When I had the privilege to preach the Christ hymn in Col 1:15-20, I made a big deal about Jesus being “the head of the body, the church” in verse 18. In fact, it was the crescendo of the sermon’s first act. That probably wasn’t the detail that stood out at you when you first read the passage. So why did I put so much emphasis on it?
Truth be told, that Jesus is the head of the church didn’t “wow” me at first either. But there were two keys in the text – one grammatical, one thematic – that made me rethink its importance, and brought out a lot of fruit.
The passage begins in v15 with the phrase “He is the image of the invisible God.” The word “he” is a relative pronoun referring back to the Father’s “beloved Son” in v13. (The relative pronoun is often translated “who is” rather than “he is.”)
Why does that matter? That relative pronoun occurs only one other time in the passage, midway through verse 18 in the phrase, “He is the beginning.”
Every other time you see the word “he” in this passage it’s referring to one of these two pronouns. That means Paul splits his description of Jesus’ glory into two sections. Which leads us to ask if there’s something to be learned from the two sections…
When we see that Paul broke the description into two parts (v15-18a and v18b-20) we want to ask what he intended us to understand. Was he comparing two things? Was he working on two themes? What was happening there?
After a lot of study and prayer I chose to label the two sections “The Glory of Who Christ Is” and “The Glory of What Christ’s Done.” The first verses talk about who Jesus is – the image of God, the one for whom all things exist, the one before all things – and how that’s glorious. The second section tells the story of what he did at the cross to expose the glory of his actions.
So we have two sections: The glory of Christ’s person, and the glory of Christ’s works.
And now we can answer our initial question: Why make so much of the church?
The Emblem of His Glory
If the church is the last evidence Paul gives for the glory of Christ’s person, he intends for it to serve as the climax of that section. This means that you and I need to see this idea, that Jesus is the head of the church, as incredibly glorious. But how? And why?
I had to do a lot of thinking about why this would be a climactic description of Christ’s glory. (Because at first, knowing myself, it sounds like it might be something less than glorious!) I realized that to the God who loves sacrificially the church is the emblem of his personal glory.
The church is the crown of His glory because the people of God are covered in blood more valuable than any jewel or precious stone. This led me to three glorious observations:
1. The church is where Jesus showcases the power of his redemptive love by making the vile sinner clean, and the enemy a son.
2. The church is where Jesus puts his creativity on display: In one single event he showed forth his absolute holiness as he poured out his wrath against sin, and put forward his unconquerable love as he rescued sinners from the destruction we deserved.
3. The church is where Jesus shows he is worthy of praise: If these people – those who (v21) were once hostile to him – praise him now, he must really be something! We give more weight to the words of someone who has changed sides –the former gang member who now works to keep kids off the street. Why? Because it takes a lot of convincing to get someone to make an about-face.
How great is our God!
That’s how a grammatical detail can draw out a climax in a sermon.