The Book of Colossians, Preaching Overview
In the biblical corpus, the book of Colossians is a treasure trove of Christology. In this tiny epistle, the apostle Paul makes much of all things Jesus. Along with other key New Testament Christological pericopes such as John 1:1-18, Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 1:1-5, and Revelation 5:6-14, a high Christology is detected most readily in Colossians 1:15-20.
When approaching the preaching of such a Christologically high marked letter, it is necessary to briefly investigate the epistles’ philosophical and theological background, in this instance, the Colossian church. Given the Holy Spirit’s leading of Paul to ascribe such prominence to the deity of Jesus in the epistle to the Colossians, scholars agree that the apostle was dealing with a nascent Gnosticism, which had taken root in this small inland city in Asia Minor.
Preaching Point#1: Pinpoint the Gnostic background of the church at Colossae.
In the first century, Gnostic heresy already was infiltrating the burgeoning Christian community. While scholars disagree on the specific origin(s) of Gnosticism and its resultant varied heretical sects, there are some general traits within Gnosticism that are of import to the biblical interpreter. First, the Gnostics were concerned most with acquiring knowledge, in particular, secret knowledge. (Cf. Paul’s refutation of Gnostic knowledge in Col. 1:9, 1:26-27, 2:2-3, 2:8, 3:10, 4:3.) In fact, the Gnostics were the gnostikoi or “the knowers.” As the authentic elect people of God, they viewed themselves as the only true recipients and purveyors of God’s truth, ergo, His revelation. Second, the Gnostics were steeped in the hard dualism of Platonism. As Platonists, the Gnostics maintained a strict separation from the material and the immaterial. The spiritual immaterial realm represented perfection and goodness while the physical material realm indicated inferiority and that which is evil. Third, to overcome the dilemma of being a physical creature trapped on the earth, the Gnostics asserted the need for the human to slough off corporeality and return to the perfect ethereal realm over and above the physical cosmos. Fourth and final, because of their disdain for the physical human body, the Gnostics often rationalized the need to live a pure lifestyle as they were known for their sexual immorality.
Preaching Point#2: Pinpoint Gnosticism’s promotion of a low Christology.
Much more could be said of the intricacies of Gnosticism, but the general markers above serve as more than enough to demonstrate its incompatibility with Christianity, especially as it pertains to Christology. The most important point of discord between the Gnostics and biblical Christianity is the Gnostic repudiation of the full deity and full humanity of Jesus. Because of the Gnostic perspective that the human body, along with all materiality, is inferior, it follows that the fullness of God could not dwell in the human body of the man Jesus. Depending on the strain of Gnosticism, the Gnostics either viewed Jesus as an elevated creature and thereby diminished His deity or, on the other hand, they perceived that Jesus appeared as a phantasm because of their conception that His deity overwhelmed His manhood. Whichever the heresy, the Gnostics struggled to reconcile the reality of the hypostatic union. Such a low Christology not only dissects the Trinity by diminishing God the Son’s place of equality within the Godhead, but it also carries huge negative implications for the salvation of the human race—for man is still lost in his sin if Jesus is not fully God and fully man. Paul seeks to counteract the Gnostic heresy infiltrating the church at Colossae with a true knowledge regarding the person and work of Jesus so that every man be “complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28).
Preaching Point#3: Pinpoint the central Christological text of the Book of Colossians.
The apostle Paul refutes the low Christology of the Gnostics outright. The book of Colossians hinges on Paul’s assertion regarding the deity of Christ in 1:15-20. Paul claims, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions 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. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” This high Christological pericope comes off of the apostle Paul’s succinct explanation of what/where the Heavenly Father has delivered the sinner from: “For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14). In this passage a strong Trinitarianism is present and it must be read with a Trinitarian lens. Ultimately, as this stirring passage highlights, the centrality of Christ’s deity and His redemptive work impacts the reader with motivating force. Labeled a Christological hymn by scholars, Colossians 1:15-20 sets the stage for the rest of Paul’s argument in the epistle—the effective and complete nature of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ grounded in His full deity.
Structural Visualization of Colossians 1:15-20
He is the image of the invisible God,
the first-born of all creation.
For by Him all things were created, in the heavens and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or principalities or rulers or authorities,
All things have been created through Him and for Him.
And He is before all things
and in Him all things hold together.
and He is the head of the of the body of the church
He is the beginning, the first-born of the dead, in order that He Himself might come to have first place in everything.
Because it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things unto Himself, and (through Him) whether things upon the earth or things in the heavens.
having made peace through the blood of his cross.
Preaching Point#4: Pinpoint an exegetical analysis of the key passage of Colossians.
The apostle Paul reveals that “He is the image of the invisible God.” Paul identifies the Son as an image, literally a “likeness” or “form” of the First Person of the Triune Godhead, the Heavenly Father. The reader learns that the Father is “invisible” or literally “unseen.” The Father chooses to remain invisible to humanity, but in the incarnation of the Son the world has beheld the Father for the Son is the precise image and representative of the presence of the First Person. The Son is not a mere symbol pointing to the Father. In sharing the same essence, any advent of the Son denotes the Father’s presence. Wherever the Son is so shall the Father be. While the Son is visible and the Father invisible, a human individual realizes that he/she has beheld the Father in beholding the Son.
As a subsidiary clause, Paul stresses that that this One who is the image of the Father is also the “first-born” over “creation.” Jesus is not just Lord over part of the creation, but “creation” is modified by the adjective “all.” The totality of the Son’s right and lordship over creation is all-encompassing. There is not one part of creation that He is not managing and in control as the Sovereign Monarch of the universe. Furthermore, in opposition to Gnostic/Arian tendencies the apostle Paul is not asserting that the Son is created. The Son is uncreated just as the Father is uncreated. The “first-born” appellation to Christ is more distinctive of relationship and not indicative of inferior or created essence in the Son. The Son has a right bestowed by the Father that no other shares. The Son shares in the divine essence of His Father and the highest right and control of everything belongs to the Son as it does to the Father.
In verse sixteen, Paul continues his assertion that the Son is preeminent over all of creation “for by Him all things were created.” The reader learns, in fact, that the Son is the Creator of everything or “all” in heaven and on earth evidenced by the verbal construction “were created.” The high Christological statements of Colossians 1 demonstrate a connection between the deity of the Son and His role as supreme Creator. The creative intentionality of the Son is exhaustive, encompassing all that is visible, all that invisible as well as “thrones or principalities or rulers or authorities.” Not only did God the Father create the universe through/by the Son, it was also made for or literally “to Him.” Again, Paul sets forth the unique position of the Son as the one obtaining all rights given by the Father. All of creation is for the glory and delight of the Son as given by the Father.
In verse seventeen, Paul reiterates what He has already made evidential—the Son is positioned in the place of preeminence over everything for He alone is “before all things” as eternal God of very God. The Son has existed forever within the Triune Godhead with the Holy Spirit and the Father. Naturally, as the Creator, Christ is the sovereign sustaining force of the universe for “in Him all things hold together.” The verbal “hold together” carries with it the connotation of sustaining power and having one’s proper place in the order of things. This meshes well with the Son’s role as Creator as He is perfectly suited to assume His proper and rightful place as sovereign administrator of the universe. Not only is the Son the Creator of the universe, He also upholds and manages the created order moment by moment with all-knowing omnipotence.
Paul reveals to the reader that the Son, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, is also the “the head of the of the body of the church.” Jesus sits in the position of headship, superiority, and power over the church. Jesus is the leader, commander, and groom of His bride, the Body of Christ. Paul’s utilization of “body” as a signifier for the church denotes that the church is a living organism not an inanimate institution. The Body of Christ is alive with God’s children making up the representative and distinct parts of the symbolic body with Christ serving as the brain trust, situated at the figurative head. Like a physical body must work in concert to accomplish tasks and function, so must the symbolic Body of Christ be unified under the leadership and direction of Jesus Christ as the head of the church.
In this last section of this pericope, Paul drives home the reality that Christ’s work is grounded in his full deity. Christ did not just partially atone for sins in His death nor partially defeat death in the resurrection. The work of Christ is thoroughly complete because He is God and what He sets out to accomplish He performs. Paul states, “He is the beginning, the first-born of the dead. “First-born” sits in apposition to “beginning” and therefore modifies it. Christ is the first to die, defeat death with His own death, and rise from the realm of the dead. As a result of being the first to defeat death, Paul stresses, once again, the preeminent and utterly unique nature of Jesus Christ so that “He Himself might come to have first place in everything.” The Son’s crushing defeat of the wages of sin and His triumph over the grave demonstrate His primacy as God—superior to everything. Not even the grave can contain this one called Christ; He is far too mighty!
The outright deity of the Son is evidenced in Paul’s theologically robust declaration: “Because it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him.” (Cf. Col. 2:9) Jesus is completely God; not a creaturely demiurge. All the fullness (plerōma) of power, glory, etc. contained in the Father is resident in the Son. The Son, in sharing the same essence as the Father, truly is very God of very God. All that the Father possesses in terms of His inexhaustible attributes are found in the Son; and yet, there is a clear distinction of Personhood. Also, from Paul’s discourse, the reader should gain a heightened appreciation for the love and work of the Father through the Son. The Father accomplishes His sovereign will through the agency of the Son. Thus, the Father had just as much a part in the redemption of mankind as the Son for it is the Father’s plan and mission executed by the Son.
Paul underscores the loving intentionality of the Father and then turns his attention to the work of the Son for Christ “[reconciled] all things unto Himself.” Interestingly, the idea that Paul draws out is that Christ is reconciling all things to Himself, not just sinful humanity. The created order and cosmos, greatly affected by sin, are being reconciled and renewed unto the Son. Paul delineates this reality by identifying the scope of Christ’s reconciliation: “whether things upon the earth or things in the heavens.” Jesus achieves the totality of this reconciliatory work through His own atoning death. Paul emphasizes the effectual nature of the power of the shed blood of the Son at Calvary: “having made peace through the blood of His cross.” The basis for a reconciled and restored universe unto Christ is Jesus’ precious shed blood on the cross as atonement. Paul’s employment of the verbal “having made peace” indicates that Jesus’ atoning work on the cross was completed once and for all time in the past, but has a future oriented reality. As the future unfolds, all things that have been disordered and tainted with sin will be made right, reordered, and reconciled unto the Jesus the Preeminent One.
Preaching Point#5: Pinpoint the practical implications of Paul’s high Christology in Colossians.
The high Christology presented in verses 1:15-20 sets the stage for obvious practical results in Paul’s argument in chapters 2-4. Colossians 1:21-23 serves as the connecting verses from 1:15-20 to subsequent chapters: “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, 22 yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach— 23 if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.” Paul desires that the Colossae Christians live holy and blameless lives; and, this intentional is grounded in a proper view of the person and work of the Godman Jesus Christ. This practical call to holiness in light of the supremacy of Jesus Christ is evident in the following texts of Colossians:
Col. 2:6-7 (walk in Christ with the demeanor of gratitude)
Col. 2:20-23 (reject manmade religion/traditions)
Col. 3:2 (focus on the excellencies of godly things)
Col. 3:5 (do not live according to immoral sexual desires)
Col. 3:8-9 (put aside the old self and live a life of integrity)
Col. 3:11 (realize that in God’s economy of salvation there are no ethnic distinctions)
Col. 3:12-13 (be compassionate/thoughtful, forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven)
Col. 3:14 (be loving most of all)
Col. 3:15 (be at peace under Christ)
Col. 3:16 (be people of the Word holding it in high regard)
Col. 3:17 (remember that all your deeds are for the Lord and King, Jesus)
Col. 3:18-21 (families live in harmony with one another)
Col. 3:22-23/4:1 (work unto the Lord, as either the one in authority or under authority)
Col. 4:2-3 (be a praying people full of thanksgiving)
Col. 4:5 (deal with non-Christians in a godly way, represent Christ)
Col. 4:6 (employ grace-filled speech, not dealing with others harshly)
Col. 4:7-18 (be intercessors for Christian brethren, aware of their good works in Christ)
Final Thought for Application
The book of Colossians is a text filled with soul-saving information concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. As we call our people to live holy lives in honor of their Lord, let us not divorce the mandate of integrity and high moral fiber in the Christian’s life from the reality that Jesus truly is God and He truly is man. Our view of Who Jesus truly is will influence the depth of our commitment to Him.