This last Sunday I preached my second sermon at my church, St. John’s Anglican in Franklin, TN. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to serve the Church in this way. Preaching is very new to me, and I feel like I’m learning a lot about how to study and exegete a passage, and how to draw out the relevance of that passage for the present-day church.
The sermon was from Colossians 1:9-23:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him 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.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Here is the audio, and the transcript follows.
Good morning church, I’m Jesse Orloff, and I’m honored to get to share God’s word with you all today. Would you pray with me:
Heavenly Father, I pray that my words today would honor you and feed your church. I ask that you strengthen each of us with spiritual wisdom and insight and help us to walk worthily of you. Amen.
Would you all join me as we go back to the early 1900s? Imagine with me the world shortly after the First World War. The world had seen unprecedented change in a very short time. At the beginning of World War 1 soldiers were marching to the frontlines on horseback, but by the end they were fleeing from tanks, shells, and toxic gas. It was called the War to End all Wars by many, and though that war ended, war did not.
Near the end of that war, in 1917, came the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia with the rise of communism. Wars also continued around the Mediterranean Sea after the Ottoman Empire was divided. In Ireland a civil war was fought between the Irish Republican Army and Britain. In the early 1920s the world saw the rise of Fascism with Benito Mussolini and the Nazi party appeared in Germany with Adolf Hitler.
Not only was the world facing political upheaval nearly everywhere, but the Spanish Flu raged from 1918 to 1920 and the Russian Typhus epidemic lasted from 1918-1922. Together those diseases claimed well over 25 million lives.
Social and religious change was exploding at the time as well; with it, a rapid secularization had been taking place that was in some ways the natural end of enlightenment philosophy. Parts of the church were especially influenced by a wave of theological liberalism from philosophers like Friedrich Schleiermacher from the 1800s. In the United States around that time not only did we have the growing influence of Theological Liberalism, but we also saw the formation of the opposite force, Theological Fundamentalism. We saw the Prohibition, and with it a rise of Organized Crime and in 1925 we saw the Klu Klux Clan march in Washington D.C. with over 30,000 people.
That is a lot to happen in only about a decade. So much change and chaos. So many people had decided that we are on our own in this world, and that the true purpose of man was enlightenment, power, or service to the state.
Well, it’s following all this that on December 11, 1925, Roman Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King, which we now observe on the last Sunday before Advent. This day, celebrated by Christians all over the world in many different denominations, is meant to remind us through all the earthly chaos and political upheaval, pandemics, social unrest, godlessness, and war, that Jesus Christ sits on the throne as King of the universe. Though everything around us may be uncertain, Jesus Christ is the firm foundation upon which we can build our lives.
It’s so important for us to remember that Jesus actively reigns over the world because believing this truth will lead us to cling to him in faith and to walk worthily of him. That is why our passage in Colossians is so helpful for us today. While Paul had different circumstances in his day that prompted him to write, this passage has been invaluable throughout the history of the Church for reminding Christians of who Jesus really is and what he has done.
In our passage, Paul sought to ground the Colossian Christians in the fundamental truths of the faith so that they would walk worthily of the Lord and continue steadfastly in the truth, able to resist the appeal of lesser philosophies and ideas about God and worship. By continuing in the faith, grounded by these truths, Paul knew that his hearers would be presented blameless and above reproach before God on the Day of Judgement.
Before we get into the meat of our passage, I want to share some of the context around this letter. Our passage comes at the beginning of the book of Colossians, and serves, in many ways, as the introduction and thesis to the rest of it. The book of Colossians is a letter written by Paul and Timothy to the Church in Colossae. It’s likely that Paul was in prison in the port city of Ephesus at the time, which was about 120 miles west of Colossae. Both cities were in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey. The church of Colossae was primarily gentile, but there would likely have been some Jewish believers as well. It was a young church, possibly less than a decade old, which Paul had never seen in person. Even though he hadn’t seen the church in person, he had heard of its faith and love from a man named Epaphras, whom he called a fellow worker in the Gospel. The Colossian church was doing well, generally, but he had heard some things which could become a cause for concern if left unaddressed.
Now, no one is exactly sure what those concerns were, and there have been many ideas thrown about by scholars. What seems most likely is that some people were bringing in some form of Jewish Mysticism, teaching that if people wanted to experience a better form of the worship of God, they needed to follow specific religious regulations around food and behavior. There may have even been some mystical teachings about spiritual beings going around as well. By worshiping in this way, some supposed, they would be able to achieve a higher spiritual state or closeness with God than they could with Jesus alone.
Paul’s goal in this letter is to remind the Colossians that in Jesus they already have full access to God and freedom from both the spiritual powers of darkness and man-made religion. He wanted to remind them about who Jesus is and what he did to defeat the powers of darkness and remove all barriers between God and us, because this is the only truth needed to find spiritual freedom, experience closeness with God, and build a God-pleasing life.
So, what are the truths that Paul uses to ground believers in this way?
Paul writes that God
… has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Paul starts this section by reminding us that we have not come to him with the qualifications that would make us worthy of an inheritance. God has done this, not you. He made us worthy even though we were unworthy, full of sin, and estranged from his kingdom and people. Not only did he qualify us, but he has given us our inheritance now, at least in part. He delivered us from the domain of darkness, where we were stuck, enslaved to our sin and to the spiritual powers of darkness that rule over the present age. He has redeemed us, forgiven us, and has moved us into the kingdom of his Son. We are already present in the Kingdom with Christ. We get to share in this with the holy ones in Heaven, both the faithful spiritual beings and the former saints of old. Yes, we may still be waiting for the Kingdom to come in its full completed sense, but right now, today, we can know that despite all the darkness present in all the earthly kingdoms around us, we are citizens of the kingdom of God! The world may trouble us, but we are within safe borders, and the King is our side.
Next, Paul wants to remind his hearers who the true king of the kingdom is and what he has done. He does this in a section that is referred to as a Christ hymn by many. Verses 15-20 may have been, at least in part, an early pre-scripture hymn that was already familiar to the Colossians. Paul wants to remind the Colossians of the truths that they already know about Jesus. Paul is reinforcing the gospel truths that they have already come to believe, because there is nothing new to add that will bring them any closer to God. Today, and every week we do the same as we recount the Gospel and the works of God through song, prayer, word and table.
Paul writes that Jesus
… is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him 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.
After describing what God, the Father, has done, Paul tells us that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” When we look at Jesus, we see God, in full, not in part. This passage calls Jesus the firstborn of all creation, and that’s worth digging into for just a minute, because misunderstanding this was the cause of one of the oldest heresies in the church, Arianism, and there are still many cults and religions who believe in Jesus but reject that he is truly God. For example, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons all consider Jesus to be a created being, though they differ on the specifics. To say “firstborn” does not mean that Jesus was created, nor that he was born first among other powerful heavenly beings. The word “firstborn” does not mean to us, in our language and culture, what it meant to Paul in his. To Paul and Jews of his time “firstborn” was a designation given to one who was pre-eminent. In the Old Testament God calls both David and Israel his “firstborn”, yet neither of them we’re the oldest of their siblings, nor were they literal offspring of God. But God held them to be pre-eminent among their people, being figureheads and kings, and more importantly, God meant them to be agents of salvation to the nations.
In this we can understand what is meant when Jesus is called “firstborn” twice in this passage. First, he deserves this title because Jesus is the one who created all things. He created everything visible and invisible. He created every spiritual power, throne, dominion, ruler, and authority. What the Old Testament calls the “sons of God”, the “host of heaven”, “watchers”, or “princes”, were all created through him and for him. Jesus is the creator and has no equals among those whom he has created. By this we can be confident that no creature, whether earthly or spiritual, no matter how powerful, could thwart the rule of Jesus or his plan for the world.
Second, Jesus deserves the title of Firstborn, because he is God’s chosen agent of salvation for the world. He accomplished what neither Israel nor David could, and this was God’s plan all along. Through the Cross, Jesus reconciled all things to himself. He brought forgiveness of sin to people and justice to the spiritual powers of darkness. He has become head of a new body, the Church, and he is the first person to take on a glorified resurrected body. What Paul writes is not in future tense, because Christ has already accomplished these things. His work is finished. Jesus has made peace and put everything right, and now the rest of history is unfolding to reveal this truth.
So, why does Paul kick off his letter with these powerful statements about who Jesus is and what he has done? Well, Paul knew that everything his hearers were looking for, and everything they needed was already available to them in Christ. He knew that to be filled with this spiritual wisdom and understanding would lead them to walk worthily of the Lord, produce endurance and godliness in their lives, and protect them from the fear of spiritual powers and the deceits of man-made religion. Paul tells them that in his prayers to God he was asking that they “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the father…”
He also wanted his hearers, both those Colossians who first received the letter and each of us who has read it since to remember that the reconciliation and forgiveness redeemed by Jesus is for every one of us who puts our trust in him and our hope in the gospel. He writes, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven…” Christ reconciled us to present us holy, blameless, and above reproach before him. The creator of all things and king of the universe, who has all authority in heaven and earth, to whom all authorities and powers are subject, who has completed his work on the cross, has redeemed you. What do you have to fear?
Paul knew that what he wrote to the Colossians would be what they needed to hear to face the challenges before them. It’s also what we need to face the challenges before us. We live in a world full of war, pandemic, political instability, and tribalism. Technology is changing the world at an unprecedented rate. As secularization and individuality have become chief values, people see organized religion as irrelevant or dangerous and look at all claims to know a higher truth with intense suspicion. Racial tensions abound, while slavery still thrives in many parts of the world, even secretly in developed nations. Inflation is on the rise, the stock market is struggling, and the poor are still exploited.
Our world can be chaotic, and at times even terrifying, but today we are reminded that Jesus Christ reigns in heaven and has already worked out the solution to the problems our world faces. The solution is in the blood of his cross. By that blood he has redeemed us and transferred us into his kingdom. He has founded the Church which will continue to bring his message of love and reconciliation to the world, reminding the world of who Jesus is, and what he has done for it. We must remember that our King lives and reigns above all powers and authorities, and that he is bigger than any problem or adversary we face. And we must also remember that he loves each of us. His concern isn’t just for the big problems in the world, but also for those problems each of us face in our own lives. This January I am having my left hip replaced and He cares about me when I’m experiencing anxiety about the procedure. He cares about my friend who just learned his child has Autism. He cares about you when you get news that changes your life. We may be at the end of our knowledge or power, but He has a plan, and it will work out for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes. When we remember this, we will be empowered to live the lives that he has called us to live and to do the work that he has called us to do.