Scripture: Colossians 1:15-20
I grabbed the remote to turn on the television. I didn’t know what the program would be; I was tired at the end of a long day & just wanted to relax for a few minutes.
The sound came on briefly before the picture appeared. A voice simply said, “This is the head.”
Immediately – the picture still had not appeared – I found myself wondering what sort of ‘head’ this might be. Was the program about archaeology, with people looking at a human skeleton? Or was it a program on a small animal or insect? Or was it about a school or college, introducing us to the principal or dean? Was it about a musical instrument, the scroll & peg-box of a violin are called the head after all? Perhaps the program was about coins, showing us the ‘head’ side. Was it about the source of a river?
Of course, it was none of these. It was about the top of a foaming pint of beer. The viewer was asked to admire its color & thickness. No doubt there could have been other meanings that would have been appropriate as well.
Our Scripture reading for today is a poem, based on the different meanings for the Hebrew word for ‘head.’ As in English, so too in Hebrew, the word can carry several different ideas, & Paul is cleverly exploring & exploiting some of them. Listen to how this works.
Jesus Christ, he says, is first overall, or firstborn. That’s the first meaning for ‘head’, which comes twice – in vv. 15 & 18.
Jesus Christ holds all things together or is supreme in v. 17.
Jesus Christ is the head of the body, the church, in v. 18. He is also the beginning.
By now you have probably noticed something else about this poem. It has carefully balancing sections. The first section – He is the image of the invisible God… the firstborn… all things were created by him – matches & is balanced by the third section – the beginning… firstborn… all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him. The middle section, in between these, holds the 2 outer sections together, looking back to the first & forward to the latter.
Now all this is fascinating as an exercise in clever writing; & actually there is much, much more going on as well which I haven’t the time to explore today. Part of growing up as a Christian is learning to take delight in the way in which God’s truth, whether in physics or theology or any other field, has a poetic beauty about it. But of course, Paul isn’t writing this poem just to show off his clever intellectual skills, or to provide some sophisticated kind of literary entertainment. He is writing this (or, if the poem was originally written by someone else, quoting it) in order to tell the Colossians something they badly need to know. What is that?
What they need to know above all, if they are to grow as Christians, increasing in wisdom, power, patience & thanksgiving, is the centrality & supremacy of Jesus Christ. The more they get to know, & know about, Jesus Christ, the more they will understand who the true God is & what he has done; who they are as a result; & what it means to live in & for him. Much of the rest of the letter is an exploration of the meaning of the poem. Read 2:3, for instance, where Paul declares that all the treasures of wisdom & knowledge are hidden in Christ himself.
It is worth, then, going quite slowly through the poem & pondering the depths of meaning that are to be found in it. Christianity is not simply about a way of being religious. It is not about a system for how to be saved here or hereafter. It is not simply a different way of holiness. Christianity is about Jesus Christ; & this poem, one of the very earliest Christian poems ever written, is as good a place to start exploring it as any. This is what the Colossians needed to know, & we need to rediscover it today.
There are 3 things in particular which the poem points to about Jesus Christ & about what God has done in & through Jesus.
First, it is by looking at Jesus that we discover who God is. He is the image of the invisible God. Nobody has ever seen God, but in Jesus he has come near to us & become one of us.
If somebody is sitting in the parlor, I can’t see them because there is a wall in the way. But if there is a mirror out in the hallway, I may be able to look out of the door & see, in the mirror, the mirror-image of the person in the parlor. In the same way, Jesus is the mirror-image of the God who is there but who we normally can’t see. We may be aware of his presence; many people, many religions, even many systems of philosophy have admitted there is “something or somebody there.” But with Jesus we find ourselves looking at the true God himself.
The great thing about that is that the more we look at Jesus, the more we realize that the true God is the God of utter self-giving love. That is why this poem comes right after Paul’s prayer that the Colossians will learn how to be grateful to God. When you realize that Jesus reveals who God is, giving thanks is the first & most appropriate reaction.
Second, Jesus holds together the old world & the new, the original creation & new creation. The salvation or redemption offered by Christianity is sometimes described as if it meant the old world, the ordinary world of creation we all live in, was worthless – or, worse than worthless, was itself evil, perhaps the creation of an evil deity, a devil. Some people, recognizing that this won’t do – creation is full of beauty, power & sweetness as well as pain, bitterness & evil – have tried to say that evil isn’t really all that important; or in some of the more extreme philosophies, that evil & pain don’t really exist. Getting this balance right, it seems, is very difficult. But this poem does it brilliantly.
Jesus Christ, says the poem boldly, is the one through whom & for whom the whole creation was made in the first place. This isn’t just a remarkable thing to say about an individual of recent history (which shows how very quickly the early Christians came to see Jesus as one who had been from all eternity the agent of the Father in making the world). It is also a remarkable thing to say about the natural world. It was Christ’s idea, his workmanship. It is beautiful, powerful & sweet because he made it like that. When the lavish & generous beauty of the world makes you catch your breath, remember that it is like that because of Jesus.
But it is also full of ugliness & evil, summed up in death itself. Yes, that is true, too; but that was not the original intention, & the living God has now acted to heal the world of the wickedness & corruption which have so radically infected it. And he has done so through the same one through whom it was made in the first place. This is the point of the rest of the poem. The Jesus through whom the world was made in the first place is the same Jesus through whom the world has now been redeemed. He is the firstborn of all creation, AND the firstborn from the dead.
Third, Jesus is therefore the blueprint for the genuine humanness which is offered through the gospel. As the head of the body, the church; as the first to rise again from the dead; as the one through whose cruel death God has dealt with our sins & brought us peace & reconciliation; &, above all, as the one through whom the new creation has now begun. In all these ways, Jesus is himself the one in whom we are called to discover what true humanness means in practice. We have so often settled for second best in our human lives. Yet Jesus calls us to experience the genuine article.
There is much more that could be said about this wonderful poem. I hope what I’ve already said will encourage you to explore it further & meditate on it more deeply. But let me end with a final point, which is in fact another key to the meaning of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. In the Judaism of Paul’s day, quite a lot that he has here said about Jesus had already been said about the rather shadowy figure of ‘wisdom.’ Part of Paul’s point is precisely this: if it is wisdom you want, Jesus is where you have to look. What that meant for the Colossians is explained in the rest of the letter. What it means for us today is up to each of us to explore, with delight, with praise, & - once again – with thanksgiving.