"He is before all things and in him all things hold together."
This passage, a hymn to Christ, has drawn to itself a considerable body of studies and is one of the richest portions of the New Testament statement concerning Jesus Christ. I would say that what this text holds to our view is central to a proper theology and is very necessary for any faith that saves. Paul repeats this hymn or adapts this hymn or perhaps penned this hymn himself. And he did so because he believed quite fully that the crucial and central figure in God's will for creation is Jesus Christ. This was the faith that kept him steady under all kinds of darkening skies. This was the faith that gave him strength to endure horrendous problems. This was the faith that made him wise and resourceful for sustained work under the heaviest pressures.
This text can give us needed perspective as we look again at our Lord, as we look again at ourselves, and as we look again at our given work in such a world. It can make an immense difference in our experience and in our expectation if we believe that Christ is the center.
When Christ is central history finds its fulfillment
The New Testament tells us that Christ is the center of history and that in him history will find its fulfillment. Now our faith is that Christ pulled history together even though this does not appear as observable fact in the eyes of the world at large. When Paul said that Christ holds things together, he used the term sunistekain, which is the perfect form of a word which means to bring together in relationship. And his use of the perfect was to underscore the centrality of Christ in determining the continuance of the cosmos and our human existence in it. Like Paul, I believe that everything would fly apart were it not for Christ at the center holding it all together. I believe with him that Jesus Christ stands behind and within and at the beyondness of life and in the midst of the history we seek to shape as dwellers on this planet. Some think of us as doomed. I do not, because history will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Every time you and I take a pen in hand to date a letter we're acknowledging anew the unique place Christ holds in history. It's a place that very ambitious rulers and militaries have long coveted, but only he gained that spot and he holds it by divine right. I like the way the late George Buttrick put it in his book Christ in History. "He is the one Man who has split history into before and after." Our western method of reckoning time dates from the first half of the sixth century of this present era, and it is the work of one Dionysius Exegius, a monk, an astronomer, and a mathematician, who wanted to compute present time as belonging within the period dominated by or controlled by our Lord. He was right. He was seeking to make public recognition of the place of Christ within and over history.
Now many before the coming of Christ had tried to make and enforce use of a new calendar, and they would try to date it on their own birth and enforce it by their position of power, but they all failed in the long run. No calendar succeeded in remaining as long as the one we now use. The entire world recognizes our calendar now. But how did Christ get that spot of honor in a world that does not recognize him as the Christ? I tell you he gained it by divine right, and yet he never sought it. He only sought the will of God, and he gained centrality in history.
Every time the dilemmas posed by sorry events in history threaten to confuse you, every time sorry happenings in your own life threaten to confound you and every time life itself tends to undo you, remember and reaffirm as the early church did when they gathered for worship "He, Christ, is before all things. And in him all things hold together," including history.
When Christ is central our faith finds its focus
The New Testament tells us that Christ is the center of Scripture and that in him biblical faith finds its focus. Most of us here have spent considerable years in seminary and graduate school studying various facets and figures of biblical history, examining the literature found there and exploring the theological themes that are so evident there. We've all been taught the importance of viewing our Bible responsibly as a whole with two parts, and we have all been cautioned to regard how those two parts relate whenever we seek to interpret anything from one or the other of the parts. But even lay persons know that the new section implies an old and we're all in full agreement, laymen and leaders alike, that both sections demand each other in order to be understood in relationship. The New Testament again and again claims to present what is the focused fulfillment of Old Testament promises and hope. And the lines and thoughts of the New Testament are in fact what F. F Bruce terms "a real development of Old Testament theme." And at the center of it all is an understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. So that the Old Testament points to him by promise, and the New Testament points to him by realization of his having come and even points back to him as the One being remembered, and forward to him as the One who is to return. He is the center of Scripture.
God's promises for history and eternity will be fulfilled in and through this One called Christ. The late G. Ernest Wright put it like this, "The whole literature was read prophetically for the manner in which God has prepared the soil for history's normative event, which is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ." The New Testament writers picture him as the living figure around which all religious concerns fall into meaningful place. The culmination of the faith informed thoughts was a theology and a literature in which Christ holds the central place. Now this must control our theology as well, for only thus can we have a theology that holds together with clarity, with authority and with biblical consistency. Christ is the center of history. Christ is the center of Scripture.
Tertullian, referring to the Scriptures, asserted "This property belongs to me. I am heir to the apostles. As they provided in their will as they bequeathed it in trust and confirmed it under oath, so on their terms I hold it." And Martin Luther comes along a little later and confesses, "We teach no new thing, but we repeat and establish old things, which the apostles and all godly teachers have taught before us." Now that is the spirit of the faithful. That is the spirit of those who are true to the biblical tradition, that tradition which affirms the centrality of Christ in the midst of a literature which leads to knowledge about him as the Savior and the Lord.
The New Testament shows us the centrality of Christ in Christian preaching, because it is only in him that sermons find their right reason and the guaranteed power. We must never forget that preaching as God intended it is always done with an end in view, and end in which Christ is honored. We preach to alert. We preach to inform. We preach to stir heroes to life on God's terms as seen in Jesus Christ. We preach to shape an experience with truth, and as Paul put it, truth as it is in Jesus.
You and I as Christian preachers were not sent to deal with religious themes but with Christian themes in which Christ is at the focus. The sermon in which Christ finds no part is a sermon to which Christ gives no power. Christian preachers do more than speak merely about Christ. There is something more in their witness. While it is true that we do preach about Jesus, it is also true that Jesus Christ speaks for himself through us when he is central in our message and in our motives. That, I believe, is a startling thrust of Ephesians 4:21 where Paul reminds the Ephesian believers that their Christian learning began when they heard him and were taught by him. But how was that? It was by the message of the apostolic witness true to the (S?)spirit and meek message of Jesus Christ and matched his intent. That is Christian preaching. Revival comes through the preaching of the Word of God where Christ is central. Anything less has no power to last. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together, even our sermons.
When Christ is central the church finds its unity
It is time to remind ourselves—Christ is the center of the church he shaped. And in him its members find and fulfill their unity. Christian faith involves more than standards and doctrines. It involves a ready and sympathetic relating with each other. There is a unity that Christian faith makes possible, and that possibility calls upon all who have experienced salvation through Christ to stretch themselves and touch each other, and to open their mouths and speak relationally with each other.
My dear friend the late Dr. Howard Thermann, while pastor at Howard University Rainken Chapel in Washington, D. C., preached on fellowship one morning. And as he stood in line at the door greeting those who were worshipers, one young man lingered behind because he wanted to talk with Dr. Thermann about one part of the sermon. As he shook Dr. Thurman's hand he fell to chiding the preacher. "Dr. Thermann, you talked about fellowship this morning. But tell me just how far would you go with that fellowship knowing that you're a black man in a white man's world?" How far would you go? Dr. Thermann with the very easing smile of his was still holding the young man's hand when he looked him right square in the eye and said, "How far would I go? I would go all the way. And I wouldn't have any escape clauses written on a piece of paper hidden away in my back pocket."
When Christ is the center and we understand his centrality in the church, there will be nothing that we will allow to divide us one from another, not even walls of denominational labels. I applaud this kind of gathering and the spirit of those who planned it. It is on the side of the future because Scripture says he will bring together into on all things in Christ. So that those who make divisions are on the side of the past. Whereas those who confirm their unity are on the side of the future. No escape clauses written on a piece of paper hidden away in their back pocket.
How far will you go? John Wesley went all the way. He would ask, "If thou love God, dost thou fear Christ? That is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship." What other test do we need? Wesley refused to accept boundaries that divided him from all other Christians. He knew that Christ had claimed them all, so he received and regarded them all and no escape clauses written on a piece of paper hidden away in his back pocket.
It is Jesus Christ who has gathered and engaged us all. He is the central figure in our togetherness. So he is the One whose name should mean the most to any of us whatever our heritage otherwise. Apollos? Paul? Cephas? All servants of the Lord by whom we believe. Paul plants; Apollos waters. God gives the increase to the glory of Christ. Let none of our names be heralded so highly. Let none of our works be mentioned with such grandeur. We are but brethren and sisters in the Lord. Christ is central. Size of church? Longevity of ministry? These are all circumstantial. Christ is central. And when he is lifted up, he draws all to him. That is the focus of our concern in worship. That is why we pray in his name. That is why we worship mentioning his name. And that is why we greet each other in his name.
One vast problem with which we must deal in our time, the need for integrity of membership in our churches. For where there is no submission to the lordship of Christ there can be no unity in the congregation that calls itself his people. When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth he said, "I beseech you by the name of Christ that you be of one mind and that there be no divisions among you." Well, when Christ is not honored as the drawing figure and the central one, how can there be power in any preaching to a people who do not accept his lordship? Division will continue. Squabbling continues. Arguments continue until Christ is the figure around whom we gather in peace. He is our peace, for he has made both one having broken down the wall of hostility between us.
When Christ is central our personality finds its wholeness
It only remains to be said that Christ came to become the center of personal life, and only thus will our personality gain wholeness. There was a colloquialism that was heralded back in the sixties "Getting things together." Getting it all together. In a very real sense that is what Christ helps us to do. "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Personality finds its wholeness in Christ, and he maintains that wholeness with our consent. He does so as Mediator. He does so as Model. He does so as Master.
Where else can we find One who is so consistent and considerate in dealing with us at the personal, emotional, and spiritual level of our need? Where else can we find someone who can show us creative tension between religious vision and human freedom? When we see Jesus, human freedom acting at its best in submission to God's will. Who else challenges us as we look at depths in his life that makes us shake and tremble with longing to be like him? The shaking is to bring us to the point of being centered. It is to help us hold together by his spirit and in his will. Augustine put it like this. "I draw back in terror in so far as I am different from him, and yet I'm on fire with longing in the desire to be more like him." There is that creative tension—unlike, yet like. Facing his holiness in the midst of our humanity, yet his humanity holds us steady so that we can partake more and more of his holiness. "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together," even personality.
Some of you will remember that section in Plato's Apology where Socrates recalls a conversation he had with Coleus about finding the proper guide for his two sons.
Coleus, if your two sons were fowls or calves, there would be no difficulty in finding someone to put over them. You'd hire a trainer of horses or a farmer, probably, who would improve and perfect them in their own proper virtue and excellence. But since they are human beings, whom are you think of placing over them? You must have thought about the matter because they are your sons. Who will you put over them?
All growing selves need someone over them. We know that at the level of our children as they grow and we guide them and model for them. But we reach that stage in life where we somehow forget that we, too, need someone over us.
You, too, are a growing self. Who have you placed over you? The only One worthy being over you is the One God appointed as Lord and Christ. He is the only One to whom we can look rightly for improvement in perfection. It is possible for us in grace; so that no matter how far we are unlike him and not by our own design, we still do not draw back in humiliation for fear that we can never attain. And at the same time, we are never puffed with pride thinking that we have arrived. For to see him is to see more and more of what we are called more and more to become.
This man who adapted or wrote the hymn went through that. "This one thing I do forgetting the things that are behind and reaching forward to the things that are before, I press [or strain] toward that mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." I haven't already attained. I am not already perfect. But I am following after, so that I might attain, so that I might grasp that for which I have been grasped.
That's the creative tension. That's the glory of the presence of his Spirit in our life. That's the power of Christian living. And all of us know that we need that kind of power in a day and age when, as Margaret Applegoth put it, "All things are more or less dirt bound, earth bound, skin bound, sex bound, scandal bound, drink bound, fashion bound, gadget bound, noise bound with radio blaring away by day and TV glaring away by night."
Who do you have over you? God has given Jesus Christ, "for there is none other Name under heaven given among men. Not only whereby we must be saved but which has that additional name which the Lord God gave because he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." No one else is worthy of our obedience, only Christ the Lord.
There is a very brief passage in Shakespeare's story about King Lear which tells about how the king and the Earl of Kent met. The earl approached the king asking freedom to follow him and serve at his employ. The king asked him what he really wanted, and the earl replied, "Service." "Whom would you serve?" "You." "Dost thou know me, fellow?" "No, sir. But you have that in your countenance that I feign would call master." "And what's that?" "Authority." Authority.
Did he not say "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me"? He had in his countenance that which makes him Master, and those who see him want to call him that. "And in him all things hold together."
James Earl Massey is dean emeritus and distinguished of Anderson University School of Theology. His books include Designing the Sermon .