The preeminence of Jesus (preaching resource for 11/20/22)

This post exegetes Colossians 1:11-20, the RCL Epistles reading for 11/20/22. It draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository Commentary) and Peter T. O’Brien (New Bible Commentary).

"Christus Pantocrator" by Wahra (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

Paul writes to the church in Colosse in large part to refute false teachers who were troubling the Christians there. These false teachers were not so brash as to deny the importance of Jesus. Instead they dethroned him, giving him prominence but not preeminence. According to their teaching, Jesus was but one of many “emanations” from God through whom men could reach God. It is this claim that Paul addresses and refutes in our Epistles reading today.

Focused on the grace of God in Jesus

We begin with Colossians 1:11-14: 

... 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Paul's prayerful desire here is that the Colossian Christians not be sidetracked by the false teachers who are blinding them to the reality of who they are, by grace, in Christ Jesus. Paul is assured that if they can grasp the gospel truth, they will have true spiritual insight which will lead to grace-based obedience characteristic of maturity in Christ. Note how Paul emphasizes that our relationship with God in Christ is a gift—it is entirely of grace. It is our heavenly Father who has “qualified” us to share our “inheritance” as God's dear children. We have done nothing to earn this inheritance—indeed, even our participation—our practical obedience--is through his grace by which we are “strengthened” and so enabled to have “endurance and patience.”  

It's God’s power (and not some “higher knowledge” as offered by the false teachers) that empowers our participation in God’s grace. Verse11 reads, in effect: “With all power being empowered according to the might of his glory.” Our participation in Christ's life and love is but a result of God’s power at work in our lives. Spiritual growth and maturity come only as we yield to God’s power and permit him to work in us. 

We usually think of God’s glorious power being revealed in great feats of daring, but the emphasis in this letter from Paul is on the rather quiet and unspectacular values of patience, long-suffering, joyfulness, and thanksgiving. It will be these qualities of character that will be so important for the Colossian Christians to possess if they are to avoid being duped by the false teachers.

Focus on Jesus and his preeminence 

The reality is that the Colossian Christians will not find these needed qualities of character by looking within--instead they need to look to Jesus, who possesses these qualities in abundance and, by the Spirit, shares them with his followers. Sadly, the false teachers were seeking to get these Christians to look away from Jesus to other sources. It was not that they denied the importance of Jesus. Instead what they were doing was dethroning Jesus--giving Jesus prominence but not preeminence. According to their heretical teaching, Jesus was but one of many “emanations” from God through whom people could reach God. It is this claim that Paul now proceeds to address and refute head on. He does so by making four dramatic claims about the absolute preeminence of Jesus. Through these claims, we also learn about our Lord and about the nature of all humanity in union with him.

1. Jesus is Savior (13–14)

We return to Col. 1:13-14 where we learn a great deal about Jesus' preeminence:
13 For [God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Paul is emphasizing the reality that humankind's slavery to sin cannot be solved by human philosophy or religion (which were being touted by the false teachers). Only God saves his creation, and does so only in and through Jesus, the Savior of all humankind (and of the entire cosmos). Here in verses 13 and 14, Paul gives a vivid picture of the saving work of our Savior—the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. 

a. He rescued us out from… (13a)
13a  For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness…
In verse 12 Paul spoke of “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” Indeed, it was the Father’s good will to “qualify us” to be recipients of his salvation in Christ. This salvation is a journey of deliverance into the “kingdom of light,” which is deliverance out from the “dominion [kingdom] of darkness.” Salvation is here seen as a rescue from the guilt and bondage of sin. This is far more than forgiveness of individual sins (though it includes that)—it is deliverance from the dominion of sin itself, which is the dominion of Satan. 

This idea of deliverance from Satan and his darkness was important to mention because the false teachers believed in a complex hierarchy of evil spirits that controlled the world (see Col. 1:16; 2:10, 15) and they had complex means by which to address this control. But for Paul, there is no need for such complexity. The gospel truth is as simple as this: God delivered humanity and all creation from sin through Jesus Christ. Jesus, alone, is Savior of all.

b. He brought us in to… (13b) 
13b …and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves,
The Greek word translated “brought” was used to describe the deportation of a population. Jesus did not release us from bondage, only to have us wander aimlessly. No, he ‘deported’ us out of the darkness of slavery into his own kingdom of light. God’s kingdom is none other than the sphere, or reign, of “the Son he loves.” At the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus, the Father declared that Jesus was this “beloved Son” (Mat 3:17; 17:5). This fact reminds us of the incomparable gift the Father gave to save us—his one and only, dearly-loved Son. It also reminds us that this kingdom which we have entered, in and through Jesus, is a kingdom of love as well as a kingdom of light.  

c. He redeemed us (14a) 
14a   in whom we have redemption…
Our rescue in Jesus can be compared to “redemption,” which means “to ransom a prisoner.” The price to ransom us is Jesus himself—indeed, our redemption is “in” him. Satan tries to keep us imprisoned—burdening us with false guilt and shame. But in Jesus, we are free. We have been ransomed; redeemed.

d. He forgave us (14b) 
14b …the forgiveness of sins.
Redemption is closely linked to the forgiveness of sin. The Greek word translated forgiveness means “to send away” or “cancel.” Christ not only set us free and transferred us into a new kingdom, but he canceled every debt so that we can never be enslaved again. There is nothing in our “file” by which we can be indicted. Knowing that we are forgiven—and that this forgiveness is accomplished fully and finally in Jesus, apart from our own effort or merit releases us from guilt and shame—makes it possible for us to fellowship freely and confidently with God—enjoying his grace, and seeking his will with no fear of failure or of condemnation. 

Jesus Christ is preeminent in salvation. No other person could redeem us, forgive us, transfer us out of Satan’s kingdom into God’s kingdom, and do it wholly through his own work, not our own. Praise Jesus!

2. Jesus is Creator (15–17)

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers 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.
The false teachers were very confused about the creation. They taught that matter was evil, including the human body. They also taught that Jesus did not have a real body since this would have put him in intimate contact with evil matter. The results of these false teachings were tragic, including extreme asceticism on the one hand and unbridled sin on the other. After all, if your body is sinful, you either try to enslave it or you give it free reign. In this section, Paul explains the truth of the fourfold relationship that Jesus has with his creation (all humanity included). 

a. He existed before creation (15) 
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
The term firstborn in Scripture does not refer to time, but to status. Jesus was not the first being created, since he himself is the creator of all things. Firstborn means “of first importance, of first rank.” Firstborn over all creation means both prior to all creation, and supreme over all creation. Jesus is not a created being; he is eternal God; the Creator.

Paul uses the word image to make this fact clear. In Greek, the word does not mean a “copy” but the exact representation. Jesus is an exact representation or revelation of God. He makes the invisible visible (John 1:18). As the writer of Hebrews affirms, Jesus is “the exact representation of [God’s] being” (Heb 1:3). Jesus was able to say, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Nature reveals the existence, power, and wisdom of God; but nature cannot reveal the essence of God to us. It is only in Jesus that the invisible God is revealed fully and perfectly. Since no mere creature can perfectly reveal God, Jesus Christ must be God. 

b. He created all things (16a) 
16a For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him…
Since Jesus created all things, he himself is uncreated. The word for, which introduces this verse could be translated because. Jesus is the firstborn of all because he created all things. It is no wonder that the winds and waves obeyed him, and diseases and death fled from him, for he is master over all. “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). This includes all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible. All things are under his command. 

c. All things exist for him (16b) 
16b  …all things were created by him and for him.
Everything exists in him, for him, and through him. Jesus is the sphere in which the entire cosmos exists. He is the agent through which “all things” came into being, and the one for whom they were made. Paul’s use here of three different prepositions is one way of refuting the philosophy of the false teachers. For centuries, the Greek philosophers had taught that everything needed a primary cause, an instrumental cause, and a final cause. The primary cause is the plan, the instrumental cause the power, and the final cause the purpose. When it comes to creation, Jesus is the primary cause (he planned it), the instrumental cause (he produced it), and the final cause (he did it for his own pleasure). Gnostic ideas about the nature of creation were way off base (Col 2:20–23). God’s creation, even though under bondage to sin (Rom 8:22), exists for God’s glory. 

d. He sustains all things (17) 
17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Jesus not only created all things, he sustains all things moment by moment. Some Christians object to the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” because they think that Satan and sin are in control. But that is not the true picture—Jesus made all things, he controls all things, and by him all things hold together. Indeed, it is our Father’s world, directed by the Father’s Son, Jesus.  As Paul said to the Athenian pagans, God gives us all (believers and non-believers alike), “life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25b). Indeed, it is “in him [that] we [all] live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  Jesus is sustainer of all—all that is, exists in and through him.

3. Jesus is head of the church (18)

18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
Contrary to the claims of the false teachers that Jesus was only one of many “emanations” from God, Paul insists that Jesus is the supreme one—the only way to God (John 14:6). He is the “head of the body, the church.” In Greek usage, to be “head” is to be “source” or “origin.” Paul also calls him “the beginning” which tells us that Jesus has priority in time and is thus the church’s “origin.” Jesus supplies his body with life—he nourishes and cleanses it (Eph 5:25–30). Jesus is everything to us!

Jesus is the “firstborn from among the dead.” We saw this word firstborn in verse 15. It means first in prominence. Though Jesus was not the first person to be raised from the dead, he is the most important of all who have been raised from the dead; for his resurrection brings about the resurrection (the re-creation through new birth) of all (1Cor 15:20ff). Jesus is the founder of a new humanity that has its being in him.

So Jesus is in all these ways preeminent: he is Savior, Creator, and head of the church. The word translated “supremacy” is used nowhere else in the New Testament. It is related to the word translated “firstborn,” and it magnifies the unique position of Jesus. “Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11). That’s about as comprehensive and thus supreme as you can get. That’s Jesus.  And one more thing: Jesus is reconciler of all…

4. Jesus is reconciler of all (19–20)

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Paul insists that God’s “fullness” dwells in Jesus. The word “fullness” is pleroma in Greek. It was a technical term in the vocabulary of the false teachers and means, “the sum total of all the divine power and attributes.” Paul uses this important word eight times in this letter—meeting the false teachers on their own turf. In doing so, Paul is insisting that Jesus is not merely one of many emanations—he is preeminent, he is supreme—Jesus has all the fullness of God—that fullness dwells in him—meaning that it resides permanently in him, it is not something added or temporary. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2:9).

And this Jesus, who is fully God from eternity past, became flesh (human) through the Incarnation in our time and space. And as God-in-the-flesh (God in union with his creation), he reconciled “all things” to God. The question here is this: Does “all” mean “all”?  And is this reconciliation accomplished (i.e. “actual”) or is it yet to occur (and thus only “potential”)?  Paul’s point is that this reconciliation occurs in Jesus and involves what he has done already—as we would say, “It’s a done deal!” And only the one who is Creator and Sustainer of all can accomplish the reconciliation of all—including everything on the earth and in heaven. 

This reconciliation involves “making peace.” The enmity—the separation—between God and his creation, because of sin, was replaced with “peace” in Jesus. In Jesus, the enmity is removed; the breach is closed; peace is restored. In Christ all humanity (and all creation) is reconciled to God (see 2Cor 5:19). That statement, of course, raises the question: “If all are reconciled to God already, why is it that people live in ways that are so antithetical to being reconciled to God?” In later chapters of Colossians, Paul answers that question, but for now, let’s rejoice in knowing how truly supreme Jesus is—he is Creator and Sustainer of all, and through his Incarnation he entered into and became one with his creation. And in and through that union, he accomplished the reconciliation of all things to God.   

The false teachers offered a counterfeit reconciliation. They claimed that angels and “emanations” could in some way bring men closer to God, thus closing the apparent gap. But this is far less than the truth that is in Jesus alone. Only Jesus reconciles us to God; and he does so fully, in himself. His reconciliation is incomparable and complete. Accept no substitute!

A key point that Paul is implying here is that if Jesus Christ is merely a man, or only one of many emanations from God (as claimed by the false teachers), he cannot reconcile God and man. The only mediator who brings God and humanity together is the one who is uniquely God and human in himself. Contrary to what the false teachers taught, Jesus was a true human being with a real human body. He was (and still is) God, the Creator and Sustainer of all, in human flesh (John 1:14). Thus when he died on the cross, all humanity died with him (2Cor 5:14-21). And when he rose from the grave, all humanity rose with him. Jesus did this for, with and to all. It truly is a "done deal!" (see Rom. 5:6-11). 

Conclusion

As we review this powerful and profound section of the book of Colossians, we note three important truths:

1. Jesus has taken care of all things. All things were created by him and for him. He existed before all things, and today he sustains (holds together) all things. And he has reconciled all things through the Cross. No wonder Paul declared that “in everything he might have the supremacy” (Col 1:18). Yes, Jesus is preeminent. 

2. Jesus is all we need. We have God’s fullness in him, and we “have been given fullness” in him (Col. 2:10). There is no need to add anything to the person or work of Jesus. To add anything is to take away from his glory. To give him mere prominence instead of his deserved preeminence is to dethrone him. Don’t do it!

3. God the Father honors Jesus by giving him preeminence. There are people who tell us they are Christians, but they ignore or diminish the centrality and all-sufficiency of Jesus. It is clear in Scripture—we are not just to regard Jesus, but worship him: “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent Him” (John 5:24). 

Jesus is Savior, Creator, head of the church, and reconciler of all. He is eternal God... and in our churches and our lives, he deserves preeminence. Is he preeminent in your life?