Lord in Creation and Redemption
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas. A well-known conference speaker, he is also a visiting lecturer at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Holland.
One evening near the Sea of Galilee Jesus spoke to His disciples after a busy day of ministry and said, “Let us cross over to the other side.” When the multitude of people was dismissed, the disciples took their weary leader into a boat and began to make their way across the lake. But there arose a lashing storm which churned the little sea into a wet fury, and soon the boat and its occupants were in danger of being swamped. Anxiously and somewhat peevishly they turned to their sleeping companion and brusquely aroused Him with, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?,” being quite unaware of the fact that there is no sinking with the Saviour aboard. Jesus arose and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush! Be still!” The wind died and a dead calm ensued. After He had rebuked them for their fear and faithlessness, they, awestruck, murmured to one another, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (cf. Mark 4:35-41).
If the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews had been present, knowing what he knew when he wrote his letter, he would have replied confidently, Why, He is the effulgence of God’s glory and the stamp of God’s very being, and sustains the universe by His word of power” (cf. Heb. 1:3). Paul the Apostle might have replied, “He is the image of the invisible God; He had primacy over all created things” (Col. 1:15).
This line from Paul introduces the section of Colossians which has often been called, “The Great Christology,” due to the striking information that it offers concerning the person and work of the Second Person of the Eternal Thrifty, the Lord Jesus Christ. We owe the section to the heresy which was on the verge of infecting the little church that met in Philemon’s house in the city of Colosse in Asia Minor. Scholars differ over the most appropriate name for the heresy. It contained elements that are traceable to what we know of later Gnosticism and elements related to Judaism. Thus it is not surprising that the term Gnostic Judaism has been given it. We cannot be certain of its appropriateness, however.
In one respect at least we can be thankful for the heresy, because the church of Jesus Christ would be impoverished substantially if it did not possess this significant testimony to the preeminence of the Redeemer.
We turn now to “The Great Christology” and Paul’s striking defense of the Lordship of Christ over the physical creation and the spiritual creation, the church. We are thankful, too, that Paul was not composing a Ph.D. thesis and being “awfully scientific” about it. He was sharing with his readers and spiritual brethren his own deep spiritual experience out of his strong desire that they have what he had and avoid the pitfalls and perils of false teaching. That is my aim, too, for in our days we have similar perils and similar needs.
The Lord of the First Creation (Col. 1:15-17)
The essential basis of His Lordship (1:15a). Paul’s defense of the Christianity he taught is a tremendous presentation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, over the universe by virtue of who He is as revealed in His creative work and over the church by virtue of what He has done in redemption. As a result Paul finds that in all things He has the preeminence (cf. 1:18) and, in fact, is “all, and in all” (cf. 3:11).
The passage beginning at verse fifteen and continuing through verse twenty is regarded by the majority of New Testament scholars to be a Christian hymn, or credal statement, that antedated Paul’s epistle. The apostle is supposed to have inserted it into the letter he was writing the Colossians.1 In spite of intensive study, however, there is no consensus of viewpoint regarding the details of the question, and it, therefore remains speculative.
One thing that is not speculative is the remarkable status given by Paul to Jesus Christ in the passage. The apostle begins “The Hymn of the Beloved Son” by speaking of Him as “the image of the invisible God” (cf. v. 15). The word, “image,” and sometimes also in its diminutive form, was used for a portrait in Greek. Two ideas were associated with the word: (1) representation; (2) manifestation.2 It suggests, then, a likeness that is not accidental (such as one automobile resembling another), but derived from an archetype, or original pattern, which in this case is God. Furthermore, the word, especially in the light of the emphatic adjective describing God (tou aoratou; AV, “the invisible”), contains the notion of manifestation. Jesus of Nazareth is the revelation of the unseen God; He is the great and final theophany. God is Christlike—can we say less or more?
When Philip asked Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us,” the Lord replied, “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father…” (John 14:8-9). When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Where is thy Father?,” He replied, “Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also” (8:19). He is, indeed, the perfect likeness and manifestation of God. It is simply heretical, as do the cults, to deny the orthodox doctrine of the deity of Christ.
The present tense, “is,” implies that He is always and everywhere the manifestation of God (cf. John 1:18). Was it Lord Byron who said, “If God is not like Jesus Christ, then God ought to be like Jesus Christ”?
The economic basis of His Lordship (15b). Paul continues his description of Christ, speaking of Him as “the firstborn of every creature” (lit., firstborn over all creation; cf. NIV). The words might seem at first glance to teach that Christ is part of the creation, or a created being. That, of course, is not true for several reasons.
(1) First, it is inconsistent with the context (cf. vv. 16-17), which states that He existed before all things. In fact, the context states that He is the creator Himself. Jesus of Nazareth was no newcomer at Bethlehem.
In the well-known controversy between the followers of Arius, who denied the eternal sonship of Christ and, thus, His deity, and the followers of Athanasius, who affirmed Christ’s deity, the Arians drew attention to the word, “firstborn,” as found in Colossians 1:15, suggesting that it denoted that Christ was less than deity. Athanasius, however, drew attention to verse sixteen, where Paul writes, “In him were all things created.” And in connection with it Athanasius tellingly pointed out, “But if all the creatures were created in him, he is other than the creatures, and is not a creature but the creator of the creatures.3” The point was well made.
(2) Second, it is inconsistent with the rest of the New Testament, which often affirms His uniqueness and responsibility for creation (cf. John 1:3).
(3) Third, the word that Paul uses, prototokos (AV, “firstborn”) has two connotations (perhaps derived from the fact that part of the word, protos, meaning first, may mean first in time, or first in rank, just like the English word). The two connotations are: (1) priority, and (2) sovereignty. In view of the statement of verse eighteen, that He has become preeminent in all things, it seems probable that Paul has the thought of sovereignty primarily in view. The use of the word in the Old Testament confirms this, for in Psalm 89, which is strongly Messianic, the psalmist says of Christ, “Also I will make Him my firstborn (prototokon), higher than the kings of the earth” (Psa. 89:27, LXX).4
Paul, then effectively counters any claim of the heretics that Christ was only an angelic emanation from God and part of the creation. He is creation’s Lord.
(4) Fourth, there was a Greek word in usage that meant first-created, but it is significant that both the Old and New Testament Greek texts did not use it in passages referring to the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.5
(5) Fifth, we must also mention a final fact that makes it impossible to understand “firstborn of every creature” as saying that our Lord was a creature, or created being. That is the fact that all through the Scriptures He is set forth as Savior. If our Lord were a created being, then He could not be our Savior. Only God can save sinners. Thus, the saving experience of every Christian is a testimony to the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The explicit proof of His Lordship (16-17). In verses sixteen and seventeen the apostle writes, “For in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created by him and for him; and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Two great works are described in the verses, and they are the foundation of His Lordship over the creation.
First, Paul states that Christ is the Creator of the universe. In fact, he expands the concept to include His work as architect, builder, and goal of the universe. The “for” (lit., because) introduces the reason Paul is able to say that Christ is sovereign over the whole creation. Three prepositional phrases delineate His relation to the universe The first is found in the opening clause, “In him were all things created”. The first phrase, “in him,” has been rendered in some versions by “by him” (cf. AV; NIV), but since that agency idea is found very clearly in the second phrase, “by him,” later in the verse, it seems better to render the earlier phrase by “in him.”
What would the phrase, “in him,” say that is not found in the later phrase, “by him”? If we give the phrase a local sense, which is permissible (cf. 1:17; Acts 17:28), then Paul may be looking at the Lord Jesus as the architect of the universe. As Lightfoot has put it, He is the place where the eternal ideas have their abode.6 In fact, we may have here an illuminating contribution to Pauline thought, which may be set forth most clearly by means of an illustration.
Several steps are involved in the construction of a substantial building. First, an architect at the owner’s request designs the building, preparing plans and specifications in accordance with the expressed desires of the owner. Then the plans are submitted for bids by builders or contractors, and a builder is secured to erect the structure. After the completion of the edifice, it is occupied by the owner and devoted to its intended use. Our Lord is not only the builder of the universe; He is also its architect and owner. All things have been created in Him (the plans for the creation abode eternally in His mind), by Him (He acted as builder) and for Him (the creation belongs to Him and is to reflect His glory).7
Before the indescribable majesty of the eternal Christ we are constrained to respond reverently,
“Then sings my soul,
My Saviour God to Thee:
How great Thou art!
How great Thou art!”
Second, the thought now passes from creation to preservation, and the apostle states that Christ is the sustainer of the universe (cf. v. 17). “All things hold together in him,” is the way he puts it. This is the second proof of His Lordship over the whole creation. By virtue of His pre-existent person and power He continues to exercise sovereignty over all the cosmic powers of the universe.
The clause, “And He is before all things,” reminds one of the statement Christ made in the days of His flesh. Speaking to the Jews of His day in support of His claim, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56), Jesus declared, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58). It was a clear expression of His pre-existence.
The word rendered here in the Authorized Version by “consist” (NIV, NASB, “hold together”) marks Him out as sustainer of the universe and its unifying principle of life. In Platonic and Stoic philosophy the word was used to describe the marvelous unity of the entire world, but for Paul it is Christ and His Word who is the unifier of the universe that He brought into being.8 As Lightfoot has said, “He is the principle of cohesion in the universe.”9
There is an expression that we use that comes to mind when I think of Christ as the principle of cohesion in the universe. It is the word, “unglued.” For children it is a common word, for when dolls are broken they are often glued back into good condition for further use. They may, however, become unglued.
In Charleston, South Carolina, where I lived, antique furniture is very common and prized by the people there. My family has always liked antiques, and particularly the old ones, at least the early American ones. Now they are not all that strong, and growing children learn that quite early in life. We have all rushed in to dinner in Charleston at about two o’clock in the afternoon for the principle meal of the day, and have fallen into our chair only to hear the tell-tale crack of broken expensive antique furniture. Often such pieces must be glued again, at least in part, and for it to come unglued is not uncommon.
Now, however, we use it of people. They “come unglued,” by which we mean that they have become upset, unnerved, demoralized, reduced to jelly, or something like that! That is the opposite of Paul’s word, “hold together.” Our Lord and His mighty power is the reason the whole world does not come unglued, reduced to chaos, or nothingness again. Daniel describes Him as “the God in whose hand thy breath is” (cf. Dan. 5:23). Every breath that we draw is under His sovereign direction. In fact, the only breath of which we can be sure is the one we are drawing at this very moment in time. If, then, our trust is in Him who prevents the universe from disintegrating by His sovereign control, what need is there to push the panic button?
The practical significance of this is almost beyond comprehension. Every twinkling of the eye, every beat of the heart, every thought of the human heart is dependent upon His sovereign beneficence. His arm upholds the universe and, if His omnipotent power were withdrawn, all would fade into their original non-existence. What light this throws upon the terror of the disciples in the storm! It is no wonder that He said to them, “Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?” (Mark 4:40).
In the light of the things Paul has been saying, how remarkable and wonderful is the incarnation! As the devout old Scottish commentator, John Eadie, has said, “That the creator and upholder of the universe should come down to such a world as this, and clothe Himself in the inferior nature of its race, and in that nature die to forgive and save it, is the most amazing of revelations.”10 And yet, as the professor has declared, it is most glorious truth, sealed with the precious blood of Golgotha.
The God of Genesis one is the Babe of Matthew one and two. The One of whom Isaiah said, “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, and meted out heaven with the span and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance” (Isa. 40:12), is the same person of whom Paul said, “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
The same God of whom Jeremiah said, “But the Lord is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king: at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his indignation” (Jer. 10:10), is He of whom John wrote, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), and “Jesus wept” (11:35), and also, “After that He poureth water into a basin, and began to wash his disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded” (13:5).
And the One of whom Ezekiel wrote, “And above the firmament that was over their head was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a Man upon it” (Ezek. 1:26), is the same One of whom John wrote in his gospel, “But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:34).
And, finally, He who warned ancient Israel and said, “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spice unto you in Horeb” (Deut. 4:15), says at length to His own, “Behold my hands and feet that it is I myself; handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39).
Conclusion. My conclusion is simple and pointed. First, surely the one who made and sustains the universe is well able to keep that which we have committed to Him, our eternal well-being, and cannot from inability or oversight permit a trusting spirit to sink into perdition.
Second, when Ezekiel saw the vision of the Lord, Scripture says that before the dazzling theophany, the glory of a rainbow surrounding His radiance, the prophet could show his awe only by falling upon his face in the dust before his God (cf. Ezek. 1:28).
The apostles in Luke twenty-four, following our Lord’s resurrection, upon seeing Him carried into heaven felt constrained in the same manner to worship Him and return to Jerusalem with great joy (cf. Luke 24:50-53). The prophets, the twelve apostles, and Paul all joined in broadcasting the great truth, “He is Lord of all.” May we do nothing less.
1 Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1982), pp. 32-37.
2 J.B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (London and New York: Macmillan and Co., 1890), pp. 143-44.
3 Orationes contra Arianos IV. 62 (Schaaf and Wace, p. 382).
4 The thought of sovereignty is also found in the Hebrew word used by the author of the psalm.
5 Lightfoot, p. 145.
6 Lightfoot, pp. 148-49; cf. Martin Dibelius, An die Kolosser Epheser and Philemon (Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1953), 12.
7 Notice should be taken of the two ways in which the Apostle looks at the act of creation. The word create occurs twice in v. 16, the first occurrence being in the aorist tense, and the second in the perfect. The aorist takes the reader back to the creation as an act, while the perfect portrays the creation as “…still remaining the monument and proof of His creative might” (John Eadie, Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Colossians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1884), p. 54).
8 cf. O’Brien, pp. 47-48.
9 Lightfoot, p. 154.
10 Eadie, p. 57.