Topical Scripture: Colossians 1:15-23
The most famous sermon in American history was preached on July 8, 1741 in Enfield Connecticut, by Jonathan Edwards. It contains these famous words:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up.
There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.
Nothing could be more counter-cultural today. No words could better express an outdated Puritanism our culture is glad to leave to the history books. “Everybody knows” that God is whatever you believe him to be, that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re sincere and tolerant, that a loving God would not send anyone to hell or judge anyone’s personal morality. But what if Jonathan Edwards was right?
Do you fear God?
Our text makes seven distinct and unique claims for our Lord.
First: he is God. Paul calls him the “image” of the invisible God (v. 15a). “Image” means the exact representation, the very stamp of God, one who shares in the nature of that which it pictures. He is the image of the invisible God, enabling us to see the God we cannot see. He is not just a prophet of God like Mohammad, or a religious leader and example like Abraham and Buddha. He is God.
Second, he is infinite in existence, the “firstborn over all creation” (v. 15b)..
The phrase doesn’t mean that he was born in time, but that he came before all creation, as the firstborn comes before the other children. John says of him, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
Other religious founders were part of time. Jesus created it.
He is divine and infinite. Then he touched our finite world, personally and directly.
Third, he created all that exists: “by him all things were created” (v 16). His miracles showed the power of the Creator over his creation; his resurrection proved it 20 centuries ago, and his ability to answer our prayers today proves it now. He is Creator over all the universe.
Fourth, he sustains all that exists: “in him all things hold together” (v. 17). He created the world, and holds it together now. As I understand it, atomic physicists cannot explain fully why the negatively-charged electron and positively-charged proton can exist in the same molecule, but they can. Jesus knows why.
Fifth, he rules all that exists: “so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (v.18b). He rules the church, which is his body (v. 18a), even as he rules all things. He is the only person in all of human history to claim that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
Now his creating, sustaining, ruling power over the universe becomes personal. Sixth: he reconciles all that exists to his Father: “through him to reconcile all things to himself” (v. 20a).
“Reconcile” means to restore us back to the state from which we fell. Jesus did this by the blood of his cross (v. 20b), where the innocent sacrifice paid the price we owed and purchased our salvation.
We were alienated from God because of our evil behavior (v. 21). But now by faith in Christ we are “holy,” set apart for him; we are “without blemish,” acceptable to God; and we are “free from accusation” by the court, for we are declared innocent. This is the gospel, the good news entrusted to Paul and preached all over the world.
Conclusion: he is the unique and supreme Lord of all, “so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (v. 18). No other person who has ever lived can compare with him. That’s what Christians believe about Christ, and it’s what we’ve believed since the beginning of our faith.
Do we fear God?
But it’s not what the enemies of Christ in Colossae believed, then or now. They were known as “Gnostics,” from the Greek word for “knowledge.” They believed that right knowledge is sufficient for salvation, that the “spiritual” is irrelevant to the “secular.” Many therefore argued that you can live any way you wish; personal ethics are subjective and immaterial, as “religion” is irrelevant to life.
Conventional wisdom today dictates that all knowledge comes from experience; that experience is subjective; and so knowledge is subjective. There is no such thing as “objective truth” or moral absolutes. So long as we’re sincere and tolerant, our personal beliefs are just that–personal.
Queen Latifah was interviewed in last week’s Dallas Morning News before her newest movie was released. She claimed that if we can just set aside irrelevant things like race, politics, and religion, we’ll discover that we’re all good people inside. Religion divides us, and should be set aside by an enlightened society.
That’s certainly the message our culture is sending these days.
NBC’s new show, The Book of Daniel, portrays a drug-addicted Episcopal priest whose wife is a near-alcoholic; their family includes a 23-year-old homosexual Republican son, a 16-year-old daughter who is a drug dealer, and a 16-year-old adopted son who is having a sexual relationship with the bishop’s daughter. The priest’s secretary is a lesbian. The show’s writer is a practicing homosexual who describes himself as being “in Catholic recovery” and says he doesn’t know if “all the myth surrounding [Jesus] is true.” But since religion is irrelevant, it all makes for fun television.
The DaVinci Code will be released as a movie on May 19. It will portray Jesus as the husband of Mary Magdalene, a man elevated to divinity by the Church. No other religious founder would be so blasphemed in our society, but since Christianity is personal and irrelevant, it doesn’t matter.
Brokeback Mountain portrays two gay cowboys, won two Golden Globes and is expected to win Academy Awards as well. Since sexual orientation is personal and private, biblical objections to homosexuality don’t matter.
Boston Legal a week ago had William Shatner’s character in a sexual relationship with a woman he met in a bar. So long as they close the shades, whatever they do in his office is private and personal. Biblical objections to extramarital sex are irrelevant, of course.
We live in a culture which believes in no rules, whether they come from God’s word or not. We accept no accountability, since private acts between consenting adults are to be tolerated always. And we expect no consequences from our choices, so long as others are not hurt.
The bottom line is simple: our society no longer fears God. We no longer see Jesus Christ as the infinite creator, sustainer, reconciler, and Lord of the universe. We no longer fear his judgment when we break his word and will. The culture’s message is so loud and clear that it infects and affects us all. When was the last time you refused a temptation, not because you didn’t want to get caught or knew someone would get hurt, but because you feared the wrath and judgment of God?
The “fear of the Lord” is one of the most prominent themes in all of Scripture:
‘The fear of the Lord–that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28).
“The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous” (Psalm 19:9).
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding” (Psalm 111:10).
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:7).
“The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short” (Proverbs 10:27).
“The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27).
“Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil” (Proverbs 15:16).
“The fear of the Lord teaches a man wisdom, and humility comes before honor” (Proverbs 15:33).
“Through the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil” (Proverbs 16:6).
“The fear of the Lord leads to life: then one rests content, untouched by trouble” (Proverbs 19:23).
“Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4).
“Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 23:17).
The Bible promised that Jesus “will delight in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3).
The Bible says of the first Christians, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31).
What happens when we do not fear the Lord? We live as we want. What happens then? We miss the leading of God in our decisions, the blessing of God on our lives, the power of God for our problems. We live on our own, wondering if this is all there is.
If our culture so dishonors and ignores God, we wonder why he doesn’t visit us in judgment and wrath. But what if he is? He will deal with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. Did he allow 9-11 to show us that we are defenseless without him? Has he allowed the immorality of our culture to show us that we are directionless without him? Has he allowed the current drought to show us that we are resourceless without him?
Only one percent of America’s churches are growing primarily through evangelism and new converts. Has he allowed the irrelevance of the Church today to show us that we are powerless without him? That business as usual, self-reliant church work, religion for our sake, private morality which breaks God’s word and will, cannot have his blessing and joy?
If the absence of his blessing is not enough, will we next encounter the presence of his wrath? It couldn’t happen to Assyria, then it did; to Babylon, then it did; to Greece, then it did; to Rome, then it did; to the Soviet Union, then it did.
Alexis de Toqueville said of America more than a century ago, “America is great because Americans are good; and if Americans ever cease to be good, America will cease to be great.” The former Cuban pastor Oscar Dellet, my dear friend, believes that God has blessed America so that America’s churches can bless the world. But if we do not fear God, can we bless the world? If we don’t, can he bless us? If we will not fear God, can he not judge us?
Conversely, to live in the fear of God is to hate what he hates and love what he loves. It is to live every day by his word and will. What will such a lifestyle cost us? Private sin, which destroys our souls and lives. Public sin, which destroys our homes and families. Disobedience, which prevents his power and joy in our lives.
To live in the fear of the Lord is to lose nothing that matters and gain everything that does. If your life has missed the blessing and joy of the Lord, perhaps this is why. If your life has been good to this point, imagine what God can do with it when it is fully his.
So I call you today to live in the fear of the Lord. To know that Jesus Christ is the only eternal, creating, sustaining, redeeming Lord of the universe. To fear the absence of his blessing and the presence of his wrath. To walk through this week afraid of displeasing him, excited about obeying him, expecting his blessing and power and peace in your life. And they will be yours.
You may be a sinner in the hands of an angry God today, but you don’t have to be. You can be a soul in the hands of a loving Father. The choice is yours.