Twenty-one years ago, in the spring of the year 2000, I was a freshman at Furman University, when an older student, who was discipling me, bent my arm to read the book Desiring God by John Piper.
I was floored by the bigness and grandeur of God, and the rightness of his pursuit of his glory, and then — wonder of wonders — came my own satisfaction of soul in him, which in turn glorified him. That spring I became what some of us call a Christian Hedonist, as well as a Calvinist, though it would take some time for some of the big pieces to settle into place.
The Great End
One of those big pieces was Jesus. In the glorious God-centeredness of God, and the satisfaction of my soul forever in the infinite worth and beauty of God, it took me some time to realize where Jesus fit in. How does the pursuit of God’s glory, and my joy, in one pursuit, relate to Jesus? Is he just the means that makes it possible?
Help came in early 2001, at the end of my sophomore year, with the publication of Piper’s Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ. I read it then, and sped through it. Later I came back, as a senior, and read each chapter devotionally (13 chapters plus the intro, so a reading a day for two weeks). And it was life-changing. The most transformative section of the book was chapter 3. The chapter begins like this:
A lion is admirable for its ferocious strength and imperial appearance. A lamb is admirable for its meekness and servant-like provision of wool for our clothing. But even more admirable is a lionlike lamb and a lamblike lion. What makes Christ glorious, as Jonathan Edwards observed over 250 years ago, is “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.”
For example, we admire Christ for his transcendence, but even more because the transcendence of his greatness is mixed with submission to God. We marvel at him because his uncompromising justice is tempered with mercy. His majesty is sweetened by meekness. In his equality with God he has a deep reverence for God. Though he is worthy of all good, he was patient to suffer evil. His sovereign dominion over the world was clothed with a spirit of obedience and submission. He baffled the proud scribes with his wisdom, but was simple enough to be loved by children. He could still the storm with a word, but would not strike the Samaritans with lightning or take himself down from the cross.
The glory of Christ is not a simple thing. It is a coming together in one person of extremely diverse qualities. (29–30)
“Jesus isn’t just the means. He is the great end. He is the fullest and deepest revelation of God.”
So, I began to see that Jesus isn’t just the means. He is the great end. He is the fullest and deepest revelation of God. To see him is to see the Father. As Revelation 21 says, the glory of God will give light to the New Jerusalem, and it has a singular lamp: the Lamb (Revelation 21:23).
In those days, it all seemed to come together for me in one particular text, which is where I’d like to take us today. I was asked to “choose a text that has been personally significant to your own walk with the Lord and ministry.” At the top of the list for me is Colossians 1:15–20.
These Six Verses
I would not think it an exaggeration to say that this is one of the greatest paragraphs in the history of the world. It is dense with foundational and all-encompassing truth, and it is boldly Christ-centered. These may be the most important six consecutive verses in the Bible. Here is the heart of what the Christian faith teaches about everything, undiluted, packed tightly into one short paragraph.
Now, readers have long noticed that as we move from verses 9–12 into verses 13–14, and then into verses 15–20, there is a shift in Paul’s language from his typically long flowing sentences, to these short, simple, even poetic declarations about Christ.
Because these six verses have that poetic feel — like a carefully crafted creed or hymn — some have speculated that Paul adopted it from early-church worship, and perhaps adapted it for his purposes here in the letter. Maybe. That would not be a problem if it were the case. But I see no good reason to think it more likely that someone other than Paul composed these lines. The massive truth distilled here in such short space and brilliantly simple sentences is theological genius at work, and plainly Paul, along with Luke and John, stands as one of the clear theological giants we know from the first-century church.
Also, these six verses are manifestly tied into the rest of the letter. This is no aside in the argument. This is the very heart and core of Colossians, indeed of Paul’s theology.
Among several other observations we could make about the careful structure and poetic elements, the word all (or every) appears eight times in these six short verses. It is “the thread that binds the verses together” (Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 111).
Three Spectacular Truths About Our Lord Jesus Christ
So, let’s look together at Colossians 1:15–20 and highlight three truths about Christ, the God-man, as celebrated in this paragraph.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all 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. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
1. Jesus is the Lord of all creation (1:15–17).
We said all is the thread that ties these verses together. Note the alls — five in the first three verses:
- Jesus is the firstborn of all creation.
- In him all things were created.
- All things were created through him and for him.
- He is before all things.
- In him all things hold together.
Firstborn over All
What does it mean that Jesus is “firstborn of all creation”? To our ears, two thousand years later, that may sound like he was born first, or created first. But for at the beginning of verse 16 shows us that’s not what it means. Jesus was not born or created first, because he was not created: “all things were created” in him, which means he himself was not created.
While the term firstborn originates from being born first, the meaning it came to have in the ancient world is much richer and deeper. Throughout the Bible, firstborn has the meaning of most significant or prized or, as we’ll see in verse 18, preeminent — “firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
However, Jesus being firstborn here has not been totally cut loose from an important sense of first-ness, not just in preeminence, but in time (or technically before time). Verse 17 sums up verses 15–16 by saying, “He is before all things.” Surely, as God, uncreated, always existing — as the old creed says, “begotten, not made” — Christ is before all things. But how is that in view here?
What Is the Image of God?
That brings us to verse 15 and how the poem starts: “He is the image of the invisible God.” The word “invisible” here cues us in to what’s at stake with the concept of “the image of God.”
Jews and Christians alike often use this “image of God” language, because of its prominence in the creation account in Genesis 1:27 (“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him”), but how often do we pause to find out what this really means?
How might it help if we added the word invisible? We are made “in the image of the invisible God.” I find that to be illuminating. Accenting God’s invisibility points to the essence of what an image is: visible. And visibility is a property of created reality. God is uncreated, invisible. The world he created is visible. Visibility is created and derivative, not original. And Jesus here is said to be the visible image of the invisible God.
“There is not anything in this world, and in your life, that does not relate to Jesus.”
What, then, does that mean for Jesus as Lord over all creation, that all things are in him, through him, and for him? In verse 15, not only is his eternal Godness in view, but also his incarnation and humanness. The eternal, invisible Son became visible by becoming man. That’s what it means for Jesus to be the image of God (image is connected to his becoming man), and that should be what gives us our bearings in discerning what it means to be made in the image of God.
In, Through, and For His Son
Jesus is the image. We are in the image. Which means that before God created the world, he planned what it would be like for he himself to enter in as a creature in the person of his Son. Man is the creature designed by God for what his Son would be, and would be able to do, when he came into the world he created. Jesus, as the God-man, is the visible image of the invisible God, and in this sense he is “firstborn over all creation.” Not firstborn in that he was the first man created, but firstborn in the sense that the first man, Adam, was created “in the image of God” — and Jesus is the image of God (see not just Colossians 1:15, but also 2 Corinthians 4:4: “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”).
Humanity may have been created last on the sixth day, but God did all his creating, from day one, in view of setting up the world for man, and not just man in general, but his Son as the ultimate man who would one day enter into his world, as firstborn over all creation.
This world exists as it does, and is what it is, and has the history it does, in view of his Son, through the agency of his Son (working together with him in creation), and for his Son — to honor, glorify, and accent his supreme worth and majesty. All creation is in Jesus, through Jesus, and for Jesus. Which means there is not anything in this world, and in your life, that does not relate to Jesus. We often do not see how, but the problem is not with his being, but with our seeing.
Even Evil Powers
What, then, is the meaning of this list of pairs in verse 16: “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities”? Answer: Jesus truly is Lord of all — even Lord over Satan and his demonic powers.
If someone were to object to this exhaustive vision of Christ’s supremacy over creation, one of the first things he may say is, “What about angels and the spirit world? Even better, what about Satan and the demons?” We might suspect that if there were any part of reality that wasn’t in, through, and for Jesus, it would be the spirits who have rebelled against God.
But the answer is no, not even them. Whatever question you have, whatever doubts you may have about the utterly extensive sovereignty and omni-relevance of Christ, Paul’s hymn says, “Yes, and that too.” As R.C. Sproul would say, there are no maverick molecules, and as Abraham Kuyper has said, there is not a square inch, in all the universe, over which the risen Christ does not say, “Mine!”
Upholding All Things
One last all in verses 15–17 (the end of verse 17): “In him all things hold together.” This flows from what we’ve been saying about the supremacy and centrality and preeminence of Christ in all creation, but it is distinct and worth making clear. Not only was Jesus in view and the agent and the goal of all creation, but he also “holds all things together.” Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Not only is his involvement in creation exhaustive, but also in every moment of every day. He doesn’t make the watch and walk away. He holds the world, all history, and our lives in his hands, and actively keeps them ticking by the millisecond.
And so we stand in awe of the utter lordship of Christ over all reality, even over Satan and the demons. Not only is Jesus presently Lord, but in him, and through him, and for him was everything created, and he holds it all together every moment. And he is the image of God in the world. All reality is set up for the entrance of God himself into his creation in the person of his Son, and for his Son to be the hero and culmination and heir of all things. That’s the first point: all the universe is calibrated for the coming and lordship of Christ. Now point two: what he achieves for us when he enters in.
2. Jesus is the agent of all salvation (1:18–20).
As impressive as it is for Christ to be Lord of all that exists in such utterly exhaustive and unrestricted terms, it is even more impressive that he is Lord of all in the world to come. He is firstborn, preeminent, not only in the first creation (verse 15), but also in the ultimate creation (verse 18), the new heavens and new earth, as head of the body of the redeemed people for which the new world is designed. The first world was designed for his entrance. The new world is designed for his endless reign as supreme over all and head of this body called the church.
As great a glory as it is for Christ to be the very image of God in whom, through whom, and for whom all things exist, his role in relation to the church is even more significant. As Paul says in his companion letter, Ephesians, it is “through the church [that] the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). And the church is the people among whom God’s glory and praise reach their pinnacle. “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:20–21).
That Jesus is head means that he is leader and provider and protector for the church. And that he has a body of people means he is not alone in the new age. A people are with him. But how does that happen?
How He Made Peace
The heart of this second part of the poem is that Jesus made peace by the blood of his cross. There is a massive assumption between part one and part two of the poem: sin. The horror of human history is that the creature made in God’s own image rebelled against God. We made war on the very one we were supposed to live to display. We did the most irrational, pathetic evil we could do: we distrusted the one who is infinitely trustworthy, and chose to go our own way, toward destruction. This is why we live in a world of war and chaos and conflict and disaster and disease.
So, when the eternal Son of God finally took up the human flesh and blood designed for him, and entered into the world as the one in whom and through whom and for whom the world exists, his mission was to make peace — not by killing the enemies of his Father, but by giving up his own life to atone for a chosen people, even though they had sinned against his infinitely worthy Father. In grace, he shed his own blood (blood here meaning he did not die of natural causes, but his life ended early, as a sacrifice) in place of his people perishing eternally in justice.
Will All Be Saved?
So now, not only is all created reality in, through, and for Jesus, but all redemption, all salvation, is in him, through him, and for him (those three prepositions appear in each section). But given the expansive vision of this poem — with “all” being the thread tying it together — you might reasonably ask, “If Jesus is the agent of all redemption, then are all people saved? Has he, or will he, reconcile all things to himself, such that all people, and all spirits for that matter — whether on the earth or in the heavens — eventually have peace with him and are saved eternally?”
“All the fullness of God is in Jesus not just for the sake of an effective redemption, but also for our eternal satisfaction in him.”
What Paul means here is not that all people are saved (he makes plain in 3:5–10 that God’s wrath is coming on those who don’t put off the old self), but that all things — the whole creation — is restored by the reconciling work of Christ (as in Romans 8:19–22), and that those who reject Jesus will not be included in the reconciled realm (but cast into “outer darkness” [Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30]).
Another way to say it is that there is no lack in the power and availability to all humans of Christ’s peacemaking, but it is those who embrace his saving work who will live with him in his fully reconciled, renewed world, while those who reject him are cast out beyond the realm of peace. And what makes the difference?
3. Jesus is the focus of all final satisfaction (1:19–20).
Not only is he Lord of all creation and the agent of all salvation, but he is the source and focus of our soul’s final satisfaction. And where we see it is in two phrases in verses 19–20.
First, “reconcile to himself.” To reconcile means to remove the barrier and restore the relationship. The enjoyment of the person is the goal. When Jesus makes peace by the sacrifice of himself, he doesn’t restore us to the creation to enjoy that as our final satisfaction; he reconciles us to himself. Yes, to each other. Yes, to the creation. But ultimately to him. He is the final focus.
Second, “all the fullness.” Verse 19: “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” All the fullness of God — which has made God supremely and infinitely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity from all eternity — all the fullness is in Jesus, and through him we taste the very fullness of God as our final satisfaction. All the fullness of God is in Jesus not just for the sake of an effective redemption, but also for our eternal satisfaction in him. There is no delight, no goodness, no mercy in God that we must bypass Christ to access. All the fullness, all the joy, all of God, is there in him.
And so Paul prays in Ephesians 3:16–19 that God’s people would “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” All the fullness of God is in this man Jesus. Full humanity and the fullness of deity. We marvel at his bigness and might and omni-relevance, and we melt at his grace and mercy and meekness, and all that comes together in one spectacular person — all the fullness of God in this God-man — whom we will one day see face to face and more fully know and enjoy without obstruction for all eternity.
See and Savor the Supreme Treasure
So, I finish, then, with one other extended quote from chapter 3 of Seeing and Savoring:
This glorious conjunction [of diverse excellencies in Christ] shines all the brighter because it corresponds perfectly with our personal weariness and our longing for greatness. . . . The lamblike gentleness and humility of this Lion woos us in our weariness. And we love him for it. . . .
But this quality of meekness alone would not be glorious. The gentleness and humility of the lamblike Lion becomes brilliant alongside the limitless and everlasting authority of the lionlike Lamb. Only this fits our longing for greatness. Yes, we are weak and weary and heavy-laden. But there burns in every heart, at least from time to time, a dream that our lives will count for something great. . . .
The lionlike Lamb calls us to take heart from his absolute authority over all reality. And he reminds us that, in all that authority, he will be with us to the end of the age. This is what we long for — a champion, an invincible leader. We mere mortals are not simple either. We are pitiful, yet we have mighty passions. We are weak, yet we dream of doing wonders. We are transient, but eternity is written on our hearts. The glory of Christ shines all the brighter because the conjunction of his diverse excellencies corresponds perfectly to our complexity. (31–32)
Brothers and sisters, Jesus holds it all together: he is Lord of heaven and earth, the first creation and new creation, the present and the future, all of history and the smallest details of your life. In him is full undiminished divinity and true uncompromised humanity. He is a lionlike lamb and lamblike lion. He is Lord of all time and space, Savior of his chosen people, and the supreme treasure who “corresponds perfectly with our personal weariness and our longing for greatness.”