Rev. Donald A. Ross, Retiring Moderator
This sermon was preached at the service of public worship at the opening of the annual Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, on Tuesday, 18th May, 1999.
Text: Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the pre-eminence” (Colossians 1:15-18).
WE shall think particularly of these words at the end of verse 18: “That in all things he might have the pre-eminence.” After noting why Paul wrote this epistle we shall consider, as enabled, two things: first, that Christ does have the pre-eminence. The evidence of that is here in the text. Secondly: we are duty bound to give Him the pre-eminence. The Church is to give Him the pre-eminence; all men, including kings, queens and governors are to do so. And, of course, it is in our own interest, as well as to His glory, that we do so.
By way of introduction let us note that the purpose of Paul in writing these words to the believers in Colosse was to exalt Christ. Paul was a true apostle who loved to exalt his Saviour, and that is exactly what he is doing here. As you know from his epistles, he was determined to exalt Christ, and did so. He exalted Christ in opposition to those who would not exalt Him, and also in contending against the errors that were creeping into the church of God. Errors had crept into the Galatian church for example, by Judaisers adding to the gospel and so belittling Christ. Paul opposed those errors by exalting Christ. In writing to the Galatians he speaks of his withstanding even the Apostle Peter, who had erred by giving way to the Judaisers at one time, and went along with them so far. In doing so Peter was greatly endangering the church, but Paul by the grace of God was exalting Christ.
In the church in Colosse there was a threat of certain people coming into it with their pernicious ways. In warning the church against them Paul writes, “. . .and this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words” (Col. 2:4). Because they sought in their wickedness to belittle Christ and destroy the church of God, Paul warns the church, “Beware lest any man spoil you, through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). Paul then immediately exalts Christ: “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). So here is Paul, as we see in our text, by the grace of God resisting those errorists by exalting Christ, showing that Christ and His doctrine were to be adhered to, and that all else of the “philosophy and vain deceit” of the wisdom of men were to be excluded from the church of God.
The Colossian believers were also reminded that they were buried with Christ in baptism: “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God who hath raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). They had that union by faith with Christ which is signified by baptism, and therefore they were united to Him not only in His death but also in His burial and resurrection. So their old life of sin was buried with Christ, and also they were risen to newness of life with Him, to the glory of God. They were now to have their eye upon Christ and upon His teachings, so that He would have the pre-eminence.
In the last verse of this epistle Paul writes, “Remember my bonds.” It appears that he is in prison for his adherence to Christ and His Word, but it made no difference to him he is still intent on exalting Christ. Here then is a faithful servant of God whom we should imitate!
I. Let us now proceed to consider first, that Christ is pre-eminent.
This is evident, of course, from the fact that He is whom He is: God the Son, the second person of the Godhead. We are told at the beginning of the text that He is “the image of the invisible God” (verse 15), that is, He is very God (and you cannot have higher than that), equal with the Father. Being very God He is omnipotent His pre-eminence is evidenced by both His creative power and His redemptive power, as we shall see later. To say this does not in any way exclude the Father or the Holy Ghost, for “these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and in glory”; but it is the Son who is particularly spoken of here, and it is He of whom verse 19 says, “. . .it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell”. Here, then, is Christ brought before us in our text as the One who is who is supreme, who is before all.
Our text also says that He is “the firstborn of every creature” (verse 15). Here again His pre-eminence is highlighted. Of all the creatures, whether angels or men, He is the firstborn in that He is the eternally begotten Son of the Father, without beginning or ending of days. Christ is the firstborn of every creature, before whom we must bow the knee. That He is eternally begotten is a profound mystery, but as one has said, “This you will not comprehend, but bow the knee and worship God.”
Then we see in our text that “by him were all things created” (verse 16). It was of Him that John wrote, “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Truly, He is a glorious being. What power is His! What glory is His! What majesty is His! “By him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him.”
It is not only the fact that they were created by Him that is to be noted, but also that He gave authority and dominion to certain of His creatures. The powers that be are ordained by Him. The relationships of superiors, equals and inferiors are all part of the creative order of Christ, whether in the world of spirits or in this world. Not only does He create these and give them authority, but also He requires of them obedience, as we shall come to see. Is He not supreme? Indeed He is!
What a glorious person He is when all things were not only created by Him but also for His own glory. These powers, dominions and principalities were not created to take glory to themselves; they were created for His glory; yes, for His own glory! Is there not an awful brutishness in the hearts of men when they will not bow down before this glorious One? Let us ponder these truths concerning Him, and give Him the pre-eminence.
We read also in the text: “and he is before all things” (verse 17). Whatever things we may cast our eye upon in this created universe, He is before them all. He is before them all in point of time. Before ever the world was, as we see in Proverbs (8:30), this glorious One was with the Father. From all eternity, as He himself says, “I was by him, as one brought up with Him”, and again, “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was” (8:23). He is before all things!
Our text continues, “and by him all things consist” (verse 17), that is, in Him we live, we move, we have our being. How thoughtless and careless are those who forget this fact or ignore it. He is has created us, in Him we live and by His power we will exist for ever and ever. The angels also these majestic, glorious beings have their beginning in Christ, have their existence in Christ, and will have their eternal being in Christ. Well, is He not supreme in view of the fact that He upholds all things?
Then we come to something more glorious than His works of creation, and that is the church; the church which He redeemed with His own precious blood, and of which we read here, that He is the head of it. “And he is the head of the body, the church” (verse 18). Although Paul was the outstanding apostle in the church, he was not the head of the church. Christ alone is the head of the church in every age and generation not any mere man, not any king or pope. As head of His church He gives it His laws, regulates it by His truth, directs it by His doctrines. “He is the head of the body, the church”, and therefore as the head moves, the church moves; as the head instructs, the church listens; as the head directs, the church observes. He is the head; He is supreme; He is first and foremost, and woe to those who profess to be the church and who will not take Him to be their head.
The text also says that He is “the beginning”. “He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning” (verse 18), that is, He is the beginner of the church. He has brought the church into existence. Although men have invented such a variety of religions as is in the world, there was nobody who could found such a society as is the church of Christ, the church of God.
Now, when Christ purposed to bring the church into existence, where did He find it? Under Satans power and in a state of death! Paul wrote to the Ephesian believers, “You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and in sins” (Eph. 2:1). Dead! That is how He found them! Of them it is written, “In time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph 2:2,3). Truly, it was a dreadful state in which He found those who make up His body, the church! But He is the beginning, the One who begat them by His power.
He is described also as “the firstborn from the dead” (verse 18). He did marvellous things to bring about this society of believers, the church. He found them, as I said, in spiritual death, and also going on to physical death and eternal death. And what did He most nobly do? He died in their place. The sentence of death was theirs, but He became man, took to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul so that He might die the death that they were due to die on account of their sins. And He rose from the grave as the firstborn from the dead from the very grave which they made for Him, so to speak, by their sins. He rose by His own power, victorious, and took with Him His own who were dead. We read in the prophecy of Isaiah, “By my dead body they shall live” (Isa. 26:19). What pre-eminence is here, is there not, in His rising from the dead? By His own power, having endured the pains of death, having suffered the awful wrath of God upon His soul, which was due to them, He rose victorious, as the firstborn from the dead, bringing with Him a great host of sinners, referred to here as “His body, the church”. What supremacy is His!
Truly, then, He is pre-eminent! He is first in creation; He is first among the governments of men; He is first in the church. He has done gloriously as “the firstborn from the dead”. Those who, like Lazarus, rose from the dead before He did, rose by His power. He is the firstborn, He has power over death. How glorious is our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ! He has the pre-eminence. And ought we not to give Him the pre-eminence?
We shall now notice, secondly, our obligation to give Him the pre-eminence.
He does indeed have the pre-eminence, but we are duty bound to actually give Him first place in all things, whether they be of this world or the world of spirits. When God the Father gives Him the pre-eminence, are we not bound to do so? “It pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” (verse 19). The purpose of the Father was that by Him all things should be created; and also that by Him the church should be redeemed. When the Father is giving Him this pre-eminent place, must not we too give Him the pre-eminence?
God the Holy Spirit exalts Christ. He takes of the things of Christ and shows them to His people. He reveals to the Church the truth concerning Christ as the “first and the last”, the pre-eminent One, and He reveals these truths through the inspired Scriptures.
And, of course, Scripture itself gives Him the pre-eminence. The apostle Paul is exalting Christ here, but is it not in fact the Holy Spirit who is exalting Christ in and by the Word? The Scriptures, Christ Himself said, “testify of me”. They present Him in His glory as “the chiefest among ten thousand”, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence. It is written, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Christ, as God, must have first place, and all false gods and false religions are to be excluded. So the Word of God from beginning to end exalts Christ. The first promise in Scripture, about the seed of the woman, exalts Christ, and the believer puts his amen to it, as Abel put his amen to it, giving Christ the pre-eminence.
Not only Abel, but also all the saints in every age and generation exalt Him. The Old Testament saints, by keeping the ceremonial law, offering up the required sacrifices, were thus exalting Christ. All these types and shadows in the Old Testament were used by the godly in their desire to exalt Him. Christ Himself said, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). Abraham was exalting Him as Saviour, exalting Him as the only one who could atone for his sins. The saints in the Old Testament era, as they, each one, took a lamb or a bullock to be sacrificed, were thinking of Christ, seeking to give Him the pre-eminence. And they were also exalting Christ by worshipping God in the manner that God prescribed.
From the very beginning men have been required to give Christ the pre-eminence, including rulers, empires and governments. The government of this land is bound to give Christ first place; the monarch of the nation is required to give Christ the supreme place. Civil powers are not outwith the reign and rule of Christ, for “by him are all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” (verse 16). Since these thrones, dominions, principalities and powers have their authority from Christ, they are to give Him the pre-eminence. Prime ministers, government ministers, magistrates and all who are in authority, are to give Christ first place in governing the nation. Superiors, equals, inferiors, if they are to maintain that proper relationship among themselves, must be giving Christ His place. In families, Christ must be given His place if there is to be happiness in them. If there are to be truly happy marriages, Christ must be given His place in these marriages. If Christ is not given His place of supremacy by the Government, by the Queen, by the Prime Minister, then trouble and anguish will follow, sooner or later. If He is not given His place by families, trouble and anguish will most certainly follow: there is nothing surer. Governments conduct themselves as if they are not accountable to God. Those in high places in church and state conduct themselves as if they are not accountable to Christ, and as if there was no relationship between them and Christ. However high, however mighty, however noble, however distinctive an individual may be, Christ is above all, for He is “the firstborn of every creature”. He gives laws that they may be kept, not ignored. Well, then, He is to be given the supreme place.
Christ is also the head of His body, the church. Therefore, He is to be given His supreme place in and by the church. The seven churches in Asia, as we see in the Revelation, were very obviously directed by Christ as head of the church. He is commending them when there is compliance with His holy will, and He is condemning them when there is not that compliance, and He is showing them that He is supreme in the church. He must also be supreme in the courts of the church. And He must be supreme in the life of the individual believer. He must be first!
How do we, each and all of us, met here tonight, engage ourselves so that He may be given the supremacy? Well, are we not to be submissive to the teaching given here that He is who He is, that He is Lord over all, that He is the creator of the heavens and earth, of the sea and all that in them is, that He is head of the church, and that He is the Redeemer?
The first step in having Christ to be pre-eminent in our lives is to recognise that He is the Redeemer, and to acknowledge our need of Him as Redeemer. We are to acknowledge that sin is that cursed thing that will bring us down to hell, and that we need therefore to close in with Christ as He is freely offered to us in the Gospel. These are the first steps in giving Christ the supremacy in our lives; in giving Him that honour and glory due to Him as Saviour. Some of us happily have experience of these first steps. Others have no such experience. Such must give Christ the pre-eminence and here is a first step in giving Him the pre-eminence: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
As the believer goes on, he seeks to be continually giving Christ the pre-eminence in all things. We are to give Him the glory with regard to all these doctrines about Himself, which He reveals to His own glory. We are to give Him the pre-eminence by having every aspect of our worship according to His will. He is to be given the pre-eminence in the way we live, and in our relationships with one another. We must give Him the pre-eminence because we are created by Him, given a soul by Him, are accountable to Him, and shall appear before Him. Those who close in by faith with Christ for salvation, also close in with the mind of Christ as revealed in His Word. They ask, “What saith the Scriptures? How must I live my life? What wilt thou have me to do? How is the church to be governed? How are we to worship God?” Christ has not left us at a loss as to how we are to live our lives, and particularly as to how the church is to be governed and how He is to be worshipped. Knowing something of their own corruption and need of light and wisdom, believers will make it their business, and the church will make it its business, to know these things from the Word of God. And they will seek to give Him the pre-eminence by going in that revealed way.
There are others who profess Christ but do not give Him the pre-eminence. They profess to be of the church, but they rebel against the head of the church. There are many examples of such in the Scriptures. The Jews themselves, who claimed to be the children of God, rebelled against Christ. They would not give Him His place with regard to doctrine, worship or practice; they would not give Him His place as Redeemer. And today, alas, there are those who professedly give Him place as Saviour, but who do not give Him place as Lord. They are in fact in rebellion against Christ. Their attitude appears to be: “Saved by grace but do as you like; saved by grace but worship as you think best.”
In all things He is to have the pre-eminence. He has not left it to my wisdom or to your wisdom, as to how this is to be done. He did not leave it to the wisdom of Paul; and He did not leave it to the wisdom of Solomon, the wisest man that ever was. See what he did when he was left for a time to his own wisdom. He bowed down to idols! Sad to say, there are great sections of the visible church today which are wise in their own eyes and are in rebellion against Christ. They will not give Him the pre-eminence and that will not result in blessing. It cannot bring blessings.
However there are those who desire to give Him first place in all these things. Is this desire not one reason why we, as a branch of the visible church, maintain our present separate position? Not pharisaically, but in weakness, and in all honesty, we seek by grace to give Christ the pre-eminence. The reason for the separation that Mr. Macfarlane and others made was that we would be able to worship Christ according to His own mind, and give Him the glory as the One who is supreme. Is that not our mind still? It is not a case being pharisaical or anything of that nature. It is not being separate for the sake of being separate; not at all! It is spiritual. It is to do with the great head of the Church; that He may have the pre-eminence, and that He may be worshipped according to His own mind and will. It cannot be, and it must not be, less than that. Giving the pre-eminence to Christ must be the ongoing activity of our Church, however few or however many may be in it, if it is to be a healthy Church. This must be our determination this is what we must seek that by the grace of God, Christ would have the pre-eminence in all things.
He is Lord, we are but His servants. We cannot deviate from this aim of giving Him the pre-eminence, but we need grace and strength. Think of that wonderfully blessed and successful apostle, Peter. By his one sermon three thousand were brought to a saving interest in Christ! We may preach three thousand sermons and see only one come to Christ. Yet, Peter, despite all the blessing connected with that one sermon, erred at one stage. That same Peter, in submitting to those Jews who brought an element of the ceremonial law into the church, was not seeking the pre-eminence of Christ. We need grace, brethren! We need grace so that we would not lean upon an arm of flesh. We must not lean on our own strength, nor must we lean on any creature. It is on Christ that we must lean to give us grace and strength to give Him the pre-eminence. So all of us, ministers, elders, deacons, church members, baptised person, and adherents, are called to give Christ the pre-eminence.
We have to give Him the pre-eminence in our motives, affections and desires, in everything in connection with ourselves, and in everything that is done in the worship of God. Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we are to do it to the glory of God. Gods people will confess how often they err. It may seem a slight thing to some if Christ has not got first place in our affections. It was not a slight thing when He rebuked the church in Ephesus for having left her first love. She was not giving Him the pre-eminence in her affections. Ah! It was not a slight thing. The warning of Christ to her was that if she did not repent He would remove His candlestick from her. Such coldness in a church will develop into greater coldness, and into indifference as to how Christ is to be worshipped, and eventually the light of the gospel will go out.
So in all things what are our motives? What are our desires? How are our affections exercised? Oh! Christ is all and in all. In all things He must be supreme. Among all things, among all people, among all nations, He must have the pre-eminence. Well, as we seek to do so let us remember that when He commends, His blessing will follow. Where there is no commendation but condemnation, it is gloom and darkness that will follow. Although Peter was zealous in resolving to not deny Christ, His zeal was for himself. He did not give Christ the pre-eminence in His zeal, and what darkness followed!
So we need to be exercised in this way: giving Christ the place as being over all with regard to what we do as a Synod, as a Church, as congregations and as believers collectively. This must be constantly on our mind: “Let us do all to the glory of God, to the exaltation of Christ, according to the mind of Christ, according to what He has shown us in His truth.” There is no doubt that when this is done, many blessings will follow.
May He bless His truth to us.