This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Colossians 1:15-23
Sermon prepared by Rev. Erick Schuringa, Waterdown, Ont.
This is a sermon about the basics. It is about appreciating one of the most basic truths of the Christian faith: knowing Jesus.
First, some background.Colossians was written to a church that Paul did not start. It was started by one of his disciples, Epaphras. Acts 19 tells us that when in Ephesus, Paul ran into opposition in the city and so withdrew and taught some disciples — these in turn went and planted churches in nearby towns and cities. The church of Colosse was probably started in this way.
As churches tend to experience, the church at Colosse started to have disagreements. Different leaders pulled in different directions until Epaphras called upon Paul, in Rome, to tell him what was going on. Paul wrote this letter in response.
The issue is often called the Colossian heresy, which is simply another way of saying "the problems dealt with in the book of Colossians." There were numerous issues dealt with and not one specific problem. You might say the Colossian heresy was a colossal heresy.
Not knowing these people, Paul is rather general in his writing, which helps us get a brief picture of the basics of Christianity. Colossians is a basic "curriculum for Christ-likeness" or "discussion on discipleship". This letter teaches us the basics of who we are in Christ and then challenges us to live accordingly.
Against that background, this letter speaks to the church today. The church in this time needs to recapture its distinctiveness. We are in grave danger of becoming part of a cultural Christianity. That is, a situation where Christianity and the broader culture look quite similar. We are called to be salt and light — affecting the world from within, without simply fitting in.
Henri Nouwen comments on what often happens in the church and in the leadership of the church: "We simply go along with the many musts and oughts that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy." (The Way of the Heart New York: Ballantine Books, 1981, p. 10)
The people of the church can be so focused on their activities that they forget their very purpose as Church: to celebrate Christ and make disciples in his name. We engage in good activities and after some time begin to think that it is the activity itself that counts. But the purpose of any activity is to teach us to go and make disciples of all nations. (Matt 28: 18-20)
Being a disciple is going beyond doing what we are supposed to, it is going beyond knowing our traditions and professing right beliefs. Being a disciple is about giving ourselves to Jesus day by day in accordance with those beliefs.
And so it is not surprising that the Colossian curriculum for Christ-likeness starts (after an opening word of thanksgiving and prayer) with a discussion of who Jesus is. We need to be clear about who Jesus is, because anyone holding a half-formed belief in the son of God cannot understand the gospel. We need to be diligent about getting to know Jesus — know Jesus not only as an intellectual exercise, but as a heart-changing, life-shaping discovery of a full and abundant life.
Colossians 1 gives us some pictures to ponder.
"He is the image of the invisible God." Paul starts with a paradox, an apparent contradiction. An image of the invisible. How many of you have seen an invisible image or an image of something invisible. It makes one think of an artist holding up a blank sheet of white paper and naming it "Snowy white owl in a snowstorm" or "cotton balls on a white sheet in the clouds".
The image of the invisible God. That is the amazing thing about Jesus — he is God incarnate — God in carnal or fleshly form. No one has ever seen God, for God is Spirit. Yet Jesus says, "if you knew me, you would know my Father also." Jesus is the image of God. He is a picture of God. The God we cannot finally fathom, and who commands us not to try to make images of Him, comes to us in tangible, touchable form in Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 1:3 puts it like this: "The son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being." Jesus is exactly God — and he came and lived and walked among us.
John 1:18 "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." A fleshly word. What is that? Say a word and see if it becomes a living thing. Say "dog" — doesn't produce a dog, does it? Jesus as God walking among us is the miracle of a word taking on physical fullness. God created with his words. He said "let there be light" and there was light. Only God could give us himself as one of us. Jesus is the image of the invisible God.
Jesus is the firstborn over all creation. The Jehovah's Witnesses make a lot of this phrase saying that if Jesus is the firstborn of creation he cannot be eternal with God because he is born. They want to say that Jesus is the first creature, that he is created and therefore not God and you should not worship him. But they are missing the point. Firstborn is not about being born, but about being the heir. The firstborn son is the heir of all that belongs to the Father. He is not the first birth of the creation, but firstborn over — the heir over creation. As firstborn he has the role of being the inheritor of all authority. It is about his position, his greatness.
That truth is backed up by the next words, the beginning of verse 16: "For by him all things were created." That same verse ends "all things were created by him and for him." Verse 17 continues "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Clearly Paul wants to leave no doubt of the standing of Jesus. He is over all things. Jesus is the creator. He is not created in the image of God as we were, but he is the creative word that made all things. Jesus is the firstborn of creation, not in the sense of being born, but in having the claim of authority over all things. The claims of the Father are also the claims of the Son — because they are one in a way more intimate than anything we might imagine.
All of this is a very clear and strong way of saying that Jesus is God — he is co-creator with God.
Verse 18 says, "He is the head of the body, the church." What this means is that the head of all creation is also the head of the church. The powerful creator of this world came in human form and started the organization we know as the church. He is the head of this gathering and of us people who are the building blocks of that body, the church. That is an essential claim. We have as our head the one who created the world. We have as our teacher and guide the one who designed the planet and gave it a purpose.
Think of it this way. You are having trouble with your car. To whom do you go? Do you go to someone who says, "I know how to drive that car better than you do. I have more experience than you do and I even wrote a book about it." Or do you go to the one who can say "I designed that car. I came up with the idea of an internal combustion engine, made it from scratch and added all the other features that make it a precision vehicle."
Likewise with life. If you struggle in life, do you turn to someone who says, "I'm just a fellow traveler with you. I have different experiences, but yours count as much as mine." Or do you turn to one who says "I am the way, the truth and the life" "I created life, designed it and called it into being." Put that way, the choice is pretty clear.
Jesus is more than a fellow traveler and more than a distant unknowable god. He is a new beginning. In Jesus we have God himself walking with us and guiding his body the church.
"He is the firstborn from among the dead." First he was firstborn over creation. Now he is firstborn of the dead. Again this is about being the heir. But this time the heir inherits the gift of life.
Jesus is the firstborn heir of life. He is the first one to be more than resuscitated. We might want to point to Lazarus as someone who was born from among the dead before Jesus. However, there is this difference. Lazarus would die again. His was a miraculous healing from death. It was a powerful act of God. Yet Lazarus would have to go to the grave. Jesus was the first to be born again from the grave in the new glorious body. Jesus was born from among the dead never to die again.
The firstborn will have many younger brothers and sisters. Those who believe are sons and daughters of God and co-heirs with Christ. John 1:12 & 13 tells us "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God."
Jesus, the creator of all things is head of this gathering, the church, and is also the one who conquered our greatest enemy, even death itself.
After the four statements of who Jesus is, we hear about his status and his role: "so that in everything he might have supremacy." Christ as God is the power over creation — he has supremacy there. Christ is the head of his body the church — he has supremacy there. Christ conquered death as firstborn from among the dead — he has supremacy there.
The power of God over heaven and earth comes to us in our gracious Savior Jesus Christ. This is a profound mystery: God himself taking on human form and coming to live among us. "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him." (verse 19) God did this because he loved his world, his creation, his creatures — us, enough to want to rebuild a healthy relationship with us. In the words of verse 20 "to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven."
After emphasizing how great and supreme Jesus Christ is over all things, Paul ends his sentence and paragraph with a shocking twist. How did this all-powerful over heaven and earth, Son of God heal his relationship with creation? "Through his shed blood on the cross." Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was great, particularly in light of the fact that he had everything. He had it all, but for our sake he was despised and rejected, beaten and spit upon, pierced and crucified. By his shed blood we are saved. What a savior!
That is the Gospel in a nutshell. Jesus as fully God and fully man reconnects the fullness of God with the fullness of creation.
"These are the facts as we have received them – these are the things that the Christian believes." (Psalter Hymnal #511) However, the whole point of discipleship is to recognize that these are more than facts to be memorized. There is no multiple choice quiz at the end of time. Heaven is not about passing a Bible knowledge test at the end of time, but about passing a love test today. Do you really know how great Jesus is? Learning about Jesus is not so that we can win an argument with the Jehovah's Witness at the door. We need to learn about Jesus so that we can be in awe of his greatness. For when you know him you grow in your trust of him.
Jesus is great over all things. He knows everything there is to know about this world and about life here and hereafter. If Jesus is really the master mechanic of the human body, the professor of life studies, the wonderful counselor and the mighty God — where are you going to go when you are having trouble in some area of your life?
Discipleship is about following Christ. It is about knowing that he is the master of more than morality. He is master of the world. By the Holy Spirit, he can guide you into truth and wholeness. It is one thing to speak the truth about Jesus, it is a far greater thing to live out that knowledge.
It has been said, "we have to go beyond believing our confessions, we must confess our beliefs." That is, we need to do more than repeat what we have learned, we need to speak of a living relationship with the living head of the church, Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus is more than memorizing facts, it is believing that in this person is the supremacy in all things. Sometimes we want others to tell us what we believe so we can simply take in a fact. But our journey of discipleship is about connecting at the very core of our being with the one who created us and saves us.
As a practical application let us consider how we interact with people of other beliefs. For example, it has been mentioned a couple times that Jehovah's Witnesses have a different understanding of this passage and of Jesus. They deny that Jesus is God. Understanding with our mind alone will not be enough in a discussion with them. In fact, many Christians feel that the reason they have difficulty in a discussion is because they do not know enough. If this causes you to study God's Word more, great. But the fact is, you won't help a Jehovah's Witness simply by playing their game. They draw you into a game of meanings and interpretations.
Eventually you need to turn to the real source of your strength, Jesus himself. Tell them that you are so in love with him as the one who reveals himself as God and who went to the cross for us that you can't believe anyone would want to talk you out of it. Tell them that you feel sorry for them that they feel a need to fix mental errors when the real issue is God's love and ours in response. What we do not want to do is try to beat them at their own game — as if our ability to argue better than they do is what will win the battle.
The real question is this: if Jesus is the firstborn of creation and the firstborn of the dead, the head of the world and of the church, if all things are under his feet — then who do you think is the one who will change things in this world, in this country, in this church, in your family, in your life? Only God in Christ, by the power of his Spirit. He is Lord, he is risen from the dead and he is Lord. Unless you grab onto that truth and do all in your power to better know that person, you have missed the gospel.
Why study discipleship? Why engage in the disciplines of the Christian life? Because you believe that there is no one greater and therefore there is nobody else who can help you in every situation. Don't do religion. Don't simply believe a set of confessions, believe in Jesus Christ — if he is the one the Bible claims he is — then make job one in your life getting to know him better and experiencing his love more deeply. There is no other purpose that outweighs this relationship. Unless we hang onto and live by that truth, we will miss out on the full joy of Christian life. We have as head of the church, Jesus Christ, the Son of God himself, who came to show us the way to life now and forever.
Proposed Order of Service
God Gathers His People
Call to Worship/Prayer for the Service
Opening Hymn: #238, “We Come O Christ to You”
Our New Life in Christ
Call to Confession: #262, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”
Words of Confession: Lord's Day 5, Q & A 12-14 (responsively)
Song of Assurance: #497 “How Vast the Benefits Divine”
God's Way: Q&A 15-18 (responsively)
Hymn of Dedication: #479, “I Will Sing of My Redeemer”
God Speaks His Word to Us
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture: Colossians 1:15-23
Sermon: “Knowing Jesus”
We Respond in Gratitude
Hymn of Response: #247, “All Glory Be to God on High”
God Sends Out His People
Closing Song: #633, “He is Lord”