Sometimes we fail to eat the main course of a biblical meal because we choke on the hors d’oeuvres. The meal is set before us — perhaps early in the morning alone in our study, or late at night when all the others are asleep, or perhaps on Sunday morning in a sermon. And the main course is magnificent. You catch a glimpse of it. The smell begins to make you hungry. The anticipation rises. And then you choke on the hors d’oeuvres. And in the end, you get up from the banquet of biblical truth and leave the table frustrated and hungry.
What I mean by the main course of the meal is the rich, deep, hope-giving message of biblical texts — what verse 23 here calls “the hope of the gospel.” And what I mean by the hors d'oeuvres are problems that you see in the text — things that don’t make sense, things that seem to contradict other parts of the Bible or go against your experience.
Haven’t we all had the experience in our devotional reading of the Bible that some great and wonderful truth lies before us, but we are so disturbed by the problem in the verse before it that we can’t get beyond the hors d’oeuvres and enjoy the main meal? This happens to me far more often than I wish it would.
Well, the main course this morning is too valuable to miss. It’s the phrase “the hope of the gospel” in verse 23. So let me begin by trying to make three hors d’oeuvres in today’s text tasty rather than troublesome. In fact, what we will see is that they are not really side dishes after all.
The Difficulties in Today’s Text
Good people often choke on parts in verses 15, 20, and 23. In verse 15 it may sound like Christ is part of creation and therefore not truly God: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Jehovah’s Witnesses would take it to mean that Christ is part of creation.
“Sometimes we fail to eat the main course of a biblical meal because we choke on the hors-d’oeuvres.”
In verse 20, it may sound like all creatures are eventually going to be saved, so that there will be no one in hell in the end (starting at verse 19): “For in him [i.e., Christ] 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.” So universalists, ever since Origen in the third century, have taken this to mean that all creatures will be saved and none condemned.
And in verse 23 (at the end), what can Paul mean that the gospel has been preached to every creature under heaven? He hadn’t even gotten to Spain yet (Romans 15:24). It’s little things like this that we choke on, and then never get to the main course in the “hope of the gospel.”
Well, let me just point you in the direction of an answer to each of these questions without going into detail. And we will find ourselves before we know it in the main course.
1. What does it mean for Christ to be “the firstborn of all creation”?
First, the hors d’oeuvre in verse 15. Is Christ pictured as part of creation, and therefore not as God? It says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The term “firstborn” is a term of preeminence and dignity. For example, in Psalm 89:27 it is used of David. God says, “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” So here in Colossians 1:15 it may simply have reference to Christ’s unique and tremendously exalted status as the bearer of God’s image — “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn.”
But when it says, “Firstborn of all creation,” does it mean that he is part of creation or over creation? (The NIV paraphrases “of” as “over” and answers the question for you.) Is he “firstborn of all creation” like this is a pulpit of wood? Or is he “firstborn of all creation” like Ronald Reagan is the commander in chief of the armed forces — that is, over the armed forces? “Of” is a very ambiguous word by itself.
Well, it is not by itself. And the answer to our question is given in the next verse. Notice how verse 16 begins. It begins with the word “for.” So it supports or explains the previous verse. Notice how Christ “is the firstborn of all creation, for in him [or: by him] all things were created.” If Paul were trying to say that Christ was part of creation, he would not have supported it by saying that Christ created all things. Verse 16 clearly teaches that Christ is the “firstborn of all creation” not in the sense that he is part of creation but in the sense that he is over all creation. “Without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3).
There is no reason to choke on this hors d’oeuvre. In fact, it is a magnificent meal in itself, if we had time to serve it up — that our Lord Jesus is not only our Savior but our Maker. You were created by Christ. And that should intensify your trust and obedience and worship. But now we must hasten on to the next possible problem.
2. Does “through him to reconcile all things” mean universalism?
In verses 19–20 some people choke on the possibility that Paul is teaching universalism, namely, that all creatures will eventually be saved and none will be punished forever. It says, “For in him [i.e., Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell [or: God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Does this mean that one day God will reconcile to himself all unbelievers who have ever lived, even the devil? I don’t think so. That would certainly contradict things he says elsewhere (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Let me suggest one possible solution.
The Scope Is Renewed Humanity
Colossians 3:11 gives a helpful clue. In 3:10 Paul is describing Christians as people who have “put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” Then verse 11 begins with the word “here” in the RSV and NIV (literally: “where”) to show that what he is about to say is limited in its scope to the sphere of this renewed humanity he was just asking about in verse 10.
He says, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” Now if you took the sentence, “Christ is all and in all,” by itself, you might say that it taught universalism: “Christ is all and in all human beings without exception.” But we know that is not what he means because the verse begins with “here” — that is, here in the sphere of the church; “here” — in the new humanity that Christ is creating, he is all and in all.
All Things in The New Creation
This is the way I think we are to understand Colossians 1:20. Look how the paragraph is organized. The scope of verses 15–17 is all creation. The whole universe is in view. And the point is that Christ is preeminent over all creation, because he made it and he holds it all together.
“You were created by Christ. And that should intensify your trust and obedience and worship.”
But then in verses 18–21 the focus shifts and the scope is no longer the whole universe but the new creation, namely, the church. Notice how verse 18 turns from creation to the church: “He is the head of the body, the church.” Then it speaks of his being the firstborn from the dead, that is, he was the great first fruits of the new creation, the church that will one day rise from the dead and fill the earth with his glory.
Then, in this context of the church, we read in verse 20, that “he will reconcile all things to himself in heaven and on earth.” So I think the “all things” in verse 20 should be limited the same way the “all” in 3:11 was limited. Christ created all things in the old creation and he is preeminent over all (that is the point of verses 15–17). And everything that belongs to the new creation he will reconcile to himself and be head over all (that is the point of verses 18–20).
So there is no need to choke on this hors d’oeuvre either. This too is a meal all by itself. Our Lord Jesus is the sovereign master over all creation, and he is head over all the church. Nothing in heaven or on earth that God has appointed to be a part of the new creation in Christ will fail to be reconciled to him. The Lord reigns. And he will save his people and subdue his enemies.
3. Does “preached to every creature under heaven” mean the Great Commission is complete?
That brings us very close to the main course for today. But briefly let’s look at one other “side dish” that could stick in our throat.
In verse 23 Paul refers to “the hope of the gospel which you heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven.” What does that mean — that the gospel has been preached to every creature under heaven?
Paul knows full well that the gospel has not yet reached to all the peoples of the earth. He is writing from Rome. And his intention, according to Romans 15:20–24, is to go on to Spain, if he gets out of jail, because he wants to preach where Christ has never been named.
Literally, we could translate the last part of verse 23, “the gospel which you heard, the one preached in all creation under heaven.” This wouldn’t imply that the job is done. It would simply imply that it is the gospel’s destiny to be preached everywhere, and that this is in fact happening. Verse 6 suggests that this is what Paul means. He refers to the gospel “which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing.” The point in both texts is that the gospel is not for just one group, but for the world; and that it is, in fact, making great headway through the world.
Tertullian, who was born only one hundred years after Colossians was written, was able to say about the spread of the gospel, “We [Christians] are but of yesterday, and yet we already fill your cities, islands, camps, your palace, senate, and forum. We have left you only your temples.”
Side Dishes to Sink Your Teeth Into
So I hope nobody chokes on these three hors-d’oeuvres. In fact, I hope that you will see that they are not side dishes after all. I wouldn’t have spent more than half our time on them if they were. Let’s summarize and see what I mean.
1. Christ: Not Merely Creature, but Creator
Christ is no mere creature. He is the very image of the living God. “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). He is very God of very God, begotten not made. All things were made through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. If these things were not so, if our Lord were not the Lord of glory, there would be no Christian gospel, for Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that our gospel is “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God.”
So our first hors d’oeuvre is no mere side dish. It belongs to the very essence of the gospel. Rob Christ of his divine preeminence over all creation and there is no Christian gospel. Angels and men cannot atone for sin! Only the God-man can save your life.
2. Creation: Not Rescued Old, but Reconciled New
Nor was the second hors d’oeuvre a mere side dish. It has pleased God the Father not merely to make the old creation through the power of his Son, but also to make (i.e., reconcile) a new creation by the death of his Son.
Notice how verse 21 says that you and I were estranged and hostile toward God. That is the condition of the whole old creation. Rebellion against God reigns in the hearts of men — you and me included. We are rebels by nature just as much as any Khomeini or Khadafy! The gospel is the message of verse 22: “Christ has now reconciled us in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.”
By the death of his Son, God is now creating a new race of holy people who have given up their hostility to God. God aims for Jesus not merely to be the firstborn over all creation by virtue of his authority and power, but also the head of a new creation by virtue of his sacrifice and love.
So that hors d’oeuvre is no side dish either. It belongs to the very heart of the gospel. It is the gospel. If God didn’t overcome my hostility and estrangement by the blood of Christ, it would never be overcome, I would never be a new creature, and there would be no good news in all the world.
3. Commission: Not Finished, but for All Peoples
And the last hors d’oeuvre too turns out to be part of the gospel itself. This gospel is being preached in all creation under heaven. The gospel is for everybody! It belongs to the very heart of the gospel that you don’t have to be Jewish, or Anglo-Saxon, or free, or male, or even good in order to be saved by the gospel. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
Therefore this gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world. This is not an interesting sidelight (a side dish). If the gospel did not run and win victories in the world, it would not be the power of God to save, and it would not be gospel.
The gospel is not merely a proclamation of good news. It is the power of God to save. It comes not only in word but in power and in the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:5). It is the instrument of God’s effectual call (2 Thessalonians 2:14). It is the occasion of his regenerating power (1 Peter 1:23, as we will see next week). It accomplishes what God sends it forth to do. The gospel is the word of God. It is the voice of the Lord. And we know that
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars . . . The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness . . . The voice of the Lord strips the forests bare; and in his temple all cry “Glory!” (Psalm 29)
The Hope of the Gospel
Paul refers in Colossians 1:23 to “the hope of the gospel.” And there is no sweeter message of hope in all the world than to hear God announce that when you get up in the morning miserable and depressed with a sense of guilt and estrangement before a holy God, you can go to bed that very night — this very night — with a quiet and peaceful heart knowing that every sin you have ever committed and ever will commit is forgiven and you are reconciled to the Almighty by the death of his Son. That’s the free offer of the gospel!
If last week we saw that we were chosen by grace, and called by grace, and sanctified by grace, and sustained in faith by grace, and glorified by grace, then today we learn that all that grace was purchased by the blood of the cross and is emphatically a grace for estranged and hostile sinners.
“The gospel is the good news that there is hope for sinners, the worst of sinners — the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation, and holiness.”
And the gospel is the good news that there is hope for sinners, the worst of sinners — the hope of forgiveness (a weeping harlot saved by faith); the hope of reconciliation (a broken prodigal coming home); the hope of holiness (a leper cleansed by the touch of Jesus).
A Worldwide Hope
But the hope of the gospel is more. It is a worldwide hope, and nothing else will satisfy our hearts in the end. It is the voice of the Lord that strips the forests bare. It is living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:11–12). It is like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:29). It goes forth from his mouth and does not return empty, but accomplishes that for which he sent it (Isaiah 55:11). The grass withers and the flowers fall but the word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:8).
And therefore it will reach to every people and tongue and tribe and nation; the ransomed will be called; the full number of the Gentiles will come in; the eyes of all Israel will be opened; and the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. The wheat and the tares will be divided: one into the furnace of fire, the other into the master’s granary. And those who have believed the gospel will shine like the Son in the kingdom of their Father. And they shall reign forever and ever in light.
This is the great global hope of the gospel! Let him who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires take the water of life without price. Receive the gospel. Stand in it. Hold it fast. There is no other hope than “the hope of the gospel.” Amen!