Our Beloved and His Story

I recently had the privilege of speaking at a conference. The attendees were overseas workers. This and the next posts will be the messages that I gave.

INTRODUCTION

Thank you for this honor of sharing God’s Word with you all. Over the next few days we are going to look at Paul’s Letter to the Colossians and see what we can learn from it.

As we do, let’s take a moment to consider this book. We hold this book alone to be God’s Word; therefore, it is supremely authorized to govern and guide our beliefs, our values, our thoughts and actions. In this light, we open this book and look to the Holy Spirit to fill us, teach us, guide us, and challenge us.

CHRIST IS OUR LIFE

Turn with me to Colossians 3, verses 1-4. Paul says something interesting here, something that I suggest we use to frame our thinking as we work through sections of this Epistle.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Let’s focus in on this one clause in verse 4: When Christ who is your life. Paul is saying here that Jesus is our life. Let’s see if we can unpack some of the dimensions of the meaning embedded within these words over the next few days: Christ who is our life.

With this in mind, turn back to the opening verses of Chapter 1.

The Story of Jesus as Our Story 

Notice how Paul starts the Epistle.

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To those in Colossae, saints and faithful sisters and brothers in Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

A friend of mine was sleeping on his couch one Sunday afternoon and his young daughter came up to him and poked him. He didn’t move so she said: “Come on, wake up. Wake up, Elsa. Do you want to build a snowman?”

Now, what was my friend’s daughter doing? She realized this setting was similar to the one in the movie “FROZEN”, and the movie provided her with a script, guiding her what to do in that situation. My friend’s daughter was doing as a toddler what we all do. We make sense of the events of our lives through the stories that shape us. The stories that deeply impact us become the raw material of our imaginations. These stories become the mental clay out of which we form our understanding of things. So, what are the compelling narratives that form our view and understanding of our lives?

For Paul, Jesus had broken in upon his small world and radically transformed it. Jesus gave him a calling and a destiny. Due to this “breaking in” Paul began to see himself, his people, and their shared history in the light of the Story of Jesus. Paul discovered that the story of Jesus was shaped by the story of Israel. He also saw that because of who Jesus was and what he had accomplished through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus fulfilled and transformed the story of Israel. Consequently, Jesus’ Story began to remake Paul and provided Paul with a new script, enabling him to understand his place in God’s world and move forward in that world.

Yet, Paul did not just see himself being woven into Jesus’ life and Story, he understood that each and every person who turns to Jesus becomes intricately woven into Jesus’ life and into Jesus’ story. Again, notice how Paul described Jesus in Chapter 3: When Christ, who is our life, is revealed. Jesus was Paul’s life; Jesus was the Colossian believers’ life; and Jesus is our life.

This helps us to make sense of the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Look at how Paul identifies himself and how he identifies those to whom he is writing.

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus 2 To those in Colossae, saints and faithful sisters and brothers in Christ:

Paul identifies himself and them in reference to their belonging to Jesus. Look at verse 13. Paul puts the Colossian believers and himself into the story of Jesus. Jesus’ story is absolutely remarkable in every dimension.

He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

What is going on here in verses 13 and 14?

Jesus’ story is one that reenacted the story of Israel. The exodus was the ultimate story in the Jewish record. The Israelites were rescued from the power of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army. The echo of the exodus story appears in the story of Jesus. And Jesus enables us as his people to participate in the ultimate exodus story: we in Christ are rescued from the power of darkness.

Being from western cultures, we have a tendency to marginalize the significance of this power. We are not inclined to even perceive its existence. Whether we realize it or not, this is a formidable power; and we see the effects of its power every day as we traverse the Middle East, North Africa, and much of the world.

The story of Jesus becomes our story. It is not only a story of being rescued from evil unseen powers it is also a story of redemption, of being freed from the debilitating power, guilt, and shame of sin. We are liberated from these because we are given the complete forgiveness of our sins in Christ. And beyond that, we are not only liberated, we are made co-regents, co-rulers. Our transferal into the kingdom of the Son does not denote subjection to his rule (however true this may be)—rather, it denotes participation in his rule, which fits nicely with the immediately mentioned redemption. Paul in Ephesians 2 makes this very clear.

And how is this all possible? Paul goes on to explain in verses 15 to 19 how this is possible.

As we read these verses, Paul shows us why Jesus is so central to everything, why Jesus is now our life, and why we are to see ourselves as being intricately woven into Jesus’ story, living out his life and his story as we live out our lives and our stories on this earth in his Kingdom.

Why is the life and the story of Jesus supposed to be so central to us? Well, Paul answers this in the next set of verses, giving us the reason why.

Who is this Jesus and why is he supposed to the center of our lives?

15 Who is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
16 because in him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,
all things were created through him and for him.
17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
18 And he is the head of the body, the church.
Who is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
19 Because in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20 and through him to reconcile all things for him,
whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Paul weaves Jesus into the very works that make God God: the works of creating and sustaining everything that exists, and also redeeming that which was created. Paul not only weaves Jesus into these works by using the prepositions “in” and “through”, he also says that all this creating and redeeming was done “for” Jesus. This visible man, who alone is classified as the image of the invisible God, meaning that he alone perfectly reveals what God is like, not only made creation happen, he made redemption happen.

If we familiarize ourselves with Second Temple Jewish thought and descriptive categories, we discover that Wisdom and Torah held a unique position. God accomplished the creation in and through Wisdom. Look at Proverbs 3:19:

The LORD by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;

and Proverbs 8:22

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first,
before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth.

Since God was invisible and transcendent how could he be known by mere mortals? The Jewish answer was this: God revealed himself to us through Wisdom, Logos, and Torah. These were the means by which God acted in and revealed himself and his ways to the world. So, the prepositions “by”, “in”, “through”, and “to” were used in speaking about God creating the cosmos.

But something happened with the incarnation of Jesus. Due to the incarnation, even the categories of Wisdom and Torah were no longer adequate. The incarnation compelled the early Jewish believers to reshape these categories. This passage is drawn from a hymn of the early church and, though the categories are drawn from the categories of Wisdom and Torah, the identity and role of Jesus is marvelously greater that the identity and role Wisdom and Torah held.

In the Jewish mindset, God accomplished the creation in and through Wisdom and Torah. However, God did not only accomplish the creation in and through Jesus, God engaged in this creative activity for Jesus. In addition, though the Jewish people thought that through Wisdom and Torah God could bring about the first creation, Wisdom and Torah were not identified as agents through whom God would accomplish the new creation. So, in this Jesus stands alone.

This passage emphasizes that in, through, and for Jesus God effected not only the creation but also the new creation. In doing so, Jesus holds the unique position of being at the center of and positioned high above everything (v. 18).

So, let’s quickly work through this passage:

15 Who is the image of the invisible God,

Now why does Paul start with this point? His thinking is shaped by his conceptual categories. His conceptual categories tend to be different that ours would be. This is because his categories are drawn from the story of Israel. The story of Israel begins with the creation, and with the creation of human beings in God’s image and likeness.

To help us discover Paul’s categories, think about Matthew’s Gospel. How does Matthew develop his Gospel with respect to the person of Jesus and the story of Israel? We get a clue about this by how he opens up his Gospel? Jesus is the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. In this beginning and through the way Matthew develops the identity of Jesus, Matthew shows us that Jesus is True and Faithful Representative Israel. This is why we see the echoes of key events in Israel’s story arising in Jesus’ story. Jesus as Representative Israel completes the purposes God had in his creating Israel as a nation. God in and through Jesus makes the way for the redemption of the nation, and for the redemption of the world.

This category of Jesus as Representative Israel helps us discover what categories Paul is employing here in this passage.

To help us along in a process of discovery, look at Romans 5:12-21. What roles do Adam and Jesus have in Romans 5? They are both used as representatives.

Adam is used as a representative for the human race. We see this same role appear in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 and in 1 Corinthians 15:45-47.

Romans 5:21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

1 Cor. 15:45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.

Paul identifies Adam as the head of the old creation. As head, he functions as an individual and corporate entity. He was, as his name signified, humankind. Though we may find this concept problematic in the light of western individualism and supposed autonomy today, with globalization and international economics it is becoming clear that humanity as a whole is bound up in a mess of created existence, of structural and corporate sin and fallenness. Though this is bad news for us who are in Adam, this corporate nature of humanity becomes good news for those of us who are in Christ. Paul parallels Jesus with Adam because Jesus as Representative Adam provides for the redemption of the human race.

Thus, in continuity with the Old Testament and the story of Israel, Paul thinks of Adam, humankind, Jesus, and the Church in structural-corporate and individual terms. In this way Paul models the language concerning the righteous Suffering Servant in Isaiah 40-55. In Isaiah 40-55 the language oscillates between depicting the Servant as an individual and as a corporate people. Solidarity, that is, jointly sharing liabilities and advantages, is the divinely ordained structure in which our personal lives are lived. We find ourselves bound up in the solidarities, vulnerabilities, and consequences of the life and destiny of Adam. Yet, we wondrously also find the saving parallel in the gospel assurance that we, in Christ, as the Last Adam, become a new humanity, bound up in the solidarities, atoning work, and resurrection victory of Christ.

With this category of representative Adam, we now understand what Paul is saying in these verses.

The imagery in verse 15 is from Genesis 1:26 and from Psalm 8. Jesus was fully human otherwise he would not have been able to be our representative. And, in being good news for us, he was the perfect human. God is invisible, unable to be seen. Yet, Jesus bridges this virtually unbridgeable chasm and became the perfect reflection of the invisible God. In this Jesus perfectly fulfilled the role all humans were called to have. As we read in Psalm 8 in the light of Hebrews 2:6-8 we see that:

Jesus was made a little lower than the angels; but, now he is crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, and by the grace of God he tasted death for everyone.

In doing this, Jesus restores us, empowers us, and releases us to fulfill our initial calling. We have been set free so we can image God in our lives and in our relationships. We are to see ourselves as being a part of the grand exodus story.

the firstborn of all creation;

This does not refer to birth order. Arius made this mistake. Arius understood this as saying that Jesus was the first one created.

The word for firstborn in Greek is prototokos. Prototokos can mean the first one born but it can also refer to being given the honor due to the firstborn. For example, we see this the honor of the firstborn being given to the king of Israel in Psalm 89:27 – “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” It is because of what Jesus accomplished that he is now the prototokos of all creation.

16 for in him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,
all things were created through him and for him.

Notice how the verb here is passive. Why is this? Although everyone knows that God is the active agent in the creation, the hymn uses the passive tense to highlight the centrality of Jesus in the creation event. All things were created in him (which is a category our western world does not have, our categories would prefer to use the preposition by: “by him all things were created” which is how the NIV translates this. However, this is not the category Paul has in mind. The category is: “in him.” Paul could be trying to the transcendence of the God-Human Jesus- trying to show that Jesus is totally separate from creation yet also showing that the creation cannot have its existence apart from Jesus. This may be why Paul used the preposition “in”. Not only were all things created in Jesus, they were created through him and for him. Jesus is the one through whom the creation happens. In addition, he is the one for whom it was created. God intended for Jesus to be the ultimate beneficiary of the creation. The reference to the invisible thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers denotes spiritual forces that oppose him. We see this in verse 13. Though Jesus may have enemies, he surely has no rivals.

17 He is before all things,

This carries two different meanings. Words can be wondrously multivalent. It carries the meaning that Jesus was pre-existent. He existed before anything was created. It also carries the meaning that Jesus is preeminent – he is positioned high above everything that is made, whether visible or invisible.

and in him all things hold together.

Not only is Jesus above all things, and existing prior to them all, he is also the one who makes sure everything continues to exist.

18 And he is the head of the body, the church.

Head was a living metaphor with a few distinct meanings. Head could mean “the one in charge”, and it could mean “source. The head of a river was seen to be the source of the river, the place where the river begins. Here Paul appears to be saying that Jesus is the source of the church, the one through whom the church began, and the one through whom the church continues to exist. This meaning is elaborated on in the next clause.

Who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,

The beginning Paul is referring to here, is the new beginning, the new creation of humanity. Jesus brought the old order to an end on the Cross. And on Easter Sunday Jesus was the first to rise from the dead and inaugurate the New Creation.

so that he might come to have first place in everything.

One of the reasons for all of this, for Jesus’ involvement in the initial creation and for all his involvement in the new creation is so that Jesus will have the preeminent place among all that exists.

Now, for the non-initiate, all this may sound a bit egotistical, as if God and Jesus are obsessed with their own greatness. The next two verses sort of ensure that our human minds don’t take this in a negative direction, accusing God and Jesus of such an obsession:

19 Because in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20 and through him to reconcile all things for him,
whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The world is a place of disharmony, brokenness, and evil. Human beings have rebelled against God and brought all the destruction we see and read about. In contrast, God acts on our behalf in Jesus, through Jesus, and also for Jesus.

In Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

As an American I love this. It sort of justifies the American idiosyncrasy of using extra words to emphasize the obvious. For example, we Americans like to say: totally unique, or completely unique. And any person from the UK or Australia will know, unique by definition is an adjective that places its noun in a completely separate category. To say completely unique is to be repetitively redundant.

Now, Paul is validating our idiosyncrasy by saying “all the fullness”. It seems kind of silly to say  “all the fullness”. Fullness means all. Yet, Paul wanted to emphasize the obvious for our benefit.

What Paul is doing here is drawing three Old Testament themes together in this one person, Jesus. First, the word fullness is used to talk about the totality of something, such as in Ps. 96:11 – the sea and all its fullness, Ps 24:1 – the earth and everything in it. Second, the Old Testament pictures God himself or his glory filling the universe, as in Jer. 23:24 “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Third, the verb “to be pleased” appears in connection with God’s election (as in Psalm 147:11 – “The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love”), and his dwelling place (as in Psalm 131:13 – “For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling”).

These three lines in the Old Testament converge in Jesus. He is the place in whom God in all his fullness was pleased to dwell. All the attributes and activities of God – his spirit, word, wisdom, and glory – are perfectly displayed in Jesus. God, in all his divine essence and power had taken up residence in Jesus!

In addition, the word pleased in these verses takes us one step further than all this. This word tells us that God was not only delighted for all his fullness to dwell in Jesus, not only delighted that all his fullness in Jesus enabled him to dwell among us, he was also delighted to reconcile us back to himself through Jesus by making peace through the blood of his cross.

CONCLUSION

This gives us an opportunity to stop, worship, and rejoice.

This passage teaches us that in, through, and for Jesus God brought into being the first creation and the glorious new creation. With regard to the new creation, God delighted in making the way to reconciled us with himself, coming to us in the person of his beloved Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. And since this is the case, Jesus has the unique position of being at the center of and positioned high above everything (v. 18).

Paul’s point is that God’s desire and intent are that Jesus be the center of our lives, that Jesus be the all-encompassing person for us, that his story be the all-encompassing story that we use to shape our lives, and that he and his story be what we use to direct and to interpret the circumstances of our lives.

As we go through these days, let us reflect on this: how are we making Jesus the center of our lives? As the God-human person, he brings heaven and earth together for us. When we are in him we are linked – as he was – to heaven and to earth. Since Jesus is so important for us, since he is our life, how is he and his story shaping us? How is he and his story directing us? Is his story the one we use to guide and interpret the circumstances of our lives?

Taking this a step further: How do we conceptualize ourselves in the places where we serve? Remember, Jesus was the One who brought heaven and earth together in one location. Do we see ourselves as those who are in Christ and as those who bring heaven and earth together in our locations of service? Do we see ourselves co-reigning with Christ in long-suffering love? When we walk out of our compounds into the streets, do we see ourselves as those who enable God and his kingdom to be seen and encountered by all those around us?