Chapter One Christ, The Head Of The Body

Salutation (Colossians 1:1-2)

The Epistle to the Colossians opens with these words: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother.”

Thirteen Epistles in the New Testament begin with the name “Paul.” A fourteenth letter, in spite of considerable dispute about its authorship, is generally accepted as having come from the same pen; that letter is the Epistle to the Hebrews. But the opening word of that Epistle is “God.” The thirteen beginning with the word “Paul” are addressed either to churches among the Gentiles or to individual believers. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and as such he magnified his office. But he was not the apostle to the Hebrews and if he was the one chosen to write the Epistle to the Hebrews (as I firmly believe he was), it was quite in keeping with his Gentile apostleship that he should hide his name in that wonderful exposition of the old and new covenants. Christ alone was the Apostle and Prophet of the new covenant, as Moses and Aaron had been of the old, and so the opening word of Hebrews is simply “God”—”God, who.. .hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

In the Colossian letter Paul associated himself with Timothy in the salutation. The bond between these two men of God, far apart in age though they were, was a very real one. Timothy was converted during Paul’s ministry at Lystra, and when the apostle next visited the same region, the brethren heartily commended the young man to him. In their judgment Timothy was a believer who, because of his spiritual graces and gifts, was suited to go out in the ministry of the Word. Acting on their advice, Paul took Timothy with him after the elder brethren had solemnly laid their hands on him and commended him to God for this special service.

Throughout the years that followed, Timothy proved himself in every respect to be reliable and devoted. His unselfish concern for the welfare of the people of God and his loyal attachment to his human leader endeared him to the venerable apostle. It seems that Timothy even accompanied Paul to Rome, or followed him there, and was either sharing his imprisonment or living nearby so that he could alleviate the suffering of the apostle as well as minister to the Roman believers. So in the salutation Paul connected the young preacher with himself when he sent his greetings to the saints at Colossae.

Paul attributed his own apostleship directly to the will of God. It was He who had revealed Christ both to and in him, had set him apart for service, and had commissioned him to proclaim the unsearchable riches of grace among the Gentiles. It would be preposterous to suppose that the laying on of hands by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:3) conferred any authority whatever on either Barnabas or Paul, inasmuch as they had been approved laborers in the gospel for some time. The laying on of hands simply expressed, as in Timothy’s case, the fellowship of a local assembly of Christians. It was the Holy Spirit who sent forth Barnabas and Paul and ordained them. So we read that Paul was an apostle “by the will of God” (Colossians 1:1).

Writing to the Galatians, Paul used similar expressions, calling himself an apostle “not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father” (Galatians 1:1). He was stating a principle of far-reaching importance in connection with the work of the ministry. Whenever men presume to add anything to the divine call or to confer authority on a servant of Christ, they are usurping the place of the Holy Spirit. The most that any laying on of hands can do is to express fellowship in the work.

In Colossians 1:2 the Christians at Colossae are addressed as the “saints and faithful brethren.” These words do not indicate that there are two classes of believers. Rather, the expression “saints” suggests the divine call, while the expression “faithful brethren” suggests the human response.

It is God who designates His redeemed ones as “saints,” yet Romanists and many Protestants are generally mistaken about the meaning of the term. Romanists think that a saint is a particularly holy person who displays great devotion or possesses miraculous powers and is included on the list of intermediaries credited with a superabundance of merit or goodness that may be appropriated by others. Many who profess to have greater enlightenment than the Romanists, think that a saint is one who has become victorious in the struggle with sin and has been received triumphantly into Heaven; so they speak of the Christian dead as “sainted.” But the Scriptural concept is altogether different. The vilest sinner is constituted a saint by God the moment he puts his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, “who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25). Thus we are saints by calling and not primarily by practice.

However, we should be careful not to divorce the practical side of truth from the doctrinal. Being saints, we are now responsible to live in a saintly way. In other words, we are to live out practically what God has already declared to be true of us doctrinally. We do not become saints by the display of saintly virtues; but because we are saints, we are to cultivate saintly character traits. This of course is done in communion with God and in obedience to His Word as we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The expression “faithful brethren” follows the expression “saints” but does not, I take it, refer to a higher class of believers. “Faithful brethren” are brethren who believe. As we read elsewhere, “They which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham” (Galatians 3:9). The verse might also be translated, “They that have faith are blessed with faithful Abraham,” or “They that believe are blessed with believing Abraham.” All real Christians are believing or faithful brethren. Those who profess to be Christ’s but do not believe His Word show themselves to be unreal and false to their profession, for it is written, “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). We are also told, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31).

Colossians 1:2 continues with the usual apostolic greeting: “Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace is God’s free unmerited favor. It is even more than that. It is favor against merit. When we merit the very opposite, God lavishes His lovingkindness on us. That is grace. He who sits on a throne of grace bids us come boldly to obtain grace and mercy as daily needs arise, and we gladly echo the words of the hymn: “Since our souls have known His love, / What mercies has He made us prove!”

The peace Paul spoke of here is the peace of God that surrounds and protects His people’s hearts in the day of evil. We have this peace amid the most disquieting circumstances because we are assured that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Introduction (Colossians 1:3-6)

We are reminded of the introduction to the Epistle to the Ephesians as we read this Colossian passage, which begins with an expression of thanksgiving to “God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Colossians 1:3). God is thus presented as both Creator and Savior, for it is through Jesus Christ that our salvation is mediated.

Having heard of the conversion of the Colossians, the apostle was stirred to pray on their behalf. Whenever he learned of more people coming to Christ, his burden of prayer was invariably increased. Paul felt, with an intensity that few men have felt, the great need of intercession for the people of God. He knew well the fearful opposition that Satan, the prince and god of this world, directs toward those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and he realized the prevailing power of prayer to defeat the adversary. Therefore Paul bowed in the presence of God in earnest supplication on behalf of those whom grace had saved.

Notice how faith, love, and hope are linked together in Colossians 1:4-5, as in so many other places in Scripture. The order is different in 1 Corinthians 13. There, where Paul was exalting love, he put faith first, hope second, and love last—to indicate that love will remain when the other two have passed away. But in Colossians 1 he put faith first, love second, and hope last: hope closes the life that begins with faith, and the two are linked by love. Faith claims salvation at the cross. Hope looks ahead to Heaven. Love is the power that motivates the saint in the interim.

The Colossians had trusted their souls to a divine person. Sometimes people are troubled by the fear that their faith is not of the right quality or that it is of insufficient quantity to save them. But it is important to observe that it is not the character of faith or the amount of faith that saves. It is the person in whom faith rests that saves. The strongest faith in self-effort, or in the church, or in religious observances would leave the soul forever lost. But the feeblest faith in the Christ who died and rose again, saves eternally. Some people try to make a savior of their faith, but Christ alone is the Savior and faith but the hand that reaches out to Him.

Paul spoke of the love that the Colossians had “to all the saints.” Such love is precious indeed. It is the evidence of the divine nature imparted in the new birth and the evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The very nature of the born-again soul is to love not only God, but also those who are begotten of Him. This love, which knows no sectarian limitation, embraces all the people of God.

The Colossians looked to the future because they had heard before of the hope of Heaven. No one fully preaches the gospel who leaves out the truth of the blessed hope of the Lord’s return to receive His people to be with Himself in the Father’s house. This is the glad consummation of the believer’s life of faith, love, and hope. The gospel does not set death before the believer as his hope; the gospel always declares that it is the Lord’s return for which he is to wait.

The gospel is God’s good news about His Son and therefore, when fully preached, necessarily includes the proclamation of His true sinless humanity, His deity, His virgin birth, His vicarious sacrifice, His glorious resurrection, His present role as Advocate and High Priest at God’s right hand in Heaven, and His coming again to reign in power and righteousness when all His redeemed will be associated with Him. All these precious truths are included “in the word of the truth of the gospel.”

In Colossians 1:6 we learn that this gospel, even in Paul’s day, had been carried to the ends of the earth. The same message that had reached Colossae had been preached in all the world, as 1:23 also declares. And wherever this evangel of the cross had gone, it had produced fruit to the praise and glory of God in those who believed it.

It is the height of folly to look for fruit before the soul has made peace with God or to expect evidence of salvation in the life before the gospel has been believed. Salvation is altogether a work of grace. Human effort has no place in it at all. Neither are we saved by the work of the Spirit, who produces the nine fruits mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23. We are saved by the work of Christ—a work done for us but altogether outside of us, a work in which we had no part except that we committed the sins that put the Savior on the cross. An uneducated old man said, “I did my part and God did His: I did the sinning and God did the saving. I took to running away from Him as fast as my sins could carry me and He took after me until He run me down!” Others might express this truth more elegantly, but no one could express it more correctly and clearly.

The gospel is a message to be believed, not a collection of precepts or a code of laws to be obeyed. Salvation is of faith that it might be by grace, “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:9). The moment the message is believed it produces new life in the soul. The Spirit comes to dwell within the believer and this invariably results in precious fruit for God. This was the experience of the Colossian believers. The gospel message brought forth fruit in their lives after they “heard…and knew the grace of God in truth.” (Note that in the King James version of Colossians 1:6 it would have been better to omit the italicized words of it.)

Epaphras’s Report (Colossians 1:7-8)

The gospel message had not been carried to Colossae by the apostle Paul, for as far as we know he had never visited that city as a messenger of the cross (see Colossians 2:1). It was another devoted man of God, Epaphras by name, who had proclaimed the gospel to the Colossians. Paul spoke of him affectionately as “our dear fellowservant” and declared that he was “a faithful minister of Christ” (1:7). We gather from 4:12 that Epaphras’s outstanding characteristic was his fervency in prayer. How blessed we are when faithful preaching and fervent prayer go together! Unfortunately they are often divorced.

In Colossians 1:8 we find the only reference to the Holy Spirit in this Epistle. When the truth about Christ as the Head of the church is being questioned or when Satan is seeking to interpose anything between the soul and Christ, God will not even draw the attention of the saints to the person or work of the Spirit, lest by preoccupation with subjective truth they lose sight of the great objective verities. So here the reference to the Spirit is only incidental. Paul simply mentioned the fact that Epaphras had told him and Timothy of the Colossians’ “love in the Spirit.”

Epaphras’s report was a precious testimony to the happy state of these dear young Christians so recently brought out of paganism with all its abominations. Now as a company set apart for the Lord Jesus Christ, they were characterized by that love which the Spirit sheds abroad in the hearts of those who are born of God.

“Love in the Spirit” is all-important. To pretend to be zealous for the truth of the one body while failing to demonstrate the love of the Spirit, is to put the emphasis in the wrong place. Doctrinal correctness will never atone for lack of brotherly love. It means far more to God, who is Himself love in His very nature, that His people walk in love toward one another than that they contend valiantly for doctrinal systems, however Scriptural they may be. “Truthing in love” (an expression that would correctly convey the thought of Ephesians 4:15) involves more than contending for one’s interpretation of the truth. What Paul had in mind included the exemplification of the truth in a life of love for God and for those who are His—as well as for poor lost sinners for whom Christ died.

Paul’s Prayer (Colossians 1:9-14)

This passage reminds us of the prayers of the apostle for the Ephesians, as recorded in chapters 1 and 3 of that Epistle. There is something very precious and exceedingly instructive in being permitted to share Paul’s thoughts about the Lord’s people in Colossae and to read his petitions for them in their various circumstances. His deep concern—for their growth in grace, for their enlightenment in divine things, for their understanding of the purpose of God, for the evidence of spiritual power in their lives—was strikingly revealed as he bowed his knees before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle was not content to know people were justified and hence safe for eternity.

Paul was controlled by the earnest desire that all the Colossians would understand their calling so that their life and walk might be in harmony with it. The apostle wanted them to remember that they were here to represent Christ, their risen Head. These desires formed the burden of his prayers. It is doubtful that any merely human writer has ever given suggestions as helpful as the thoughts that will come to us about our own prayer lives as we meditate on Paul’s petitions.

In Colossians 1:12-14 the apostle gave thanks for certain blessings that are non-forfeitable because they are bestowed on us by God at the moment we believe on Christ who died to make them ours. But in verses 9-11 Paul asked for certain other additional blessings for which we need to pray daily; we need to exercise our souls constantly lest we fail to experience these benefits. It is very important to distinguish between the two classes of blessings, but many believers fail to make the distinction.

In certain circles almost every public prayer is concluded somewhat as follows: “We pray Thee, forgive us our sins, and wash us in the blood of Jesus. Receive us into Thy kingdom, give us Thy Holy Spirit, and save us at last for Christ’s sake. Amen.” Yet every petition in this prayer has already been granted to the believer in Christ! God has forgiven all trespasses. We have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. He has moved us out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son of His love. He has sealed us with His Holy Spirit, for “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Romans 8:9). Since we are saved eternally from the moment we believe the gospel, we might far rather cry exultantly in faith: “We thank Thee that Thou hast forgiven all our sins and washed every stain in the blood of the Lamb. Thou hast brought us into Thy kingdom, given us Thy Holy Spirit, and saved us for eternity.” Faith says amen to what God has declared in His Word to be true. To go on praying for blessings that He tells us are already ours is the most subtle kind of unbelief and robs us of the enjoyment that could be our portion if we had faith to believe the “exceeding great and precious promises” that are ours in Christ (2 Peter 1:4).

Let us therefore follow the apostle’s prayer carefully, weighing every phrase and clause, and distinguishing between petition and thanksgiving. His petitions begin in Colossians 1:9, where he told his readers that he prayed that they “might be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will.” Those who were troubling the Colossian saints boasted of their superior knowledge. These gnostics had evolved a complex system of mystical and wholly imaginative teaching regarding the soul’s approach to God through an interminable number of intermediaries; they coupled this teaching with ascetic regulations and legal observances. In their eyes the gospel as preached by Paul was simplicity indeed; they looked on it as a child’s conception of the philosophy of the universe; they viewed the gospel as puerile for men of mature minds. But he who knew this gospel in all its grandeur, as few other men have ever known it, spoke here of being “filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will” (italics added); and he used a superlative instead of a word that the gnostics were very fond of. They boasted of gnosis, which means “knowledge,” but he said epignosis, which literally means “superknowledge.” It is in the divine revelation alone that this is found.

When Paul used the expression “the knowledge of his will” here, I do not think he was referring merely to God’s will for the individual believer’s life from day to day, although that would indeed be involved in the broader concept, just as a drop of water is included in the ocean. I think the apostle was referring to the Father’s wondrous plan that has been known from eternity, is now being carried out in time, and will have its consummation in the ages to come. Knowledge of this eternal purpose of God is superknowledge indeed! The cleverest human intellect could never fathom it, apart from divine revelation.

This revelation we have in our Bibles. Running throughout the Scriptures from Genesis to the Apocalypse, it furnishes a theme for devout contemplation, demands enthusiastic study and careful examination by the most erudite minds and brilliant intellects, and calls for the deepest investigation of the most spiritual believers. At the same time, unlearned and ignorant Christians will find constant enjoyment in this revelation if they allow themselves to be guided by the Spirit in searching the Scriptures for knowledge of God’s will.

Paul understood the important fact that truth is not learned through the intellect alone, so he prayed that the Colossians might comprehend God’s eternal purpose “in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” Wisdom, which is the ability to use knowledge correctly, is imparted by the Spirit; He alone gives true understanding. The mind of God as revealed in His Word can be comprehended when there is subjection of heart to the divine Teacher and when there is that self-judgment and self-distrust which lead one to walk softly before God—not in self-will or egotism, but in humility and lowly dependence on the One who inspired the Holy Scriptures, which alone can make the simple wise.

God opens up His truth to us so that we may delight in the wondrous things He has revealed and so that we may walk in the power of the knowledge He has given. So Paul prayed that his readers “might walk worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10). We can only “walk worthy of the Lord” as we know His mind. The study of His Word and a godly walk should always go together.

It is noteworthy that in Ephesians 4:1 we are exhorted to “walk worthy of [our] vocation [calling]” as members of the body of Christ; in Philippians 1:27 we are told to walk “as it becometh the gospel” (or “worthy of the gospel”), which we are left in the world to proclaim; and in 1 Thessalonians 2:12 we are bidden to “walk worthy of God,” who has called us to His kingdom and glory. We are always to walk according to the truth that has been revealed to our souls, so in Colossians the thought is that we are to “walk worthy of the Lord,” who is the Head of the new creation to which we now belong.

We are to “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing.” Dr. Griffith Thomas pointed out that the Greek word rendered “pleasing” here is not found in any other passage in the New Testament, but is used elsewhere to mean “a preference of the will of others before our own.” The phrase translated “unto all pleasing” in the King James version was rendered by Bishop Handley Moule as “unto every anticipation of His will.”

We are blessed indeed when the will of God is sweeter far to us than our own will and we delight in doing His will, not to gain His favor, but to give joy to His heart. Yet most of us learn so slowly that the only true happiness in life is to be found in doing the will of God. In vain we seek for satisfaction by trying to get our own way until at last, like a bird wearied by flying against the bars of its cage, we fall back on the will of God and learn that in it the mind and heart find perfect rest. Then we say with the hymn writer:

O the peace my Savior gives,
Peace I never knew before!
And my way has brighter grown
Since I learned to trust Him more.

(F. A. Blackmer)

The believer who delights in doing the will of God becomes fruitful. The expression Paul used in Colossians 1:10 is translated “being fruitful in every good work” in the King James version. A better rendering might be “bearing fruit in every good work.”

The phrase “every good work” should not make us think simply of preaching the gospel, teaching the Holy Scriptures, or engaging in what is sometimes called Christian activity or church work. We are prone to distinguish between secular and sacred employment, but everything in a believer’s life is sacred. We need to be reminded of this over and over again. The Church of Rome recognizes seven sacraments, but every act of a Christian should be sacramental, using the word as generally understood. Whatever is right and proper for me to do in any circumstance, I should do with the one purpose of bringing glory to God; by so doing I will be bearing fruit for Him.

The testimony of one little maid has gone around the world. She said, “I know I am converted, and my mistress knows I am converted, because I clean under the rug now.” Wherever the gospel is preached, her story is told “for a memorial of her” (Matthew 26:13). Even in the most commonplace duties she was bearing fruit for God as she sought to glorify Him by the faithful performance of her responsibilities. She did her chores “not with eyeservice, as menpleasers” (Colossians 3:22), “not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4).

As we walk with God from day to day, we increase in our knowledge of Him. This is more than knowledge of the Word of God, although undoubtedly the one leads to the other, for God has made Himself known through His Word. “Increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10) means learning more of His love and grace, His tender compassion, and His care for those who trust Him—and proving how solemn a thing it is to deviate from the path of obedience and thus be exposed to the rod of correction. We know God as we walk with Him; we walk with Him as we obey His Word.

We know Him as we could not know
Through Heaven’s golden years;
We there shall see His glorious face,
On earth we see His tears.

The touch that heals the broken heart
Is never felt above;
His angels know His blessedness,
His way-worn saints His love.

Every trial along our pilgrim path gives God a new opportunity to reveal His heart to us, His needy people who are so dependent on His power and grace. We will thank Him through all eternity for these chances to increase in our knowledge of Him.

As we walk with God, we are “strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power” (Colossians 1:11). God supplies strength and gives us all the power we need to overcome in every adverse circumstance. What room is there for discouragement as temptations and trials surround us and seem about to overwhelm us, if we realize that the same spiritual dynamic, the same wondrous energy which raised Christ from the dead operates in us by the Spirit? I can be more than victorious through Him who loves me!

It may seem to you that all this expenditure of divine energy would result in a great outward display that would astonish and amaze an unbelieving world. But it doesn’t. We are strengthened “unto all patience and longsuffering.” We need this dynamic force to keep our hearts in subjection to God’s will so that we can patiently bear whatever He in His wisdom sees fit to let us go through while we are in this wilderness world. We do not simply endure with the stoical resignation that a pagan philosopher might exhibit. Instead we patiently wait on God and rest in His love; we exhibit longsuffering (uncomplaining endurance) even amid difficult circumstances.

But we do even more: we display “joyfulness.” In the hour of trial a song of gladness wells up in the heart where the will of God is supreme. The natural man knows nothing of joy in the time of trial; gladness in the time of hardship; songs in the night though the darkness be overwhelming; praises to God when nature shrinks and trembles. God’s glorious power enabled the martyrs to rejoice in the arena when they were thrown to the lions and to exult in the Lord when flames leaped up around them at the stake. All through the Christian era a myriad of sufferers have been able to testify to the sustaining grace of God when their spirits seemed about to be overwhelmed. They experienced the truth of the words of Nehemiah 8:10: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Having presented his petitions to the Lord in Colossians 1:9-l 1, Paul turned to thanksgiving in 1:12-14. Verses 12-14 are in marked contrast to verses 9-11. In verses 12-14 all is positive and eternally settled. The blessings enumerated are ours from the moment we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are absolutely irrevocable. To ask for them would be to dishonor God by casting doubt on His Word. Notice the three haths and the one have in the King James version; these words speak of present possession. Faith lays hold of such statements in Scripture and rejoices in the assurance that these wondrous blessings are to be enjoyed even now.

In Colossians 1:12 we read that the Father “hath made us meet [fit] to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” This refers to every Christian, for there are no degrees in this divine fitness. We are made fit to partake of our glorious inheritance the instant we are cleansed from our sins and receive the new nature, which is divinely imparted when we are born of God. How different are man’s thoughts about fitness! Even some of the best of men have been heard to say of a devoted and aged believer, “He is fit for Heaven at last.” But he was just as fit for Heaven the moment he received Christ as he is at the end of a long life of devoted service. Fitness does not depend on experience.

However, we need to remember that there is something more than the Father’s house (“the inheritance of the saints”) in our future. It is also important to keep in mind the coming glorious kingdom. Peter told us how we are fitted for a place in that kingdom. In 2 Peter 1:5-7 he enumerated various Christian virtues and then referred to them as “these things” in verses 10 and 11: “Give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (italics added). So we fit ourselves for the coming kingdom by adding “these things” to our faith, but it is the justifying, regenerating grace of God that makes us fit for our heavenly inheritance. In other words, we need to distinguish between salvation by grace and reward for service.

In Colossians 1:13 we read of a kingdom that is different from the one mentioned in 2 Peter 1:11. Paul said that the Father “hath delivered us from the power [or authority] of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.” This kingdom is the present sphere where Christ’s authority is acknowledged, the kingdom that we see and enter by new birth, the kingdom that consists not of “meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17).

When we are born of God, we lose our old standing as sons of fallen Adam in the Satanic kingdom of darkness. We are brought out of the darkness into the marvelous light of the children of God (1 Peter 2:9), and of course we therefore have the responsibility to “walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). J. N. Darby was once asked, “Suppose a Christian turns his back on the light; what then?” He replied, “Then the light will shine upon his back.” What a blessing it is to comprehend this truth! We are in the light by virtue of the precious atoning blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which has been sprinkled on the mercyseat, the very throne of God from which the light shines.

In Colossians 1:14 we read that in Christ “we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” There is some question about whether the expression “through his blood” occurred in the original Epistle. The phrase seems to have been copied from the parallel passage in Ephesians 1:7. The best editors generally omit the phrase from Colossians 1:14, but that does not for one moment alter the truth we have been considering. Omitting “through his blood” would only suggest the fuller character of redemption, which is by both blood and power. The blood having been shed, the omnipotent power of God makes redemption real to the believer, whose sins have all been forgiven and who has been lifted completely out of those circumstances in which he was exposed to the judgment of God.

The wonderful truths so succinctly presented in Colossians 1:12-14 are blessed certainties that tell in unmistakable terms of our eternal security once we are in Christ. As the soul meditates on these verses, the heart will surely reach out to God in worship and the life will be yielded for devoted service.

Christ the Firstborn (Colossians 1:15-19)

Having considered the role of our Lord Jesus as God’s dear Son in whom we have redemption, we now direct our attention to His role as the One who has made God known to us. He has come into the world as a man who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15)—the God who the gnostics said could never be known or understood! John 1:18 says, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

Five times in the New Testament the Son is called the “only begotten.” This endearing term, which always refers to what He has been throughout eternity, implies unity in life and nature. In Hebrews 11:17 Isaac is called Abraham’s “only begotten son,” yet Ishmael was also his son. But the link between Abraham and Isaac was of a unique character. And so as the “only begotten,” our Lord is the unique Son. He has been that eternally, for if He were not the eternal Son, God would not be the eternal Father.

God has existed throughout eternity as three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but He never became visible to created eyes, whether of angels or men, until the holy babe was born in Bethlehem. The Son was as truly the invisible God as the Father or the Spirit was—until the incarnation. Then He was seen by angels and later on by men. As born of a virgin mother without any human father, He is the Son of God in a new sense, and it is as such He is acknowledged by the Father as “the firstborn of every creature” (Colossians 1:15). Perhaps a better rendering would be “the first-born of all creation.” Paul was not implying that the Son is created; he meant that He is the Head of all that has been created.

So we see that the title “firstborn” is not to be understood solely as a divine title, although He who bears the name is divine. But it is as man that He is acknowledged by God the Father as the Firstborn, as the Head of all creation. And how right it is that such a title should be conferred on Him, for “by him were all things created” (Colossians 1:16). Coming into the world as man, He took that title because of the dignity of His person. His is the glory of the First-born because He is the Creator. The Firstborn is the heir and preeminent One.

It is important to remember that in Scripture the firstborn is not necessarily the one born first. In many instances the one born first was set aside and the rights of the firstborn were given to another. In the cases of Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, for example, the first man was set aside and the second man was acknowledged as the firstborn. And so Adam and all his race are set aside as unfit to retain authority over the world so that the Second Man, Christ the Lord from Heaven, may be acknowledged as the Firstborn.

We can see how these truths would contradict the gnostic conception of a created Jesus to whom the Christ, a divine emanation, came at baptism, only to leave Him again at Calvary. It was the eternal Son who stooped in grace to become the Son of God in a new sense when he was born of a virgin. We should never lose sight of the fact that His sonship is spoken of in these two distinct ways in Scripture. As the eternal Son preincarnate, he is called the Son, the Son of the Father, and the Son of God, but the third term generally refers to what He became when He joined His deity with humanity. He became God and man in one person with two natures, fulfilling the words the angel had addressed to His virgin mother: “That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

When we consider this great mystery, we must be very accurate in our thinking and not let our thoughts run beyond Holy Scripture. Let us consider some of the passages that deal with the sonship of Christ. It was of the virgin-born Savior that Micah prophesied: “Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting [from the days of eternity]”(Micah 5:2). If carefully weighed, the five passages in which Christ is called the “only begotten” will make Micah’s prophecy clear:

The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we beheld His glory (the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth (John 1:14, literal rendering).

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, subsisting in the bosom of the Father, He hath told Him out (John 1:18, literal rendering).

God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:18).

In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him (1 John 4:9).

In five other passages Christ is called the “firstborn” or “first begotten”:

Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature [or, of all creation] (Colossians 1:15).

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 (Colossians 1:18).

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29).

Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of [or, from among] the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth (Revelation 1:5).

When He bringeth the firstborn into the habitable earth, again He saith, And let all the angels of God worship Him (Hebrews 1:6, literal rendering).

Colossians 1:16 tells us that the Son brought all things into being. “Without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). All the inhabitants of Heaven and earth owe their life to Him. All “visible and invisible” beings are the creatures of His hand. Angels, no matter how great their dignity—”whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers”—were all created by Him and for His glory. The gnostics placed these varied ranks of exalted beings between Christ and God, but Christ is superior to them all, for He brought them into being. He is the uncreated Son who became man to accomplish the work of redemption. Higher than all angels, He was made a little lower than they “for the suffering of death” (Hebrews 2:9).

Colossians 1:17 insists on Christ’s pre-eminence in another way. Paul wrote, “He is before all things.” Christ existed as the eternal Word before all personal and impersonal created things existed. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John was ascribing to Christ full deity, yet distinct personality.

Colossians 1:17 continues, “By him all things consist [hold together].” It is Christ who sustains the universe. His hand holds the stars in their courses, directs the planets in their orbits, and controls the laws of the universe. How great is His dignity and how low did He stoop for our salvation!

But men rejected Him. They said, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours” (Luke 20:14), and they slew Him by hanging Him on a tree. It was then that God made Christ’s soul an offering for sin and He accomplished the great work of redemption for which He came to earth. The Just suffered for the unjust “that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18), but having died for our offenses, Christ “was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25). Thus He became the Firstborn in a new sense; as “the firstborn from the dead” he became the Head of the new creation (Colossians 1:18).

There was no union with Christ in His incarnation; union is in resurrection. He was alone as the incarnate Son on earth; it is after His resurrection that He is hailed as the Firstborn from among the dead. As Christ Himself said, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). In resurrection He becomes “the head of the body, the church” and “the beginning” of the creation of God (Colossians 1:18); “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29); the resurrection King-Priest; the One who is yet to rule the world in glory; the Melchizedek of the age to come, as the book of Hebrews shows us.

Colossians 1:19 is difficult to translate euphoniously, and in our King James version the words “the Father” have been added in order to complete what seems like an incomplete sentence: “It pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell.” But it should be carefully noted that there is no term in the original Epistle that could be translated “the Father.” The original indicates that it was “the fullness” that was pleased to dwell in Jesus. If we connect this verse with Colossians 2:9 we understand at once what Paul had in mind. There he wrote, “In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” So Colossians 1:19 must mean, “In Him all the fullness of the godhead was pleased to dwell.” In other words, deity has been fully revealed in Jesus our adorable Lord. This is the “mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16).

The gnostics used the term “the fullness” (pleroma) for the divine essence dwelling in unapproachable light, and in a lesser sense for the illumination that comes when one reaches the higher plane of knowledge. But all the divine pleroma dwelt in Jesus. All that God is, He is; so we may now say, “We know God in knowing Him.” Jesus has fully revealed God.

As we ponder the wondrous truths in Colossians 1:15-19, we will feel more and more that the mysteries we have here are beyond the ability of the human mind to grasp. Here is truth for pious meditation that will stir the soul to worship and offer thanksgiving; this truth is not at all for the exercise of the intellect in theological speculations. As we read we want to bow our hearts in lowly adoration and gaze on the face of Him who has come from the glory that He had with the Father throughout eternity so that we can know God.

Christ the Sacrifice (Colossians 1:20-22)

In verses 15-19 Christ is presented as the “firstborn of every creature” and the “firstborn from the dead.” In these two distinct presentations we see His twofold headship: first we see His headship over all creation and then we see Him as Head of the body, the church. In verses 20-22 two aspects of reconciliation are presented: first the future reconciliation of “all things”; and then the present reconciliation of individuals. For both the universe and the individual sinner, He in whom all the fullness of the godhead dwells has “made peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).

Colossians 1:21 depicts man as alienated and an enemy, with his wicked works making his hostility obvious. Since sin has come between God and man, expiation is required before the guilty rebel can be received by God in peace, but in Scripture man is never called on to make his own peace with God.

Sin has lifted up its serpent head not only on earth, but also in Heaven. In fact sin began in Heaven when Lucifer apostatized, taking with him a vast number of the angelic hosts. Therefore the heavens themselves were unclean in the sight of God and needed to be purified by a better sacrifice than those offered under the law.

On the cross Christ tasted death and so far-reaching are the results of His work that eventually “all things” on earth and in Heaven will be reconciled to God on the basis of what He accomplished there. So peace has been made by Christ’s sacrifice.

In spite of that fact, rebels remain. They are like guerrilla bands who insist on fighting after their nations’ leaders have agreed on terms of peace. So while “Jesus’ blood, through earth and skies, / Mercy, free boundless mercy, cries,” men and demons persist in refusing to acknowledge the divine authority.

For the angels who rebelled, the terms of peace offer no pardon, but to the sinful sons of Adam clemency is extended, and he who will may trust in Christ and thus be reconciled to God. “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).

The reconciliation of “all things” includes two spheres: earth and Heaven (Colossians 1:20). The time will come when all in earth and all in Heaven will be happily reconciled to God.

Where subjugation rather than reconciliation is in view, there are three spheres, as in Philippians 2:10: Heaven, earth, and “under the earth.” Heavenly, earthly, and infernal beings will at last recognize the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, but Scripture does not hold out any hope that the sad inhabitants of the infernal regions will ever be reconciled to God.

Colossians 1:20 carries us on to the new Heaven and the new earth where righteousness will dwell, where the tabernacle of God will be with men (Revelation 21:3), and where all the redeemed and elect angels will abide with Him in holy harmony. Sin ruptured the state of peace and harmony that once existed between God and His creatures, but Christ in death has wrought reconciliation, making it possible for that lost concord to be re-established in a new creation.

This reconciliation is already accomplished for individual sinners who “were sometime alienated and enemies” (Colossians 1:21), but through grace have been reconciled to God by the death of His Son. The cross demonstrated the infinite love of the offended deity and when by faith the soul comprehends that love, the enmity is destroyed. The affections of the renewed man are drawn out to God revealed in Christ. Motivated by God’s love, the apostle exclaimed:

All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

It is not the holy, wondrous life of Christ that has reconciled us to God. It is His sacrificial death. And as a result of that death we will eventually be presented to the Father and we will be “unblameable and unreproveable in his sight” (Colossians 1:22).

The sentence begun in verse 21 is not concluded in verse 22, but verse 23 introduces a new subject, which must be considered separately.

Paul’s Ministry (Colossians 1:23-25)

Verse 23 begins, “If ye continue in the faith…” The first word “if has perplexed timid souls who hardly dare to accept the truth of the Christian’s eternal security because they are so conscious of their own weakness and insufficiency. But when Paul’s words are rightly understood, there is nothing in them to disturb any sincere believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. There are a number of similar ifs in the New Testament, and all are used when the writer wanted to test the reality of his readers’ profession of faith.

For example in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 we read, “Brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain” (italics added). Here the “if was inserted to trouble the consciences of any who, having professed to believe the gospel, were in danger of forgetting the message because they had never really received the truth into their hearts. Paul wanted them to examine carefully the basis of their profession of faith. Many people readily profess to adopt Christianity and unite themselves outwardly with the church although they have never truly turned to the Lord in repentance and found rest for their souls through confidence in His finished work. Such endure for a time, but soon forget the claims of the gospel when Satanic allurements draw them away.

We find a similar “if in Hebrews 3:6: “But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (italics added). The meaning is plain. It is not enough to profess to have the Christian hope. Those who are truly saved will “hold fast…unto the end” (also see Hebrews 10:38-39). Endurance is the proof of reality. What God implants in the soul is lasting and we may be assured “that he which hath begun a good work in [anyone] will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6), at which time He will come for His ransomed people and complete in glory what His grace began on earth.

Paul did not pretend to know who of the Colossians were really born of God. While he had confidence that most of them were, he wanted to stir up the consciences of any who were becoming slack. Their readiness to adopt new and fanciful systems was a cause for grave concern. Those who are really children of God, grounded and strengthened in the truth, will not be moved away from the hope of the gospel. Knowing what it has already done for them, they will not lightly turn away from it to some new and untried theory.

The Colossians had heard this gospel as in the providence of God it had been “preached to every creature which is under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). A better translation would probably be “preached in all the creation under Heaven.” It is hardly thinkable that the apostle meant that every creature in the habitable earth had heard the gospel. But it is a wonderful testimony to the devotion of the early believers that within one generation after our Lord’s ascension, the evangel had been carried throughout the known world.

Referring to this gospel, the apostle wrote, “Whereof I Paul am made a minister.” The indefinite article lends plausibility to the idea that the ministry is a special class to which all believers do not belong, but the apostle was not claiming that he was a minister in the sense in which that term has been used in later years. He meant that he was addicted to the work of the ministry; he said in Romans 1:9, “I serve [God] with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.” This gospel ministry has been committed by God not only to Paul, but to all believers. Paul shared with others the task of making the testimony known, but it was given to him to reveal it in a most excellent way. As preached by Paul, the message bore the distinctive character of “the gospel of the glory” (as “the glorious gospel” of 2 Corinthians 4:4 is sometimes translated).

Another ministry had been given to Paul: he was also to serve the body of Christ. He was to provide godly shepherd-care, enduring affliction for the blessing of Christ’s beautiful flock. So he rejoiced in whatever he was called on to suffer on behalf of the people of God.

Christ suffered “once for all” on the cross “to put away sin” (Hebrews 10:10; 9:26) and His faithful servants suffer in fellowship with Him for the perfecting of the saints—that is, they “fill up that which is behind [lacking] of the afflictions of Christ…for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). The people of the Lord are precious to every real servant of God and he realizes that in serving them and enduring trials on their behalf he is ministering in place of his absent Lord. The more devoted he is to Christ’s interests down here during His absence, the more he will face this kind of suffering.

In Colossians 1:25 Paul, speaking of the church, said, “Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God.” Note that the Greek word that is translated “dispensation” here can also be rendered “stewardship.” God made Paul a steward of “the mystery” mentioned in 1:26.

Paul’s God-given ministry to the church was to complete the divine testimony, or to fill up the Word of God, for the whole counsel of God was not made known until Paul received his revelation of “the mystery.” It was a special revelation given not to the twelve, but to him as the apostle of the new dispensation. This mystery he unfolded more fully elsewhere, noticeably in the Epistle to the Ephesians, which is the correlative of the Epistle to the Colossians.

The Mystery (Colossians 1:26-29)

As we continue to read about the mystery revealed to Paul, we need to remember that the mysteries of the New Testament are not necessarily things mysterious or abstruse. Rather, they are sacred secrets made known to the initiated. These divine secrets could never have been discovered either by human reason or even by a child of God unless a special revelation had been given to him. The gnostics made much of the mysteries of their systems, but the Christian mysteries are in vivid contrast to these dreams of insubordinate men.

The mystery of the church as the body of Christ was never made known either in Old Testament times or in the days when our Lord was on the earth. We are told distinctly that the mystery “hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). The divine method of making it known was to give a special revelation to the apostle Paul, as he told us in Ephesians 3:3. But this revelation was not for him only. The ministry committed to him was to pass the revelation on to the saints.

Colossians 1:27 tells us that to these saints “God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I have quoted the King James version, but the verse can also be translated as follows: “God did make known the wealth of the splendor of this sacred secret among the nations, which is Christ among the Gentiles, the hope of glory.” The Old Testament Scriptures clearly predicted the calling of the Gentiles, but always with the thought that they would be in subjection to Israel. During the present dispensation Israel has been set aside because of unbelief (Romans 11) and Christ is working among the nations to attract weary hearts to Himself without any thought of Jewish priority. Believing Jews and Gentiles are united by the Holy Spirit’s baptism into one body, and thus all distinctions are eliminated; the middle wall of partition is broken down. This is the mystery of the church as the body of Christ.

Christ Himself, the Head of this body, was the apostle’s theme. Note his words at the beginning of Colossians 1:28: “Whom we preach.” To substitute “what” for “whom” here would be a serious mistake. Christianity is centered in a person and no one preaches the gospel who does not preach Christ. When there is faith in Him, the Spirit unites the believer to Him.

How earnest was the apostle, “warning every man” and seeking to lead Christians into the knowledge of this precious truth! His was the true pastor’s heart, and with this he combined in a marvelous way the teacher’s gift. The subject of his ministry was “the perfecting of the saints” (Ephesians 4:12) and his desire was that every man should be complete or full-grown in Christ Jesus. To this end he labored as divine energy worked powerfully in him for the salvation of souls and the upbuilding of the people of God.

False teachers want to turn the eyes of the saints away from Christ, the glorified Head of the body, and toward specious systems of Satanic origin. Thus they would “draw away disciples after them,” as Paul warned the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:30). But all true Spirit-given ministry is christocentric. Every faithful minister of the new dispensation wants to lift up the Lord Jesus before the admiring gaze of His people so that, looking on Him, they will be transfigured into His likeness. Like John the Baptist, the true teacher says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

No man can preach the whole truth today unless he enters into the twofold ministry of the gospel and the church. He needs to proclaim the gospel to sinners, “for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16). And he needs to minister to the church by teaching the saints their present privileges and corresponding responsibilities and by building them up in the faith. He is called not only to win sinners to Christ so that they may be saved from impending wrath, but also to make good churchmen out of those already saved.

I do not mean that the preacher should insist on what is called denominational loyalty or that he should endeavor to sectionalize the saints and bring them into bondage to legal principles and practices for which there is no Biblical basis. His calling is to show the saints that in the new creation they are linked with their risen, glorified Head, and to help them recognize the unity of the body in which all believers have a part. Thus as they walk together in the bond of peace, they may endeavor to keep the unity formed by the Holy Spirit.

Sad indeed are the divisions among men of “like precious faith” (2 Peter 1:1). The unity of the body is often disturbed by men of sectarian spirit and narrow cramped sympathies who are more concerned about building up local causes than edifying the body of Christ. It is perfectly true that the saints are not to neglect local responsibilities, but they should not disregard the unity that the Holy Spirit has created. “The unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3) is not a confederacy of assemblies of Christians, but the abiding unity that the Holy Ghost has formed by baptizing believers into one body. I fail to keep this unity if I set at nought any fellow believer. As “members one of another” having “the same care one for another,” we show in a practical way the truth that we are one in Christ (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:25).