Amazing grace or pure arrogance?
What kind of books or comics did you grow up with? When I was growing up, we didn’t have Marvel movies or Harry Potter. But I have a generous dose of Journey to the West (西游记), tales of the Monkey God! I remember being fascinated by how each of the gods and demons has special powers, so much so that even the Jade Emperor was helpless against some of them! If you don’t know the story, imagine Marvel’s Avengers on steroids!
Actually, these stories are more than just children fairytales; they reflect how many Chinese actually think about spiritual realities: a spirit world with many many powerful gods, ghosts and spirits. And if that’s how the spiritual forces work, we better make sure we cover our grounds if we want to be successful and trouble-free.
In our family home, we had three altars: 天公 (god of heaven), 观音 (goddess of mercy), and one for my ancestors. My dad’s office had two more: Datuk公 and 土地公 (god of the earth). That’s the spiritual worldview I grew up with.
So when my sister became a Christian and started sharing the gospel with me, I was deeply offended. Not so much because she embraced Christianity, because I had no problems accepting the Christian god as one of the many gods (though I remain unconvinced how relevant Jesus is in our part of the world!). But when she insisted that there is no other god apart from Jesus, that was too much. How dare her! She had no respect for our family’s beliefs, not to mentioned the thousands of years of Chinese heritage! At the time, the Christian gospel was hardly good news of grace to me – it was pure arrogance! And I told my sister, “I will never become a Christian!”
The gospel was no less offensive when it was first proclaimed by the early Christians. The apostle Paul once described preaching Christ as “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). And yet, the apostles assure the church that yes, we can have 100% confidence in this gospel. In the words of Peter: “there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Why trust Jesus so completely and so exclusively?
The answer is found in a fuller understanding of who Jesus is and what God has accomplished through him. This is the focus of the next section in Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
The supremacy of the Son of God
Lord of “all things” (1:15-17)
Previously, we saw how Paul prayed that the Colossian church will have a fuller understanding of Christ, the mystery of God. In 1:15-20, Paul zooms in on two foundational truths about Jesus that demand closer attention.
Firstly, he wants them to enlarge their view of who Jesus is.
Consider again in 1:15, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” No one has ever seen God, and yet, everyone seems to have some idea about him! Some think he doesn’t exist. But most do, and worship God according to how they visualise him, or “them”!
I googled “how many religions in the world”. The figure 4,200 appears in several places like Quora and Wikipedia, but they are all quick to add that this doesn’t take into account the different branches within major religions. One article in Quora.com ends with this comment: “it could be said that there are as many religions as there are people”!
But friends, the Bible reminds us that every attempt to visualise him in our own ways is deeply offensive to God, and is a form of idolatry, whether it physically involves worshipping an idol or not. Why? Because the invisible God has revealed himself exclusively and definitively through his own authorised image – Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)
This idea of ‘the image of God’ first appears in the Bible right at the very beginning, when God said, “Let us make man in our image ... male and female” (Gen 1:26, 27) So everyone here in this place is God’s image-bearers, made with a purpose: to represent the invisible God in this world.
Now if that sounds impressive, which it certainly is, Jesus is much more! He is not made in God’s image – he is the very image of God – the original image whose image all image-bearers are called to serve.
In 1:15, Paul also assigns to Jesus the title “the firstborn over all creation”. In case we misunderstand what “firstborn” means, he immediately qualifies in the next verse, “For in him all things were created … all things have been created through him and for him.” (1:16) Firstborn does not mean Jesus was first to be born, but that he possesses all the rights of a firstborn – the legal right of inheritance, the authority to rule. For he is the one through whom everything was made. And he is also the reason why everything was made.
In other words, he is “Lord” over all created things.
Notice what ‘all things’ includes in 1:16: “all things ... in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities”. It includes “earthly”, “visible” powers like powerful presidents, influential religious movements, or whatever kind of power in this world. But it also includes “heavenly”, “invisible” powers: think angels and demons, and of course, the devil himself!
So we Christians must not take lightly the reality of spiritual warfare. However, while acknowledging their reality, Paul declares that all powers, physical and spiritual, they are all created by Jesus, and they all serve him. Every power known to you and me … they all answer to Jesus!
Friends, this is a totally different picture from popular beliefs about the spiritual realm, as imagined in Journey to the West or Harry Potter, or most religious beliefs. Jesus is truly LORD over “all things”!
When we only have a limited understanding of Jesus, we find ourselves living in fear of all kinds of powers. Some of the most highly educated and able people can also be the most devout observers of Feng Shui, astrology, or other superstitious beliefs. But a fuller understanding sets us free from such fear. We no longer listen to hearsays about angels or demons, Feng Shui or astrology. We listen to Jesus, the LORD over “all things”!
Reconciler of “all things” (1:18-20)
But friends, knowing how powerful Jesus is - that’s just half the picture. Knowing that someone has great power is not necessarily good news! Like ‘the one Ring that rules them all’ in the Lord of the Rings – it spells not comfort but fear and destruction!
In 1:19 and 1:20, we come to two of the most mind-boggling verses in the letter. In verse 19, Paul says, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” – which is a reference to the Son of God becoming a man, the incarnation of Jesus.
Why did the Son, the all-powerful creator and Lord of all things become a man? Verse 20 explains: so God could “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Jesus became a man so that he could make peace by dying on the cross!
The Lord of all things is also the reconciler of all things!
Friends, is this not absolutely mind-blowing? Jesus Christ the Son of God, Lord of all things created, becoming a man, in order to offer up his life on the cross as our supreme sacrifice, so we can have our sins forgiven, and enjoy peace with God! The ultimate Lord has become the ultimate Saviour: this is the gospel in a nutshell!
“Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me!”
Implications for us all (1:21-23)
Grow in understanding
In 1:21-23, Paul spells out three necessary implications for the church.
Firstly, we need to understand more fully what Jesus has accomplished for us.
Paul used three terms to describe our condition before Christ in verse 21: “alienated”, “enemies in your minds”, “evil behaviour”. The Bible is very clear about this: there is no such thing as a free-thinker! We all have a natural prejudice against God. We don’t like the idea that we have a God to whom we are accountable to, that all things are created by him and for him. We don’t want to know that we are not free to do what we want, or that we are actually influenced or under the power of the devil. We are by nature hostile towards God in our minds and through our behaviours. Such was the condition of all of us here before we were in Christ!
But, no longer!
In 1:22, Paul describes what has happened to the Christian.
Firstly, while we were still hostile towards God, “he has reconciled [us]”! God could have chosen to squash us like cockcroaches. Instead, he chose to make peace with us! Amazing!
How did he do it? he has reconciled [us] by Christ’s physical body through death”. Notice that it’s not on the basis of our religious performance or anything else we could do for ourselves, but through the death of Christ. On that basis alone, we now enjoy peace with God.
So when we stand before God now, how does God view us now? We are “holy in [God’s] sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” Though we were all guilty of the charge of sedition and treason against him, if anyone is in Christ, there is no longer any outstanding charges that need to be settled, no more ground for any further accusation. God sees us now in exactly the same way he sees Jesus: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11)
Paul’s point is this: the Colossians can be assured that they can trust Jesus completely to deliver the goods. Jesus has completely satisfied everything that God requires to make us fully acceptable to God! Nothing else needs to be added, nothing else must be added.
Continue in the faith
In 1:23, Paul points out that the Colossians can enjoy this confidence only “if [they] continue in [their] faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.”
Some of you may have heard the Chinese idiom: 畫蛇添足 (literally translated: draw snake add legs). No matter how well you draw a snake, when you add legs to the drawing, it is no longer a snake, and you’ve destroyed your drawing. The point of the idiom is this: doing extra is not always helpful, because sometimes it is not only unnecessary, it may actually ruin everything!
The apostle Paul wants the church to understand this: If the good news of Jesus is such that we can trust completely in who Jesus is and what has done for us, then stay confident in that good news and that alone! The moment we add some other qualifications to the good news – baptism, gift of tongues, serving the poor – no matter how good that thing is, the gospel will no longer be good news of God’s grace! We’re adding legs to the snake! We no longer have the gospel!
This means the thinking I grew up with in my family, praying to multiple gods to make sure we cover all the grounds – that’s out! For I cannot worship Jesus on Sunday and Datuk公when I go to work, or allow Feng Shui to continue to dictate my decisions!
Believing in Jesus is all or nothing!
Proclaim the gospel
Thirdly and finally, in 1:23, Paul concludes this section by again emphasising there is only one gospel for every creature under heaven! If Jesus is the one and only Lord and reconciler of all things, then surely, his gospel is the one and only gospel for every nation, the gospel that must continue to be proclaimed to every person, even today!
So if anyone here this morning who is not a Christian, while I understand that the Christian gospel can sound arrogant to you because we proclaim Jesus and Jesus alone as Saviour and Lord, it is actually not at all arrogant, but an amazing good news of God’s incredible kindness and goodness towards all people in the Lord Jesus. Will you let us show you more fully what this gospel is all about? I want to urge you: don’t do nothing about Jesus! We cannot afford to ignore him.
But for all of us here this morning, let us take heed of Paul’s encouragement and warning: “continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel” (1:23). May God continue to enlarge our vision of who Jesus is, and grow our confidence in him! Let us never be embarrassed by the gospel, but proclaim it as it truly is: good news of the Lord and Saviour of all!