This sermon is part of the sermon series "Jesus Is Lord". See series.
Have you ever told a joke that someone didn't get or think was funny? And then you tried to explain it and it was even less funny? Jokes are like poems: if you try to analyze them too much, they lose some of their value. Even when a poem is dense with metaphor and symbolism, and thus difficult to understand, the poem itself always trumps the explanation. In the same way, the original joke is always better than the joke's analysis.
This passage in Colossians isn't a joke; it's a poem. And although I earn part of my living by examining biblical texts, and then explaining them to other people, this passage poses a definite challenge—largely because I know that no matter what I say won't be as good as the poem itself. That's why I encourage you to take this passage home with you. Ponder it. Memorize it. Pray it. Go for a walk with it. Think about it all week long. This is one of the most beautiful portions of the entire New Testament.
In this passage the apostle Paul was writing to a church in Colossae, trying to tell them in poetry—or perhaps an ancient Christian hymn—about the identity and mission of Jesus Christ. Read and pray this passage with all your heart because every word is pregnant with meaning, ready to give birth in our lives.
We can summarize the whole poem in three words: Jesus is Lord. The first part of the poem could be summed up with this phrase: Jesus is Lord of creation. That's our focus for this morning. Jesus made everything; he's holding it all together; he's present in the midst of creation. But we all know that there's also trouble in Jesus' good creation. People and animals die. There is a long list of bad things that we don't like to talk about: car accidents, horrible microbes, diseases, genetic disorders, natural disaster, and psychological disorders. There are all kinds of things wrong with the world, and there are all kinds of things wrong with us. The world is broken and fallen. This is all difficult for us to reconcile. So the second sermon in this series will explore how Jesus is Lord of the New Creation.
In our text for this message we see that Jesus is Lord of creation because he's the image of God, he's the Creator, and he's the sustainer of the universe.
Jesus is the image of God.
First of all, Jesus is Lord of creation because he is the image of God. In verse 15 Paul writes, "Jesus is the image of the invisible God." That is an astounding statement. What does Paul mean when he says that Jesus is the image? What does the word image mean? Paul used a very specific Greek word here. I'm holding a framed print of one of Rembrandt's paintings, The Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is not the original. If it was the original, it wouldn't be hanging in my office, and I wouldn't be flinging it around this morning. If it were the original, I would probably sell it, pay off my mortgage, and go on a cruise for the next nine months. This is a copy, a mere copy. It's not the real thing. When Paul said that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, he's not saying Jesus is merely a lower-level reproduction of God. Jesus is not sort of like God. No, Paul is saying that Jesus is God. Jesus is the same as the original; he is the original.
The word image here means a likeness or manifestation. Jesus manifests or shows us what God is like. Jesus is a living, breathing picture of who God is. The full nature of God, the full being of God, is reflected or shown to us in Jesus. Later on in chapter two, Paul will also put it this way: "For in Christ all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form." We're made in the image of God, but we don't manifest God like Jesus does, because he was the fullness of God. In 2 Corinthians 4:6, Paul says, "We have the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." This means that when you see the face of Jesus, you see the face of God. That is not true of any other human being.
Let me give you a personal example. I was eating lunch with my friend Jill awhile ago, who is, by her own admission, not a follower of Jesus. As we talked, she got off on a tangent about the healthcare crisis in this country. Jill likes President Obama's plan. So Jill started ranting about rich, white, moralistic people who claim to be Christians who are against the healthcare plan. Then she got into a rant about other things that Christians have done. She started venting about the Inquisition like she had been personally wounded by those nasty and unfair interrogations. Then she continued ranting about all kinds of other horrible things that Christians have done. I just listened to her, and then I realized: This really isn't a debate about political issues. This is a battle for Jill's heart and soul. So I interrupted her and said, "Jill, I think we're missing the point. I mean, you are absolutely right about the horrible things that have been done in the name of Christ. I can't condone or justify any of that. But for me when I define my faith in Christ, it doesn't come down to political issues. If I want to know what God is like, I look at the face of Jesus, because that is the face of God." So I asked Jill, "What do you see when you look at Jesus?"
She's a smart woman. She's read the New Testament, and she began to think. I asked her what stories she remembered about Jesus, and she mentioned the story about Jesus reaching out and touching a leper, a social outcast. The leper says, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." And Jesus goes out of his comfort zone, goes to a place where he shouldn't even be. He should be thirty feet away from this leper, but he touches the leper and says, "I am willing. Be cleansed." That is the face of God.
Of course Jesus could also be demanding and tough, possessing what we call "tough love." So one of the first things Jesus says to people is, "Repent." Turn your life around. One of the second things he tells his disciples is "Follow me." What is Jesus doing? Follow me is basically the first commandment of the Ten Commandments: "You shall have no other God before me." Remember, Jesus is the fullness of God, so he's proclaiming the first commandment: "Follow me." Make me preeminent in your life—above every other relationship. That's the face of God.
Jesus was also intimately tender. I think of the story in John 8 where a woman is caught in adultery, and people have rocks in their hands to stone her. Jesus tells them, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." And then he turns to the woman and says, "Go and sin no more." That's Jesus acting with both tender and tough love—and, once again, we're seeing the face of God. Christians don't always accurately reflect God's face. Jesus does. He is the fullness of God.
So many of us have distorted images of God; we carry so much baggage about who we think God is. Is God really good? Can I really trust God? Can I really give my heart to Jesus? Can I really trust him as my Lord? Or is he just going to take something precious away from me? But here Paul tells us that Jesus "is the image of the invisible God." When you've seen Jesus, you've seen the face of God. So, yes, you can trust God. Look at what our God is like in Jesus. You can trust him.
Jesus is the Creator of the world.
The second thing Paul says in this text is that Jesus is the Creator of the world. Verse 15 says, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation." Many of you have had Jehovah's Witnesses come to your doors, and they'll tell you that this verse means that God created Jesus and then God created the rest of creation. That's actually a modified and then recycled ancient century heresy from a group of people called the Arians. The Arians believed that Jesus was great. He was really cool, hip, and powerful. But they also said that Jesus was a creature. Just like you and I, Jesus was created by God. But the leaders of the early church said no—that's not what the Bible teaches. If you go down that road, Jesus is no longer Lord and he can't be your Savior because he's a creature just like you. He's flawed just like you, and he cannot help you. He cannot save your soul. He cannot heal the brokenness of this planet. So based on what they saw in Scripture, the early leaders of the church decided this truth was something worth fighting for—something even worth dying for.
What does Paul mean when he says "he's the firstborn of creation"? Paul was a good Jew, and as a Jew he was thinking in an Old Testament kind of way. He wasn't thinking in chronological order, as if God created Jesus first, and then he created the stars, and then he created day and night and everything else. Instead, for Paul firstborn referred to status and sovereignty. For instance, Psalm 89 says, "I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth." In this Hebraic way of thinking, the firstborn is the sovereign one; he's the ruler of all. In Colossians 1:16 Paul goes on to clarify by writing, "For by him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authority, all things were created by him and for him." In other words, Jesus isn't just a creature; he's the Creator. He's the one who made everything.
And look at the scope of Christ's work in creation: Paul says "all things," which in the Greek means the universe. Everything was created by Jesus, through Jesus, and for Jesus. Again, this is a poetic way of speaking theological truth. But stop and ponder with me just for a minute: What does it mean when it says all things were created by, through, and for Jesus?
Let me give you a couple of examples. My scientist friends have told me that there are fifty billion galaxies in the universe. Each of those galaxies has an average of two to four billion stars. So take fifty billion and multiply it by two to four billion and that will give you the total number of stars in the galaxy. One astronomer tries to provide the following picture for the scope of the universe: take a box of salt, and pour it out on the ground. Now, take all the grains from ten thousand boxes of salt and you will have all the stars in the Andromeda Galaxy, which is only one of the fifty billion galaxies in the cosmos.
Here's another example of the creative power of Jesus. A male ruby-throated hummingbird weighs slightly more than a penny. Its heart beats twenty-one times a second. Its wings can beat sixty times a second. Twice a year this tiny but gutsy creature makes a two thousand mile journey south, and then it makes a two thousand mile journey north. How in the world does he do it? And why? And how does it know where to go? Jesus is Lord over this one tough little birdie.
Or take one more example. You have a hundred trillion cells in your body. Each one of them, scientists will tell you, is like a complex city—like the city of New York on a cellular level. Every second of every day your cells are operating on a millions of parts and interactions. A scientist named Lewis Thomas (not a believer, by the way) once wrote eloquently about the beauty of a single human cell: "If I could explain what goes on in a human cell, I would for the rest of my life hire a plane and fly it back and forth across the earth just to proclaim the incredible wonder of how and why a cell works."
"All things were created by him, through him, and for him." We haven't even talked about invisible things—electricity, gravity, the atmosphere, physics. Once again, we have so many distortions about our image of God. Deep down I think a lot of us are afraid that God is, well, boring. We can make God appear boring by the way we live our lives—with a total lack of creativity and wonder and joy. Christians do that a lot. So sometimes when we think about going to heaven, we actually dread it, thinking that it's going to be so dull—even worse than life on earth. But if we really knew who God is, we'd be living like a bunch of kids who get a free shopping pass to the best toy store in Manhattan! That looks more like someone who really understands who Christ is.
Sometimes it's the things we don't understand about God that help us understand God. Sometimes the mysteries of the solar system, or a human cell, or a hummingbird lead us to the glory of Christ, the Lord of Creation. Sometimes it's the sheer wonderment of creation that tells us more about who Christ is. So stand in awe of him—of who we see his is from this text.
Jesus is the sustainer of the universe.
This passage says one more thing about Jesus: he is the sustainer of the universe. "In him all things hold together," verse 17 says. As one New Testament scholar said, "Jesus is the principle of cohesion; he's the glue that makes the universe a cosmos instead of chaos." A Christian scientist named John Polkinghorne uses the following analogy: Imagine your in front of a universe-making machine. The machine has a master board with all kinds of knobs. One of these knobs controls gravity. Another knob controls electromagnetism, which is how things, including ourselves, are held together. Another knob can determine the speed of creation—how fast you create the universe. Another knob can determine the size of the cosmos, or how big the universe will be. So in front of you there are hundreds of knobs. You can turn and fine-tune the knobs to create life and existence as we know it. But Polkinghorne concludes that there will be only one way to set all the knobs and create life: the knobs need to be set exactly the way they are now. If you mess with even one knob—even just slightly—you will have made life impossible. Or you've made it impossible to sustain life. It will keep flying apart. Scientists call this phenomenon the anthropic principle, which basically means that the universe as we now have it is finely-tuned to support life. Miraculously, against all odds, life coheres; life holds together.
Now, you could believe this is just coincidence. It's chance. It's an accident. And of course that would take an act of faith. Or you could believe that there is an intelligent being who is behind all this—that something or someone set it the cosmos and life as we know it, and that this being holds it together. Of course that is also an act of faith. Obviously, our Scripture passage is talking about the latter option. There's an intelligent Being—a good and loving and personal Being—who made everything and that even now this Being is holding it all together, so that everything doesn't go flying apart.
I can trust and obey Jesus.
So what does all this mean and what do we do with it? Reflecting on this passage, the first thing that stands out is fairly simple: Trust Jesus. If he can hold the whole universe together and keep it from flying apart, of course he can also take care of my problems. Holding together my life is pretty small compared to holding the whole universe together. So maybe, just maybe, I can really trust him with my little life after all!
I was talking to a friend of mine who's not a follower of Christ, although he believes in God and participates in Alcoholics Anonymous. He was talking about the third step of A.A., which states: "We turned our lives and our will over to God, as we understood God." It's an act of trust. He said to me, "Wow, as a pastor, you really must have that third step down." I thought about it and I said, "You know, I've been following Jesus for 30 years, but sometimes I'm a beginner in learning to trust God." It's hard to trust God in the nitty-gritty of life, but I want to trust him more. He can hold you together. No matter what you're going through, no matter what you're facing, no matter what you think is going to split your life apart, he's the one who can sustain you and hold you together.
Secondly, we can't trust Jesus with our problems without also making him the Lord of our lives. If I see in the face of Jesus the face of God—his goodness, his tenderness, his mercy, his power—then when I open his word and he tells me to do something, how could I ever say no? So, for instance, later in the letter of Colossians God's Word will tell me, "Put to death sexual immorality, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language." Now, if I'm trusting Jesus with my problems, if he holds the whole universe together, why would I ever want to say no to God? This is the One who came to us—the Creator of the universe entered our world here on this planet, walked among us, ate bread with us, and died on the cross for us. Why would I ever want to turn away from him?
And yet, I have turned away from him so often. We all have. But when we come to the Lord's Table, we come to a place of incredible mercy and grace. We come to a place where our hearts can be renewed, where we can be transformed, where we can say to Jesus, Jesus, I trust you. There are so many things going on in my life that I don't understand. There are ways that I am really hurting. But you are good, and I can trust you. I can trust you to hold me and my life together. I trust you enough to obey you. I trust you enough to give you my heart.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.