TEXT: Colossians 1:15-28
[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether in earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20)
The story is told of a teenage boy who became attracted to a girl in his math class. Asked what about her appealed to him most, he answered: “Her mom. She’s hot!” Then he explained that, as he figured it, in a few years his classmate would grow into the very likeness of her “hot” mother.
It seems not to have occurred to him that she might grow up to look like her dad. However, the young man was thinking analytically. He deduced that the daughter was more or less the incarnate image of her mom.
In Colossians, Paul figures the same way. “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (vv. 15, 19). Or, as Jesus himself put it, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus is the clearest picture of God available to us.
Do you want to know what God is like? All you have to do is look at the earthly ministry of Jesus.
- Look at his grace toward sinners, and his joy in the presence of children.
- Look at his healing compassion for those who hurt, and his impatience with smug self-righteousness.
- Consider his love for the disadvantaged and oppressed—and his willingness to offer fresh starts and second chances.
In these and countless other ways, we are shown the very heart of the Creator. “He is the image of the invisible God.” Additionally, Paul identifies Jesus as the glue that connects everything. “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (v. 17).
“In him all things hold together.” Need an example? Consider the diversity of the Christian church. Our skin colours vary, as do our denominations, our politics, our genders, and our ages. Often, we do not understand one another. Nevertheless, in spite of our differences, we are family to one another because we all gather together around Jesus.
Or, as the apostle Paul liked to put it, we are gathered together in Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). We find the same terminology in today’s epistle lesson, where—in verse 24—Paul refers to “[Christ’s] body, that is, the church.”
We are the church. We are Christ’s body. Individually, we are members of him. That concept, by the way, is called “extended incarnation”—and it challenges us to do what Jesus did. The name “Christian” literally means “little Christ.”
If we are Christians, then by definition we are supposed to be doing what Jesus did. As Paul says, we are to be “blameless and irreproachable … [to] continue in the faith, securely established and steadfast” (vv. 22-23). In short, our witness to the world is to be Christlike.
A tall order, I know. And yet, the truth is: if our witness for Christ is not “blameless and irreproachable … securely established and steadfast,” then it is a broken witness.
When churches (corporately) and church people (individually) are prejudiced, greedy, insensitive, arrogant, uncaring, or wasteful, the world is not likely to be won over. Only when people look at us and see Jesus—only when experience his love through us—will they see something that may attract them. It’s all about authentic witness.
From time to time you encounter people who have a bee in their bonnet about the Bible and they tell you in all earnestness that every word of the Bible is relevant and authoritative for every person today, and that we all have to obey every word of it. Ever meet folks like that? Here’s a Bible verse you might ask them about: Romans, chapter 16, verse eight. Ask them about how obeying that verse has been meaningful for them.
Now, I’m sure you’ve all memorized Romans 16:8, because it has been so meaningful to you … But in case you haven’t, I’ll tell you what it says. Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, and he tells them: “Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.”
Hands up, all those who’ve ever met anybody called, “Ampliatus” … Me, neither! Now what would happen if your relationship with God was dependent on obeying that specific verse? You’d have to find someone called Ampliatus so that you could greet him. But how? You can’t look him up in the phone book, because “Ampliatus” is probably his first name. You can’t just wait until you spot him in the street, because you don’t know what he looks like. Without an image of Ampliatus in your mind, you would not recognize him, even if you did see him.
Now of course, I’m being facetious here. But you see the problem, right? As disciples of Jesus, we are called to grow in godliness—or god-likeness. Our tradition tells us that, while we were created in the image of God, that image has been distorted. Jesus calls us to reclaim that image. In the Sermon on the Mount, he even goes so far as to say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
Well—just as if we were seeking to “greet Ampliatus”—if we are seeking to become godlike, we need to have an image in our mind of what we’re striving for. We cannot work towards something without some idea of what it looks like. If you visit any of the numerous gyms in your city, you will see people who are there every day—pumping iron and running on treadmills. If you asked them, I’m sure you’d find that they all have an image in mind of how they want to look. Maybe they want to build up some muscle. Maybe they want to get slimmer. Maybe they want to look like Brandon Curry. Or Rachel Cammon. But all of them have an ideal that they are working towards.
Not only with regard to physical attributes does this principle apply. If our goal is to be like God, then we need a clear image of God to work towards.
And—just to clear up a misunderstanding before it develops—I am not saying you cannot make a start until you have the full picture in mind. You can respond to what you know of God now—and the gaps in your picture will continue to be filled in as you go.
So, how shall we formulate our image of God? In our reading from his letter to the Colossians, Paul gives this question some serious thought. Listen once again to the words he wrote. Like I said earlier, Paul starts by saying that “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God” (v. 15). That’s probably the most radical statement ever made about God. It is the thing that most distinguishes Christianity from other religions.
Our tradition insists that Jesus of Nazareth—a person who was born in disreputable circumstances, who broke all kinds of religious rules, and who died a criminal’s death—is the image of the invisible God! No other major religion claims that we have seen in human form the exact image of the Creator of the universe. Most religions would call that blasphemy.
But Paul goes even further than that. He says that the great mystery of God that was hidden throughout the ages—and is now being made known—is that Christ is in you. That’s right; the image of God is in you!
Remember the message that Jesus proclaimed—and sends us to proclaim: the nearness of God. “The Kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9). The image of God is within you. Christ is in us.
Now, when Paul describes the characteristics of this Christ who is the image of the invisible God, what does he say? Well, I’m sure he did not intend this to be an exhaustive description of the image of God, but it is a pretty good thumbnail sketch. First of all, Paul talks about creativity. Christ is the firstborn of all creation, and all things on earth and in heaven were created in him, through him and for him (vv. 15-16). The God made known in Christ is an enthusiastic Creator; he pours his very being into every creative act.
Then, Paul talks about sustaining what is created. That’s what he means when he says that, in Christ, “all things hold together” (v. 17). This is a remarkable image, one that grows richer the more you think about it. Christ is the power of cohesion within the universe.
The first image of creation in Genesis is about giving form to the “formless void”—or the “original chaos.” Christ is pictured here as the One who keeps everything from descending back into chaos. If Christ’s Spirit were withdrawn from the world, the whole structure of matter would just cave in on itself.
You can also think about this in terms of relationships. We know that good relationships require ongoing attention; we need to keep working at developing and holding together our relationships. The more intimate they are, the more this is true. Christ is the power that holds things together; he is the One who makes it possible for the togetherness to continue.
Thirdly, Paul describes Christ as the reconciler. Christ is the image of God in that he seeks to restore whatever is damaged within Creation. He identifies that which has become separated from the sustaining energy of God, and seeks to reconcile it.
And the thing that is especially notable about this characteristic of the Christ is that he is willing to suffer incredible personal loss—even an agonizing death—in order to bring about that reconciliation.
Paul says that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things … by making peace through the blood of his cross” (vv. 19-20). Notice that it doesn’t just say “all souls”—or even “all people.” It says all things. All people, all animals, all mountains and trees, all families and ethnic groups, all institutions and forms of commerce, all political and economic systems, all the realities that shape life in the world as we know it.
Through Christ, God was pleased to undertake the task of reconciling to himself all things that are not in right relationship with their Creator. And as an example, Paul uses …
Well, the example he uses is you! He says, you—“who were once estranged and hostile in mind … he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death …” (vv. 21-22).
Our most common use of the word estranged is for an estranged husband and wife, after a separation. They are estranged, and there is hostility in their minds towards one another. According to Paul, this is how we were towards God. But, through his suffering, Christ has reopened the lines of communication. Reconciliation is made possible—and now, Christ presents us to God “holy and blameless and irreproachable” (v. 22). Christ presents us to God completely purified—totally beyond reproach. Now, there is absolutely no accusation anyone can bring against us before God. Nothing will stick. Before God’s throne, you and I stand in holiness. We are without blame and beyond reproach.
God creates and reconciles and sustains all things. That, in a nutshell, is the image of God that Paul says Christ demonstrates to us. Do you notice how Trinitarian that description is? One of the many good alternatives to describing God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is to refer to him as “Creator, Reconciler, and Sustainer”—and those are indeed the three roles that Paul attributes to God in this passage.
There is, of course, much more that could be said about how Jesus gives us our image of God. Paul did not know Jesus before the crucifixion, so Paul concentrates upon the risen Christ. There is much more we can learn about God from the earthly life of Jesus, as reported in the gospels. However, even if all we look at is this first chapter of Colossians, the images of godlikeness offered here provide a lifetime’s worth of growing for us to do.
If we want to be more like God, if we want to grow to maturity in Christ, we must strive to be creators—people who produce and appreciate beauty and practicality. We are to be reconcilers—people who are willing to go out on a limb to ensure that all things are brought back into right relationship. And, we are to be sustainers—people who overcome what is divisive; who nurture healthy relationships; who seek to ensure the sustainability of Creation.
That is what discipleship is all about. This is what it means to try to imitate God.
Our epistle reading concludes with Paul saying that all his proclaiming and warning and teaching have but one purpose: so that we may be presented in heaven as mature persons in Christ. Friends, as we go out into the world to be the church, let’s make sure the apostle’s words are not lost on us.
God chose to make known … the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Col. 1:27-28)