Date: December 9, 2018
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Colossians 1:17–1:18
In 1543, a Polish astronomer published a book that redefined how people viewed the world. The astronomer, of course, was Nicolaus Copernicus, and his idea was revolutionary, in more ways than one. Copernicus declared that the sun, rather than the earth, stood at the center of the solar system, and that therefore, all the planets were maintained in proper orbit by the centralizing force of the sun. The effects of Copernicus’ theory were so far-reaching that it spawned it’s own cliché – a Copernican Revolution. So even today – nearly 500 years later – you’ll hear people talk about a Copernican Revolution in Physics, in Philosophy, in Management, in Banking, and yes, even in Football. A Copernican Revolution, then, is anything that shifts an old way of thinking, often with dramatic upheaval, so that something new becomes central.
If you’ll allow me to use this somewhat clichéd phrase, our passage this morning truly does represent a Copernican Revolution in Christian thinking. I would say that every person who comes to faith in Christ has this implicit assumption that Christianity is about me. The Bible is about me and how I can live a better life than my sinful, old self. The Church is about me and how I can have my needs met. The gospel is about me and how I can get to heaven. God, even, is most concerned with me and how his purpose for my life can be fulfilled. But as Copernicus did some 500 years ago, the apostle Paul here in Colossians 1 revolutionizes that assumed way of thinking. According to Paul, it is not me and my life that stand at the center of God’s purpose for the world. I am not the sun of God’s universe. Rather, it is Christ who stands at the center. Life is sustained in relationship to him. Purpose is defined in relationship to him. God is found in relationship to him. This is the Copernican Revolution that we all need to be reminded of again and again - because it’s so easy to put ourselves at the center. It is the Son of God, not me, who holds all things together, even as Paul says here in v17.
It is this notion of centrality that stands out most clearly in our passage today. We noted last week that the theme of this section of Colossians 1 is the supremacy of Christ, and in large part, that remains true for our text. But Paul does refine that theme a bit in vv17-18. Christ is supreme because he stands at the center of all that God is doing in this world and through the gospel.
Again, the image of the solar system is helpful in understanding Paul’s teaching here. There are many heavenly bodies moving about in the solar system, but which one is the most important? Which one is supreme? The sun, of course, since the sun holds everything else together. So it is, Paul says, with Christ. There are many glorious realties of the Christian faith, and many of those have wonderful application to us. But the most important reality of all, the one which holds all the other truths together, is the person and work of Jesus Christ. If we want to understand and thrive in this world God has made, then we must live in light of Christ’s centrality.
And so, the question becomes, “What does that mean?” Let’s look at our passage this morning for some insight. In the flow of vv15-20, our text – v17 and the first part of v18 – our text is like a bridge. It spans the divide between Paul’s two great concerns. Our verses look back to Paul’s teaching on Christ and creation in vv15-16, while at the same time looking forward to Paul’s teaching on Christ and redemption in vv19-20. You see, it’s a bridge that helps shift Paul’s focus from creation to redemption.
In fact, those two ideas – creation and redemption – capture what Paul has in view as he teaches here on Christ’s centrality. Christ stands at the center of creation, and Christ stands at the center of redemption. Let’s focus in on each of those ideas.
Christ Stands at the Center of Creation
We begin in v17, where Paul tells us that Christ stands at the center of creation. You may remember from last week that Paul already explained how Christ rules over God’s creation. Look back at v16. All things were created by the Son of God, and therefore, Christ himself holds the supreme position over all that he has made. Here at the outset of v17, Paul reiterates that same incredible truth. Notice what he writes, v17 – “And he [that is, the Son] is before all things.” As with v16, Paul’s emphasis is on priority. There is nothing in the universe that ranks ahead of Christ. In fact, there is nothing that even comes close to his level! There was a time when the creation did not exist, but there has never been a time when the Son of God did not exist. He is eternally God. The creation had a definite beginning point, but the Son of God has no beginning and therefore no end. He was, is, and is to come. The creation’s existence is dependent on the Creator, but the Son of God is dependent on nothing. He possesses life in himself. As Paul says here in v17, Christ is before all things.
Let’s not overlook this. One of my consistent prayers for this Advent series is that we would not simply dismiss these things as stodgy, dull theology. This is fuel for worship. This is where the drive for obedience and faith finds renewed strength – by seeing and rejoicing in the glorious truths of the Son of God! Far too often, our worship of the Lord is weak because we’re trying to fuel it from within ourselves – with our feelings or our experiences or whatever. It’s one of the sad ironies about putting ourselves at the center of Christianity – we end up weakening the very thing we aiming to strengthen – our walk with the Lord! Let’s not overlook this or dismiss this too quickly – there is nothing in all creation that can diminish Christ’s position. There is nothing that can rival his authority. He is before, above, and over all things.
Now, if this has not been enough to stir our hearts, then the apostle Paul presses this truth a bit further in the rest of v17. Paul’s next statement is arguably the most astounding one so far. Notice the end of v17 – “and in him all things hold together.” That statement nearly always takes my breath away. Laura and I took the boys to a concert last Sunday, and at the end of the show, the artist who headlined read this very paragraph from Colossians. And as he read this phrase in v17, he got kind of choked up, and I thought, “Yes, he understands what is being said here. He understands that the right response goes beyond words.” How do you explain what explains you? In Christ, all things hold together. Before I offer my feeble attempt at explanation, just let it weigh on your hearts and minds. In Christ, all things hold together. Catch the universal extent – not some things, but all things. Marvel at the power – Christ holds reality together. Rejoice at the assurance – that our life depends on the One who destroyed death and is coming again one day. It is one of the sweetest statements in all of Scripture – in Christ all things hold together.
What does it mean? With some fear and trembling, here’s my answer. I cannot possibly exhaust all there is to say, but I pray this is a start. What does it mean that in Christ all things hold together? I answer in three ways:
#1 – Christ holds all things together in that he sustains the creation. This is the essence of Paul’s language, and it is an extension of the teaching in v16. Since the Son of God created all things, he also now provides for its ongoing life. The creation, then, is continually dependent on the Son of God. Why does rain consistently fall to replenish the earth? Because Christ sustains the life of his world. Why does the seed planted in season bring forth a rich harvest at the right time? Because Christ sustains all things. Why does the earth remain in orbit at just the right distance from the sun for life to continue? Because Christ sustains his universe. At any time, Christ could speak the word, and things would cease to be. This is why the writer to the Hebrews says that the Son of God “upholds the universe by the word of his power” – because Christ actively and purposefully sustains his creation. He provides for its life. That’s the first answer. All things hold together in Christ because he sustains the creation.
#2 – Christ holds all things together in that he governs the creation. This is an outworking of the first answer. How does Christ sustain all things? Through his purposeful governance of the creation. To put it simply, the universe works as it does because Christ orders it to do so. Now, to be sure, this world is governed by certain natural laws that consistently produce the same effects. Water freezes at 32 degrees; spring follows winter, summer follows spring, and fall after summer; apple trees bear apples, and zebras reproduce more zebras. The natural world works according to an order that has been determined.
But the Christian knows to ask the question, “Determined by whom?” And the Bible answers, “The Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He governs the world so that even the natural laws of the universe are an expression of Christ’s sovereign rule. This why naturalistic views of the world are so sad and shortsighted – they see the evidence of order, but they ignore the One who ordered it. You see, the true end of all scientific discovery is the worship of Christ! Every trip to the zoo, every gaze through a telescope, every insight in the lab is reason to praise the Son of God. But that’s another sermon. Right now, we’re answering what it means that Christ holds all things together. It means that he governs his creation.
#3 – Christ holds all things together in that he defines the creation, or we could say, reality. Now, I’m going to make a statement, and I know full well how staggering it is. Only the Christian worldview is able to make sense of the world as God intended. Or, to quote one scholar, “Things make sense only when Christ is kept at the center.” That’s what I mean here when I say Christ defines the creation – things make sense only when Christ is at the center. The ultimate aim of all knowledge and experience is the exaltation in worship of the Son of God.
This may not sound very practical, but if you think through life in this world, then you’ll quickly see how this truth redefines our understanding of all that there is:
That is only a short survey, but I hope it is enough to show us that in a real sense, Christ defines life in his world. He holds all things together, so that every bit of knowledge and every experience, in some way, finds its meaning in connection with Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, I pray we see how this reshapes our understanding of living for the glory of Christ. The Christ-centered life does not require that we escape this world and seclude ourselves in some super-spiritual state of existence. No, the Christ-centered life calls us to live in this world because it’s right here – in every sphere, in every area, in every calling – that Christ’s glory is made known. He holds all things together. Since Christ is supreme, his glory can be exhibited in whatever he has given you to do. Preparing meals, doing taxes, mowing the grass, disciplining your children, answering customer emails, counseling students, vacuuming the floor, changing the oil in the car, reinstalling a dishwasher, laughing with friends – he holds all things together.
One of the great shortcomings of contemporary Christianity is that we’ve functionally limited the supremacy of Christ. We talk about glorifying Christ in such a way that excludes the vast majority of daily life. To honor Jesus, you’ve got to preach sermons or move overseas or do street evangelism. Don’t get me wrong. Those things are important, incredibly important, and I pray God raises up more faithful preachers and missionaries and evangelists. But at the same time, we must recognize those callings are not the sum total of honoring Christ. He holds all things together, not some things. And since that is true, his glory should be the aim in all of life, whatever he calls us to do.
Would you do this in response, brothers and sisters? Would you pray that God might reshape our view of life so that it matches what Paul teaches here? I can’t tell you all the specifics on how this might change your daily life; I don’t have nearly that level of insight, and it would arrogant for me to claim that I did. Let’s join together in prayer, asking God to use this profound truth to reshape how we approach life on a daily basis. Christ stands at the center of creation, for he holds all things together.
Christ Stands at the Center of Redemption
As we transition to v18, we find that while Paul continues to highlight Christ’s centrality, the focus now shifts from creation to redemption. That’s the truth here in the opening of v18, Christ stands at the center of redemption. Notice again what the apostle writes, v18 – “And he is the head of the body, the church.” The reference to the church prepares us for the following verses, where the specifics of redemption receive Paul’s sustained attention. Who is the church, we might ask? The church is all those whom the Father has called to himself, all those for whom Christ shed his blood, all those to whom the Spirit grants new life through the preaching of the gospel. The church is the redeemed and reconciled people of God. When Paul mentions the church here in v18, we know his emphasis is shifting. Christ is supreme over the creation, and now Paul aims to show us Christ’s supremacy in redemption as well.
And that connection is important. I don’t want us to miss this. The same Christ who reigns over the universe is also the Savior and Lord of the church. The same glorious Son of God who is equal with the Father is also the Friend of Sinners. The One who was at work in the beginning, bringing all things into existence, is now the One at work in our midst, advancing his gospel, sustaining his people, and leading his church. Brothers and sisters, there are many truths that can encourage and equip the church, but there is one truth upon which all others rest – that our Head is Christ, the glorious, eternal, and unrivaled Son of God.
Even so, what does it mean that Christ is the head of the body, the church? That’s actually a unique image in Paul’s letters. It’s used only here and in Ephesians. What does Paul have in mind when he says Christ is the head of the church? He means, first of all, that Christ rules the church. Just as the Son of God reigns over all that he made, so also the Lord Jesus reigns over his church, for the church is also his creation.
Now, the question, of course, is how does Christ do this? The Lord Jesus is not physically present with us, so how does he rule in his church here at Midtown Baptist? He rules through his Word, applied by his Spirit. You see, this is why it is so incredibly important for the Word of God to be the driving force in a church – because that’s how Christ’s headship, Christ’s authority is worked out among his people. As the Word is preached and applied by the Spirit, Jesus rules over us. He leads us, he guides us, he shapes us after his own image. A Christ-Centered church is a Word-Driven church.
And that should change how we view what happens in here on a Sunday morning. As the Scriptures are sung, read, prayed, and preached, Christ’s authority is worked out among us. And that means gathering with Christ’s people around his Word each week is far more important than we tend to think it is. We’re not simply doing church stuff. No, we’re submitting ourselves afresh, each and every Sunday, to the lordship of Christ. What does it mean that Christ is head of the body? It means he rules his church, and he does so through his Word.
Christ’s headship also means that he nourishes the church. In the first century world, it was believed that the head was the source of life for the body. The body lived and thrived because of its connection with the head. That’s something of what Paul means here in v18. Since Christ is the head of the body, it is through Christ that the church is nourished for life.
Remember, the false teachers in Colossae were telling these Christians that they needed something in addition to Christ in order to live. In response, Paul reminds that them that there is no other source of life for the church. Christ alone is the head. Life is found in connection with him.
This is a reminder we need in our day as well. There are many things a church can do, many of which are helpful and even good. But there is only one thing the church must do in order to live – and that is worship Christ through his Word. Oh, how easily the church can take those good secondary things and make them necessary things! Oh how often we fall into the trap of thinking that in order for the church to live, we’ve got to be on the cutting edge of ministry! There is nothing inherently wrong with adding to the scope of the church’s ministry. I pray regularly that God would give us a godly ambition to see the gospel advance, so don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing inherently wrong with a church wanting to push ahead and do more of those good things. But there is a great danger when those good but secondary things begin to overtake the one necessary thing – the worship of Christ through his Word.
Brothers and sisters, do you see how significant it is that we are gathered here in this room today? Do you recognize how absolutely essential this is? This is life happening before our eyes. This is how the body of Christ lives and grows – as we gather together, week after week, to worship Christ through his Word. When you’re not here, you are, in some sense, missing out on that life. But when you are here, oh what a privilege that is – to participate and experience the church’s ongoing life in Christ! What does it mean that Christ is the head of the body? It means he nourishes his church through worship according to his Word.
There’s one more point to note here on Christ as the head of body. Christ’s headship also prioritizes the church. Now, let me explain what I mean. As the head of the body, Christ alone is the Savior of the church. He alone is able to redeem sinners and reconcile them to God. But at the same time, the church is Christ’s body, his representation on earth. While Christ has ascended again to heaven, he has left us here to carry out the mission of gospel ministry.
And that means the church is the focus of God’s saving activity on earth. It is through the church that God causes the gospel to go forth and bring new life to those dead in their sins. And as those people are saved, they are not left as disorganized, disconnected individuals. No, God saves sinners into the body of Christ, into the church. You see, the church is the priority, the focus of God’s saving work on earth – not because we are significant in ourselves, but because we are Christ’s body.
If you want to join with God in the great work he is doing on earth, do you know what you should do? You should plug in deeply to the local church. You should anchor your life in the life of the church. Look, I know that might sound self-serving on my part, since I’m a pastor who works in a church. But I’m saying this because of what we see here in v18. Christ is the head a particular, specific body of people – the church – and that makes the church the priority for gospel life and ministry.
I’ll say it again – if you want to join with God in the great work he is doing, plug in deeply to the local church. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Be present with the church, be prayerful for the church, and be personally engaged with the people of the church. There’s obviously more that could be said, but that thumbnail sketch is a good start. Be present, be prayerful, be personally engaged with others. That’s a good place to start connecting your life with what has the priority in God’s economy – the church, which is the body of Christ our Lord.
We’ve covered a lot of ground today, haven’t we? Christ stands at the center of creation and redemption. I recognize there is much to think about from these verses. But honestly, brothers and sisters, part of my goal today was simply to put these truths before us, so that we might then think and talk more together about how we can live in light of Christ’s centrality. I hope we’ve done that this morning. Perhaps something this morning has prompted you to think in new ways about what it means to live a Christ-centered life. Perhaps something has stirred in you a desire to be more engaged with the body of Christ, his church.
But most of all, I pray our hearts and minds have been stirred to worship Christ in all his glory. I pray these few moments in the Scriptures have shifted our focus from ourselves and centered it again on the Lord Jesus, the One who holds all things together. Behold him, brothers and sisters. Marvel at who he is, and in doing so, find renewed strength to worship and live for his glory. Amen.