In the dome of the cathedral of Cefalú there is a magnificent mosaic of Jesus. Towering overhead in sparkling gold and azure, Christ raises his right hand in blessing while he holds in his left hand the Gospel of John, open to the words, “I am the light of the world.”
Centered in the dome of a cathedral, the image proclaims a message to the tiny viewer below: Jesus Christ is at the center of the universe, over all things, the source of all things. Just as the sun is at the center of our solar system, its gravitational pull holding planets in place, its light giving life, so, too, Jesus Christ is at the center of all things, holding them in place, his light the source of all life.
This mosaic is an example of an early and enduring portrayal of Jesus known as “Christ the Pantocrator.” Although it sounds more like the name of a modern-day transformer, the title is ancient and comes from two Greek words: “pantos,” which means “all,” and “kratein,” which means to create, accomplish, or sustain something. Christ the Pantocrator means Christ the creator and sustainer of all things.
This image of Christ was an attempt by early Christians to portray descriptions of Jesus such as this in Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God… by Him all things were created… And in Him all things hold together.” (Col 1:15, 16, 17)
In the world of the first Christians, deities and philosophies came by the dozens as Greek, Roman and Jewish culture comingled in Mediterranean cities. Faith practices could turn into a hodgepodge of horoscopes, animal sacrifice and self-abasement. One’s security and hope could end up cast upon fate, a philosophical school, or at the feet of Zeus or Artemis.
Into this religious cacophony Paul launches absolutizing statements such as: “all things were created through [Christ] and for him. He is before all things… that in everything he might be preeminent.” (Col 1:16)
Christ the Pantocrator reminded early Christians that, although surrounded by an array of beliefs and opinions and amid the vicissitudes of life, there was one constant, unchanging reality: Jesus Christ. When Jesus was at the center of all things, and when He became the center of their own lives, their perspective was put right, the various fragments of their lives were brought into proper orbit.
Colossians invites us all to walk beneath the great dome of Christ the Lord of all things, the creator and redeemer, the one in whom all things hold together. It invites us to recall that, like the sun in our solar system, Jesus Christ is meant to be at the very center of all things, holding the various aspects of our lives in proper orbit, shining the light of life into our souls.
In our first sermon we’ll do two things: (1) First, we’ll orient ourselves to the letter in general—the who, when and why of its writing. (2) Second, we’ll consider more carefully this organizing theme, “Christ-centered,” by considering a few verses in different parts of the letter. Our aim throughout will be to see how Paul makes Christ central before the readers in Colossae and why this matters for us.
I: Situating the Letter
Let’s begin by reading the first two verses of the letter, which lead us into asking some background questions–
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae. Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
Colossians is a letter written by the apostle Paul around AD 60 to a church in the ancient city of Colossae. Located in what is now Turkey, Colossae was part of a cluster of cities in the Lycus valley. Built up by the textile industry, Roman trade roads and the Lycus river connected the city to the Aegean cost. Though not on the scale of Rome or Ephesus, Colossae was a significant city in its day, with a mostly Greek and Roman population, though also with a not insignificant Jewish presence. The city fell under the rule of the Roman Empire, though as was the custom with Rome, local citizens were given some flexibility to incorporate aspects of their own religions into life. In short, Colossae was a melting pot with a largely Greco-Roman atmosphere.
The church in Colossae was not planted by Paul, but by his close friend, Epaphras. At the time of writing Paul is imprisoned, probably in Rome, which is some 1200 miles away from Colossae. (He closes the letter with “Remember my chains.” [4:18]) Epaphras has come to Paul with a report about how the church is doing.
The news is in part troubling; false teaching is threatening the faith and focus of the community. Paul explains in chapter 2, “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments … see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit.” (2:4, 8)
Even more troubling is that the false teaching smacks with elements of truth: “These things” Paul writes, “have indeed an appearance of wisdom.” (2:23) This threat suggests that a key reason Paul is writing this letter is to thwart this false teaching. His method is like that of bank tellers, who instead of studying counterfeit money, become increasingly familiar with the real thing. Paul, therefore, sets before his readers in Colossae his most soaring and dazzling portrait of Jesus Christ. Apparently, a clear vision of Jesus Christ is the best antidote for false teaching.
Paul’s vision of Christ pervades the letter, but is most concentrated in a hymn-like passage stretching from 1:15–20. We will have a chance in coming weeks to study these passages more closely. Now, however, I want briefly to demonstrate that in this image Paul sets forth Christ as the center of all things, and we need to take some time to unpack how he does so.
II. A Christ-Centered View of All Things
Paul writes in 1:15–20:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
In this passage Paul sets Christ at the center of three, interrelated realities: (1) the universe, (2) human history, and (3) an individual’s life.
1. Christ is at the center of the universe.
First, Paul sets Christ at the center of everything, the entire created universe. He writes, “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” (1.16)
Now it would be a mistake to read this passage in an overly-scientific way. Paul is not aiming to explain the process by which Christ crafted molecules, the laws of logic, or planets. Rather, he is saying Christ is the author, designer, and originator of all things; nothing exists that he didn’t create, and nothing exists that he did not design.
Though all analogies break down at some point, consider an example of an architect. She walks you through a building she designed, telling you first how it began as an idea in her mind, why one room was adjacent to another, and how eventually she wanted the larger building to function
The emphasis in her explanation is not so much upon the what of the building, but the why: she is making a connection between her mind and intentionality, and the existence of the building.
Paul is doing something similar in Colossians 1. From the Milky Way and its stars, to the Amazon and its trees, Paul is telling us that Christ thought of, designed, and brought into existence everything.
Therefore, Jesus Christ is at the center of the Cosmos not merely because he made it, but because it only makes sense from his perspective. Only in Christ can we begin to understand the why of existence. The universe and world exist according to the design and purposes of Jesus Christ.
2. Christ is at the center of human history.
Second, Paul sets Christ at the center of human history. He writes, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” and, “the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (1:15, 18)
Again, without delving into the text as deeply as we will in a few weeks, these words place Christ not only at the center of the universe, but also at the center of human history. He is a person, and by taking on flesh and by resurrecting from the dead, is the ideal image of what a human being is meant to be—an image God the creator.
By noting that Jesus is not only at the beginning of human history, but also the firstborn from the dead, Paul is signaling that the flow of human history takes a tragic detour that involves sin and death, but ultimately, for those in Christ, ends in resurrection-life. Human history has a point, it is headed somewhere, and that somewhere is understandable only by looking at Christ.
Why is this important? Because humans need to believe that human history is moving in a direction, and a good direction.
In a sermon preached in 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. borrowed the now famous line, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” By this King implied that across the long history of humankind, filled with injustices, there is a discernable direction that humanity is heading in, and that direction is toward more, not less, justice.
King’s notion is as beautiful as it is powerful. But is it true? On what grounds could anyone predict that human history will go in a particular direction? By whose analysis can we conclude the world is getting more just? King’s phrase, however, is not rooted in mere observation, but rather theology—a Christian worldview.
King’s comment assumes that history is guided by a hand stronger than its own—namely, by a good and powerful God. Believing that God is the author of human history, King could say with real optimism that in the end, justice would triumph over evil.
If we want to have any type of view of our future that is optimistic and sturdy, it will require not only a belief that a good God is at work in our midst, but also, a belief in the Resurrection. The elephant in the room in all conversations about human progress is human mortality. Based on the most honest assessment of the data, the arc of human history bends toward the grave—justice or no justice.
However, here at this plunge into oblivion Paul boldly proclaims: “Christ is the firstborn of the dead.”
Christ is not merely the force guiding human history toward the goal of justice. He is also the forerunner who assures us that by faith in him, the arc of our story need not end in a grave.
So, the second way Paul sets Christ forth as the center of things is by showing that he is at the center of human history—the ideal human, the person guiding humanity towards righteousness, and the only hope for humanity’s story to end in life, not death.
There is one more place to highlight where Paul makes Christ center, and that is with you and me.
3. Christ is at the center of an individual’s life.
In verses 1:20–21 Paul writes, “And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death.”
Notice how Paul moves from explaining that God is reconciling all things in Christ, to saying explicitly this includes you. Paul moves from the very edge of the created world down to the level of an individual. Later in the letter he will actually draw Christ and you together so closely he can write, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:27)
This means that Christ not only exists high above us, but that he comes down to us, into the mess of our lives, bringing forgiveness and healing. He does this by dying for us on the cross. Christ is not only at the center of the universe and human history; he is at the center of your story, your life, your very being.
What does it mean to say another person is at the center of who you are?
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis recounts that in his childhood when he was still quite young his mother became sick and died. Lewis’s father was somewhat distant and therefore he relied heavily on his mother for a sense of security. In one of his most poignant lines, he says of his mother’s passing:
With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was … no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis. (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, “The Shape of My Early Life”)
Though evoked on the saddest of occasions, Lewis’s remarks draw our attention to what it means for another person to be at the center of your life.
A good parent will, by their unconditional love, moral example, and constant presence, become the most powerful shaping force for their child’s psyche and sense of the world. Even when not present physically, the parent is like a continent upon which the child’s young heart and mind live and move and grow. The parent is security, hope, and peace.
I think this is in part what it means for Christ to be at the center of you or me. His presence is so real, so thick, so constant, that in comparison to all other influences and forces in our lives, He is the only true continent—the rest are merely islands in a vast sea.
In summary, let’s notice a remarkable fact about the centrality of Christ in Colossians: Christ is at the center of the indescribably vast and ancient cosmos, but he will also come and dwell inside you. “Christ in you,” Paul says, “the hope of glory.”
Let me close by asking one final question: what is the practical payoff to having a center? Or, put another way, what is the payoff of discovering that Jesus Christ is the central being and power in your life, instead of yourself?
The answer to this question lies in 1:17, where Paul writes, “in Him all things hold together.”
If you haven’t already, you will at some point have trouble holding your life together. This may come in the form of a philosophical crisis, whereby you can’t make sense of the world you live in. Or it may come by way of a more internal, existential crisis, when you can’t hold together your experience of pain and your desperate need for hope. What I see in Colossians is the only solution for holding your life together when you no longer can—and that is by seeing that the Christ who is at the center of the universe and of your life, is the Christ who was crucified for you.
Look up one last time at the dome of Cefalú, to the glistening and majestic image of Christ the Pantocrator. The sea of gold about his head calls to mind his Lordship of the universe; his deep brown eyes recall that in his humanity, he is the center of the human story. However, often unnoticed, is a seemingly paradoxical aspect of his halo: there is a cross in it.
The very God who existed before all things, who holds the fate of human history in his hands, came into the world to suffer and die for you.
It is only when you realize that the power behind existence, the laws of logic, the vast universe, is personal, and that He took on flesh and suffered for you, and that along with being glorious and mighty, he is lowly and humble, and that he not only is enthroned above, but wants to make his home in you—only then—with this God at center—do all things hold together.
The message of Colossians is Christ-centered. Christ the Pantocrator not only holds in place the farthest star to the farthest planet; he also can hold in place your heart—I pray you have invited him to be at the center of it.
by Sam Ferguson, Sermon given on June 2, 2019