The Image of the Invisible God

(Isaiah 40:21-31; Colossians 1:15-20)

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture—I could easily preach for 45 minutes on this text. I know that because I’ve done it! (Just ask Sara, she was there.) As such, this passage is also the reason why I write out all my sermons. It was back when we were in college, and I was preaching to our InterVarsity chapter, of which I was one of the student leaders; it’s the only time I’ve ever preached without a manuscript. In my defense, I was also sick as a dog that night (which is the main reason I hadn’t written the thing out), so I had even more of a tendency to ramble—but still: 45 minutes—and that was when I talked a lot faster than I do now. Be glad I’ve learned a few things since then. My fellow students at the time were . . . diplomatic. They did agree, though, that I hadn’t repeated anything, and that everything I’d said was good—I just hadn’t known when to stop. There really is enough here to talk about for 45 minutes easy, especially if you don’t know when to stop. Like I said, be glad I’ve learned a few things.

This is a magnificent hymn of praise to Christ, in my opinion one of the high points of the New Testament; many scholars believe that Paul took up a hymn that was circulating around the early church and just plugged it in here, but I don’t believe that. For one thing, that assumes that there’s another great writer floating around the early church about whom we know nothing, which seems unlikely; for another, this passage just seems to erupt out of the end of Paul’s prayer, which is characteristic of Paul. He’s praying for the Colossians, he lays out the reason for their faith, and he mentions Jesus, “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”—and then he just explodes into praise for who Christ is and what he has done. He can’t help himself, he has to; Jesus means so much to him, his love for Christ is so great, and his understanding of who the Savior is and what he has done is so deep, that praise just bursts out of him. To understand Paul, and to understand anything he writes, we have to begin with that fact, because everything he says and does flows from that.

The first thing Paul says about Jesus is that “he is the image of the invisible God.” This is a powerful phrase. It was well established in the Old Testament, as we talked about a while back, that no one has ever seen God, that no one can see God and live, not because God won’t permit it but because our physical and emotional being is too limited: we simply couldn’t handle the experience. Light is a wonderful thing, but too much light blinds and burns the eyes; heat is necessary for life, but too much heat kills; and joy is essential for our spirits, but too much joy overwhelms and overloads us. For us to see God as he is would be all of these things and more, and we could not endure; we would burn like paper in a bonfire. That’s why we sang at the beginning of the service, “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

This is the problem for all human attempts at religion. Hinduism and its descendants deal with it by making a virtue of necessity, making that extinction of the self the goal of religion. A lot of modern folks, who really prefer a tame God anyway, choose to deny the whole problem. The teachers who were leading the Colossians astray made human effort the solution—if you just work really, really hard and give up all these pleasures and do all these religious things and cut out all your bad behaviors, you can purify yourself enough to see God—an approach which is still fairly common today, especially among diet books. None of these can solve the problem; only God could do that. In Jesus, the one who was immortal took on human mortality—and died; the one who was invisible in the brilliance of his glory bound himself in human flesh and bone and became visible—and indeed, touchable, and knowable in a whole new way.

Now, this is possible because God created us in his image, and though that image in us is broken and marred by sin, it still remains; and so the fact that Jesus is the image of God, the image in whom were were created, tells us something important about ourselves as well: we were made to be like Christ, and any shift away from him, any shift away from the life to which he calls us, no matter how “natural” we might claim it to be, is in fact a betrayal of our true nature. The problem, as Paul well understood, is that sin has so ensnared us and so deceived us that in ourselves, we no longer know who we are, much less who we’re supposed to be; but in Jesus, we can see who we’re supposed to be, and how we were meant to live. In him, we can see not only who God is, but who we truly are, and will be when his work in us is complete.

Having made the ringing statement that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, Paul then says several specific things about him. First, in him all things were created. He was the creative agent through whom God the Father made everything that is—nothing exists that he didn’t make, nothing exists apart from him, nothing has life that he did not give life. What’s more, nothing exists which was not created for him; everything that exists is properly his, created to serve his will and his purposes.

Interestingly, Paul emphasizes that this is true not only of the visible, physical world, but also of the invisible world, what we might call the spiritual world. This is probably in response to the false teachers in Colossae; they seem to have believed that when you ascended to the throne of God, you had to pass through a number of realms, each controlled by an angel with whom you had to negotiate—perhaps, though we can’t be sure, by offering them worship. These angelic figures, then, were of some importance, independent powers who must be treated with considerable respect. To that, Paul says, no: they too, if they exist, were created in Christ, through Christ, for Christ, and are properly under his authority, whether they accept it or not. As such, Paul says, there is only one power who truly matters in this world: Jesus.

Paul goes on to say of Jesus that “in him all things hold together.” Our scientific age has developed this idea of the universe as, essentially, a giant machine—even if God did create the world, all he had to do was put it together, wind it up, start it moving, and walk off to do something else; it would run just fine without him. Thus we have the image of God as divine watchmaker—which is a powerful argument for his existence as creator of the world, but not for his ongoing involvement with it. To this idea, too, Paul says no: the universe doesn’t run all by itself, it runs because Christ holds it together, and if he ever stopped, it would all fly apart; if the universe is a giant watch, it’s a watch with no back but God’s hand to hold all the parts in. The will of Christ sustains our lives, and the life of all that is; apart from him, we have no life, no existence, at all.

Finally, Paul says that through Jesus, the man who was fully God, the only one sufficient for the purpose, God has reconciled the universe to himself. Now, this might seem like a strange assertion, because when we look around, we don’t see that; we see a world that is very much unreconciled—to God and to itself. We see wars and rumors of wars, we see division in the church, we see millions upon millions of people chasing other gods; and when we look at ourselves, if we’re honest, we see that God’s work is very much unfinished in our own lives. And yes, it’s true that not everyone will be saved; where the peace of Christ is not freely accepted, it will be imposed. Jesus didn’t win the devil over, he conquered him. But though the conflict at the heart of creation continues, that’s only a temporary reality, until the victory of Christ is brought to full completion. The key point Paul wants to make is that the victory has already been won, the work of reconciliation and healing has already begun, and its completion is sure; even though we have not yet seen all things reconciled to God, we can speak of it as something that has already happened, because it’s a done deal. The forces of evil are like remnants of the Imperial Japanese army holding out on Pacific islands after the end of World War Two—they may still be fighting, but the war has already been decided.

If you want evidence of that, just look around: we are the sign of the coming kingdom, not in ourselves but in what our lives demonstrate. We are the vanguard of Christ’s victory, and the proof of what God has done, is doing, and will do through Christ. We were estranged from God, in rebellion against him, cut off from his love, and therefore estranged from each other, and from ourselves; our sin set up a barrier around us, crippling our efforts to relate to each other and making any attempt to reach out to God impossible, and that same barrier cut through our souls, keeping us from being who we were meant to be. Through his death on the cross, Christ broke down that barrier and ended our estrangement, bringing us back into relationship with God, back to his love and his life. The charges against us for all our evil were dismissed, and we were set free—set free to live in God.

This is good news, and reason for praise and thanksgiving. The one through whom the Father made the world, the one who holds it together, is the one who holds us together, as individuals and as a congregation. When sin pulls us away from God and we begin to grow distant from him, Jesus pursues us and draws us back. When old patterns and old ways of living reassert themselves, when we begin to act again as if we were still slaves to sin, Jesus sets us free. When the enemy attacks, seeking to use our own sins and the sins of others to break us down, Jesus builds us back up and shields us with his love. And when the devil seeks to use our sins and the sins of others to drive wedges between us, to break relationships and sever the sinews of the body of Christ, Jesus is at work there, too, bringing reconciliation. None of us is perfect; we all make mistakes, we all do wrong—you know I do, I know you do, you know each other do—and in the course of life, we’ve all hurt each other; but Jesus’ reconciling work continues, if we will only accept it, and will continue until he comes again. We are his disciples, we are his people, and whatever may come, and whatever we may do, he is right here with us, holding us together. That’s good news.

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