After the service last Sunday, Bryan Benjamin came up to me and asked, “Why didn’t you talk about Jesus being the firstborn from the dead?” You can always count on Bryan to ask those sorts of questions, which is one of the reasons I appreciate him. My answer, if you boil it down, was essentially that I didn’t want to preach another 45-minute sermon; I was trying to trace a line through the passage, and I could very easily have sent myself off on a long tangent if I’d tried to unpack that phrase, and so I just didn’t. I took it into account in everything I was saying, but I didn’t do so explicitly, or go into how it connected to the rest of the passage.
And yet, that doesn’t mean we can just ignore it and head on by. You might have noticed last Sunday—I didn’t explicitly talk about this, either, but you might have caught it—that in last week’s passage, there’s a movement to Paul’s thought from one part of the hymn to the next. He starts off talking about who Jesus is—“the image of the invisible God, firstborn before all creation”—and then moves from there to talk about his role in creation. That establishes Jesus’ supremacy—Christ is Lord over everything because it was all made through him and for him and he’s the one who holds it all together—which Paul then applies to the church. And with that, the language of the hymn pivots from talking about Jesus’ role in creating the world to talking about his role in re-creating it, in making it new; and so where in verse 15, Paul calls Jesus the firstborn before all creation, in verse 18 he calls him the firstborn from the dead—in his resurrection in a fully restored human body, free from the effects of sin, we might also say, he is the firstborn of the new creation, the firstborn of the new heavens and the new earth. Just as he’s Lord over all creation because everything was made through him, so he is the head of the church and preeminent in all things because everything will be made new through him.
Which is good, because it needs to be. We need that—our world needs that. That’s why Paul concludes his great hymn by talking about Christ’s reconciling work, about how he made peace through the blood of his cross, and it’s why he continues by turning from what Christ did to why he did it, and why it had to be done. We were, he says, “estranged and hostile in mind”; we were alienated, as we talked about last week, in several ways. First, we were alienated from God; our sin had separated us from him, had broken that relationship beyond our ability to repair—and indeed, beyond our ability even to desire to do so. Look at the old pagan religions, and you’ll see that they’re founded on fear; we take for granted this idea of a loving, caring God whom we can come to know on friendly terms, whom we can trust and on whom we can rely, but that’s not an idea people ever came up with. It took God even to give us the idea, because our sin had estranged us from him to that great an extent.
Second, to be alienated from God is to be alienated from ourselves. It’s God who made us and who alone knows us as we really are; it’s God who holds us in his hand, and in his mind—we continue to exist only because he remembers us to ourselves. It’s Godd who is the source of all good things, including all the good gifts we possess. As a consequence, we cannot know ourselves truly, at least at the deepest level, if we don’t know him; we can figure out a great many things about ourselves, but we’ll always figure some of them wrong, whether just by mistake or out of our desire to believe ourselves better (or different) than we really are. What’s more, there will always be things about ourselves that we won’t be able to make sense of, and currents in our souls that run too deep for us even to see, though we may sense their effects. This is why we invented psychologists and psychiatrists and social workers, and why we conjured up Sigmund Freud so he could invent psychoanalysts, so they could tell us some of the nonsensical truths about ourselves that we would never have wit enough to see on our own; and even so, even at our best, we remain strangers in our own minds. Only God in Christ has the ability to reverse that alienation and restore us to ourselves; only in him can true healing be found.
Third, since we were estranged from God, who is the source of all that is good in us, and since we were estranged from ourselves as a consequence, we were estranged from each other as well. We could build relationships across the divides between us as best we were able, friendships and marriages and families and business partnerships, and often, we did pretty well; but in our own strength, even the strongest relationships we can create are fairly fragile. The vagaries of life can break them, our own sinfulness can cause them to collapse, and even if everything else goes well, death brings them to an inevitable end. And even those who have the most and closest friends know far more people to whom they’re not close, some of whom may be rivals and competitors, and some of whom might even be true enemies. And beyond that, we divide ourselves up in myriad ways, companies and teams, political parties and ethnic groups, states and nations, and we fight with each other. War, of course, is one form of that—but economic competition is another, and sports yet a third, and politics a fourth.
We as fallen human beings need reconciliation; we need peace with God, with ourselves, and with each other, and we can’t do it in our own strength. This world is never going to find a peace treaty to end all wars, and there will never be any such thing as a post-partisan political candidate, any more than there will ever be an economy where no company ever goes under or a sports league where every team ties for the championship. It’s just not in us. As Paul says, our wicked works prove that. It’s not just about life after death; Jesus didn’t just come so that after we die, everything would be good, though that’s certainly part of the gift he’s given us. More than that, though, he came to bring the reconciliation we need in this life. He came to remove the barrier of sin that isolates and alienates us, and to heal the breaches it created. He came to restore our relationship with God so that we could once again call him Father; he came to free us from the distorting burden of slavery to sin that warps and mars our souls; he came to bring reconciliation between us, that we might learn to love our enemies and do good to those who harm us. Indeed, he came to bring reconciliation to the whole created order, which has been broken and sent spinning off course and out of tune by our sin, to heal the damage we have done, to restore its harmony and set it right.
He’s done this, Paul says, “in the body of his flesh, through death.” This of course reaches back to what he said in verse 20, that Christ has “made peace through the blood of his cross”; Paul is driving this point home to the Colossians, hammering it home with repeated heavy blows. The one who is the image of the invisible God, the one who was God become human, the Lord of the universe and head of the church, in whom and through whom and for whom are all things, the one who holds all things together, hung bleeding on a cross in shock and agony until his heart stopped. This is the central fact of our faith, I think, together with the resurrection, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself by taking the overflowing cup of human sin with all its agony and draining that cup to the very dregs.
This is what Paul wants the Colossians to understand, that there is simply no room for their delusions that they can contribute anything to their own salvation; the sacrifice of Jesus is so immense, in the awe-striking glory of who he is and the truly awe-full reality of the price he paid, that there is nothing we can add to it. The price he paid and the work he accomplished on the cross was sufficient for everything; it was truly an infinite sacrifice, the work of infinite love, the gift of infinite grace, and that sacrifice, that work, that gift, is sufficient. It is enough. Whatever may come, whatever may happen, whatever we may do, it is always enough; and it only is enough. It is Christ, by his work on the cross, who makes us holy and blameless in the eyes of God, able to stand in his presence with no reason for guilt or reproach; no matter how good we might be, we can’t live up to that standard, nor will we ever be able to on our own. We can’t earn our way there—and we don’t have to. In Christ, we have been given that status that we can’t achieve for ourselves; he took all our sin on himself on the cross and paid the price for it there, and gave us his righteousness in exchange.
Now, you might have noticed that in verse 22, Paul says that Jesus has done this—“you who formerly were estranged . . . he has now reconciled in the body of his flesh”—but then in verse 23, he says, “Provided you remain firmly founded and stable in your faith.” What’s going on here? Does this mean that you can lose your salvation? There are those who argue that, of course, but no, that’s not what this means. The work of Christ on the cross is finished, it is completed, once and for all. At that moment, salvation was accomplished for all those who belong to him; it cannot be undone, and God isn’t going back on it. Paul isn’t turning around and casting any doubts on that, as if he were somehow lessening the work of Christ. Rather, what he’s doing is making a point that Jesus also made in Matthew 7 when he said, talking of false prophets, “You will know them by their fruits.” If we’ve been saved, if we’ve been reconciled through the work of Christ on the cross, if his Spirit is at work in us, that’s going to have certain clear effects in our lives; thus Jesus could go on to say, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” One of the good fruit that we bear if we’re spiritually healthy—which is to say, if we’ve received the new life of God in Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit—is perseverance: if our salvation is real, we don’t walk away from it. We may drift at times, but in the end Jesus always pulls us back by his Spirit.
This is the assurance we have in Christ, that whatever our own weaknesses or shortcomings, whatever the sins we wrestle with and however blatant or subtle they may be, our salvation doesn’t depend on us; it depends on him in whom we have put our faith and trust, and we can be certain that he is able to hold us safely and firmly in his arms through whatever may come, until at last he brings us home to him.