Although secular society continually attempts to exclude Jesus, He still seems to be everywhere. We see Him as a plastic dashboard statue in a passing car. We watch Him portrayed in Hollywood productions. We observe Hint in many variations as the manger baby for Christmas. In spite of all of this attention, we sometimes neglect to ask the most crucial question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” The lessons for this quarter will explore this vital question.
1. The Path to Heresy
Perhaps you have heard the word heresy at some time in your life. Merriam-Webster says that heresy is “an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth.” Heresy is dangerous false teaching that negates or denies the central truths of the Christian faith (see 2 Peter 2:1).
Many heresies that have arisen in the history of the church are centered on Jesus Christ himself. The first major heresy about Jesus came from a collection of false teachings we call gnosticism. While there were several false doctrines within gnosticism, the most dangerous was the belief that Jesus was not really human—He just seemed or appeared to be human. Gnostics had no problem with the divinity of Jesus; they denied His humanity. But, as Hebrews 2:14 teaches, if Jesus had not been a man, He could not die. Thus, acceptance of gnostic beliefs would deny the basic doctrine that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our sins, the doctrine of the atonement. A second major heresy that was centered specifically on Jesus was a fourth-century teaching we call Arianism. Arians taught that while Jesus was indeed a powerful, supernatural being, He had not always existed. He was a created being. This was recognized as a heresy because it ultimately denied the divinity of Christ. If He were a creature, then He could not be the creator—He could not really be God. If this were true, then Jesus’ claims about himself were delusions or lies, and He should be rejected as a false teacher.
Both of these heresies can be found in the church today. There are those who do not like to think of Jesus as a man, thus falling into a modem gnosticism. For example, this viewpoint has trouble thinking about the baby Jesus of Christmas time without also thinking that He never cried or while assuming that He was shouting words of wisdom while in the cradle. There are others today who see Jesus as the ultimate man but not as God, thus agreeing with the Arians. These modem Arians admire Jesus as an advocate for the downtrodden, a wise teacher, or even as a revolutionary leader. This line of thought stops short of seeing Jesus as God in flesh. Biblical Christians are called to affirm that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. To do anything less sets one on the path of heresy and departure from the Christian faith.
B. Lesson Background
Paul’s letter to the Colossian church was sent primarily to combat a growing threat of heresy within that group of believers. Paul never says exactly what the heresy is, but we can see that he refers to it as a type of “philosophy” (Colossians2:8); it seems to have been an early form of gnosticism, perhaps combined with a type of Judaism. Judaism was the belief that Christians were obligated to keep every aspect of the Old Testament law, including circumcision. Paul wrote to correct the problem and call the church to a return to the simple faith in Christ (2:6, 7).
Today’s lesson text comes on the heels of Paul’s opening prayer for the needs of the Colossian church. Paul has asked God that the Colossian believers would be spiritually wise (1:9), live upright lives (1:10), be strong in the face of persecution (1:11), and be thankful for their glorious salvation through Jesus Christ (1:12-14). Having ended his prayer on this high note, he then proceeds to discuss the true nature of Christ and what this means to his readers.
I. Divine Christ for Creation (Colossians 1:15-20)
The six verses in this subsection (1:15-20) have been labeled the “Christ Hymn” or the “Hymn to Christ.”
A. Jesus: Image of God (v. 15)
15. Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature?
This extraordinary verse is one of the most profound doctrinal statements of the entire New Testament. Yet it is susceptible to misunderstanding in at least two ways.
First, when Paul says Jesus is the image of God, he does not mean that Jesus is some type of “copy” of God. We know from our experience with copy machines that the copying process always causes degradation, and each copy is less perfect than the original. Such experiences do not apply here. Paul means that Jesus is “imaging” or revealing the unseen God, the creator who does not normally allow human eyes to see him (compare John 1:18). Jesus is the visible expression of God. See also John 14:9.
Second, when Paul describes Jesus as the first-born of every creature, he is not saying that Jesus himself is a created being. Rather, this is his way of saying that Jesus is the ruler over all creation. In the ancient world the firstborn son has authority over the father’s household that is essentially equal to that of the father himself. The only one who can overrule the firstborn son is the father. Since there is complete unity of purpose between Jesus and His Father, the authority of the son over creation is equal to that of the Father.
The word translated firstborn here is translated “first-begotten” in Hebrews 1:6. There it is even clearer that Jesus enters the world of humans from the outside as an uncreated being.
Thus Paul begins the Christ Hymn with a robust statement of the divinity of Christ. He does this by affirming two mighty characteristics of Jesus: His role in revealing the (role God and His authority over creation.
Most religions in the ancient world worship gods represented by idols. Yet the God of the bible refuses to be represented by an idol of any kind; He commanded that His people not make “any graven image” (Exodus 20:4). When the Romans first occupied Palestine, some officers entered the Holy of Holies in the temple and were dismayed that there was no image there. Since there was no idol present, they concluded that these Jews did not worship any God at all and thus were atheists.
Today many people doubt God’s existence because they cannot see Him. Yet in other areas of life we readily accept what we cannot see. We cannot see carbon monoxide, but we know that this gas can be lethal. We cannot see love, but we feel its presence and power. We cannot see radio waves, but that does not stop us from tuning in our favorite stations. Even though all these things are invisible, we still order our lives around them because we know they are real. God too is real. And Jesus is the image of God. That means that what we see in Jesus is a picture of what God is like. The apostle John tells us that no one has even seen God, except as God’s Son has revealed Him (John 1:18). What a privilege to see Jesus in the pages of Scripture!
B. Jesus: Creator and Sustainer (vv. 16, 17)
16. 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.
Living an inclusive statement with important implications. First, all things were created by Him. Paul makes sure that his readers do not exclude anything from this broad statement. There are no exceptions. Paul wants the Colossians to know that this includes both the physical realm (in earth) and the spiritual realm (in heaven). Paul also insists that all things were created for him. This, of course further excludes Jesus from the realm of created beings and things. While the full purpose of creation is not laid out here, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that creation was undertaken by God for His glory. Paul includes Jesus in this goal; there is no separation of purpose.
17.And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
Paul’s mighty statements about Christ continue at an intense pace. In this verse he asserts the preexistence of Christ. The affirmation that Jesus is before all things tells us that the divinity of Christ is not limited by time or space. This statement is similar to Jesus’ own claim that “be-fore Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
Paul goes on to declare that Jesus is not only the creator but is also the sustainer of all things. The word translated consist has the sense of “continue to exist.” The Bible never sees God-the-creator as some kind of divine clock maker who makes the clock, winds it up, and then abandons it. Christ continues to be involved in the ongoing affairs of the created order. Without this involvement the world would quickly cease to exist.
C. Jesus: Preeminent One (v. 18)
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
Having established that Christ is the creator and ruler of the world, Paul now narrows the focus of the Christ Hymn to Jesus’ role in the church. As elsewhere, the church is seen as the body of Christ (see Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians12:27), a beautiful metaphor. Compare Ephesians1:22, 23; 4:15; 5:23. (See question #1. page 128.) In regard to Christ’s relationship to the church, Paul lifts up three important concepts. First, Christ is the beginning or originator of the church. He founded the church (Matthew 16:18) and purchased it with His own blood (Acts 20:28). Second, Jesus’ resurrection is the crucial doctrine of the church. Without the resurrection of Jesus, the faith of Christian believers is futile and useless (1 Corinthians 15:14), and the church is based on fraud. The doctrine of the resurrection emphasizes the flesh-and-blood side of Jesus. As a man Jesus died, but God raised Him from the dead. As the firstborn of the resurrection, He will lead all believers to victory over death.
Third, Paul states that all of these things work to establish Christ’s preeminence. This word means first place or highest rank. There in no authority in the church that exceeds the authority of Christ in any matter. It is His church, not ours. We must remind ourselves that we exist as the church for His service and for His glory.
D. Jesus: Dwelling of Deity (v. 19)
19. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell.
This verse lifts up the doctrine of the in carnation. Although we may not be able to understand this teaching completely, it is a foundational doctrine for the Christian faith. This is the belief that the deity of God was present in the person of a man, Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul adds more detail to this statement in Colossians 2:9: “For in him dwelleth all the fill-stens of the Godhead bodily.” Understanding the term Godhead allows us some insights into Paul’s thought on this matter. This word is an abstract form of the word for God, thus meaning deity or divinity. This may be a less than satisfactory explanation except for Paul’s important qualification that in Christ we find full deity. Jesus did not merely have a “spark of the divine,” or “a more in tense relationship with God.” Christ was and is God. As the apostle John wrote, “the Word [Christ] was God” (John 1:1), and this Word “was made flesh and dwelt unsung us” (John 1:14).
E. Jesus: Peace Offering (v. 20)
20. And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things as to himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.
From the doctrine of the incarnation, Paul continues the Christ Hymn with the equally foundational doctrine of the atonement. Briefly stated Paul teaches that Jesus’ death on the cross was an act that paid the price for human sins; it ‘hereby returned all creation back to God.
There are many aspects to the doctrine of the atonement, and Paul draws on three of them here. First, the cross of Christ served as a type of peace offering to God. The biblical concept of peace can mean more than lack of hostilities. In the Old Testament peace (Hebrew shalom) could be used in the sense of “satisfaction of a debt.” For example, a landowner who failed to cover a pit, thus allowing his neighbor’s ox to fall to its death, was obligated to give the neighbor a new ox. To do was to make peace with the neighbor (see Exodus21:34, where the idea of payment is represented by the Hebrew shalom). Elsewhere, Paul teaches that Christ is our peace, having breached the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles and between God and humanity (Ephesians 2:11-22). Second, Paul uses the concept of Jesus’ death as a blood offering for sins. The Bible teaches that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22). This is the essence of Paul’s “preaching of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18), that the blood of Jesus serves as an ultimate, once-for-all sin offering (see Hebrews 10:10).
Third, this verse speaks of the atonement in terms of reconciliation. Two parties who were once on good terms but who have been alienated from one another need to be reconciled. They are reconciled when the cause for alienation is removed. We were alienated from God because of sin but reconciled when Jesus’ death covered our sin (see Romans 5:10). What is even more remarkable is that Jesus’ death does more than reconcile humankind with God; it also reconciles all of creation—all things . . . whether they be things in earth. or things in heaven—with its creator.
II. Human Savior for Humanity (Colossians 1:21-23)
Verse 20 marks the end of the Christ Hymn. Paul now turns to its direct implications for his readers.
A. Jesus: Justifier and Sanctifier (vv. 21, 22)
21, 22. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and un-blamable and un-reprovable in his sight. Paul reminds his readers of our side of the problem: we are the ones who caused the alienation by our sin (wicked works). Our movement away from God brings to mind the story of the wife who was riding with her husband in their big old car with the old-fashioned bench seats. She asked, “Honey, why don’t we sit next to each other like we did on our honeymoon?” Her husband, who was driving, answered, “Dear, I haven’t moved.” Alienation from God is not due to any failing or moving away on His part. The moving away has been entirely our work. When we are reconciled to God through the blood of Jesus, He is able to present us completely restored before the throne of God. We are holy (cleansed of sin), un-blamable (without fault), and un-reprovable not accused of any wrongdoing). ‘
ALIENATED … RECONCILED
Our family likes to watch old movies. One fond memory is the 1968 comedy With Six You Get Egg Roll. Starring Doris Day and Brian Keith. Day is a widow with three boys; Keith is a widower with one daughter. Day and Keith meet and the chemistry begins to flow. At one point Keith breaks a date with her in order to go to a birth-day party. But when Day sees him at a restaurant with a much younger woman, she is furious—not knowing that the young woman is his daughter and her birthday party is at the restaurant. After that is cleared up, Day and Keith get married. When Keith discovers that his daughter house work while Day’s son plays basketball, the fire works begin anew! He moves out of the house, and their relationship is on the rocks again. Eventually the misunderstandings are straightened out, and they live happily ever after.
Alienated, and then reconciled. Unfortunately, our alienation from God was more than a simple misunderstanding. We sinned, and this created a great gulf between us and God. But God pursued us. It took the sacrifice of His Son to unite us once again with God. It was that great sacrifice that makes it possible for us to live happily—and eternally—ever after.
B. Jesus: Core of the Gospel (v. 23). It’ s ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister. Here Paul speaks of the faith as the body of doctrine that is to be believed by Christians (see Jude 3). If we depart from the central doctrines of Jesus Christ as contained in the Christ Hymn, then we abandon the faith (see 1 Timothy 4:1).The danger that is in view here is not that we will quit believing altogether, but that our beliefs will become false as we drift into heresy. [See question #4, page 1281
While Paul’s books may have different emphases, they are consistent concerning these central doctrines, as is all of the New Testament. This is why we are able to use verses from one part of Scripture to help us understand a verse in another book. This is known as the “analogy of faith,” since Scripture never fights with itself. It speaks with one voice in teaching us about the implications of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. These teachings are both secure and timeless, serving with equal value every generation of Christian believers. [See question #5, page 1284]
A. The Ageless Jesus
“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). Some things about the church must change as culture and society changes. For example, no churches in the first century AD had Web sites or parking lots. However, the church has no need for new, updated doctrines about Jesus. Those doctrines as taught in the New Testament were adequate for Paul’s churches and they remain sufficient for ours. Church history tells sad stories of teachers who wanted to redefine what the church taught about Jesus. Gnosticism and Arianism were only two of several threats that the church battled to retain “the faith”: the true doctrines concerning Christ. Until Jesus returns there will be false Christs (Mark 13:22). These may be flesh-and-blood impostors. They may be teachers presenting warped views of the nature of Christ and His work of salvation. Church leaders should always be on guard against the infiltration of such false teachings into the congregation (see Titus 1:9).
B. The Christ of Christmas
Paul never tells the Christmas story of baby Jesus, either in his letters or in his recorded preaching in the book of Acts. (The closest he comes is in Galatians 4:4.) Yet Paul would agree that the basic story of a baby born in Bethlehem is essential to our understanding of who Jesus is. Jesus did not appear on the scene as a full-grown man, like gods of Greek mythology. The story of Jesus is an account both of human frailty and of divine, awe-inspiring power. He was born on the road and cradled in a feed trough. Yet He was worshiped by wise kings, and his birth was heralded by an angel choir. Even at His birth He was truly God and truly human.
Father God we stand in awe of the mystery of the true nature of Your Son, Jesus Christ. May we rest assured in the knowledge that Jesus ‘blood has purchased our salvation. We pray this in the name of Jesus, amen.