PREEMINENCE OF CHRIST
The New Testament uses the word "preeminence" just two times—one time of Diotrephes and one time of Christ. The word literally means having first place. In fact, that is how many modern versions translate the Greek. Diotrephes was a church dictator who caused the church a great amount of trouble, as this kind of leader usually does. The apostle John writes concerning the man: "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds that he does, prating against us with malicious words (or talking wicked nonsense): and not content therewith, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and forbids them who would, and casts them out of the church" (3 John 9-10). The expression, "loves to have preeminence," is just one word in the Greek text. What a tragedy that a fallible human being would attempt to take honor to himself that belongs to God alone!
Paul uses the word "preeminence" of Christ in the following passage. God "has delivered us from the power of darkness, and has translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him shall all fullness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of the cross, by him to reconcile all things to himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven" (Col. 1:13-20). Our study today will focus on two main topics in this reading from Colossians: Christ's preeminence in creation and his preeminence in salvation.
Paul told the Colossians: God "has delivered us from the power of darkness, and has translated us into the kingdom of his dear son" (Col. 1:13). The word "delivered" means to rescue. Paul uses the word in speaking of what God had done and would continue to do for Christians at Corinth. "We had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead: who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver: in whom we trust that he will deliver us" (2 Cor. 1:9-10). Christians have been delivered or rescued from the power or authority of darkness and "translated" into the kingdom of God's dear Son. Three comments on this passage are in order. The word "translated" means changed or transferred. The Colossians could not have been transferred into the kingdom that did not already exist. Take note of how Paul refers to Christ: "God's dear Son" or "his beloved Son."
Our redemption is accomplished in Christ. "In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins" (Col. 1:14). The word "redemption" means release by payment of a ransom. The word had a background of human slavery. Slave owners held captive the lives of men and women. If the slave could accumulate enough wealth, he could pay for his release. All human beings who are outside of Christ are slaves to sin (Rom. 6:16-17). We cannot do enough good works in a thousand years to redeem ourselves from the bondage to sin. So Jesus Christ paid for our redemption through his sacrifice on the cross. That was what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples: "Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for man" (Mt. 20:28). Paul used a different Greek word in the following passage, but the thought is basically the same. "What? Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Sprit which is in you, which you have of God, and you are not your own? For you are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Through Christ's death on the cross and our obedience to the gospel, we can have the forgiveness of sins. The word "forgiveness" means to send away. When we obey the gospel, our sins are sent away. As absolutely essential as Christ's death on the cross is, no one is saved just because Christ died on the cross. We must render obedience to the gospel. Please notice what the Colossians did. They were "buried with him in baptism, wherein also" they "were raised with him through the faith in the operation of God, who has raised him (Christ) from the dead" (Col. 2:12).
Paul calls Christ "the image of the invisible God." The word "image" (eikon in the Greek) means the exact likeness. The same apostle refers to Christ "as God manifest in the flesh" (1 Tim. 3:16). On one occasion, Jesus informed the apostles of his imminent departure. Thomas explained that he did not know where Christ was going, nor did he know the way. Christ responded: "I am the way, the truth and the life: no man comes unto the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you should have known the Father also: and from henceforth you know him, and have seen him. Philip says unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it suffices us." Please listen carefully to the words of our Lord. "Have I been so long with you, and yet have you not known me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; and how do you say, Show us the Father" (John 14:1-9)?
What would you think of an ordinary person's saying, "He who has seen me has seen the Father?" We would think we needed to call the men in white coats to keep the man from hurting himself or others. But millions and millions of people have believed what Jesus said. Thomas Carlyle, the distinguished English writer, was having a discussion with a friend. Carlyle quoted the words of Jesus I have just read to you. The friend told Carlyle: "I could say the same thing." Carlyle responded: "But Christ got people to believe it." Christ's words were no empty boast. He proved who he was by the great miracles he performed. Please listen to what Peter said about our Lord: "You men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles, and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as you yourselves also know: him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain" (Acts 2:22-23).
Paul refers to Christ as "the firstborn of every creature." Did you know that the cultic groups think this verse teaches that Christ was a created being? In his outstanding set of books, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), Dr. A. T. Robertson, the world renowned Greek scholar, says concerning the word "firstborn": "The use of this word does not show what Arius argued that Paul regarded Christ as a creature like 'all creation.'...Paul is here refuting the Gnostics who pictured Christ as one of the aeons by placing him before 'all creation.' Paul takes both words to help express the deity of Jesus Christ in his relation to the Father (image) and to the universe (firstborn)" (volume 4, p. 478).
The late Dr. F. F. Bruce was one of England's most influential evangelical scholars. His Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957) makes the following pertinent observations on the word "firstborn": "The context makes it clear that this title is not given to Him as though He Himself were the first of all created beings; it is emphasized immediately that, far from being part of the creation, He is the One by whom the whole creation came into being" (p. 194). We know that Christ was in the beginning with the Father (John 1:2). Do you remember what our Lord told some of his Jewish critics: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58)? Just like God the Father, God the Son is now, always has been and always will be.
Jesus Christ existed with the Father from the beginning. He is the one who created the entire universe, including man. "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him" (Col. 1:16). Paul's teaching in this verse harmonizes with what other New Testament writers teach. The apostle John strongly affirms: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:1-3). The author of Hebrews writes: "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb. 1:1-3).
I do not have time today to show how utterly foolish, unscientific and unscriptural the theory of evolution is. I want to stress as strongly as I am able that the theory of evolution and the Bible's teaching on creation cannot be harmonized, regardless of the contentions of modernistic theologians. The two positions are absolutely irreconcilable. God created the world through or in Jesus Christ. I will say in passing that nothing makes less sense than to argue that the world with all its varied and complicated systems could have come into existence accidentally. The world was planned and Jesus Christ brought it into being.
Please notice that Paul leaves out nothing when he says that Jesus Christ created the world and all that is in it. Those things that are in heaven, those things that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers were all created by Christ and for Christ. He not only is the power behind the creation; he is the purpose for the creation. We may not be able to comprehend Paul's full meaning, but we believe Christ is the Creator of all that exists in our universe—from the smallest creature on earth to the giant animals to the heavenly bodies.
But both Paul and the author of Hebrews go a step further. They argue that Christ keeps the universe operating. Paul writes very simply: "And he is before all things, and by him all things consist" (Col. 1:17). The expression, "he is before all things," simply teaches the preexistence of Christ. When Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary, that was not the beginning of Christ's existence. He had existed from all eternity. Is that not what John meant when he wrote: The Word "was in the beginning with God" (John 1:2). When Christ told some Jews, "Before Abraham was I am," he was affirming his eternality. John records Christ's saying, "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending...who is, who was, and the one who is to come, the Almighty" (Rev. 1:8).
Paul teaches that Jesus Christ is the one "by whom all things consist." The word "consist" means to cohere, to stick together or to hold together. It is appropriate to speak of the laws of nature, such as, the law of gravity, but these laws really are expressions of the mind of Christ. The author of Hebrews says that Christ upholds all things by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). Jesus Christ keeps the world operating. When he decides for the end of time to come, he will bring all things to their conclusion.
We have examined Christ's relationship to the Father—"he is the image of the invisible God"—and his relationship to the universe—he created it and holds it together. What is his relationship to the church of the living God? "And he is the head of the body, the church" (Col. 1:18). Paul used very similar language in his letter to the Ephesians. God "has put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head overall things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23).
What does being head of the church really mean? Are the feminists right when they say the word simply means source? He is the source of salvation, but that is not the meaning of the word "head." The apostle Matthew provides us with one edition of the Great Commission. Jesus told his apostles: "All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I with you always, even to the end of the age" (Mt. 28:18-20).
There are two expressions in this reading that are relevant to Christ's being the head of the church. Christ has all authority in heaven and in earth. Does that mean that we must order the work and worship of the church after his will as revealed in the New Testament? If he is the head of the church, we must honor him as the head by doing exactly what he has commanded. Is that not also the significance of the clause, the apostles were to “teach all people to observe all things whatsoever the Lord had commanded?" I am fully aware of those teachers who deny that we must obey the Lord's commands to be saved. But they are ignoring the simple teaching of this verse and of many others. What did the apostle John mean in his first epistle when he wrote: "By this we know what we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:2-3)?
Paul calls the church the body of Christ (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:23). I shall not take the time today to discuss the implications of that term. However, every Christian is a member of the body of Christ. We do not all have the same functions in the body, just as the various members of our physical bodies do not have the same function. Some in the church are elders; some are deacons, preachers and song leaders. But every member has a responsibility to use his or her talent to further the cause of Christ. God will hold us accountable for doing his work to the best of our ability. You do remember that branches that are not fruitful are thrown into the fire and burned, do you not?
Paul tells us that Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead "that in all things he might have preeminence" (Col. 1:18). The expression, "the beginning," means that Christ was in the beginning and started the whole process. He is also the firstborn from the dead. Paul was not arguing that Christ was the first person to be raised from the dead. Christ himself raised the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8) and his friend Lazarus (John 11). Paul is teaching that Christ was the first person to be raised from the dead who would never die again. The apostle Paul speaks of Christ's being the "first fruits of them who slept" (1 Cor. 15:20). Jesus was not only the one who was raised to die no more; his resurrection guarantees our resurrection. That is the meaning of the term, "first fruits."
Please listen again to verse 18. "And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence." I have already explained the meaning of the word "preeminence." It literally means having the first place. But first place in reference to what? A careful reading of the rest of the Colossian letter will provide answers to my question. Please listen to just one other passage from this letter. "If you then be risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things of the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members that are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col. 3:1-5).
Paul tells us: "For it pleased the Father that in him (Christ) should all fullness dwell" (Col. 1:19). The word "fullness" means total. In his commentary on Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, a reprint), J. B. Lightfoot writes concerning the word "fullness": It is "a recognized technical term in theology, denoting the totality of the divine attributes" (p. 159). Paul used the same word in the following verse: "For in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9). This explains why Jesus could say, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9) and "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30).
Paul adds one further thought in the passage I am examining with you. “And, having made peace through the blood of the cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven" (Col. 1:20). The word "reconcile" means to change or to exchange. When one obeys the gospel of Christ, he exchanges enmity with God for friendship. The Colossians were reconciled to God when they believed the gospel and obeyed the Lord in baptism (Col. 2:12). If you are not God's friend, will you this very day obey him and become his child?
The International Gospel Hour
P.O. Box 118
Fayetteville, TN 37334
Back to Home Page
Back to Transcripts Titles