Epistles: Colossians 1:13-20 (The Last Sunday in the Church Year: Series C)
The epistle text from Colossians 1 declares how the great drama of redemption and human history ends.
The Sunday of the Fulfillment is the last Sunday of the Church Year. On this Sunday, the Church looks forward to the time when everyone and everything in Heaven and on Earth will be together under one head, the Lord Jesus Christ, as Saint Paul says in Ephesians 1:9-10: “[The Father is] making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in Heaven and things on the Earth.”
This festival is a day of fulfillment in two senses. It fulfills the liturgical year by bringing it to an end and returns us once again to the season of Advent. More importantly, it calls on the Church to look with vigilance and faithfulness for the second coming of the Lord Jesus to take His redeemed people into paradise and then, ultimately, into Heaven on Earth. This is the fulfillment for which all Christians yearn when they pray, “Thy Kingdom come.” Lastly, the festival is the fulfillment of the basic Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.” Together, as the people of God’s Kingdom, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, old and young, confess the prophet from Nazareth is, in fact, the King of the world, the One to whom all authority over Heaven and Earth has been given (Matthew 29:18).
In many churches, the Sunday of the Fulfillment is celebrated as the Festival of Christ the King. The lectionary readings for the last few Sundays after Pentecost center on the Biblical teachings concerning the final judgment, end times, and Christ's second coming to usher in the Kingdom of Glory. This emphasis culminates in the final Sunday of the Church Year as a celebration of the coming reign of Christ as king of the universe at the end of time.
The Sunday of the Fulfillment is related to Advent in the follow way:
- Advent is a season of preparation as we anticipate the coming of our Lord.
- Since the Sunday of the Fulfillment focuses on the longing of every Christian for the coming of Christ's Kingdom, this day is a transitional festival bringing the Church to the first Sunday of Advent, the theme of which is the second coming of Christ.
The epistle text from Colossians 1 declares how the great drama of redemption and human history ends.
Colossians is based on the different meanings of the Hebrew word for “head.” As in English, so in Hebrew, a single word can carry several different ideas (known as a high-level word) and Saint Paul, the author of this divine epistle, is cleverly exploring and exploiting some of those meanings for the word “head” in this poetic hymn. Now, watch how Paul milks this word “head” for all its worth and see how Christ is the end all and be all of our faith. See how our crucified and risen Lord is the key to our past, present and future and how it all ends pivots on Christ and terminates in Christ.
Jesus Christ, he says, in verse 15, is the, “firstborn of all creation.” That is the first meaning and it appears twice; in verses 15 and 18. When He says “firstborn” Paul does not mean the first created human being the world ever saw (that, of course, was Adam). No, Paul means the “firstborn of the new creation.” He is focusing on the first to rise from the dead and live an embodied life in the Kingdom of God which has broken into the old world through the cross and empty grave and is supplanting and reversing the old-world bit by bit. The idea of Jesus being “the head,” “ the firstborn of the new creation,” is this Jesus of Nazareth, who once was dead but has been raised to newness of life is, in fact, the One to whom has been given all power, honor and glory. All authority in Heaven and Earth belong to Him. He is the head, the first to be born from the grave and now has headship over creation.
Paul says the same thing but differently in verse 17 which reads, “Christ Jesus is before all things.” Whether in Hebrew or English, if you are the one, “who is before all things,” it does not mean you are the one in front of the line for Padres tickets. Rather, it means you are supreme, Top Gun, A-1, the big cheese, the big dog , big wig, big boss, big mucky-muck, the big kahuna or, put differently, if you are before all things then you, “are all that and a bag of chips.” Ring-a-ding-ding, you are the Lord of everything. Not Caesar, not Elvis, but Jesus is King, even the King of kings.
Verse 18 brings us right to the point: “Jesus Christ is the head of the body, which is the Church.” In other words, He is Lord of all, especially those untied to Him by faith through holy baptism. He is present in and presides over all the baptized; every Christian. For us, Jesus Christ is uniquely Lord. He is our King, our captain, our Prince of Peace in a more extraordinary way than He is for the rest of the world because we have come to know and love this King as our own.
He is our King, our captain, our Prince of Peace in a more extraordinary way than He is for the rest of the world because we have come to know and love this King as our own.
Now think about it: all the terms we use as insults about those with hyper-inflated egos or a bloated sense of self-worth actually apply to Jesus. In other words, the kind of counterfactual stuff we say about Lebron James or Donald Trump really is the truth about Jesus. “He thinks he’s God-gift to humanity.” It is slander to Lebron and Donald, but good theology for Jesus. “He thinks the world revolves around Him.” Precisely. “I guess we’re all just supposed to bow down and worship at His feet.” That is a good start. “He acts like He walks on water or something.” Bingo! “We’re all supposed to believe everything He says?” You got it. “I guess He’s never wrong?” Well, when you are the firstborn of all creation, the head of the body, the very ICON of God the Father on earth, then “yes,” Jesus is God’s gift to humanity, and we are supposed worship at His feet.
Now, check this out: in this poem are carefully balanced sections. The first section says, “He is the image of God… the firstborn… for in Him…” This matches and is balanced by the third section of the poem, “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead… for in Him…” The middle section, in between these, holds the two outer sections of the poem together, looking back to the first and on to the second. The reason it fits together like this is so you can see where you have come from in Christ, where you are in Christ, and how it ends for you in Christ. In other words, these passages give us the past (how it started), the present (how it is), and the future (how it is going to end). In all things Christ is preeminent and in Him our past, present and future hold together.
Paul is not writing this poem to show off his cleverness. He is writing in order to tell the Colossians something they badly need to know, something they should know and memorize like a hymn, like a piece of poetic liturgy.
So, what is it? What is so important? What they need to know above all, if they and we are to grow as Christians, increasing in wisdom, power, patience and thanksgiving. They and we need to know the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ. The more they get to know and know about Jesus Christ, the more they will understand who the true God is and what He has done, who they are as a result, and what it means to live in and for Him. In other words, knowing Christ is the key to knowing how things began, how things are, and how it is going to end. This is important for you and, to be sure, every living being because our lives are tethered to what happens with Jesus. In the beginning He created all things that are. This includes you. By the blood of His cross He has established the peace you presently enjoy with the Father, and by His resurrection your future is secured because as He is so shall you be. Since He has risen from the dead, you shall be likewise. He is King and you will reign with Him. That is how it ends. Your spirit has been redeemed by the forgiveness of sins and now, having been saved by the blood of the Cross, your spirit was translated from a kingdom of darkness into a kingdom of light. So, it shall be with your nasty, hairy body. It too will be fully translated. So will the earth. All things will be renewed, and Christ will rule and reign literally on this terrestrial ball, not just in our hearts and churches. Heaven will be on Earth; that is how it ends. And it is a good ending for all who have tasted the goodness and mercy of the Lord.
All things will be renewed, and Christ will rule and reign literally on this terrestrial ball, not just in our hearts and churches.
Christianity is not simply about a particular way of being religious. It is also not about a particular system for how to be saved. It is not simply a different way of holiness; another product on the religion shelf at Barnes and Noble®. Christianity is about Jesus Christ and this poem, one of the very earliest Christian poems ever written, is a spiritual smack-down for getting to know the heart of our faith. It declares God is revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ and, therefore, we can know ourselves as delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of His beloved Son. This is what the Colossians needed to know, and we today need to rediscover it if we are going to embrace the life of Christ in the here and now, as well as have comfort and hope with respect to how it all ends. It ends well, brothers and sisters. So, fear not! Peace be with you, even when death grips your mortal bodies! Christ has overcome the world of sin, death and the Devil. Your total redemption draws near! Now stop living like a pack of wild donkeys and serve the Lord while it remains the Day of Grace.
The following are the three things, in particular, which the poem points us to about Jesus Christ and what God has done in and through Him for your comfort.
First, it is by looking at Jesus that we discover who God is. He is, “the image or icon of God, the invisible One.” Nobody has ever seen God, but, in Jesus, He has come near to us and become one of us. In other words, if this invisible, inscrutable law-giving God who was veiled on Mount Sinai by smoke and flames, the God of whom if Moses were to have seen Him it would have killed him, if this God were to translate precisely who He is and what He is like into human categories, then He would look and act exactly as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus plays out for us who God is and how God conceives Himself. The Father is revealed in being crucified and resurrected, in being crushed by our hands and in crushing the Devil’s head. The hidden God behind a dark cloud is revealed as naked on the Cross.
Second, Jesus holds together the whole world, the old creation and new creation, and the coming recreation. The “redemption” offered in Christianity is sometimes described as if it meant the old world, the ordinary world of creation we all live in, was less than worthless, was itself evil, just like our widening, wrinkling, weakening bodies. But Paul gets it right. Jesus Christ is the One through whom and for whom the whole creation was made in the first place. This is not just a remarkable thing to say about a Semitic carpenter, it is also a remarkable thing to say about the “natural” world. It is His idea, His workmanship, and He is committed to it. Jesus is devoted to redeeming, rescuing and renewing it in its entirety.
But it is also full of ugliness and evil, summed up in death itself. Yes, that is true too, but this was not the original intention. The living God has acted to heal the world of the wickedness and corruption which have so radically infected it, and in doing so, He is reversing the effects of death – beginning with raising His Son from the dead. The grave, all graves, will yield life in the end. And the Father has done so by the same One through whom the creation was made in the first place. This is the point of the balance in the poem. Here is the turning point of history: the Cross and the resurrection of the Son of God. A new creation begins when God clamors out of a sepulcher. The Jesus through whom the world was made in the first place is the same Jesus through whom the world has now been redeemed. He is the firstborn of all creation, and the firstborn from the dead.
Lastly, Jesus is, therefore, the blueprint for the genuine humanness which is offered through the Gospel. Jesus is the head of the body, His Church. Jesus is the first to rise again from the dead. Jesus is the One through whose cruel death God has dealt with our sins and brought us peace and reconciliation and endowment of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Above all, Jesus is the One through whom the new creation has now begun. In these ways Jesus Himself is the One “in whom” we are called to discover what being a truly renewed human being means in practice.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Colossians 1:13-20.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Colossians 1:11-20.