank. Paul takes the phrase “Jesus is…” and runs with it. He goes on listing all things Jesus IS. Follow with me, beginning in verse 15.
Col. 1:15 – Jesus is… “the image of the invisible God.” The Greek word ‘image’ here is icon, which means pretty much the same in Greek as it does in English. Jesus is an image meant to convey truth about God and to inspire worship. You want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus!
Also in verse 15 – Jesus is… “the first-born of all creation”. In Jewish society (as well as in many others) the first-born has a place of prominence, of leadership. Paul is saying Jesus has THE place of prominence in all creation.
Col. 1:16 – Jesus is… “the one in and by whom all things were created” – and Paul goes on to list heaven, earth, what is seen, what is not seen, thrones, powers. In other words, everything! Everything was created “by Him and through Him and for Him.” Jesus is the source, the designer, and the means. All things created for his pleasure, everything that exists, everything we see, and everything that we don’t see. It’s all about Him!
Col 1:17 – Jesus is… “before all things, and in Him all things consist.” Everything that exists, exists in him. Jesus was there at the very beginning and has been taking care of creation ever since. Just as an aside: I’m not talking about creationism vs. evolution here. That’s not my point, and it’s not Paul’s point either. The point is Jesus is bigger than any human understanding. His is the first word, and His is the last word.
Col. 1:18 – Jesus is… “the head of the body, that is, the church” At this point Paul shifts from the greatness of Jesus in the universal sense to the Jesus who relates to us. Jesus is the founder and leader of our community as Christians.
Also in verse 18 – Jesus is… “the firstborn from the dead” Not just the firstborn in creation, but the first of us human beings to walk out of the grave alive, never to die again. His resurrection is the promise and down-payment of our own resurrection. Jesus has opened the door to eternity.
Col. 1:19 – Jesus is… “the one in whom the fullness of God is pleased to dwell”. This verse actually looks back to our Gospel reading for today. In Matthew 3:17, after Jesus is baptized, the heavens open and the Spirit descends and we hear God saying, “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” This phrase well pleased in Greek is the same word used in Col 1:19 – the fullness of God is well pleased to live in Jesus. This is why Jesus can say in John 14:9 “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” and in John 10:30 “I and the Father are one”.
Col. 1:20 – Jesus is… “the one who reconciles all things to himself, in heaven and earth, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Not by power; not by force; but with tenderness and love and self-sacrifice, the creator of the universe steps down from His throne, suffers, and dies to secure and restore all things, including you and me.
Col. 1:22 – Jesus is… “the one who reconciles us in his body through death, in order to present us holy and blameless.” Praise God!
How much of this depends on us? Not one thing.
Given all this as truth, then, what does Paul say to the Colossians? How would he have them respond?
Verse 23: “Be steadfast in faith” – ‘hold on to what you have,’ he tells them. Paul has said earlier in the letter how well the Colossians have been living their faith and their hope, and loving God’s people. Paul says, ‘keep on doing that’. He says, “not shifting away from the hope we have received in the Gospel.”
In these words Paul sounds a lot like the apostle Peter in his first letter, where he says, “By God’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you… who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (I Peter 1:3-5)
Peter and Paul agree. They say, ‘don’t let the so-called wisdom of the world distract you’. Stay the course. Continue in the faith; hold on to the hope of the gospel; and in the words of the English pastor Charles Simeon, “Rest assured that He who created and preserves the universe can – and will – preserve you and me.” AMEN
Sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Pittsburgh, Wednesday May 7 2014
Scripture texts: Exodus 19:16-25, Psalm 38, Colossians 1:15-23