The Practicalities of Pre-Eminence VIII (Colossians 1:15-20)

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Robert Bork is a legal scholar, and formerly judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He is also a believer. I recently came across the following account of his, recalling an event prior to his conversion.

Some few years ago friends whose judgment I greatly respect argued that religion constitutes the only reliable basis for morality and that when religion loses its hold on a society, standards of morality will gradually crumble. I objected that there were many moral people who are not at all religious; my friends replied that such people are living on the moral capital left by generations that believed there is a God and that He makes demands on us. The prospect, they said, was that the remaining moral capital will dwindle and our society becomes less moral. The course of society and culture has been as they predicted; which certainly does not prove their point but does provide evidence for it.

Bork’s friends were right. And the moral capital is solely because of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The preeminent Saviour has made this difference. As Gary Demar put it, “Anti-Christian worldviews are held together by adhesives stolen from the Christian worldview. The Bible tells us that in Christ all things are held together (Heb. 1:3). The sceptic cannot account for the cohesion of the world from within his own system.”

The means through which Jesus Christ produced this moral capital was His Body, the church. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the agent through which our preeminent Lord changes the world as He brings forth His kingdom. The church is His Body through which His supremacy is to be experienced in this world—in every sphere: science, philosophy, economics, law, morals, etc. He is supreme over all of this, and the church is the means through which this is to be “taken captive” for Him.

Hence, it is fitting that we bring this series on the supremacy of Christ to a close by examining the practical application of the supremacy (preeminence) of the Lord Jesus Christ in the church. What does this mean and what does this look like?

The church is God’s preeminent institution—organism. The family won’t last beyond the grave and neither will government last into eternity. But the church will. Unfortunately, in spite of its glorious place in God’s eternal plan, it is all too often not given its due. Richard Phillips writes,

The idea of the church did not fare very well in twentieth-century evangelicalism. People frequently said that they liked Jesus, but did not think too highly of the church. The church represented religion, a pejorative term, when what they wanted was Christianity. Too many people, Christianity did not require the church; to some, the church was even considered a hindrance to a vibrant rela¬tionship with Christ himself. As one surveyed the evan¬gelical press, it seemed that the most notable and most useful Christian institutions were the parachurch min-istries. Therefore, many concluded, if you wanted to get serious about evangelism or missions or discipleship, you had to go around the church instead of through it.

But people are starting again to think about the church, and to think differently about her place in the Christian life … In a culture where the private and individual reign supreme, [many] Christians want to restore the priority of public and corporate faith… in general, renewed interest in the church represents a healthy return to a more biblically balanced view of the Christian life, one that is more closely in sync with that of believers from ages past.

According to the Bible, the church of Jesus Christ is the preeminent institution in all this world. The church is God’s gift to his children for provision, protection, and growth. The church is the vessel for the display of God’s glory, not only on earth but also in the heavenly realm. To love Christ is necessarily to love his church. To be saved is to leave the world and enter into the church. Indeed, John Calvin spoke with biblical warrant when he wrote, “He who would have God for his Father must have the Church for his mother.” This may sound strange to con-temporary ears, but Calvin goes on to explain:

For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives … away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation.

And Phillip Ryken adds (after recounting his memories of growing up in the church),

Most of all I remember going to worship week after week for my whole life, from when I was a little baby right up until last Sunday. Nothing has had a greater impact on my life than being in the church.

For me it has been like a friendship that eventually turns into a romance. Some couples fall in love first, and then get to know one another, but others start with friend¬ship and the love comes later. This is the way it has been for me with the church. My relationship with the church started out as an ordinary part of life, and then one day I discovered that I was in love. I loved the public worship of God. I loved the preaching of his Word. I loved the administration of the sacraments. I loved the fellowship. It was love, true love.

Is that how you feel about the Church? I hope so. Love her we must, for Christ loves the church. In fact, He loves her so much that He gave Himself for her! I trust, as we consider the beauty of the church from this text, that your love for her will deepen.

We will look at several areas that remind us that Christ is supreme over the church, thereby encouraging us that indeed she is worthy of our love and thus worthy of us investing our time and energies to her. Yes, she has her problems. As Ryken points out, “sooner or later anyone who loves the church becomes a wounded lover, because the sins of the church have a way of scarring our affections. People let us down. There is backbiting, gossip, and scandal. Church members have trouble getting along. Elders lord it over others. Ministers commit adultery. Congregations get divided. Denom¬inations go into spiritual decline. And nothing is more heartbreaking than watching good churches go bad. Nothing is more painful than feeling betrayed by a brother or sister in Christ. Nothing is uglier than sin in the ministry. But these things happen, and sooner or later, anyone who tries to love the church suffers disappointment, disillu¬sionment, and discouragement … I love the church, but it’s not always easy to love.”

So it is. And yet she is still the most incredible institution on earth. As we come to appreciate her Head, we will appreciate her potential. We will be more and more convinced that she is the light that exposes and dispels the darkness; she is the Bride which ensures the world will become her glorious chamber; she is the Temple by which God is worshipped; she is the Garden which keeps the world from becoming a desolate wilderness. Yes, thank the Lord for His church!

Let’s look practically at what the preeminence of Christ means for His church.

Christ, the Sovereign of the Church

Paul has shown in vv. 15-17 how Jesus Christ is sovereign over creation. But now he shifts his attention slightly and begins speaking of the church. He tells us that Christ “is the head of the body, the church” (v. 18). He governs the church.

The verse begins with the word “and,” which indicates that Christ is sovereign, not only over creation, but also over the new creation. We have seen previously that vv. 15-18 were most likely the words of an ancient hymn or poem, and N. T. Wright observes, “The most obvious point that the poem makes is the parallel between creation and the new creation.”

This shows the significance of the church. Louis Giglio has a DVD called “Indescribable,” in which he examines God’s creation and draws some conclusions about God from what can be observed in creation. He rightly concludes that God is indescribably glorious. Whilst I completely agree that creation testifies to the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-6), this verse indicates that the church does more so! “If you think that creation is remarkable,” Paul seems to say, “take a look at the church!

The phrase “the head of” speaks of prominence or priority. He is therefore the one who governs the church, who gives direction to her. “Head” speaks of the mind—the brains of the operation. Without a head, a body cannot function; and without Christ, the church cannot function. And if the church is indescribably glorious, how much more must her Head be!

John MacArthur tells the story of a man who came to see him many years ago for help. The man said that he was on his second marriage, and that he was currently involved in an adulterous relationship with another woman. To make matters worse, he ran an abortion clinic and confessed that he was therefore a murderer. He had felt the weight of guilt, and came to MacArthur asking for help. MacArthur wisely told the man that he could not in fact help him—but he knew someone who could: Jesus Christ. The man replied that he was a Jew, that he had spent his whole like rejecting Christ. MacArthur handed him a Bible, told him to go home and read the Gospel of John, ask God to reveal to him the truth about Christ, and come back in a week.

The following week the man returned with an entirely new disposition. “I know who Jesus Christ is!” he said excitedly. “He’s the Son of God!” He told how he had read the Scriptures and how God had saved him. MacArthur relates how the man ended the adulterous relationship and quit the abortionist practice, for he had become a new man. And it was all because of the church’s sovereign Head.

The church is a most glorious institution, because it is made up of those who were once enemies of God but, by His grace, have been made His friends. Surely that is far more glorious than the most impressive images that the Hubble telescope can provide of the universe?

In recent years, the Anglican Church has deviated increasingly from Scripture—for example, welcoming women and homosexuals into the clergy. Many Anglicans have expressed their displeasure with this move by leaving the Anglican Church and joining the Roman Catholic Church instead. Recently, the Pope extended an invitation to the Anglican Church, saying that Rome was willing to consider Anglicans part of the Roman Catholic Church even if they would not officially recognise him as their head. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and appointed head of the global Anglican community, was initially eager to accept this offer, but later changed his mind. A meeting was arranged between the Pope and the Archbishop to discuss the matter. CNN.com filed the following report the week leading up to the meeting.

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury on Saturday, the first meeting between the religious leaders since a Catholic overture to disaffected Anglicans that some commentators compared to a hostile takeover on Wall Street.

Rowan Williams, the nominal head of the world Anglican Communion, threw down a theological gauntlet to the pope in a highly challenging speech in Rome in the run-up to their meeting.

He laid out a series of questions suggesting that decades of hard-won apparent reconciliation between the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations might have weak foundations.

He also proposed that a truly universal Christian church might have to be structured more like the Anglican Communion—with no central authority laying down the law—than like the Catholic Church, with the pope on his throne.

“Is there a mechanism in the church that has the clear right to determine for all where the limits of Christian identity might be found?” Williams asked. “Is the integrity of the church ultimately dependent on a single identifiable ministry of unity to which all local ministers are accountable?”

The Pope himself spoke of the lack of authority in the Anglican Communion.

“Recent developments, especially concerning the ordained ministry and certain moral teachings, have affected not only internal relations within the Anglican Community but also relations between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church,” the pope said in November 2006.

“We believe that these matters, which are presently under discussion within the Anglican Communion, are of vital importance to the preaching of the gospel in its integrity, and that your current discussions will shape the future of our relations,” he added.

What we must note for our purposes is that both the Anglicans and the Catholics are completely wrongheaded in their approach to church government. The Anglicans rule by a form of democracy; the Catholics recognise the Pope as their completely authoritative head. Colossians, on the other hand, tells us that Jesus Christ alone is the Head of the church. Headquarters is neither London nor Rome!

In our church, we deliberately avoid the phrase “senior pastor.” We have elders or pastors (two description of the same office), but there is no “senior pastor.” I am the pastor-teacher, but Jesus Christ is our Senior Pastor. The human pastors are undershepherds; Jesus Christ alone sets the agenda for the church. When the church loses sight of this fact, she becomes wayward and democratic rather than theocratic. The church then starts doing things its own way rather than taking orders from headquarters.

Paul describes the church as a Body in several places in the New Testament. This is a wonderful image, which helps us to realise our limitations and our dependency on our Head. Recognising Christ as Head and the church as a Body will exhort us to accountability—both horizontal and vertical. Jesus Christ takes individual members of His universal Body and places them in local bodies for the strengthening of those churches.

Christ has placed different people in different bodies for His own purpose, but He must always be recognised as the Head of the church.

Christ, the Source of the Church

Not only is Christ the head of the church, He is also “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (v. 18). That is, He is the source of the church. He not only governs the church, but also grows the church.

Both “beginning” and “firstborn” speak of “priority” or “first principle.” The picture is that Jesus Christ is first in rank, the source of all that is. He is the source of the church; with His resurrection, a new age dawned. “Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). A new humanity has emerged.

The phrase “firstborn from the dead” hails back to Psalm 2:7, “I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.’” According to the New Testament, this prophecy was fulfilled in the resurrection. By the resurrected, Jesus Christ was vindicated as the Son of God. He was resurrected to be the Source, the representative Head of a new people. He is sovereign over the church because He is the Source of the church: It is His! As Jesus Himself said, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Paul writes in Ephesians 4 of the growth that Christ gives to the church.

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

(Ephesians 4:11-16)

Jesus Christ is the Source of the church and is therefore committed to growing her. There have been times throughout history where the church has lost sight of that. At such times, she has come to feel that she is under the heel of the world, the flesh and the devil. We may at times feel like that, but we need to take encouragement from Scripture that Jesus Christ, who created and sustains the vast universe at which we marvel, is going to grow His body. Local congregations may die as Christ removes their candlestick (Revelation 2-3), but the church will grow. As a local churches, therefore, we must increasingly appreciate that Jesus Christ is our life (cf. Colossians 3:4).

There is much emphasis today on church growth, and even though it is well-meaning much is wrongheaded. The counsel is that we must change our methodology, that we need to be more pragmatic if we will see our churches grow.

We need to avoid this temptation. If Jesus Christ is building the church, if He has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, we would do well to be committed to doing things His way. And His ordained method is the preaching of His Word, which is sufficient for all that the church needs.

Some years ago I read the story of a church whose signboard read, “We preach Christ crucified.” Over time, ivy grew up the sign and eventually covered the word “crucified,” so that the board read, “We preach Christ.” Some more time passed, and the ivy continued to grow until it covered the word “Christ.” “We preach,” read the sign. Eventually, even the word “preach” was covered, so that the signboard simply read, “We.”

Whether or not this is a true story, it does describe where many churches are. They have lost sight of the fact that they have one assignment: to preach Christ, and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23)—and not ourselves. Whether it is popular or not, in season and out of season, our God-given assignment is to preach the Lord Jesus Christ crucified, buried and risen again. As we do that, we have His assurance that He will grow His church.

Since only Christ can give life, we must stick to His Word. There is a large movement in Western Christianity which is seeking to do away with the importance of the church. It is almost an anomaly to have a Sunday night service anymore, and those churches which do have them normally see a large knock in attendance from Sunday morning to Sunday night. The arguments in favour of this de-emphasis are pragmatic at best (e.g. “We’re trying to give our people more time with their family!”), but they certainly do not reflect a biblical worldview.

George Barna has written a book entitled Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. “Revolutionaries” are believers who “have moved beyond the established church and chosen to be the church instead.” In his recent book, Christless Christianity, Michael Horton explains Barna’s vision.

Since being the church is a matter of individual choice and effort, all people need are resources for their own work of personal and social transformation. “Based on our research,” Barna relates, “I have projected that by the year 2010, 10 to 20 percent of Americans will derive all their spiritual input (and output) through the Internet.” Who needs the church when you have an iPod?

Barna is excited about this. “In just a few years,” he predicts, “we will see that millions of people will never travel physically to a church, but will instead roam the Internet in search of meaningful spiritual experiences.” This is a positive thing, to his mind. He believes that true, intimate worship does “not require a ‘worship service,’” so long as the worshipper has a personal commitment to Bible reading, prayer and discipleship. “What report of your commitment to practical, holy, life-transforming service will you be able to give Him?” Barna asks. As Horton notes, “The Revolutionaries have found that in order to pursue an authentic faith, they had to abandon the church.” Horton summarises,

Of course Barna does not believe Christians should abandon all religious practices, but the only ones he still thinks are essential are those that can be done by individuals in private, or at most in families or informal public gatherings. By eliminating the public means of grace, however, Barna … directs us away from God’s lavish feast to a self-serve buffet.

Willow Creek Community Church, a large congregation in the United States, recently discovered in a survey that many members were considering leaving the church because they found that they were not growing spiritually. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek, concluded that the report “has revolutionized the way I look at the role of the local church, … causing me to see clearly that the church and its myriad of programs have taken on too much of the responsibility for people’s spiritual growth.” He believes that “God ‘wired’ us first and foremost to be in growing relationship with him—not with the church.” Horton records the Willow Creek’s ultimate solution.

Their conclusion was that God meant for his people to move from dependence on the ministry of the church to “personal spiritual practices,” which include “prayer, journaling, solitude, studying Scripture—things that individuals can do on their own to grow in their relationship with Christ.” As believers mature, they should shift their interest from the church to their own private activities. “The research strongly suggests that the church declines in influence as people grow spiritually.”

I wonder what Barna and Hybels would have thought had they lived prior to the invention of the printing press. Before Gutenberg, what do you suppose was the primary source of people’s spiritual growth? I don’t want to cast aspersion upon the practice of personal or family devotions, but I would suggest that generations of Christians grew noticeably simply through the corporate gathering of the church for worship and ministry.

We should be grateful for the easy access that we have to printed Bibles and good Christian literature. But Christ’s primary means of growing us is through the corporate gathering of the church. Corporate worship is powerful, and should never be de-emphasised.

If our growth doesn’t point to Christ then we must question what kind of growth it is. We are thrilled at growth during pregnancy, and dread it when a tumour has been detected. Just because something is big doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. (Of course, big doesn’t necessarily equate to unhealthy either!) Nevertheless, we should be encouraged that Christ has promised to grow His church, and so where Christ is the focus, we should expect healthy growth.

Christ, the Saviour of the Church

Jesus Christ governs the church and grows the church, and He also gives to and guards the church. Paul records that “it pleased the Father than in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (vv. 19-20).

Christ as Saviour means that He gives to the church. For 25 years I have tried to pray daily for grace to love my wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). You see, we know that Christ loves the church precisely because He gave Himself for her. We didn’t deserve it, but that is precisely how He displayed His love for us. And I would suggest that He continues to give to the church today. He continues to change us and sanctify us.

By giving to the church, Christ guards her. I am sure that everyone reading this can testify to the struggles that they have undergone in their churches. There are always times of difficulty in the church. But can you imagine how much more difficult it would be were Christ not committed to guarding His church? That is precisely why we pray not to be led into temptation, but to be delivered from evil.

I pray every day for the safety and security of my family and our church. But added to the prayer for physical safety, it is necessary that I pray for the spiritual safety of family and church. There are enemies out there who would love to lead us into sin, and prayer is needed if we will remain firm in the face of temptation.

Humanly speaking, church life is tenuous. You can feel loved one moment, and distinctly unloved the next. One week things go along swimmingly, and the next the rain of trials pours and we feel overwhelmed. But despite our human impressions, we can trust that our Saviour will guard and give to His church.

It is by saving the church that Christ will ultimately save the world (cf. John 3:16-17). Though God has begun and will complete the work of reconciliation, it is through the means of the church that He will accomplish this (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).

Briefly, we should notice that our text reveals three ways in which Christ is qualified to be the Saviour.

First, His Sonship qualifies Him as Saviour. Verse 19 reads, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell.” Colossians 2:9 speaks of “the fullness of the Godhead” dwelling “bodily” in Christ. The point is that Jesus Christ is the very Son of God. He is God the Son, and this qualifies Him to be the church’s Saviour.

Secondly, His sufficiency qualifies Him to be Saviour. He will reconcile “all things” to Himself (v. 20) because all things are under Him. He is sufficient for all that is wrong with the world. When the church believes this, then things will happen. Do we have confidence that the gospel will save souls and societies?

Thirdly, His sacrifice makes Him the Saviour. He “made peace through the blood of His cross” (v. 20; cf. vv. 13-14). As a matter of technicality, this phrase in Greek is in the aorist tense, which means that it describes a past event with present (and future) consequences. His sacrifice was a definite act with definite results. He died to save us, to change us, and save and change us He will! He will preserve us to the very end (Jude 24-25).

Christ, the Shepherd of the Church

Christ is furthermore the Shepherd of the church, and as such He is the one who guides her. And implicit in this entire passage is the fact that He guides us through His all-sufficient Word.

The words of Agur are appropriate at this point: “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6).

I would suggest that the big issue in many churches today is not so much the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture, but the sufficiency of Scripture. We believe that God’s Word is perfect, without error, but that does not necessarily mean that we believe it to be sufficient for our needs today. James Montgomery Boice puts his finger directly on the issue.

It is possible to believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and yet to neglect it and effectually repudiate it just because we thing that is not sufficient to today’s tasks and that other things need to be brought in to accomplish what is needed.

Christ guides His church through physicians of the soul. The problem is that many such physicians (pastors) are guilty of malpractice—precisely because they do not believe the sufficiency of Scripture. God has covered every spiritual, emotional and relational eventuality in the Bible. Do you believe that?

We are surrounded by a world of secularistic counsel, which stands in stark opposition to Scripture. Will we bow to the sufficient Word of God or the flimsy counsel of man?

John Macarthur noted in 1991 that the church today has rejected the sufficiency of Scripture and replaced it with psychology (humanism), pragmatism and mysticism. He saw this for what it really is: a loss of confidence of the Church in the sufficiency of Christ. We do not have the time to touch on each of those areas, but let’s consider at least one.

Today, psychology is growing in emphasis, not only in the world but also in the church. There are many believers who are told both by the world and, sadly, by their own churches that the church cannot help you. They are therefore advised to seek “professional help.” But this does not accord with Scripture.

A young pastor recently came to see me and told me of a problem that someone that someone in his church was undergoing. He related that he was considering referring this church member to a biblical counsellor who would be better equipped to help. I advised him against that. Though he had never faced such a counselling situation before, this young pastor is a man who believes and preaches the Word of God, and I assured him that God’s Word was sufficient to help the church member in question and that he could handle it—by God’s grace.

Someone once came to see me for counsel, admitting that they had spend R35,000.00 on “professionals” to no avail. As we walked together through the Scriptures, this individual found that Christ, through His Word, was sufficient to change them.

I never tire of watching the Word of God change lives. It has always proven sufficient to do so, and there is no challenge that we face today that cannot be dealt a deathblow by the Word of God.

If we believe in the sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ, we will likewise believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. And if we take this text seriously, we will have little trouble trusting Him and His Word to guide us through the worst times of our life.

I recently had the wonderful privilege of walking the last weeks of a dear saint who eventually died from emphysema and cancer. It was a glorious thing to spend time with a dear woman who thrilled at being led through the valley of the shadow of death by her good Shepherd. As time went on, she learned increasingly to look to Christ, who is preeminent and therefore sufficient for even the most frightening journey of life.

I wondered aloud at the funeral if some of the other saints who have walked the same road as her perhaps welcomed her at the gates of heaven, exclaiming aloud, “Wasn’t that an incredible journey?” Aren’t you glad that Christ is the Head of the church, and that He guides her with His sufficient Word?

Christ, the Satisfaction of the Church

If Christ is the Sovereign of the church, and if He is the Source of the church, and if He is the Saviour of the church, and if He is the Shepherd of the church, then surely He must also be the Satisfaction of the church? We must glory in Christ alone!

This is really the crux of the matter. If we see the supremacy of Christ then we will be satisfied with Him and we will be passionate to make His preeminence known.

The church is the only (and sure) hope for the world. It is God’s appointed instrument for worldwide reconciliation. The church is what the world needs! It needs the church to fill the science academies and the halls of education. It needs the church to provide writers and artists, to fill the social services and the halls of parliament. It needs the church to replace the United Nations and to guide economic policies. The church must shape philosophical thought and act as peace-brokers. The church must provide Judges for our courts. The church must shape and practice medical ethics, give counsel and guide the family. The church alone can meet these needs for it is her Head alone who is supreme.

The world needs the church. But it needs the church as she should be: muscular as well as compassionate. She must be both truthful and merciful, holy and helpful, firm and kind, angry and glad. In short, she must be like Christ! And to be like Christ, she needs Christ. Apart from Him we can do nothing for apart from Christ we are nothing. Hallelujah, what a Saviour!