The Son Who Reveals and Rules (Advent 2018)
Passage: Colossians 1:15–1:16
The Son Who Reveals and Rules
I once heard a wise Christian man say that you can appreciate the importance of any particular doctrine by asking yourself, “What would the church lose if this doctrine were untrue?” That’s an insightful question. What would the church lose if the Scriptures were not inspired by God? We would lose much – knowledge of God, insight for life, truth for growing in holiness – just to name a few. What would the church lose if there were no physical resurrection of the dead, only a spiritual resurrection? Again, we would lose much, primarily the future hope of life as God meant it to be, in a physical world renewed and free from sin’s curse. You see, it’s an insightful question for appreciating biblical truth – what would the church lose if this doctrine were untrue?
So, on this first Sunday of Advent, I ask us this. What would the church lose if the Incarnation of the Son of God were not true? The short answer is everything. The church would lose everything if we lost the truth of the Incarnation. Without the Son of God taking on human flesh, we lose the doctrine of God, for we cannot know God rightly without knowing him through the Son. Without the Incarnation, we lose the doctrine of Scripture, for the Word of God written rests on the reality of the Word of God made Flesh in Christ. Without the Incarnation, we lose the doctrine of salvation, for only the Son of God in human form is able to provide the righteousness we lack and satisfy the wrath we deserve. Without the incarnation, we lose the doctrine of the church, for there can be no body of Christ apart from the person and work of Christ. We would even lose the doctrine of last things, for the second coming of Christ necessitates that he came first as the child in Bethlehem’s stable. You see, it is not an exaggeration to say that the church would lose everything if the Son of God did not take on human flesh in Jesus Christ.
In some sense this was the problem Paul confronted in the church at Colossae. The Colossians did not fully appreciate the centrality of Jesus Christ. They did not understand that everything – literally everything, as we’ll soon see – rested on the Incarnate Son of God. That’s why they entertained the ideas of the false teachers who infiltrated their church. That’s why they toyed around with the worship of angels and harsh bodily practices – because they did not grasp the centrality of the Lord Jesus. Their struggle to live for Christ owed to their deficiency in knowing Christ.
And that, in turn, is why Paul writes this letter. Or to be more specific, that’s why Paul writes these particular verses in chapter 1. The goal of these verses is to elevate the Colossians view of Christ. Paul writes here with a very specific strategy – to inform their minds with sound doctrine so that their hearts would then be renewed in worshipful obedience. Think of it like a house. In order for the Colossians to build a sturdy house of Christian living, they must first have a solid foundation of truth on which to build. That foundation is what they lack, to some degree, and that’s why Paul starts where he does. He knows their foundational problem is an anemic, inadequate view of Jesus Christ, and so, he presents to them, once again, the glorious reality of Christ’s person and work.
Now, before we look at the details of our verses, let me say a little about this section of the letter as a whole. Vv15-20 of Colossians 1 are sometimes referred to as a hymn of praise to the Son of God. Scholars debate whether Paul composed or adapted the hymn, but that discussion somewhat obscures the real beauty and purpose of this section. Here we have some of the NT’s clearest teaching on who Christ is in himself, as well as what he accomplished through his death and resurrection.
And this profound section begins in vv15-16, where Paul clearly lays out his theme. That theme is the Supremacy of Jesus Christ. Why should the Colossians reject the false teachers who minimize Jesus? Because, quite simply, Jesus Christ has unrivaled supremacy in and over all things. There is nothing in the universe that can compare to Christ, and therefore, there is nothing else the Colossians need in addition to Christ.
Specifically here in our verses, Paul highlights Christ’s supremacy in two areas – Revelation and Creation. Christ is the Supreme Revelation of God’s Nature, and Christ is the Supreme Ruler of God’s Creation. Let’s consider these magnificent truths together.
Christ is the Supreme Revelation of God’s Nature
First of all, Christ is the Supreme Revelation of God’s Nature. V15 begins with an incredible statement. Look again at v15. Paul writes, “He [that is, the Son] is the image of the invisible God.” At this point, Paul is drawing on the OT, something we’ll see he does frequently in this passage. He’s drawing on the clear OT teaching that human beings are not able to see God in all his glory. Think of Moses on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 33. Even though Moses spoke with God in a way unlike any other person, Moses still did not see God as he is in himself. Remember, Moses even asked God, “Please, show me your glory,” and do you remember God’s response? God said, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” That’s the background here in Colossians 1 when Paul speaks of the invisible God. It’s not simply that God is spirit and is therefore, by definition, unseen to human beings. That’s true, but Paul’s point goes deeper. It’s that humanity cannot see God because we are unworthy and unable to do so.
This is why Paul says in 1 Timothy 4.16 that God dwells in unapproachable light. In his nature, God is holy, but we, by nature, are unholy. And therefore, we are unable to approach God, unable to see him as he is in himself. This is also why the apostle John writes in John 1 that no one has ever seen God. Think about that. When people make absolute statements, we tend to be wary, and rightfully so. But when the Bible makes an absolute statement, we should pay attention. No one, John says, has ever seen God. He is the Invisible God, Paul says here in v15.
Before we go on, I want to stress that you have to take this limitation seriously, or else Paul’s point in v15 will be lost on you. On our own, we have no ability to know who God is and what he is like. To be sure, all of humanity has ample evidence that God exists. Creation, Paul tells us in Romans 1, is a clear and constant testimony that there is a Creator. But knowledge of God as Creator is not enough to save us, neither is it enough to sustain a relationship between Creator and creature. And so, I come back to Paul’s point here in v15, a point we must take seriously. On our own, we have no ability to know who God is and what he is like. He is the invisible God.
Now, with that limitation in mind, look again at Paul’s statement in v15 – “He [that is, the Son] is the image of the invisible God.” That is a statement of revelation, divine revelation in fact. As the image of the invisible God, the Son bears the exact representation of the Father’s nature. All that is true of the Father is true of his Son. And since the Father is eternally God, the Son has eternally imaged the Father as he is, for the Son is himself God. This is Paul’s point in the opening of v15. There is a unique relationship between God the Father and God the Son. All that is true of the Father is true of his Son, for the Son is his image. And therefore, Paul tells us, it is the Son and the Son alone who can reveal the invisible God to humanity.
But here’s the important connection – the key, really. How has the Son of God accomplished this work of revelation? We’ve yet to solve the hurdle of the invisible God, at least on our end. We see the unique relationship between Father and Son, but how, exactly, did the Son reveal the Father? Not through fire and thunder as at Mt. Sinai, a revelation that would lead to terror. Not through vague mystical visions, a revelation that would lead to misunderstanding. No, the Son of God humbled himself and revealed the Father by taking on our humanity, our flesh and blood. You see, the Incarnation of the Son is the answer to humanity’s ignorance and separation from God.
Do you see the grace of God here, brothers and sisters? When the invisible God determined to reveal himself, he did so in a way that we could comprehend. He did so in a way that was fitting for us fallible and feeble human beings. God revealed himself by sending his own Son, who is the image of his glory, the exact representation of his nature. That thought alone is staggering! But the gospel goes farther than that. God sent his Son in our humanity, to live and walk among us, to teach with words we could hear and miracles we could see, to heal the sick and welcome the children, to be present in this fallen world, and to then to die and rise again to new life in a glorified, flesh-and-blood body. The Son is the image of the invisible God, and amazingly, that Son has come to us by taking on flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, one of the truths I pray we remember each and every Advent is that to know Jesus Christ is to know the Living God as he is. There is no deeper knowledge of God beyond the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no deeper experience of God beyond the Lord Jesus Christ. To know Christ is the pinnacle of divine knowledge. In fact, all of God’s attributes – all of his perfections are seen most clearly in Christ. To know Christ by faith is to know God’s grace – that God took the initiative to come to us, to rescue us when we were hopelessly unable to come to him. To know Christ by faith is to know God’s love – that God would give life to unworthy sinners by giving them himself. To know Christ by faith is even to know God’s provision – that God would give his own Son, thereby assuring us that he will certainly give his people all that they need. This is truly stunning. The glory of God that was hidden and veiled in the past has now been fully revealed in the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, if you spend the rest of your days knowing Jesus Christ through his Word, then you can be assured that you know the fullness of life with God. Indeed, to know Christ by faith even today is to participate already in the eternal life God has provided for his people. How can this be? Because Christ is the image of the invisible God, and to know him, by faith, is to know the Father of glory.
Give yourself, then, to this pursuit. Listen to Paul’s nearly unfathomable words in v15, and be renewed in your desire to know this Christ. Pick up God’s Word each day and tell yourself, “Christ is the image of the invisible God, and this is Christ’s Word. Therefore, I can have confidence that I as take in this Word, I am communing with the invisible God through the revelation of his Son.” Brothers and sisters, what an unspeakable privilege! What unfathomable grace – that God would draw near in his Son, and then through that Son, that God would reveal to us his glory. If you are a Christian here today, this is where your life is found – in knowing God through Christ. So, give yourself to that pursuit!
But perhaps you are here this morning and you’re not sure if you are a Christian. Perhaps you are interested in spiritual things, but you’re never quite been certain that you actually know the truth. If that’s you, friend, then I would encourage you to consider what Scripture teaches here in Colossians 1. The quest for truth, according to the Bible, begins and ends with Jesus Christ. This is actually fundamental to Christianity – truth is found not inside of us or in our experience, but outside of us, in Jesus Christ. Experience is misleading; Christ never changes.
To know God, then, you must come to him through his Son, for only God can reveal God. I don’t mean this to sound harsh, but if you search for truth apart from Christ, it’ll be a never-ending quest that leaves you lost. Just look around at what this world teaches as spiritual truth. The only constant in the world’s teaching is that it’s always changing! Not so Christianity. Not so the teaching of the Bible. There is only one way to know God, and that is through his Son.
And the Bible is very clear on this. To know Christ, we must turn from our sin and trust that he alone is able to save. We must turn from sin and trust that the Son of God came down from heaven to die on the cross and rise again in victory over the grave. So, if you’re here this morning and you’re not sure if you’re a Christian, ask yourself, “Is Jesus Christ the foundation of my hope to know God? Am I trusting in Christ to bring me to God?” That’s where salvation is found, friend, and I pray the same God who sent his Son would work even now to give you faith in Christ.
Christ is the Supreme Ruler of God’s Creation
So, that is the first truth regarding Christ’s supremacy – he is the supreme revelation of God’s nature, for he is the image of the invisible God. The second truth is closely connected with the first, but Paul brings a different perspective. Christ is the Supreme Ruler of God’s Creation. If the first half of v15 described Christ’s unique relationship to God the Father, then the second half of the verse presents Christ’s unique relationship to the universe God has made. Notice again what Paul writes, the end of v15, still speaking about the Son – he is “the firstborn of all creation.” Now, pretty quickly, you’ll recognize this calls for careful thinking. We just spent several minutes considering how the Son is himself fully God, but in the very next phrase, Paul calls the Son the firstborn of all creation. So, how does this work? If the Son is the firstborn, how can he also be fully God? In fact, if you’ve ever had a Jehovah’s Witness come to your front door, then you likely discussed this verse. Groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses point to this verse and say, “See, Jesus was not fully God. He was just the first or most important of God’s creation. It says it right there in the Bible – firstborn of creation.” But that’s not at all what Paul means here in v15. The term firstborn has nothing to do with origins. Instead, Paul’s point is about rank and authority, so a good translation would be to say that Christ is the firstborn over all creation.
Now, how do we know that? How do we know Paul is thinking of authority rather than origin? The answer again is because of the OT. I hope you’re seeing the pattern here. While the apostles lived and wrote in first century Roman world, their worldview was formed largely by the OT Scriptures. So, it was the OT, even more than Greco-Roman culture, that shaped the writing of the NT. If you want to better understand the NT writers, then compare their words to the OT. In fact, if you want to better understand the NT for yourself, then read and read and read the OT.
Now, when we do that here with Paul in v15, we find a fascinating and illuminating connection with the psalms, Psalm 89 to be exact. In that psalm, the psalmist reflects on the relationship between God and Israel’s king. The king, according to psalm, is a descendant of David, but at the time of Psalm 89, the people of Israel were in distress. They were hard-pressed by enemies on all sides, and it looked as though the Davidic kingdom would soon come to an end. In the midst of that distress, however, the psalmist envisions the Davidic king calling out to the Lord God and even calling the Lord his ‘Father.’ Now that connection alone is striking – to think of the relationship between God and the Davidic king as being like that of a Father and Son.
But it is God’s response to the king that shines light on Colossians 1. In response to the king’s cry, the Lord God says this – “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” In the Greek OT, firstborn in this psalm is the same term Paul uses here in Colossians 1. You see, Paul’s not thinking about the origin of Christ in v15. The Son of God has no beginning, for he is himself eternally God! No, Paul’s thinking about Psalm 89. Paul is thinking of God’s promise to enthrone his King in the heavens, where he will reign over the entire universe. Indeed, that is Paul’s point here. Christ reigns over the entire created realm, just as God promised in the OT. It’s not origin, but rank, authority, sovereignty. Just as a firstborn son has the authority over his father’s inheritance, so also Christ has the authority over the Father’s universe.
Now, Paul is not finished with this line of thought. In v16, he explains how Christ can reign supreme over the creation. Notice what Paul writes, v16 – “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth.” That is a monumental statement! It was through the Son, Paul says, that the Father created the universe. To use a technical term, the Son was the Father’s agent in creation. It was through the Son that the Father’s creative power went out into the nothingness and brought into being all that was made. In fact, Paul’s point might even go further than that. It was not merely that the Father’s creative power went out through the Son, but rather that the Father’s creative power was in the Son. This is why the Son can be called the firstborn over all creation – because by him and in him were all things created.
Again, if you think about the OT, you can see how this truth has been present in Scripture from the beginning. Genesis 1 states that God spoke everything into his existence with words, and Psalm 33 declares that the heavens were by made by the word of the Lord. How does the apostle John describe Christ in the opening chapter of his Gospel account? As the Word who was in the beginning with God, the Word who was in fact God himself – the Word without whom was not anything made that was made. Do you see, then, the staggering depth of Paul’s teaching, a teaching that is rooted in the OT and then clearly explained in the New? The Son of God reigns supreme over the creation because, amazingly, the Son of God made everything that exists. If Christ made it, then Christ owns it and reigns supreme over it.
And Paul makes very clear here in v16 that there are no exceptions to Christ’s reign. Notice the phrases he piles up in the middle of the verse – “For by him all things were created” – What things, you ask? Things “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.” You see, there are no exceptions. Jesus Christ has no rivals. The mention of thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities is most likely a reference to the spiritual powers and angelic beings of the unseen realm. As we’ll see throughout the letter, it appears the false teachers in Colossae insisted that such powers be pacified, if not outright worshipped. But Paul makes clear that even these unseen spiritual powers are under Christ’s authority. That’s important. Paul does not deny that such beings exist; rather, he puts them in their proper place – under the rule and authority of Christ.
And so, the application for the Colossians becomes quite clear, doesn’t it? Why worship or follow something that is less than supreme? Why devote your life to anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ? Furthermore, there is no need to fear these spiritual powers because Christ has them on a leash, so to speak. They can only go and do as Christ allows. That is Paul’s point to the Colossians.
And that should be a great comfort to us as well. Living in the modern world, it can be easy to overlook this point, but our world is full of spiritual powers at work in the unseen realm. The devil is real, and he is prowling around like a roaring lion. We are locked in a battle against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. In fact, there is a sense in which the unseen world is more real and powerful than the visible world! It’s enough to make you tremble, isn’t it? You can understand why so many believers get worked up over things like angels and demons, and the specifics of spiritual warfare. Many folks, of course, go too far with some of that, but if you think about the reality of this world according to the Bible, you can honestly understand why. Spiritual powers are real, and it’s enough to make you tremble.
And yet, what does Paul tell us here? That even those cosmic powers are held in check by the Lord Jesus Christ – that every single spiritual being, whether good or evil, must acknowledge the authority of the Son of God. Again, brothers and sisters, there is comfort and confidence here for us. Our lives are not the mercy of the unseen powers of this age. For the Christian, our master is neither fate nor karma nor the devil. Our Lord is Jesus Christ, and he reigns over all things, for he made all things.
You know, I take this truth to be one of the key biblical prescriptions for living with courage. Have you ever noticed how often the Bible tells Christians to not be afraid? Why is that? Why does the NT so often tell Christians to not be afraid? Frankly, it’s because the world is a fearful place! How, then, do we have courage? How do we live without fear in this often-fearful world? By understanding these profound truths about Christ and the world he both created and rules. When we see Christ for who he is – the Sovereign Ruler of All Creation – then, brothers and sisters, we will know that we are secure in him. Then we will know that our salvation has been accomplished. Then we will find the courage to live in this world for the sake of the gospel and for the glory of God. You see, this isn’t merely philosophical stuff about good and evil. This is about how the church finds the courage to hold fast to the gospel and to devote ourselves to the mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is supreme over all things, even the powers of the unseen realm, and therefore we do not have to be afraid.
There is one more element to Paul’s teaching in v16 that deserves our attention. It is the last phrase of v16, and we’ll close our time with this. Notice where Paul ends v16 – “all things were created through him and for him.” So, Paul repeats what he said earlier – that all things were created through Jesus Christ. But then Paul adds a different note. Not only is Christ the One through whom the Father created the universe, but Christ is also the One for whom the Father created all things. This is essentially the point of the entire book of Colossians – actually, the point of the entire Bible! All things exist for the glory and honor and praise of Jesus Christ. From the highest mountain peak to the lowest point of the ocean floor, from the mightiest beast to the tiniest molecule, from the greatest empire to the lowliest village, from your life to mine – everything exists to bring praise to Christ.
Now, we’re going to unpack this more next week, but I want to close today with this thought. If all things exist to bring glory to the Son of God, then using your life to magnify Christ is to join with God in fulfilling the purpose of all creation. It is never a waste to grow in knowledge of Christ. It is never a waste to deepen your love for Christ. It is never a waste to labor for the sake of Christ, whether in your home, your workplace, or half way around the world among people who have never heard the name of Jesus. None of those things is a waste, for all things were created for Jesus Christ.
So, I’ll close by encouraging us with what I said earlier in the sermon. Give yourself to this pursuit. Give yourself, day after day, to knowing Christ and making him known. He is supreme in that he reveals the Father to us. He is supreme in that he reigns over the universe. He is supreme, and all things exist for him. So, brothers and sisters, may we join with the Triune God in fulfilling the purpose of all creation – to bring glory and honor and praise to the Son. Amen.