(Col 1:18-20 ESV) 18 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. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
The body of Christ
It’s familiar cant to say that the church is the “body of Christ.” But we should pause to consider why Paul chooses to refer to the church as a body. There are multiple reasons.
He, of course, famously uses that image in 1 Cor 12 and Rom 12:4-8, when speaking of spiritual gifts, to emphasize the essential unity of the church despite the diversity of gifts within the church.
But I think that’s not his main point. You see, Paul uses the same image in such verses as —
(Rom 7:4 ESV) 4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.
Here, “body of Christ” refers to the crucified body. Similar is —
(Eph 2:14-16 ESV) 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Here “body” refers to the church and to Christ as a spiritual unity, but again it’s the crucified body of Christ that we participate in as part of the body of Christ.
In Ephesians 5, Paul applies the same argument to marriages —
(Eph 5:23-30 ESV) 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. … 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. … 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body.
The idea of being Christ’s body again refers to the crucifixion, but also the assurance that Jesus “nourishes and cherishes” the church with the same care we have for our own bodies.
Paul applies the lesson to husbands — to give yourselves for your wives. But this tells us some of what it means to be Christ’s body. We have been given for others. We are servants. We don’t come to be served, but to serve — to wash feet.
We Christians tend to emphasize the benefits of being in the body — spiritual gifts, Christ’s tender care for us, unity — but we don’t think of being a part of his crucified body — where we share in his sacrifice, submission, and even his sufferings.
(Rom 6:3-7 ESV) 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin.
Baptism is baptism into the death of Jesus — meaning we have also been crucified, not only by participating in the forgiveness bought by his crucifixion but also by the killing of our “old self” and the destruction of our “body of sin” freeing us from sin — by the power of the Spirit (as Paul will explain in Rom 8).
Thus, being the body means being purified from sin and brought into a new way of living through the Spirit.
And Rom 6 tells us that we also participate in Jesus’ resurrection — our baptism assuring us that we will “be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We are raised from the water in anticipation of the resurrection not yet realized but faithfully promised.
The fullness of God
(Col 1:18-20 ESV) 18b … He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
“Beginning, the firstborn from the dead” means that Jesus’ resurrection is the first resurrection, which assures us that the rest of his “body” will follow in due course.
Now, Jesus is not the first person raised from the dead. Jesus himself raised several people. But he is the first to be “resurrected” because he is the first raised never to die again. And our resurrection will be like the resurrection of Jesus — not Lazarus — because we, too, will never die again.
His status as “firstborn” makes him “preeminent” (literally, “in first place”). In the ancient world, the firstborn of the king was not only heir apparent, he was usually a co-regent, having rule over the kingdom with his father. Paul’s point is that Jesus is fully “Lord” — a title given to God in the Old Testament and transferred to Jesus in the new covenant. Jesus has absolute authority.
Next Paul makes a truly breathtaking declaration: “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” “Dwell” means to live in a house. The Old Testament says God “dwells” in the temple. The New Testament says the Holy Spirit “dwells” in each of us. God’s fullness lived in Jesus — but not just a part of God. His “fullness” lived in Jesus.
Therefore, when Jesus died on the cross, God’s fullness died. When Jesus was insulted and beaten, God’s fullness was insulted and beaten. Jesus was (and is) fully God. He is not identical with God the Father, but he is fully God — and was fully God before his crucifixion (the clear implication of “was” rather than “is”).
God further reconciled “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” through the cross. Well, God’s sacrifice through Jesus was utter — a complete self-emptying and giving up. And therefore it was enough to redeem not only those who come to Jesus with faith, but also the heavens and earth. And the promise of Rev 21 – 22 and the Prophets is that God will redeem it all —
(Rom 8:20-22 ESV) 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
We think of God destroying the creation, but the reality is that the creation will be “set free from bondage” — redeemed! — just like the Christians. We will all be freed from the corruption of this existence.
(Col 1:21-23 ESV) 21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Paul now speaks specifically to the reconciliation of Christians. His emphasis is on our changed lives — we once did evil deeds but now we are “above reproach” — provided we remain true to the gospel.
We tend to think of the gospel as what saves and as being all about baptism, but Paul speaks of the gospel as governing how we live after we’ve been baptized. You see, the gospel is not only that we can be forgiven, but also that we are raised to a new life, in which we are transformed by the Spirit to be blameless and holy.
Indeed, if you go through Paul’s ethical instructions here and in, for example, 1 Cor, and study how he reaches his conclusions about how to live individually and as the church, Paul over and over goes back to the gospel and explains how the gospel tells us how to live and how to live with each other. (We’ll consider this further as we get to Paul’s ethical instructions here.)
There’s an ambiguity in the Greek: “in all creatIon under heaven” could also be “to all creatures under heaven.” The translations go both ways. There is a third possibility: “to all creation under heaven” — the “gospel” being a declaration of God’s good news of forthcoming redemption. And this would be quite consistent with Rom 8:22-22, which speaks of the “whole creation … groaning.” It’s a thought. It may even be right and it would fit well with “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” in v. 20. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s right.
Now, if God intends to redeem the creation, then he intends to restore the creation to Eden — just as he intends to restore mankind to his image (Gen 1:26-28). If that’s so (and it is), we have to consider —
(Gen 2:15 ESV) 15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
This passages places two burdens on man: to make the world productive and to protect the world. “Keep” refers to guarding or protecting. And this means that Christians and the body of Christ have a redemptive role to play today — to keep the environment, but also to use it for the good of mankind. It’s both “work” and “keep.”
This does not make us into pantheists who worship nature. Nor does it force us to agree with every position of the environmental lobby. But it does mean we truly care about the environment and the impact our decisions have on future generations. Christians cannot be irresponsible with the creation — indeed, if God’s mission is to redeem the creation, it’s our mission, too. We are, after all, the body of Christ.