Everything in a nutshell
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
When a small child wants to explain something enormous and their language collapses under the weight of the effort so that they say ‘big, big, BIGGEST, big’ and they stretch their arms so wide trying to show you that they almost fall over, then perhaps we see what is the Song of the Prince of Everything from Colossians 1:15-20 is all about; only, it is not only expansive but also carefully precise in everything it claims – with none of these words are we left thinking that it wasn’t really exactly what was meant in this one unfolding song.
It’s the size of the whole thing that strikes you when you hear it read of course, the scope of it all: it’s 14.5 billion light years across, this song, with nothing in time and space lacking from it; and even the end of life is no boundary to it, since death was not obstacle to the figure at its centre. And the size of the picture should make us think for a minute about the people who were hearing this and possibly singing this for the first time: they were little people, living in an uncertain world – a world which had no apparent point of coherence other than the Emperor of Rome and his legions and his bureaucrats. They came, don’t forget, from a world in which there were many deities fighting for supremacy over the material order – Poseidon in the sea, Hades in the Underworld, and Zeus in the heavens to name but three, each supreme in his sphere but none over all; and all was chaos, as a result. For our part, we are continually reminded by the grand prophets of our times, the Hawkingses and the Dawkinses, that the feelings of insignificance we have are probably right; that there is no hinge on which the universe turns, or at least not any hinge that we can see; and so we had better make the best of a pretty bad lot and rescue whatever meaning remains from the rubbish heap: so be it.
But that is not the impact or the import of the Christian gospel; for Christ is the lynchpin, the still point around which it all turns, the hub of the wheel: by him all things were created, and in him all things hold together – there is purpose, that is to say, to be found in this one, the purpose of all things, the secret to the meaning of things no longer concealed but now declared in broad daylight. But we ought to think this one through a bit, because it is far too easy for us to say it and not understand it: what could it mean for us to say that centre of the whole created order, the universe in its vastness and diversity and incomprehensibility, holds together in him?
The hymn itself helps us by telling us a story: it mightn’t look much like it, but there is in this little poem a narrative. There’s a then and then there’s a now – and what happened in this story adds up to the meaning of this extraordinary person.
What then, are the things that have happened? Things were created, and this one was the agent by which they were created: the existence of things is his responsibility and gives him power and authority. It is the same thought we see in Revelation 4, where God is worthy of worship precisely because he created all things and by his will they were created and have their being. If you create, you rule, in the mind of the Bible’s authors; because you have priority you have authority.
But the creation of all things was just the beginning; because he is also, in vs 20, the one through whom God acted to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. This is quite specific now, not simply referring to what happened concealed from our view in the creation before time began: now we are dealing with the events of living memory, the blood, sweat and tears of history itself; and the focus is the event of the cross on which Jesus Christ shed his blood.
This blood was no ordinary blood, since the one on the cross was not ordinary; the bloodshed was an act of peace-making, or reconciliation, between the creator and the creation. And notice how the scope of the peace-making matches the scope of the creation itself: Jesus dies not just for a few select, elect individuals to rescue them from a failing planet before it dissolves; his blood is what reconciles all things in heaven and on earth: nothing is beyond its reach. It is vast atonement, of things as well as people, of cats and rocks and trees, of nebulae and seas and atoms. It is all-encompassing, trans-dimensional, universal and cosmic; and it is right that we pause here for a second and entertain, just for a second the godly heresy that all are saved: for how could such an act of reconciliation fail in any instance? How do any fall through the net if we are to believe these verses? How do ‘all things’ not also include ‘all people’?
Now, it is on other grounds that I think the Bible does not allow us to believe that all are saved, however much we might hope for it; but we should recognize that that fact that not all are saved is a mystery to be explained, given the kind of God we worship.
The role that Christ plays in both creation and reconciliation is the same, isn’t it? He’s the firstborn over all creation and the firstborn from the dead that in everything he might have the supremacy. The firstborn - firstly in the sense that he is the prince, the heir, the one for whom creation exists – a designated title with authority derived from the invisible God of whom he is the “born” first, from the dead, not finally defeated by the death that he suffered but triumphant over it, delivered from the womb of death, so to speak, his supremacy sealed in victory.
And the heart of his princely role is in the two things that he does in this passage – he mediates the power and the authority of the divine King to the creation; and he, like a good King, makes peace.
So, first: he is the very icon of God the unseen: the visible representation of the one who can’t be represented. Fundamental to Israelite religion was the fact that you weren’t to make images of the divine; but here is THE image of the divine. Here is the one who takes the role originally given to Adam and Eve, who were made in the image of God. He’s the tangible intangible, a view on what can’t be seen. Yet God was pleased (a word that reminds of the baptism of Jesus) – God was pleased to have all his pleroma – his fullness dwell on him – which means not only that Christ has all the attributes of the divine being, being the complete and not partial embodiment of God, but that through Christ God worked, confined we may have thought in the space allocated to an ordinary human body but nevertheless the expanse of the divine being focused at that one point so that creator can do business with the creation.
And so, we have a declaration of peace, for Christ the prince reconciles all things to himself. From the far reaches of the heavens to the depths of the earth, he brings them all together; they cohere in him and now they are reconciled in him, not the pax Romani, but the pax Christi, the end of the disturbance and disruption of all things. All things are reconciled to him because he reigns over all things, and are now, even now, at peace. And that includes, note, the church – ‘the gathered people’: the tiny insignificant gathering in Colossae and Ephesus and Jerusalem and in Thessalonica and few other towns: he is the head of this body. They are now the people of the true Empire.
So: two mighty truths to take away. First, be of good cheer, because the whole sweep of world history is going Christ’s way. Do not despair or feel crushed by the forces that are all around us. Do not be overwhelmed. God’s plan and purpose in creation is being accomplished in Christ in a mighty act of reconciliation.
Second, give him your wholehearted praise and acclamation. Don’t hold back anything from him in your words or in your world. He is a worthy recipient of your adoration, an extraordinary object for our delight. The aberration, the oddity, is when anyone keeps anything from him. If we are to learn anything from Paul, it would be to let our theology spill over into doxology – in life and in language. Let your delight in him be never-ending.
Feature photo: NASA