“… that in everything he might be pre-eminent” (Colossians 1:18b)
Not long ago a Christian layman said to me: “I have no trouble believing in God as Creator. When I look at the moon and the stars, I just know that there is a God. But when it comes to Christ, I have to take my religion entirely on faith. Unless, he said wistfully, and it seemed hopefully, “Unless somehow Christ can be tied in with all that.”
PRE-EMINENT IN CREATION
How earnestly Paul would have talked with that man! He would have tied Christ in indeed, would have shown that he is supreme in “all that.” He would have shown him, as he showed the Colossians, what we must call, for want of a simpler term, the cosmic pre-eminence of Christ. To them he presented Christ, as pre-eminent in creation, “the firstborn,” meaning that he was himself a creature but that he holds priority and supremacy over all created things. He comes before what my friend referred to as “all that,” the wonder and immensity of the universe.
False teaching had crept into the church at Colosse. It did not ignore Christ; it simply relegated him to a position of relative unimportance. It gave chief emphasis to certain Jewish rites, to angel worship, to asceticism and severity to the body. It relied on philosophy and tradition and man’s intellectual abilities. It made a place for Christ, but a very insignificant one.
Paul, in hoping to head off these heresies, did not begin with a frontal attack on erroneous views. He simply took his readers straight to the overwhelming fact of Christ, the majesty of his Person, and the grandeur of his work. He pointed them to the central Figure of history and called him pre-eminent, meaning first in honor and dignity, chief in rank and power. If he could just help the Colossian Christians to come to grips with the overmastering truth of Christ—who he was and what he had done—they would get rid of the false teachings poisoning their belief and worship.
So, a good place to begin, as my lay friend would have agreed, was with the pre-eminence of Christ in the universe. Did they realize that this Christ was the very agent of creation? “In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” This fact alone would give him everlasting pre-eminence. He had brought all things into being. He is Creator, not creature. Would the Colossians put angels, who were creatures, above Christ, who is Creator? Christ is also the goal of creation: “all things were created … for him.” All things must glorify him, and one purpose of creation is to make him supreme. Thus Paul “tied in” Christ with the cosmos, universal order and harmony.
But there is something else here. Christ is pre-eminent not only because he is the agent of creation and the goal of creation, but also because he is the sustainer of creation: “In him all things hold together.” It would be expected that the Colossians would feel the effects of Greek philosophy. Now the great problem of philosophy was: what is the constituent principle of the universe, the unifying cause, the coordinating force—what brings things into being and then holds them together? Thales, the father of philosophy, who lived more than five hundred years before Christ, said that water was the ultimate principle, that all things came from water, were held together by it, and returned to it. Some who came after him said that the great principle was air, and others, fire. But here was Paul, the inspired Christian thinker, saying “He (Christ) is both the First Principle and the Upholding Principle of the whole scheme of creation” (Col. 1:17, Phillips’ Letters to Young Churches). He is what the philosophers had long been searching for. He is, as John put it in his Gospel, the Logos, God’s creative wisdom in action.
The agent of creation, the goal of creation, the sustainer of creation is surely pre-eminent in the universe. If the Colossians could once grasp the over-powering idea of his greatness, they would cease stressing things of lesser import. If they could “tie him in” with the great scheme of created things, they would be delivered from dangerous doctrine. Then they, and we, would recognize Christ as Sovereign of all that we are and have. For even angels, instead of being worshiped, must worship him.
“Let angels prostrate fall;
And crown him Lord of all.”
PRE-EMINENT IN THE CHURCH
Next, Paul pointed out, Christ is pre-eminent in the Church: “He is the head of the body, the Church.” He is supreme in the universe which he made and in the Church which he purchased with his blood. He is the ruler of his Church, its guiding Spirit, the source of its life and breath. “The Church is a body in the sense that it is a living organism, composed of members vitally united to each other, each member with his own place and function, each essential to the body’s perfect health, each dependent on the rest of the body for its life and well-being, while the whole organism and all the individual members derive all their life from the Head and act under his guidance” (A. S. Peake, in The Expositor’s Greek Testament). What would happen if the church at Colosse should turn to something else than Christ, “Not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God?” Obviously, the Church if severed from its Head, would die. So Paul warned his readers against giving first place in their church life to questions of food and drink, to feast days and new moons and sabbaths, to visions and the worship of angels and the puffing up of the sensuous mind, to human tradition and self-abasement. Rather, if they would survive as a Christian community in a pagan society, they must cling to him who had been given pre-eminence in the Church: God’s Son, their Saviour.
In Asia Minor, the many gods and religions of the Graeco-Roman world were often combined into an hideous admixture of belief and worship. “Some who shared in pagan philosophies had also adopted some Jewish practices, and now were ready to pay reverence also to Jesus and accept parts of the Christian teaching. This they thought wise, broad-minded, and tolerant. Evidently some in the church at Colosse were tempted by this attitude. They were inclined to regard Jesus as only one of a number of divine lords to whom they could look for help” (Floyd V. Filson, Opening the New Testament, p. 147).
In every age the Church must be warned against this lenient tendency. She is never free of those who argue that one religion is as good as another, who try to fit Christianity into a grand combining scheme, who do not ignore Jesus, but who place him among religious leaders such as Moses, Confucius, Buddha, and Mohammed. Such treatment may help other religions, but it would destroy Christianity. For our faith is distinctive, it is based on unique facts, on events that never occurred before and can never occur again. It is not just a philosophy among all the world’s philosophies. We may speak of it as William Cowper, in his great hymn, speaks of the Bible:
“It gives a light to every age;
It gives, but borrows none.”
When Christianity starts borrowing it starts weakening its own case. For to borrow means to admit that something is lacking and that Christianity is incomplete and inadequate without the help it can get from other sources. I am not saying that there is nothing good in other religions, but simply that when Christianity loses its distinctiveness, and tries to become like the others, when it becomes a matter of omissions here and accretions there, it is doomed because it is “not holding fast to the Head.” Always the Church needs a Tertullian to insist that no attempt be made to square Christianity with any philosophical system. Better still, it needs a Paul to contend that Christ is all or nothing at all, the only Head of the Church.
In its better moments, the Church has accorded him pre-eminence. It has kept him at the heart of its faith and the center of its creed. Its members have been captivated by his greatness. They have not tried to think of God apart from him. They have realized that “in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” They have not relied on what Paul speaks of here as “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition.” They have not gloried in intellectual superiority. They have not been deluded by “beguiling speech.” They have been rightly related to the Church’s Head.
In its vital hours, Christ has been the center of the Church’s worship. He, and not angels or any other lesser beings, has received the adoration of believing hearts. If we would see the Church blessed in our day with vibrant spirituality, we must constantly strive to build our religious life on him alone. We must increasingly make him the object of our faith, the subject of our song. All of our spiritual concepts must be derived from his meaning in human history. We must not speak vaguely just of religion, but of Christianity; not just of God, but of Christ. In our hymns and anthems, in all our prayers and preaching and teaching, we must show that we have been so conquered by his greatness that we have made the grand capitulation and yielded to his grace and power.
In her good days the Church has made him the center of her whole life. The body has been fully united with the Head. Her people have realized that they “have come to fullness of life in him,” and that there can be no warmth and depth of spiritual life without him. They have made him supreme in their daily living, so that he has never been far from their thoughts and affections. Many have been overwhelmed with the pre-eminence of Christ as were Marcus Dods, the erudite scholar, and Alexander Whyte, the mighty preacher. In their long Saturday afternoon walks together they discussed many things. But Dr. Whyte said, “Whatever we started off with in our conversations, we soon made across country, somehow, to Jesus of Nazareth; to his death, and his resurrection and his indwelling.” So must the Church keep on doing, in Colosse and everywhere, if it would live. “For he is the head of the body, the Church.”
PRE-EMINENT IN SOTERIOLOGY
We cannot deal with all that Paul said in this rich passage, but we must see how he showed that Christ is pre-eminent in God’s dealings with men. First, “He is the image of the invisible God.” If Paul could get the Colossians to understand that, they would never again make Christ subordinate to angels or any other so-called intermediating spirits. Christ was the very manifestation of God among men. Surely, nothing could be supreme over that! God had sent his own Son to deal with his people. Would they scorn this fact, would they ignore the One who had come as the image of the invisible God, and would they try to win the favor of God with their monotonous observances and their severe restrictions of meat and drink?
Moreover, “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Once they saw this truth, could they ever put their trust in angels again? Christ is not just one of many intermediaries: he is the one Mediator between heaven and earth. He bridged the awful gulf which they saw stretching between God and man. The fullness of divine nature actually dwells in him. He possesses the totality of the divine qualities and powers. This was the manner in which God came to deal with sinful men: he sent One who is his image, in whom his fullness dwells. Could the Colossians imagine anything grander than that, anything that would make God more accessible? In all of God’s dealings with his people, Jesus Christ is pre-eminent; he occupies the chief place.
Through him God is able “to reconcile all things … making peace by the blood of his cross.” The angels could not reconcile; they had not the slightest power to make sinners right with a holy God. Christ is pre-eminent in God’s dealings with men: he made atonement, paying the price for sin, doing what man could never do for himself and what no one except Christ could ever do for him. Never is his pre-eminence more clearly seen than here. He is the only sufficient Saviour, the grand reconciler between God and men. He rightly claims love and loyalty over anyone or anything else, and the Colossians were in danger of not according Him this. In all of God’s dealings with men, the chief Person is Christ, and the chief place is a Cross. He climaxed it all by his atoning death. Nowhere else has he so forcibly demonstrated his right to pre-eminence. General Booth stated the matter succinctly and memorably when he said: “The Jews would have believed in him if he had come down from the cross. We believe in him because he stayed up” (A. M. Hunter, The Gospel According to St. Mark, p. 144). Paul wanted the Colossians to know that his staying up marked the high point in God’s great work of redemption. “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and translated us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” The Cross should have been so overmastering that the Colossians could never give in to the heresies that were vexing the Church.
One other matter in God’s dealings with men must not be overlooked: Christ is “the firstborn from the dead.” Indeed, it is in this connection that the words of our text occur. One purpose of the resurrection of Christ is that he might be eternally supreme: “He is the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.” God had done this mighty deed, he had raised him from the dead, in order to make him forever first in honor and dignity, chief in rank and power. Would the church at Colosse ignore this tremendous truth? Had it heard of anything else so full of glory and might? If it wanted to be in touch with God, could it do better than join itself to the One whom God had made victorious over death, the One who is pre-eminent in all of God’s work for men? And can we do better than entrust ourselves to the risen, exalted Christ, the living Lord?
After World War I, Arthur Balfour, philosopher and former prime minister, was lecturing at Edinburgh University on pathways to a new world. He pleaded for knowledge in world affairs, for training in statecraft, and for what he vaguely called “morality.” He had no sooner finished than a Chinese student called out, “But, sir, what about Jesus Christ?”
It is bad enough when such a question must be put to a statesman in a Christian country. But must we not with shame confess that it may, with reason, be put to us churchmen and as individual Christians? Colossians, Virginians, Presbyterians—what about Jesus Christ? Why is he so often omitted in preaching, teaching, and conversation about religion? We simply cannot escape the personal note in this question which persists in pressing in upon us: what about Jesus Christ? God help us to say, with meaning, “This about him: no matter what we may have done before, from this day forward, in our theology, our worship, our witness, our daily living, he will be pre-eminent. From this day our creed and confession will be ‘Jesus is Lord.’ ”
Massey Mott Heltzel is Minister of Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Virginia. From 1945–55 he was Minister of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia, where President Eisenhower attended during vacations. The President remarked to a friend concerning Dr. Heltzel that he “liked a minister that preaches the Gospel without frills.”
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