A Bible Lesson on Colossians 1:15-23

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This lesson is from a series on the cross of Christ prepared by the elders of Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa. It treats Colossians 1:15-23. An outline is:

  • Christ Preeminent (verses 15-19)
  • Alienation and Hostility (verse 21)
  • Peace Through the Blood of the Cross (verses 20, 22)
  • Steady Lives (verse 23)
  • Some Implications

We will consider the verses of the text in order, with the exception that we’ll handle verse 21 before verse 20. After making our way through the text, we’ll consider some further implications/applications of the wonderful truths that it teaches.

These verses of Colossians 1 constitute one of the grandest statements in all of Scripture about the identity of Jesus. They are fundamental Christology, central to orthodox historical Christian faith. Together with John 1 and Hebrews 1 they summarize a proper high view of Jesus. In particular, verses 15-19 expound the preeminence of Christ.

Colossians 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

He, Christ Jesus, is the “image of the invisible God.” The Greek word rendered “image” carries the ideas of both likeness and manifestation. The difference between the two is this. Human beings were created in the image of God. We were made to in some ways be a reflection of who He is. We were made to carry His likeness, as an image in a mirror. But you and I and all other humans are fallen. We fail to adequately represent Him. All that we are not, Jesus is. He is the manifestation or revelation of the invisible God. He perfectly represents and reveals God in a way that we can understand. Jesus is the perfect and only acceptable representation of God. Any other representation of the invisible God that we would look to is an idol.

Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation.” The English rendering “firstborn” makes us naturally think “child” and “first in time.” But the context of the passage (indeed already verse 16) and the rest of Scripture make it clear that this is not intended. The correct sense of the word “firstborn” is “supreme” in rank and dignity. The “firstborn” in a Jewish family held the honored position. Jesus is the honored One over all that is.

Colossians 1:16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authoritiesall things were created through him and for him.

Christ rightly holds this honored position over the universe, firstly because He is the ground or agent of creation. All created things owe their existence to Him. This is absolutely everything, visible and invisible, the totality of all creation. This includes every created being of any authority in the universe. As everything and everyone owe their existence to Christ, all is subordinate to Him. These all were made by Him.

Secondly, He is the goal or end of all creation. He is the ultimate goal of the whole universe. From start to finish, the whole created order is bound up in Christ. The 19th century English commentator Joseph Lightfoot said that “As all creation passed out from Him, so does it all again converge towards Him.” In Christ is the purpose of all creation. He is the end of all things. All things were created through and for Him. They were created for Him and presently exist to give Him glory. That’s true of all things and all living beings.

Colossians 1:17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Christ is preeminent by virtue of being both the source and object of creation. And there is more! It is He who holds creation together. All the laws and principles by which this world is ordered and is not chaotic are expressions of who He is. He is not only Creator and the final Goal of the universe, it is He who presently sustains it. It “coheres” in Him. It continues and is preserved in Him. Again quoting Lightfoot: “He impresses upon creation that unity and solidarity which makes it a cosmos instead of a chaos.” The universe begins, continues, and ends in the person of Christ. In Him it has form.

The foolishness of our time, when people dare to talk in terms of “Jesus being savior without being lord,” should strike us as obscene in light of these verses. It’s Him, from beginning to end and in the middle! Humans dare not talk or think in terms that make us independent of Him. It is through Him that the very world is sustained! His sustaining power is revealed not in that He somehow gives us a boost when we need it, but rather in our very existence!

Paul now turns from the relationship of Jesus to the natural creation to His relationship to the church.

Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

He is the head of the body. He is supreme in the church. He is the One who guides and governs the church. No part of a human body can function or even exist without its head. No part of the church can truly function or exist independent of Christ. He is the controlling member of the church, and we have an organic dependence upon Him. It is He who gives life and causes the church to grow. He is both organic and ruling head of the church.

Christ’s place as Head of the church is as appropriate as His preeminence over creation. Verse 18 says He is the “beginning.” This Greek word is a substantial one, that means “first principle,” “source,” and “creative initiative,” and indicates priority in both time and rank. No Christ, no church. What makes this true? It is the crucifixion and resurrection. He was first in both time and position to rise permanently from the dead. And His resurrection guarantees that of His people, the church.

He is “firstborn” from the dead, and the wording used in verse 15 to describe Christ and the natural order, is used again here in 18 to describe His preeminence in the church. In both the creation of the physical world, and in the creation of the new covenant and a redeemed people, Jesus is the whole story. A new creation, the church, came into being by the same Person who spoke the physical world into being. And He is supreme in both rank and dignity among ones raised from the dead.

Colossians 1:19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

A better rendering of verse 19 is probably “It pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell.” The meaning is that the Father delighted in the incarnation. The phrase “fullness of God” means “the totality of the divine powers and attributes.” Jesus is no semi-god. He is truly and completely God. Just as verses 16 and 17 explain the appropriateness of the preeminence of Christ in natural creation stated in verse 15, verses 19 and 20 (that we’ll come to in a few minutes) explain the appropriateness of the preeminence of Christ in the church (the assembly of those who have victory over death) that is stated in verse 18. His preeminence is appropriate in that He’s fully God, and in that by His work we are alive to God eternally.

Believers, this is our Faith. The Christ in whom we trust, is the second person of the Trinity, the ground of all being, the present Sustainer of all that is, the preeminent One in the universe, the preeminent One in the church. That should take our breath away. This is Christ Jesus.

What then is man’s natural relationship to Him? Look ahead to verse 21. Paul describes the Colossians before conversion.

Colossians 1:21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,

The natural state of man post-Genesis 3 is hostility toward God. The tense of “were alienated” here emphasizes that the state is a continuous one. Unregenerate humans are continually alienated from God and hostile in mind. It’s not isolated small inadvertent errors under discussion, but a consistent condition of alienation and hostility accompanied by evil deeds (acts contrary to the will of God).

Many are unrealistic/un-Scriptural about this truth in the 21st century, wishing to assume that people are generally interested in and are looking for God. But humans by and large are not looking for God. The Bible says that humans are in rebellion, doing things their own way, hostile toward God in their constant thinking. Humans are largely hiding from God. People will take a bit of a neutered tame “god,” that can be controlled and manipulated. But a God who is the center of all that is? That’s a different matter. The children in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles had to learn that Aslan was no tame lion. We must learn that God is no tame “god.”

Verses 15-19 are glorious truth for the redeemed soul, but they leave no room for you or me at the center of the universe. They are thus an affront to fallen human pride and presumptuous independence. They don’t even leave room for you or me to somehow carve out some little piece of the universe where God is not relevant and we can do as we please. The Psalmist said

Psalm 139:7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?

He is present in and real Lord over all that is.

Verses 15-19 leave no room for us to establish our own righteousness and legitimate place in His presence. What God requires of those who are to dwell happily with Him is to love Him and be like Him. What is required is genuine goodness. The written Law of God teaches us some of how genuine goodness behaves and doesn’t behave. It cannot be exhaustive, covering every circumstance in all of life, and it need not be exhaustive in order to accomplish its purpose. It is enough to show us that we are not good and cannot possibly make ourselves so. If we do on occasion manage to keep the letter of God’s law, we fail in spirit. There’s no point in pleading innocence on murder when Jesus tells us that anger is murder. There’s no point in pleading innocence on adultery when Jesus tells us that lust is adultery. There’s not one of us that is innocent of covetousness. And when Jesus summarizes the intent and heart of the law and prophets as loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves, we are completely undone. We don’t love either God or others more than ourselves. In our natural post-Genesis 3 state we are not lovers of God, but haters. In Romans 1 Paul put it this way:

Romans 1:28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Romans 1:29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,

Romans 1:30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,

Romans 1:31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Romans 1:32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Humans are as Paul describes the former lives of the Colossians, alienated and hostile. We are rebels at war with God. In light of the glorious truths about Christ expressed in verses 15-19, we are fools fighting a self-destructive futile battle against the absolutely perfect central figure of all existence.

What then can possibly save a person from complete and utter loss? Thank God for the cross! Look now at verse 20. (For making a complete sentence, I’ll start again with verse 19.)

(Colossians 1:19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,)

Colossians 1:20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

It pleased the Father that in Him all fullness should dwell … and (it pleased the Father) through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, making peace by the blood of His cross. The Father was pleased for Christ to make peace for us through the cross. It’s the cross of Christ that makes possible a happy end of humanity’s futile war against God. How does the insolent rebel lay down arms and receive welcome into fellowship with the Sovereign King that he has completely disrespected? For there to be peace with God, something profound must happen. There is real guilt to be atoned for, deep wrongs to be forgiven, and, in fact, there is an entire world to be set right. Because of the fall, not only are humans alienated from God, but the whole of creation is out of whack and waiting anxiously for its redemption. Hear Romans 8:19-22.

Romans 8:19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.

Romans 8:20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope

Romans 8:21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Romans 8:22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

Here in Colossians 1:20 we are taught that the setting right of all things is a product of the reconciliation of humans to God. The Father was pleased to provide this in Christ, in the shedding of His blood on the cross. In the cross alone is there reconciliation between God and man. It’s “through Him.” There is no other source, nor need for any other source. How are you and I and the whole creation reconciled to Him? How is there peace with God? It is by the blood of the cross.

In light of this truth, the post-modern “pluralistic” story that “all religions are equally nice (or un-nice) and Jesus and so and so were both good teachers” is completely silly. Verse 20 is either true or false. Jesus is either our only peace with God through the blood of His cross, and is all in all, or He’s not. And if He is, He alone is worthy of our attention.

(Colossians 1:21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,)

Colossians 1:22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

We who were continually alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has in His body of flesh, by His death, reconciled. He’s made peace for us and all creation. For what end? For what purpose? He has worked to “present us holy and blameless and above reproach.” His intent and good pleasure is to make us fit for His presence. No laboring to keep a finite set of rules could possibly do that in and for us. In Christ, by His sacrifice, we are no longer under the curse of failing to fully keep God’s perfect will, some of which is laid out in the written law. Jesus, our substitute, bore our guilt on the cross and gave us His genuine righteousness, His genuine goodness. There is Peace and there is holiness, real goodness, through the cross and only through the cross.

This righteousness/real goodness is not yet complete in behavior, but is complete in position. He presents us holy/sacred/separated and blameless/without blemish, above reproach/irreproachable in the sense of not being open to any charge. He has in principle already made us holy, made us genuinely good. He’s presently changing our behavior and affections and making us holy, making us genuinely good.   And we can have confidence that He in the future will finish this good work for eternity.

Paul now comments briefly on the kind of lives this should produce. He says that “He (God) has reconciled us

Colossians 1:23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

Those living in the gracious reconciliation provided in the cross of Christ, will be stable and steadfast in the Christian faith. The Gospel will be the constant center of their attention. They will cling to the mercy shown them in Jesus. The cross of Christ will be the frame of all their thinking, and speaking, and doing. It will wholly govern their hearts. They won’t be distracted or moved from its contemplation. Their entire hope will be in the work of Christ. They will live in the “hope of the Gospel that (they) have heard.” They will live steady sound lives in the Gospel.

Having poured over this passage, let’s conclude by considering some things that it should do in us. Knowing about it, without letting it work in us, would be pointless. So here are some applications. I am sure you will find others as you meditate on the passage in the next couple of days.

In light of Colossians 1:15-23: Let us wonder at the majesty and glory of the Son of God. It is true that He’s a friend and a constant companion. But let us not treat Him as common or familiar. Let us maintain a proper awe and reverence for Him. This One who made peace for us with God is the Creator and Sustainer of all that is. He’s the beginning and the end of all things. Let us wonder at His majesty.

In light of Colossians 1:15-23: Let us be realistic (Biblical) about ourselves, constantly grateful, and always generous. Let us constantly remember that we were by nature and choice haters of God, rebels without any hope, and that it pleased the Father that the majestic preeminent Son of God should die in our place, giving us peace with Him through the blood of the cross. Therefore, let us be both humble and full of His praise. Let us be as gracious with each other as He has been with us.

In light of Colossians 1:15-23: Let us hate our sin. There is a fine old hymn called “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted.” It begins “Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, see Him dying on a tree” speaking of Christ. One of its verses is then:

Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed,
See who bears the awful load;
‘Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.

We see on the cross the guilt and weight of our sin. It is so awful that only the cross of the preeminent Christ could make peace for us. Let us hate it.

In light of Colossians 1:15-23: Let us be realistic (Biblical) about others and their condition. Let us plead for mercy for the souls of those still without the peace of the cross. Parents, let us plead daily for the salvation of our children. Grandparents, let us plead daily for the salvation of our grandchildren. Believers, let us all pray constantly that God would grant repentance and true faith to both those we know and care about, and to those we’ve never met, to the praise of His name.

In light of Colossians 1:15-23: Let us be steady and settled, anxious about nothing. Let us be joyful in the Faith. The cross is not only the imperative that we continue stable and steadfast, it is the means by which we can do so. If the very Creator and Sustainer of the universe died on the cross to secure peace with God for us, what is there to fear? What else does He need to do to show us that in Him all is well? Let us take heart and take comfort in the blood of the cross. Let us live in the joy of the peace of the cross.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.