…that in everything he might be preeminent. —Colossians 1:18
“. . . that in everything he might be preeminent.” That is God’s mission for the universe. The preeminence of Jesus is God’s purpose in everything. Here’s how we articulate that around here: making the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond. Right now the central focus of our care groups is every one of us asking, What am I going to do about that? If this is God’s mission, it must be mine too. So, what is that going to look like, for me, for you? The elders and deacons are working through the implications for us as a church. But we need to struggle with it personally first. If this mission makes us feel uncomfortable, that’s okay. Struggle is a healthy spiritual environment, where God can do new things deep inside us. Let’s allow the magnitude of this mission to fall on us very personally. Then we’ll be ready for the church-wide strategies.
By the way, I hope you feel free not to be an evangelist, unless God has made you an evangelist. But you’re free to show who Jesus really is in the way God calls you. And everyone can do something. What is God asking of you?
Here’s another thing. Serving in Mission is not superior to serving in Community. Everyone needs Jesus and Community and Mission. It’s just that we’re emphasizing Mission now, because we haven’t before. But we’re not leaving Jesus and Community behind.
As I think about our mission, my mind goes back to the early Christians of the first century. Here is what one New Testament scholar said about their impact:
Within the space of thirty years after the death of Christ the gospel had been carried to all parts of the civilized world. It had been preached in the most splendid, powerful and enlightened cities. It had assailed the most mighty institutions; it had made its way over the most formidable barriers; it had encountered the most deadly opposition; it had secured such a hold even in the imperial city of Rome as to make it certain that the gospel would finally overturn the established religion and seat itself on the ruins of paganism. Within thirty years it had settled the point that it would close every pagan temple and that “the banners of the faith would soon stream from the palaces of the Caesars.” All this would be accomplished through Jewish fishermen. They had neither wealth, armies nor allies. With the exception of Paul, they were men without learning. They were victorious only because Christ was their captain. The success of the gospel never has been and never can be accounted for by any other supposition than that God attended it.
The early Christians were ordinary people. I remember reading a description of ancient Rome by an Italian archaeologist. He said that on a typical day, if you stopped on a Roman street and listened, you might hear a low rumble off in the distance as one of the shoddily built apartment buildings collapsed under its own weight. Those apartment buildings were where the Roman Christians lived and raised their families and had their care groups and made Jesus famous. And after only about 30 years, there was no doubt about which way the culture was going to go. How do we explain people like that? The power of God’s grace. Lesslie Newbigin, the missiologist, described it this way:
There has been a long tradition which sees the mission of the Church primarily as obedience to a command. It has been customary to speak of “the missionary mandate.” This way of putting the matter is not without justification, and yet it misses the point. It tends to make mission a burden rather than a joy, to make it part of the law rather than part of the gospel. If one looks at the New Testament evidence, one gets another impression. Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy. The news that the rejected and crucified Jesus is alive is something that cannot be suppressed. Who could be silent about such a fact? The mission of the Church in the pages of the New Testament is more like the fallout from a vast explosion, a radioactive fallout which is not lethal but life-giving.
The good news that God is giving his best to the undeserving detonated an explosion of Jesus and Community in the first century with such joy that it spread out in Mission. And it’s still going on today. We don’t have to be involved in that. We get to be involved in that. Let’s become early Christians all over again.
In Colossians 1 the apostle Paul is teaching Christians about who Jesus really is. Why? Because there’s always a false Jesus trying to get our attention. Back then, the idea was going around that God is so way out there, so remote from us, so aloof, that the only way God above could connect with messy, physical, yucky us was through a series of intermediary angels. The idea was that God therefore created ranks upon ranks of angels, from high to low, to get through to us without having to get directly involved himself. The higher angels had more of the spark of God in them, and the lower angels had less and less. Then at the bottom of all this was filthy us whom God could never touch. But up at the highest rank of all these intermediate beings was Jesus, with lots of the divine in him – but still a created being beneath God. That is a false Jesus. Here’s the real Jesus: “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). All that God is embodied in all that man is, without sin – that’s Jesus. But it’s no surprise that the false teaching had to add in its own taboos and rules, because its Jesus couldn’t save you all by himself. Paul is replacing that false Jesus with the Savior who is able to help us without our help. And in doing so he answers an important question. Why live on mission? Why take risks? Why change? Why do we want to be the first to stop ignoring him and starting rebuilding our whole lives around him? Why are we doing this? “. . . that in everything he might be preeminent.”
Paul explains that by taking four steps in his thinking. One, who Jesus is in relation to God. Two, who Jesus is in relation to the creation. Three, who Jesus is in relation to the new creation. And then, why it all matters: “. . . that in everything he might be preeminent.”
Who he is in relation to God
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. —Colossians 1:15
What is God really like? People have been wondering for ages. And there is no more urgent question in all of life. Jesus himself answered it. He said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus also said, “Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1), because believing in Jesus is believing in God, according to Jesus. The gospel is not about generic God, a God knowable in a thousand different ways. The gospel is about God revealing himself obviously in Jesus. Jesus said, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). When we hear the word “God” in the lyrics of a song on the radio, we shouldn’t think, “Oh good. That honors God. Finally.” Jesus said that it’s honoring Jesus that honors God. Why? Because of who he is uniquely in relation to God.
Only Jesus is the image of God in the sense that he is a kind of portrait of God. He is the image of God the way a son can so look like his father that the connection is easy to see. Jesus made the invisible God visible. Who else in history did that? What else has happened in history that compares with that? What more do we need than him?
“The firstborn of all creation” – what does that mean? It does not mean Christ was the first among created beings. That’s what Paul is arguing against. Anyway, Paul is about to say, in verse 17, that “he is before all things,” that is, he pre-dates all things. What “the firstborn of all creation” means is that he is the rightful heir of all creation. It’s not about the timing of his birth but the rights of his position. The Revised English Bible paraphrases it accurately: “His is the primacy over all creation.” God the Father has deeded over to his Son the entire creation as his by right, giving his Son all claims of ownership, including the iPhone 5, the Grand Canyon, every largemouth bass, the electrical impulses in my brain enabling me to say this right now, and everything, everyone. Jesus does not apologize for what he is entitled to. Our place is to give him the preeminence he owns. A Savior of divine magnitude, and only such a Savior, is able to stand against everything that’s against us, including our own sins. If we get it wrong about Jesus, nothing will go right. If we lock onto who he really is, everything is going to work out, and he will use us for his glory.
Who he is in relation to the creation
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. —Colossians 1:16-17
Not only is the Son of God not a created being, the entire universe was created by him. That’s why he is the legally entitled owner of everything – you see the word “for” at the beginning of verse 16. And you see how Paul heaps terms upon terms to stretch our thinking out – thrones, dominions, and so forth. Jesus is not one of the angels; he made the angels.
The gospel is not saying that he is in all things; it’s saying that all things hold together in him. Within nature, one thing depends on another; but the gospel says that all things together depend on Christ. All the powers of nature, all the laws of physics, to the furthest point of space, however distant – how does it all work? By a self-creating ability internal to the creation itself? No. Christ is Creator and Sustainer and Owner. What we explore, he made. We ourselves owe our existence to him, moment by moment. The Bible speaks of “God, in whose hand is your breath” (Daniel 5:23). Without his constant care, the entire universe would collapse and disintegrate. The grace of Jesus holds and orders not just your life but all of created reality. He is the cohesion of the universe by his powerful attention and kindness and care. We do not help him. We cannot add to him. We cannot improve upon him. He is all we really have. He is all we will ever need. And that’s why he deserves the preeminence in everything.
Who he is in relation to the new creation
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead. —Colossians 1:18
He was surprising in verses 15-17. But this is more amazing. He is “the beginning,” in the sense that he is the beginning of a new human race. The eternal one entered time. God became man, in order to create a new humanity. Jesus was a second Adam, who was tempted but didn’t fall. But we, the fallen, misjudged him and crucified him. “He came to his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11) – the most tragic irony in all of history. But he absorbed all our malice, and gave back love. He took our evil to his cross, where God judged it, and he sank down into death. Then on the third day he rose up from all our evil. He rose again. Our guilt did not rise again. It was all gone because of him. He did this alone. He did it all by himself, for us. We did not lift a finger, except in sin. Now his overruling grace is moving out in the power of his resurrection. He is re-creating us. As the first new man, he is the archetype of what everyone will be who opens up to him. Jesus is everything to us. He is our future. He is our joy now. He is our life. He is our wisdom, our power, our purpose, our confidence. We experience his newness most powerfully here together.
Some here in Nashville who call themselves Christians stand aloof from any church. I wonder if they’ve read the New Testament. They are cutting off their own oxygen supply, because we can see here that the church is his embodiment in the world today. Verse 18 says, he is the head, and we are the body. The New Testament never speaks of “the body of Christians.” It speaks only of “the Body of Christ.” The church, this church, is more than horizontal relationships. We are primarily vertical. Jesus is present here, as part of us, the head of this body. Church is more than Mission, more than Community. Church is experiencing Jesus. We are alive because of him, we are together as one in him, we are on mission for him. The Head and the Body are one. He himself is on mission. Here it is:
Why it all matters
…that in everything he might be preeminent. —Colossians 1:18
There’s a widespread feeling today is that Jesus is about petty rules, and rules are limited to church, and church is limited to Sunday. But of course, our real lives and our real needs are so much bigger than that. So Jesus ends up as a sidebar, at best. If we ever find ourselves thinking that way, we’ve lost touch with the gospel. That is a false gospel of a false Jesus. It is trivial. It cannot help us. It cannot help anyone. Only the real gospel with the magnitude of the real Jesus can save our city. The mission of God is that Jesus will have the preeminence in both the creation and the new creation – in everything, according to verse 18. Not just in a church service. Not just on a Sunday. In everything. That’s why the book of Revelation envisions a redeemed universe, enjoyed by all who give Jesus the preeminence.
But that new universe, the new Nashville, starts with a new me and you. If we’re going to make him non-ignorable, are we ignoring in any way? If his glory is unlimited, are we limiting him in any way? Are we giving him the preeminence in everything in our lives? Is there any part of our lives that we are roping off and saying to Jesus, “Stay out”? It’s not as though we’re doing him any favors by giving ourselves to him. It’s amazing that he wants the preeminence in our lives. We don’t enhance him. His preeminence is a gift he gives us. His preeminence is preeminent grace. That part of you that you’ve never opened up – isn’t it because you feel he won’t love you there, so you have to keep control? Listen to the gospel again. The real Jesus loves the real you with all his mighty heart. Stop defending yourself against your own happiness. Give him total permission to rearrange you in any way he pleases, for his glory.