A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.
July 21, 2013
While growing up in Kentucky I remember the mixture of pride and embarrassment I felt in the 1960s when that brash boxing sensation from Louisville named Cassius Clay (aka Mohammed Ali) bragged to Howard Cosell or anybody who would listen, “I am the greatest!” And for a while, he was the greatest…boxer…of all time.
Somebody once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.” These days, if Mohammed Ali claimed to be the greatest, it’d be nothing more than braggin’, and most of us would just smile affectionately at the champ who now struggles to walk and talk because of Parkinson’s disease.
But honestly, Mohammed Ali’s braggadocio seems tame compared to the way the Apostle Paul brags about Jesus Christ in today’s scripture. In essence, Paul says Jesus is the greatest person who ever drew breath on God’s green earth. In fact, part of Jesus’ greatness, says Paul, is that Jesus helped create God’s green earth!
What Paul says about Jesus in Colossians 1 is so breath-taking, so over-the-top that you can understand why more than a few incredulous critics of Christianity have dismissed it as “poppycock”. What’s funny, though, is that over time Paul’s assessment of Jesus as “The Greatest” has looked more, not less legitimate.
Yale historian Yaroslav Pelican writes, “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western Culture for almost twenty centuries.”
H. G. Wells once marveled that after two thousand years “a historian like myself, who doesn’t even call himself a Christian, finds (history) centering irresistibly around the life and character of this most significant man….The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is, ‘What did he leave to grow?’ Did he start men to thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? By that test Jesus stands first.”
That’s two pretty decent historians saying where Jesus is concerned, Paul ain’t just braggin’, not by a long shot!
What exactly did Paul say about Jesus in his letter to the Colossians? And why did he say it?
If you were with us last week, you know I began a short series of sermons out of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Earlier this summer, when we examined Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we learned that Paul’s fundamental reason for writing was his fervent hope that Christ might be formed in his Galatian friends. As it happens, Paul writes to the Colossians for a similar purpose, namely that he might eventually present everyone mature in Christ.
And not too surprisingly, this process of maturation in Christ begins by understanding who Christ is, particularly in the face of teachings from outsiders that distort the identity of Jesus. Jesus may be special, these teachers say, but he’s still one messenger among many sent by God. Other angelic beings and heavenly dominions have a higher rank than Jesus, and a greater wisdom, too.
Furthermore, Jesus was frankly limited by his deceptive appearance as a human being, since matter is evil, antithetical to God and all things good. You become fully complete in God, say these teachers, by believing in Jesus as well as other designated heavenly powers; and by obeying a bevy of burdensome laws; and by denying your worthless flesh through strenuous ascetical practices; and by acquiring a secret, hidden wisdom through mystical visions available only to a select few.
Paul didn’t start the Colossian congregation…he never even paid the Colossians a visit! But when he was informed by the church’s founder that false teachers were taking down this fragile new church by cutting down Jesus, he fired off a letter that contains one of the greatest, if not the greatest Christological confessions of all time.
(Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, writes Paul. 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 on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Talk about a “power-packed paragraph!” Reams and reams of commentary have been written on these verses, and I couldn’t do justice to them if I had all day! But I do want to comment on some of the highlights, starting with Paul’s mindboggling claim that a human being named Jesus is the image of the invisible God.
The Greek word for image is eikon, (from which we derive our English word, icon) meaning “replica” or “photograph”. Paul is saying that Jesus is a flawless, flesh-and- blood portrait of God. Then, borrowing a favorite phrase from the false teachers, Paul deliberately sticks it in their eye when he adds that in Jesus all the fullness (pleroma in the Greek) of God was pleased to dwell. Jesus didn’t just appear to be human or appear to be divine. He was fully human and fully divine—the full package in a way the world had never seen before.
Where did Paul get such a preposterous notion? Is he making this stuff up?
In John 14:9, Jesus says about himself, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
In John 1:18, we read, No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Many a theologian has speculated about why God chose to become flesh and dwell among us. But I’m not sure anybody has captured it better than the little girl who said, “Some people couldn’t hear God’s inside whisper, so he sent Jesus to tell them out loud.”
Yes, he did!
Notice, too, other titles and designations assigned to Jesus by Paul. Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. This does not mean Jesus was technically born as other creatures are born, because Jesus has always been. Rather Paul is saying Jesus participated in creation, is preeminent in creation, and sustains creation in ways invisible to the human eye.
Even so, if we look carefully, we can see Christ’s fingerprints all over creation. The twelfth-century mystic Hildegaard of Bingen was one of the first to speak of the “cosmic Christ” when she wrote, “Every creature is a glittering mirror of divinity.”
And nineteenth-century Jesuit priest Gerard Hopkins was also referring to Christ’s presence in all things when he wrote, “There lives the deepest freshness down deep in things.”
What’s truly remarkable about this preeminent, cosmic Christ is that he willingly allowed himself to suffer and ultimately die on a rugged cross so that all things—all creatures of our God and king—might be reconciled to God. Who ever heard of a god or a lord suffering and dying for his people! It was shocking!
Even more shocking was the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead so that he became the firstborn among the dead. In effect Jesus killed death so that we who follow him might have eternal life. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “In the resurrection of Jesus Christ his death is revealed as the death of death itself.” Or to quote the hymn writer John Mark McMillan, on Easter Sunday “the first born of the slain, the Man Jesus Christ laid death in his grave.”
But the most shocking part of Paul’s soaring hymn about the supremacy of Christ is his implication that we, too, can bear the fullness of God in our own, mature transforming souls. Paul contends we can not only rise with Christ after death. We can live like Jesus in this life in the same flesh he inhabited.
Will any of us ever be the exact replica of Christ? No. Sin and the residual power of darkness see to it that we will not reach that level of maturity this side of the grave.
But Genesis is very clear that when human beings were created they bore the image of God. In fact, all of us were designed to bear God’s image just as fully as did his Son. But the Old Testament relates in graphic detail how God’s image within us became tarnished and distorted through Adam and Eve’s sin and rebellion against God.
But Jesus, the Second Adam, manifested the image of God perfectly. And he came, not only to show us what God looks like, but what true human beings look like. And through the process of spiritual transformation, something we’ve been talking about a good while now here at FBC, we are called to slowly but surely be conformed to the image of none other than Jesus, who is the spitting image of none other than his heavenly Father.
The older I get, the more people in my hometown say I resemble my father. Paul would say that’s all well and good. But the ultimate purpose of my life is to grow so deeply in Christ that I increasingly resemble my heavenly father.
Listen to this prayer recorded by Paul in Ephesians 3, a prayer that frankly I am still trying to get my head around: I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (vv. 18-19).
Yes, Jesus possessed the fullness of God. The shocking truth is…we are called to do the same!