It’s good to be back. I was here in July, but I know that you’ve been hearing a lot of different speakers these last few months, so let me (re)introduce myself. First, I’m the guy who spoke about Jacob wrestling God from Genesis 32—that it’s a good thing that when you wrestle God, that you lose. That’s why I called that message “a beautiful breaking”—it really is a beautiful thing when God gets us and pins us down and we learn who is Lord, and we limp away, wonderfully changed by that encounter with God.
Also, I am currently a professor of theology at California State Christian University in Fullerton; that follows many years in ministry, most recently as Lead Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Temple City—12 years of fruitful ministry.
Now, it’s kind of fun doing the seminary professor thing, but I really am much more a pastor that I am a professor. So much of what God has called pastors to do is to teach and apply God’s word to God’s people to enable God’s people to live and minister in His way. That’s my passion, that’s my life and that’s my joy.
I asked Corky Blair what other speakers had been speaking on, and it seemed that you’ve been getting lots of Old Testament-based messages, just like my message in July was Old Testament. So I decided to go New Testament. In July, I did a close personal study of Colossians; I am with you this week and two weeks from today. Now, two weeks isn’t enough for a full series of messages; if I were doing a series on Colossians, it’d be at least six weeks, so what I have in mind is a kind of “sermon series sampler” from Colossians this week and in two weeks.
Paul’s approach helps us here. In more than half of Paul’s letters he follows a pattern in which the first half of the letter is about a major concept which we need to understand, and the second half works out how that concept translates into daily life. Application is always right there in the Biblical text if we take the time to see it.
So in Romans, it’s justification in part one, and being a living sacrifice in part two; in Ephesians it’s the true nature of the church in part one and living (“walking”) in that truth in part two; in Philippians, it’s the self-giving example of Jesus in part one and living in unity and love in part two. And in Colossians, it’s Christ alone in part one and living focused on Christ in part two.
Let me explain. When you dig into Colossians, you find that it was written to counter a weird set of ideas that was affecting the church there. The church was being swayed by those who fused these two very different ideas together:
(1) If you want to be a good Christ-follower, you need to follow all the OT laws about circumcision, special days (like Sabbaths and feasts) and food laws (this is similar to what Paul writes about in Galatians).
(2) If you want to know God, you need Christ plus special revelation given through philosophy, special insider knowledge, and an elitist attitude. (This is similar to what John writes about in 1 John. But only in Colossians do these two come together.)
The first part of that comes from the Jewish world; the second part from Greek philosophy. People had fused these two together in Colossae. And to this Paul replies, hey, wait one holy minute.
Colossians 1-2 addresses this misinterpretation of faith. It addresses it by correction, but even more by lifting up a proper understanding of Jesus Christ. The passionate cry of Paul in this letter is “Christ alone! Christ alone! Christ alone!” Let me show you this in 1:13-23, starting with v. 13-14 which sets it up:
Setting: the Rescue (13-14)
This passage sets up the main part we’re looking at…
13 For He [God the Father] 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.
Now that’s incredibly good news. And notice how definite it is: He has rescued us, He has brought us from darkness to light and now we have redemption and forgiveness. It’s a done deal. It’s not in process; it’s not something we’re working at. But religion doesn’t like a done deal. Religion likes an open deal, an on-going deal, with you having to do, and work, and give and pay. Hold that thought; we’ll come back to it later.
Christ: the Absolute Image of God and Lord of Creation (15-17)
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Who is Jesus? What’s His relationship to the creation? He is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Let’s mull that over.
In Genesis, it says that God created all of us in His image. But Paul means a lot more here: Jesus is the absolute perfect image of God. The concept of “image” involves three things: likeness (Christ is the exact likeness of God, the unique mirror image of God), representation (Christ represents God to us, He is “God with us”), and communication (Christ makes God known to us). Back in Genesis, God made man in the image of God, but here, Christ is the image of God.
So He’s the image; He’s also the “firstborn.” That means He has priority in all things: the word Firstborn (protokotos) here really means that He’s the Inheritor of all. The idea is not that Christ was the first creature made by the Father (an idea flatly contradicted here in Colossians and elsewhere in Scripture), but that He is absolute Lord and Master over all of creation. That’s explained in vss. 16-17:
16For 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 and for Him. 17He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
In v. 16 Paul says that Christ is Creator; in vs. 17, He’s the Sustainer, and that’s saying a lot. This is a direct shot at the falsehood that was current in Colossae: they saw Jesus as part of the story, a very important part, but only a part. They saw Jesus as alongside angels and maybe other semi-divine beings as well as Moses and the Law; but Paul says He Himself is how all things were created, whether things we can see (like the earth and the stars) or things we can’t see (like angels and demons) and that He Himself sustains or holds the creation together.
Christ: the Absolute Head of and Lord the Church (18-20)
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. 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.
What is His relationship to the church? Christ is sovereign—He’s the head—over the church because He is the first-born from the dead. By His resurrection, Jesus stakes out the future of those who turn by faith and are reconciled by His cross. He is the “firstborn from among the dead”, and we will follow. Do you know what that means for us here and now? What does it say about the church? It means that the church is the fellowship of the resurrection, the fellowship of the sure hope, the fellowship of peace with God, the fellowship of the bloody cross and the empty tomb. We are already attached to the age to come. As Paul says in Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
In v. 19-20, Paul speaks of God being pleased that all the “fullness” to dwell in Christ, and in 2:9, he repeats that and makes it clear what that “fullness” means: all the fullness of deity—that He is fully God. All the fullness of God’s person and power permanently dwells in Jesus Christ; God uses no other person or being or thing: all is in Christ, and in Christ alone.
Now just a few more verses…
Christ: the Absolute Reconciler (21-23)
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
Paul brings this down to the realm where we live: reconciliation with God. The Colossian church was mostly Gentile, so “alienated from God” fits especially well. What again is striking is the certainty: “He has reconciled you” by Christ’s death on the cross, and now we’re “holy in His sight.”
Now, don’t be thrown by the “if” that starts vs. 23; in Greek grammar this is called a “first class condition” where the “if” is assumed to be true for the sake of the argument: the evidence of God’s reconciliation is seen in our perseverance—if you are truly reconciled, then you will indeed continue in the faith.
This is the gospel, says Paul. The gospel is very clear: we have been rescued by Jesus Christ, who Himself is fully God, the Creator and the Sustainer of all things; as the first to be resurrected, He has created a fellowship of resurrection called the church, over which He is Lord; He accomplished His work of reconciliation by His physical death on the cross. If we try to add anything to that work, we slander the one who died on that bloody cross and who left behind that empty tomb; if we try to subtract anything from that, we subvert the good news of God. No, it’s all Christ and Christ alone.
The Implications of “Christ Alone”
So what does this all mean for us, here and now? I mean, it seems so common sense. Isn’t it just standard operating procedure for Christians to say “Christ alone”?
Well, no, not really. You see, there’s this thing called “religion” that messes with our thinking. Every impulse of religion is to make things complex. Every impulse of religion is to give us things to do—not to say that it’s already done—as Paul does here. When believers came to Colossae preaching the good news of Jesus, that He did it all on the cross—it seems it took about ten minutes for someone else to say, “Hey, you need some more. You need laws and rituals and a special holy diet and hidden knowledge and maybe even a secret handshake thrown in for good measure.”
Religion loves all the accessories. Religion loves complexity. You know why? One thing complexity and rules does is that it gives leaders power over the lives of the faithful.
Look, I want to be positive, but it’s really easy to illustrate this with a couple of negative examples. Our Roman Catholic neighbors—we love them, and make no mistake, you will find real faith there—but Catholicism has added Mary and the saints and the Mass and Confession and reams of rules and regs that bury the simplicity of Jesus, latched on like barnacles on a boat—it’s still a boat, but it’s slowed down to a spiritual crawl.
Even more vivid—and much closer to the error that Paul talks about in Colossians—is the Mormon Church. You’ve got it all: revealing angels, strange rules, secret rituals. My late Uncle was a member of the Church of the Nazarene in Provo, Utah, and they way he put it was unforgettable: he said that Mormons had a great relationship to their church but were completely baffled if you talked about a living relationship with God.
So what Paul speaks about—about the danger of burying Jesus under religion—that’s contemporary. That’s now. But don’t make the mistake this just happens in other groups.
I can illustrate this by experience. When I was serving at Temple City First Baptist, I did what a lot of church leaders do: I tried to market the church based on our programs. You know, we have a great worship ministry, great music; come check us out. We have a great youth and children’s ministry; you owe it to your kids to come. We have great adult classes; come and learn and make friends.
Now listen—all those things are good. Good worship, good programming, good relationships—all good things. It’s not an acceptable offering to God to offer anything less than the best we are capable of.
But what we were doing, in a very subtle way, was taking people away from Jesus. Oh, we added people—and some were people who demanded more goodies in our youth ministry, and who then bolted when our youth pastor took a position at a Christian college. Worse, the same people showed little sign of changed lives. What were we doing wrong?
Gradually, I became convinced that the problem was all those religious accessories: buildings, programs, artwork, music. We were selling them as our appeal. What would happen if we simply focused on Jesus Himself? What would happen if we consistently put Him forward as the reason we exist, and the reason to be a part of our church—that Jesus is the center?
About five or six years ago, we started to implement this. All our outreach literature was retooled to focus on Christ. VBS was realigned to focus on Jesus Himself. Some programming was dropped; some changed. But Jesus was celebrated as the absolute center: the Lord of Creation, the Head of the Church, the Absolute Redeemer—just as Paul describes Him here in Colossians.
Things happened. Our growth actually slowed or even reversed for a couple of years: the people looking for the neatest new programs passed us by. But God began sending us other people: people who were coming just because of Jesus.
For example, we scaled back our big Christmas cantata a bit and made our main Christmas outreach free gift wrapping, mostly at a Big Lots store that was within view of our church building. Yes, we had nicely printed cards inviting people to our Christmas Eve service, but we put the focus on Jesus. I trained people to say, “It’s free gift wrapping because God’s love is free.”
One of the first families we encountered while doing the free gift wrapping was John, Jessica, Junior and Annabella. They were downright excited. They said they’d just been talking in the car about the fact that ought to find a church, and here we were—God must have sent us! They started attending the very following Sunday, and in the spring, after attending the new members’ class, Jessica gave her life to Jesus and I baptized her. (Her husband was already a believer. The kids were both baptized the next year.)
Focus on Christ, focus on Christ. In May of last year, I baptized three Chinese women whose English was poor, but whose love for Jesus was great. In the summer, we saw a Jewish woman come to Jesus and be baptized.
Look, Jesus is great, as great in a little church or a medium-sized church as He is at a big church. I’m not arguing for small churches and small ideas. I’m advocating an exalted vision of Jesus—that the greatness of Jesus would permeate all we do; that we would always put the spotlight on Him.
And we start that in our lives. Is Christ and Christ alone the center of your life? In Philippians, Paul is able to say, “For me to live is Christ.” (Philippians 1:21). That’s the life God wants for all of us. Is for you—life all about Jesus Christ? To know Him, serve Him and share Him? Or for you, to live is work, or family, or travel or retirement or golf or NFL football or a nice house, and Jesus is a nice ornament to put on top of what your life is really about?
When I come back in two weeks, I want to pick up that thought, but for now, look into your heart: is Jesus number one there? Is that center place for Him and Him alone?