Whether you realize it or not, you carry several titles with you—perhaps even many titles. In fact, who you are, in many ways, can be described by various titles that you hold--relational (mom, dad, sister, brother, son, daughter, etc.), professional (doctor, professor, mechanic, salesman, barber, etc.), organizational (chairperson, president, CEO), or personal (sweety, honey, etc.). Titles are everywhere and some are rarer than others. Today we are going to examine Colossians 1:13-20 and consider five titles/distinctions that Christ possesses that render him especially unique. In so doing we will learn just how lofty an understanding of Jesus the church in Colossae and the church today ought to have to be consistent with what the Bible reveals about its primary protagonist.
1. He is HERO-1:13-14
After thanking God for the faith that he sees in Colossae (1:1-8) and lifting up specific requests on this church’s behalf (19-12), Paul celebrates the person and work of Jesus Christ (in whom saving faith is placed and to whom Paul prays). In so doing, Paul identifies several titles that might be ascribed to Christ that highlight different facets of his character and ministry. The first of these is “Hero”—“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness” (1:13a). The way that Paul frames Jesus here calls to mind a hero who leads his people from danger. Many have associated this text with the Exodus where God rescued the Hebrews slaves from the tyranny of Pharoah in Egypt after 400 years of oppression. Here, Paul fashions Christ as a rescuer on an even greater scale as Jesus saves people from an even darker domain—the domain of sin (“darkness”).
Understanding just how grim the situation is for people who are without Christ is essential. It is not as though people left in their sin are just living a few standard deviations away from success or hope. It is not as though the room they inhabit is dimly lit. They are in total darkness and left stumbling aimlessly and hopeless. In addition to these practical connotations with darkness are those associations darkness has with the spiritual realm. The phrase “domain of darkness” calls to mind the sphere over which Satan and his demonic powers rule” (Arnold, Colossians ZIBBC, 378). This is the desperate condition from which God has saved believers, rendering Christ’s title as “Rescuer” especially fitting.
Paul continues by identifying where God has led the now-rescued believer—“and transferred us to the kingdom of His Beloved Son” (1:13b). In the Exodus, Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery and the oppression of Pharoah in Egypt to the Promised Land. In Salvation, Christ leads believers out of the slavery of their sin and away from the oppression of Prince of this World to Salvation in the Kingdom of God. “In Christ, God invaded Satan’s territory and delivered people,” bringing them to an infinitely greater domain with an infinitely greater ruler (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 206).
Both the idea of being “transferred” and “rescued” call to mind the believer’s new position in Christ. This is reiterated in verse 14 with “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Positionally, the believer is rescued and transferred. These are completed acts performed by Christ himself who purchased redemption on the cross and now forgives people of their sins.
In the epic action feature that is the salvation of the human person, the hero, Jesus Christ, came down to this world incognito (as a man), lived a perfect life, and then was willing to sacrifice himself, laying down his life in a most painful and dramatic way. After dying by crucifixion, he rose from the grave so that the power of darkness that entangles people might be broken. Those who recognize this campaign of redemption and call out to the only true Savior are forgiven and saved from their desperate plight. This forgiveness, granted by Christ, breaks the sinner’s association with the wicked world and grants them citizenship in a greater kingdom. Jesus is, among many other things, the greatest Hero ever. He has defeated the greatest enemy and provides the greatest salvation, allowing those enslaved in the darkness to experience the greatest life in glorious light. For the church in Colossae and for the church today to have a high enough view of Christ, they must remember and embrace Jesus as Hero.
2. He is the ICON-1:15
The second title the church must remember and embrace of Christ is “Icon.” Paul continues in verse 15 with “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (1:15). Verses 15-20 highlight a hymn that many believe would have been sung in the early church, giving us a glimpse of the kinds of things that were being celebrated and sung in the first century world. In this particular hymn (as in many others) many living, vibrant, essential elements of Christ’s nature are praised. The introduction of the hymn found in verse 15 sets the tone and theme for the entire song. Again, verse 15 reads “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” This introductory line of the song reveals two related points about Christ. The first of these is the idea of the image of God and how the image is a revelation of God. In the Greek-speaking world, the word “image” (eikon) conveyed one of two meanings: representation or manifestation. The first use (representation) would have been fitting for images imprinted on coins or a reflection in a mirror. In these cases, the image is a symbol, not the actual thing that is represents. The second use (manifestation) means something more than a mere symbol. A manifestation exists when the symbol brings with it the actual presence of the object depicted. This is what Paul means here. J. B. Phillips translates this “visible expression” and by it suggests that Paul meant Jesus brought God into the human sphere of understanding—i.e. He manifested God (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 215).
Hebrews 1:3-“ And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature,”
John 1:18-“ No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”
The point Paul makes is that in Christ the invisible God became visible. A God that is so transcendent so as to be lost in translation became observable and knowable and embraceable in the person of Jesus.
The second point about Christ made in this introduction to the hymn is that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” (1:15). While various interpretations of “firstborn” have been given throughout history, the best understanding of this word takes into account the word’s use in the Septuagint against the backdrop of the Greco-Roman world. The Greek word “firstborn” comes from two words which mean “to bring forth” and “first.” The word is seldom used outside the Bible and when it is used in the Old Testament it is primarily interested in primogeniture—special privileges associated with the relationship shared between a Father and the firstborn son. One of the things associated with primogeniture and the privileged relationship between Father and Son in the Jewish world is birthright—a rite that accorded the first son a special place in the family. Therefore, instead of suggesting that Jesus was in some ways the first created thing (as will soon be debunked in verse 16), this suggests that Jesus is preeminent over the creative order as the one who possesses an exclusive and special relationship with the Father and all the rites and privileges appertaining thereunto.
As icon (the manifestation of God to humanity), Jesus is also distinct from creation and prominent over it. For the church in Colossae and for the church today to have a high enough view of Christ, they must remember and embrace Jesus as God’s manifestation in and over creation.
3. He is CREATOR-1:16
The next phrase of the hymn highlights another title for Christ—“Creator.” This title is introduced with “For by Him all things were created” (1:16a). A more exact translation of the Greek would render this “in Him all things were created” indicating that Jesus “conceived of creation and its complexities”—i.e. it was his idea. W. Hendriksen on this verse suggests that Jesus is the cornerstone from which the whole building takes its bearings (Hendriksen, Colossians and Philemon, 73). However, perhaps there is an even better way to consider Christ’s role at creation. After all, what about the Father and the Spirit?
Consider the planning and execution of constructing a new building. One might compare the Father’s role in this analogy to that of the architect who determines to bring something into existence that was not there before. The architect decides what it will be. The Son’s role is that of general contractor who takes the plans conceived and, through his creativity and imagination, distills those plans down to specifics. In many ways, he is the mediator between the big-picture and the completed product. The Spirit’s role is that of superintendent/project manager heading over the real-time construction in keeping with the contractor’s demands and the architect’s vision.
With this in mind, it is sufficient to say that Jesus is the agent of creation who translates the vision of the Father into a reality that is brought about by the Holy Spirit. To do this, Christ could not have been part of creation. Instead, he must be eternal—that is coeternal with the Father and the Spirit.
Everything was created by Christ in this way—“both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (1:16c). Everything in the spiritual realm (except for himself) and in the physical realm, things seen and unseen, and powers of even the loftiest degree were brought into existence by him. This description of the scope of that which Christ created leaves nothing out. Everything now known, yet known, and forgotten (that is, in its original and perfect form) is Christ’s doing as the agent of creation.
To punctuate this truism even further, Paul states “all things have been created through him and for him” (1:16c). Not only is Jesus said to be the agent of creation, he is the goal of all creation. “Everything exists to display his glory, and ultimately he will be glorified in his creation” (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 218). Just as some buildings, works of art, or impressive feats are inextricably associated with the builders, artists, or producers responsible for them, so too is creation and God’s work in it all about showcasing and magnifying the agent of creation. For the church in Colossae and for the church today to have a high enough view of Christ, they must remember and embrace Jesus as Creator.
4. He is WINNER-1:17-18
The next title that Paul celebrate in the midst of this hymn might best be summarized as “Winner.” Jesus takes first place in a number of things that Paul lists as he continues to sing in verses 17-18. First, Jesus is first place at the starting line—“He is before all things” (1:17a). This, like John 1:1, draws attention to the preexistence of the Son. In other words, there was never a time when Jesus was not.
John 1:1-“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”
This, like his titles of Hero, Icon, and Creator, sets Jesus apart from all others—unique and superior. While there was a time in which people and all other created things were not, Jesus always was (and always will be). He takes first place with respect to time alongside the Father and the Spirit as a co-eternal member of the singular Godhead.
However, Jesus is not just winning at the starting line, he is winning as sustainer—“in Him all things hold together” (1:17b). In other words, Jesus did not just create the universe, he sustains it! Christ keeps things in order. While sin and brokenness wreaks havoc on this order, Christ alone is what keeps this universe from literally pulling itself apart altogether. The same one who suspends the stars in place and situates the planets on their axis is also the one who holds his people together. The Creator has not forgotten the creation as he daily manages the goings on therein in such a way to bring about his glorious will. Wow! Winning again, not just at the starting line, but here and now too!
Next, Paul celebrates Jesus’ first-place position as “the head of the body, the church” (1:18a). The metaphor of the church as body is commonly employed by Paul and adapted to highlight many characteristics of church life (see 1 Cor 12:12-26; Eph 4:15-16, 23). Here, the emphasis is on the hierarchy implicit with the body parts—the head being “in charge” of the rest. Christ not only provides leadership and direction for his people (the church body), but he is the source of the church’s life and energy for its growth, directing the other parts to their specific tasks. Winning again as the ultimate authority of his people, the church.
Next, Paul suggests that in the race to resurrection, Jesus won their too—“and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (1:18b). As firstborn of the Father (not literally born but positionally preeminent and in special relationship with the Father—see discussion on verse 15) and first at the beginning, Jesus brought life into existence. As firstborn from the dead in his resurrection, Jesus provides renewed and eternal life for those who believe in him. His conquering death three days following the crucifixion confirms that he is “first place in everything” (a title he always held but now is explicitly revealed).
For the church in Colossae and for the church today to have a high enough view of Christ, they must remember and embrace Jesus as the ultimate winner and because he is, he alone is able to save.
5. He is SAVIOR-1:19-20
This sets the final title up nicely—“Savior.” Paul celebrates this title in the final lines of the hymn as quoted in verses 19-20. First, the apostle recalls Jesus’ unique capacity as Savior—“For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him” (1:19). Only one who is fully God can serve as Savior of the world. This verse confirms that the fullness of God’s divinity dwells in Jesus who is God made flesh. Later in Colossians Paul will say, “for in Christ all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form.” WOW! This uniquely qualifies Jesus as the one who can bring salvation.
Jesus’ ministry of redemption/salvation is ultimately a ministry of reconciliation—“and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself” (1:20a). Whether you want to think of salvation as a bridge that closes an infinite chasm between two foreign parties separated by an enormous gulf or as a rekindling of a long-lost relationship that seemed impossible to repair, reconciliation between God and mankind is possible in and through Jesus who, while fully God, became fully man, so that fallen men and women might be reunited with the God who created them. How did he do this?
Jesus “made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (1:20b). The thing which separates God and man—sin—was dealt with through the punishment of Jesus Christ—the perfect God man. Jesus took on the guilt and shame of sin and was punished for it in our place so that peace might exist once again between God and man. What a ministry! What a mission! What a Savior! For the church in Colossae and for the church today to have a high enough view of Christ, they must remember and embrace Jesus as Savior—the one who reconciled us to God, making peace where there once was enmity.
Given all that has been said and celebrated of Jesus in this passage, I would like to end this message with a question that Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew 16, Mark 8, and Luke 9—“Who do people say that I am?” or, perhaps more to the point—“Who do YOU say that Jesus is?” Who is Jesus? While the world would like for you to believe that he was merely man and maybe a good example, consider what Paul says in Colossians 1:13-20 and what Jesus confirmed in the empty tomb. Jesus is the ultimate Hero; he is the Icon of God (manifestation of God); he is the Creator of all things; He is the first place Winner of everything; and He is the Savior. Praise be to God. Are these things that you confess today? If not, consider the person and work of Christ carefully. Once you discover who he is and what he has done for you, embrace him as your Savior and Lord by turning from all others and from yourself and trusting him in faith. If these are titles for Christ that you have already confessed and believe, does your life and walk demonstrate it? Are living like you have the greatest hero on your side, or do you coward in fear of the world as though you had no hero? Are you enamored with Jesus and consistently look to him to understand God or are you preoccupied with other shiny but ultimately unsatisfying trinkets the World sells you? Are you trusting the one who created you with your life or are you anxious that God has forgotten you and question that he is even now holding you in his perfect hands? Do you acknowledge Christ as having first place in everything or do you try to take his rightful place and win the race of life in your own power? Do you live your life as one who has been saved or are you living like the lost world around you? For the church in Colossae and for the church today to have a high enough view of Christ, they must remember and embrace Jesus Hero, Icon, Creator, Winner, and Savior. We must not just remember and embrace these with our lips, but with our lives.