Jesus is God and Savior.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Colossians 1:9-23
In this introduction to Colossians, Paul takes us through the basics of a healthy Christianity: knowing who Jesus is and knowing how Jesus wants us to live. This week's passage focuses on Jesus -- who He is and what He came to do. Jesus is fully God and fully human, and His death on the cross fully reconciled all Christians to God the Father.
1:14 In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Who Is Jesus?
Last year, for one of these opening discussion topics, I mentioned the results of "The State of Theology 2020" (a survey by Lifeway Research and Ligonier Ministries). In it,
52% of Americans believe that Jesus was a good teacher and nothing more
34% of Americans who claim to be evangelical Christian also said they believe that Jesus was a good teacher and nothing more (???!!)
65% of Americans who claim to be evangelical Christian agreed with the statement "Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God"
Those beliefs are completely wrong. A big takeaway from the study was that American churches need to do a better job teaching Christology (what the Bible teaches about Jesus).
Well, I found a smaller, more recent survey from Probe Ministries (I don't know anything about them) with these results:
60% of born-again Christians 18-39 agreed with the statement that Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus are all valid paths to God
85% of born-again Christians 18-39 also agreed with the statement "I believe that the only way to a true relationship with God is through Jesus Christ"
25% of born-again Christians agree with all of the statements in a basic biblical worldview (about God, Jesus, Bible)
Those results are equally discouraging and equally confusing. I agree with the researchers that the biggest takeaway is that churches need to do a better job teaching who Jesus is.
At the end of this post, I'll link to a page that I think does a really good job of summarizing what the Bible says about Jesus (and also backing it up with where the Bible says it).
If we can come away from this lesson with a better understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus did, then this will be a day well spent!
All About Colossians
So, not only are you covering some of the Bible's most important verses about Jesus, but you're introducing an entire book of the Bible. No way you can do it all to the extent that you would prefer, so I recommend focusing on the verses and giving your group some "homework". On this page, I've linked three great (and pretty short) videos that help explain some of the topics. Encourage them to watch those videos, and perhaps send them to our opening lesson on Ephesians. Ephesians is a companion letter to Colossians, written at the same time and covering the same topics (though with a very different tone!)
Colossae used to be a big, important city in Asia Minor, but then the "interstate was moved" (so to speak; a new road was built) and Colossae fell into decline. (You might remember the effect I-20 had on towns around here, so maybe you can sympathize with how quickly a town can decline when the primary transportation routes change.) By Paul's day, it was rather insignificant. In fact, Paul hadn't even been there personally (2:1)! If it weren't for this letter, no one would probably care about Colossae at all. Oh, and it was decimated by an earthquake in the region sometime around 60 AD (right around the time of this letter), so there aren't even any ruins for archeologists to dig through.
As with Philippians, Paul is in prison (4:10, 4:18) and with Timothy (1:1). All of the circumstantial evidence points to Paul writing this while in prison in Rome. See my introduction to Ephesians. This puts it somewhere around 61-62 AD (either the earthquake hadn't happened yet, or perhaps no one had told Paul about it -- he was in prison, after all).
Paul doesn't come right out with a reason for this letter, so we are left to guess. Chapter 4 gives us some great details, and Lifeway chose not to cover those verses, so here they are (but like I said, there's no way you can cover all of this in one sitting):
7 Tychicus, our dearly loved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. 8 I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and so that he may encourage your hearts. 9 He is coming with Onesimus, a faithful and dearly loved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here. 10 Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you greetings, as does Mark, Barnabas’s cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him), 11 and so does Jesus who is called Justus. These alone of the circumcised are my coworkers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. He is always wrestling for you in his prayers, so that you can stand mature and fully assured in everything God wills. 13 For I testify about him that he works hard for you, for those in Laodicea, and for those in Hierapolis. 14 Luke, the dearly loved physician, and Demas send you greetings. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her home. 16 After this letter has been read at your gathering, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. 17 And tell Archippus, “Pay attention to the ministry you have received in the Lord, so that you can accomplish it.” 18 I, Paul, am writing this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.
A few things to catch here:
Paul is sending this letter with Tychicus (whom they probably don't know) and Onesimus (who is a slave and whom they might know; see Philemon).
Paul name-drops a bunch of people who are with him, probably to make him sound more personable and not just some stand-off guru (I think this is also why he mentions his relationships in Laodicea).
"The letter from Laodicea" -- if this isn't referring to Ephesians, then this is sadly a letter that has not been preserved.
Anyway, from these verses, the most common explanation for the letter is that Epaphras (not to be confused with Epaphroditus, who delivered the letter to Philippi) visited Paul in Rome. Epaphras was probably one of Paul's early converts and had been the first missionary to Colossae and Laodicea, sharing the gospel and planting the churches there (and in nearby Hierapolis). Paul asked him how the churches were doing, and he mentioned a strange, heretical teaching that was invading their little valley (Lycus Valley). Because this teaching was tearing down Jesus, Paul thought it important enough to write a letter in response and send it with some trusted leaders, Tychicus, Onesimus, and Mark.
The false teaching is sometimes called "The Colossian Heresy". However, in this letter, Paul doesn't focus so much on the heresy as he does on the truth about Jesus. In fact, this letter is some of the clearest, most succinct statements of Christology in the Bible, making us think that the false teaching was some kind of Gnosticism (see below) that reduced Jesus to "just another god" and encouraged people to reject biblical rules for living.
Colossians is rather different from both Philippians and Ephesians in tone, and I think it's as simple as the fact that Paul had spent significant time in both Philippi and Ephesus and had deep personal connections with the church members there. Conversely, Paul had never been to Colossae; that's why this letter reads so formally -- think of it as a seminar lecture rather than a small group lesson. Paul probably called attention to his relationships with nearby Laodicea in order to humanize himself to the people in Colossae.
[Speculation: I think that when Paul finished this letter, he realized how important the topic was and decided to send an expanded, more personal version of it to his friends in Ephesus, which is why the two letters are so similar in content but not in tone, and which is also why the "letter from Laodicea" is probably not Ephesians.]
Outline of Colossians.
I. Opening Greeting
A. Greeting (1:1-2)
B. Thanksgiving for the Gospel (1:3-8)
C. Living Worthy of Jesus (1:9-14)
D. Who Is Jesus? (1:15-20)
E. Standing Firm in the Faith (1:21-23)
II. Main Letter
A. Paul's Ministry and Purpose (1:24-2:5)
B. Spiritual Fulness in Christ (2:6-15)
C. Dangers of False Beliefs (2:16-23)
D. The Right Way to Live for Jesus (3:1-17)
E. Rules for Christian Households (3:18-4:1)
F. Be Wise in Christ (4:2-6)
III. Final Greetings (4:7-18)
This Week's Big Idea: Jesus, the Image of God
What Paul says about Jesus in this week's passage is earthshattering, just like in Philippians 2, and I'd rather just let Paul explain all of this to us directly. However, here are a couple of videos you can encourage people to watch as "homework" that shed more light on some very difficult topics.
This first one explains how Jesus is "the image of God" in the way that God created humans "in His image". What Paul is talking about in this week's passage is much more than that -- Jesus is God's image in all of the ways that humans cannot be -- but I found this video helpful to me as I hear "the image of God" and think Genesis 1.
This second one goes deeper into the very difficult topic of trying to "explain God". Everything we say will always come up short, but this is as good as anything which explains how the Bible describes Jesus as God and yet distinct from God the Father (in a few minutes). Use this video to try to help your group with this week's passage, or just send them to this webpage and have them watch it for themselves.
We will talk about the specific words used in our passage when we study it. For now, on to the passage!
Part 1: Set Free (Colossians 1:9-14)
9 For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, 10 so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14 In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
As with Philippians, Paul sneaks a peak at the rest of the letter in his opening words -- how to live for God, know God, and stand firm in the faith, all because of what Jesus has done for us. I guess you can think of this letter as a primer for being a Christian in an unbelieving world (key beliefs and key practices).
Vv. 7-8 tell us that Epaphras had reported the situation in Colossae to Paul, and that's when Paul and the people with him started praying and wondering what they could do to help. Paul wants to encourage the church (which is why he says pleasant things about them), but his bigger priority is to share truth with them (truth that will help them stand firm against false teachings about Jesus), and so he jumps right into that.
Verses 9-12 are a brilliant overview of the Christian life. God gives us knowledge, wisdom, and understanding by the Spirit. In response, we are able to live a life that pleases Him:
growing in our knowledge of God,
being steadfast and patient in our faith, and
giving thanks to Him.
If you want to know what a life that pleases God looks like, that's it! "Giving thanks" is held for the end because that's the capstone of the Christian life, the one thing that helps us keep all of life in perspective (remember our discussion from Philippians the last few weeks). ("Walk" was an idiom for "live".)
This heavily repeated theme of knowing the truth and living the right way (in every chapter in Colossians!) has led many to believe that the false teaching/philosophy they were facing was some kind of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that the physical world was "bad" and the spiritual world was "good", leading them to reject Jesus and His teachings (see below). But Gnostics would secretly share this secret knowledge with one another. On the other hand, God is the one who shared this knowledge with the world (through people like Paul) -- God rescued people from their former, wicked way of life and made them worthy of the riches He had for them in Christ.
We've used this topic before: surprise inheritance. My wife and daughter like the (now 20-yr-old) movie called The Princess Diaries in which a young woman discovers that she is the rightful heir to a throne. Hijinks ensue. Well, God chose us to be the inheritors of His kingdom, not because of our bloodline or attributes, but entirely because of His love for all people.
We were in darkness, now we are in light. We were in darkness, now we are in Jesus. And in Jesus, we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Verse 14 is so powerful that entire gospel presentations have been built around it. I strongly encourage you to take a few minutes to give an overview of the gospel message when you read this verse -- make sure everyone in your group has a working understanding of it.
"redemption" has to do with being delivered from captivity because someone paid a price for your release
"forgiveness" has to do with a sending away or a removal of our sins from us; our sin is no longer a barrier keeping us from God
Importantly, make sure everyone notices that we are in the kingdom of Jesus. That's not some future thing that will happen when we die. We are a part of this kingdom now.
Aside: Gnosticism (the O.G. New Age)
Much like "the New Age Movement", the term "Gnosticism" is used to cover a wide range of loosely-defined beliefs that may or may not be coherent. The term comes from the Greek word "gnosis" which means "knowledge", a special knowledge that can be used to "rescue" people from the darkness of their miserable lives (and yes, Paul deliberately takes some of these ideas and flips them to point to Jesus; "darkness" was used for ignorance and sin, "light" for knowledge and truth). A regularly recurring theme in Gnosticism is that the physical world is bad and the spiritual world is good. Consequently, there must be layers and layers separating true "Deity" (whatever that is) from the mess that is the world. That would mean that Jesus could not truly be deity because Christians believe that He became a human. Additionally, Gnostics tended to sway in one of two directions: (1) because the physical world was bad, they didn't want to do anything that would bring them pleasure in any way; or (2) because the physical world was bad, who cared how they behaved?
To combat this, Paul explained that Jesus was *both* before the physical universe and also within the physical universe. Consequently, our physical behavior matters very much.
If that makes your head hurt, imagine hearing this as someone who grew up hearing the Greek/Roman myths about their pantheon:
All of the philosophical and theological ideas that went into creating those myths were (according to Paul) entirely false. Not only did the people in Colossae have to unlearn who they thoughts gods were, they had to unlearn what they thought gods were. The One True God was far beyond any of their pathetic myths. And furthermore, the knowledge of God couldn't come from any source other than God Himself -- revealed to us in Jesus Christ (whom Paul met on the road to Damascus). But God didn't want this knowledge of Himself to remain a secret (unlike what Gnostics thought) -- He wanted all people to hear it because this knowledge (the gospel) was the only hope people had for salvation. And that was Paul's mission, as it is the mission of every believer to this day.
Part 2: By Christ (Colossians 1:15-20)
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and by him all things hold together. 18 He is also the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile everything to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
These verses are offset because many scholars they think are a hymn or a poem. Obviously, a lot is lost in translation, but the verses have rhythm and parallelism and poetic language. This is one of the Christ hymns like Philippians 2 and John 1, and it could be that it even predates Paul, that Paul was quoting a well-known "song" that explained what he was trying to say.
[Have you ever quoted a Christian song to explain or understand something about Jesus? If so, which one? (Pastor's note: just because a song lyric sounds good doesn't make it right! Always test your favorite lyrics against the Bible. We can trust Paul's song lyric because it's in the Bible. And no, there's nothing circular about that logic, because God.)]
I don't think I need to explain what the verses mean, just maybe why they're so important.
V. 15. Jesus is the image of God. There is no other. He revealed God by being God.
No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him. John 1:18
An "image" (icon) in human terms is a "likeness" (like the "image" on a coin represented the person it was fashioned after). But more deeply, it also means a "manifestation" in the sense that it perfectly reflected the nature/being of what it represented. I think Paul chose this term because it had both a physical and an essential aspect -- Jesus both revealed God to us in what He did and said, but He also revealed God in who/what He was (in a way that's beyond what our eyes can see).
"Firstborn" (prototokos) has emboldened some groups like Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses to claim that Jesus was a created being, but that's not what the word means. It deals with rank and supremacy. The firstborn son had "firstborn" rights because he was "born first", but the term "firstborn" actually had as much to do with the rights as the birth. Does that make sense? As we read the rest of these verses, it will be clear that Paul is simply using every word in his arsenal to explain how Jesus is above everything, all of creation.
V. 16. Why is Jesus considered "firstborn"? Because He made everything. All things were made by Him and through Him and for Him. I don't know what more powerful and complete way Paul could say this. And not just our physical universe, but everything just beyond our sight. Angels, demons, powers, forces, spirits, all of it.
V. 17. This might be an easier way of understanding that huge concept: Jesus is before. In time (and in rank). Consider John 8:57: The Jews replied, “You aren’t fifty years old yet, and you’ve seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
But for me, a science nerd, the more amazing statement is that Jesus holds all things together. Scientists are looking for a "unified theory of everything" that can explain why things are the way they are. They are looking for "dark matter" and "dark energy" and clues about the "big bang". I can't help them with that, but I can definitively say this: however the universe was formed and however it is held together is Jesus.
And because Jesus is a God or order (not chaos) and a God of creativity (not destruction), we can confidently explore our world, knowing that it will make sense (inasmuch as we have capacity to understand those rules).
V. 18. This is the part that scientists and atheists simply have no room for. God created this universe for us, for humans on earth. For whatever reason, the universe has to be what it is for the earth to be what it needs to be to support life. The universe exists so that people could exist so that Jesus could save people and turn them into His church. Again, I don't know why God decided to create humans and make us so important to Him. I'm just not sure we have been worth all that trouble. Thank God I'm not making those decisions! Our worth is not in what we think of ourselves, it is what God thinks of us. And God thinks we are valuable enough to let Jesus become one of us and die for us. Case closed.
V. 19-20. Like in Philippians 2, Paul connects Jesus' position with His action. In an act totally incompatible with humanized theology, God died (God the Son). By doing so, Jesus reconciled us to God ("redemption, the forgiveness of sins"). "Reconcile" means turning an adversary into a friend (but more on this in the next verses). The challenge is to understand how Jesus reconciles "everything" to God. Does that mean everyone will be saved? Including fish and rocks? Definitely not -- Paul is quite clear about that in other verses (like 2:15). Rather, Paul is talking about the cosmic significance of what Jesus did. Because of Adam's sin, all of creation is fallen and suffers (see Romans 8). But in the new heaven and earth, all of creation will be restored to God, not in the sense of being "saved" (like people who put their faith and trust in Jesus) but in being able to be in God's glorious presence then and always.
But let's actually circle back to the even bigger concept -- the fullness of God in Christ. This word is so difficult to understand in this context, and I'm sure that's intentional. This is how Paul (and/or this hymn) has tried to express the inexpressible. How can God become a man? We simply have no framework for that. Somehow, Jesus was fully God and fully human.
It might be easier to explain what Paul was refuting in these verses. In Greek theology/mythology, the gods had certain "godly" characteristics ("the god of love" "the god of war" "the god of death" and so on). But Jesus was fully and completely God in every possible way. Another clue is the word "dwell" -- there were a number of false teachers who taught that Jesus was "possessed" by the Spirit for a time (the man Jesus was "adopted" by the God Christ until the crucifixion). But the word used for "dwell" was of a permanent residence, meaning that Jesus was always (and would always be) God.
This passage was instrumental in the practice of iconography in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Those are the pictures of saints that appear all around their churches (this is a famous one, "Christ Pantocrator" or "Christ Almighty", which dates to the sixth century or earlier). Anyway, the Roman Catholic tradition said that we shouldn't make any images of God (which is how they interpreted the Second Commandment -- no graven images). This led to one of their more serious disagreements.
The defense the Eastern Orthodox Church gave for this practice was this week's passage -- that Christ was the image of God. He came to reveal God to us. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to use images to represent (or remember) important elements of our faith and tradition.
The problem with images (and the reason God warned us off of them) is the human tendency to worship (or venerate) things that we can see. Even the Roman Catholic Church eventually fell into this trap (though they would argue that they are not worshiping the statue but the person the statue is an image of). That's a fine line.
Ultimately, Jesus is an "image" of God in ways that our art is not. Our art is our attempt to represent God. Jesus actually represented God. So that's not a valid argument in favor of icons. I personally believe there is great value in art. A picture is worth a thousand words, is it not? But we have to be very, very careful both in how we create such art and in how we consume it. Even the excellent television series "The Chosen" had to make a number of critical creative interpretations to put the Gospels on the screen. Let's create quality Christian art, but let's also help our people understand it.
Part 3: Through His Death (1:21-23)
21 Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds as expressed in your evil actions. 22 But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through his death, to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before him— 23 if indeed you remain grounded and steadfast in the faith and are not shifted away from the hope of the gospel that you heard. This gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become a servant of it.
Here, Paul goes into much deeper explanation of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. I think the more "important" verses are in the previous section, but these are more "difficult" verses to understand.
Paul goes into more depth on this topic in Romans 5 (though still really difficult)
10 For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
God is holy, meaning He is set apart from the world, and specifically that He cannot tolerate sin in His presence. That's a problem for us, because all of us are sinful sinners. The only solution that satisfies God's holiness is for us to pay the full penalty of our sin, but that's impossible for us because we are finite beings with an infinite penalty.
Because Jesus was fully God, He could pay the infinite price of human sin. And because Jesus was fully human, He could do so as our representative, or substitute. And because Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life as a human, He could legitimately enter the presence of God ("opening the door"). There, Jesus willingly gave His perfect record to any human who would trust in Him as Savior and Lord (He "imputed His righteousness" to us -- "He became sin who knew no sin so we could become His righteousness").
Jesus did not "make" us perfect in ourselves -- that's not what "faultless" means (unlike what some songs on the radio try to claim). We still sin. We are not perfect. But we now stand with Jesus in our relationship with God, meaning that He hears our prayers, His Spirit lives in us and guides us, and our eternal future is secure.
But then there's the "if" in verse 23. Is Paul saying that the Colossians might eventually lose their salvation if they don't persevere in their faith? We talked about this at length when we studied Hebrews. For the sake of time, let me summarize: if you don't remain firm in your faith, you may not have been a Christian in the first place. "True Christians" are those who persevere. But we have to be very careful in how we try to judge this: all of us go through seasons of doubt (or backsliding). There's simply no way for us to know what another person's relationship with God is. That's why Paul says this: "if you're drifting away from the beliefs and behaviors associated with the gospel (outlined in this letter), that's a bad sign that you may not be saved. Come to Jesus!"
So, there you go! I would love for you to save time at the end to get your group to write a summary:
What are the key beliefs listed in this week's passage?
What are the key practices listed in this week's passage?
Ask your group how they're doing with those beliefs and practices; what can you do to help them? Do you guys need to go to lunch to further study these (heady!) beliefs?
Who Is Jesus?
Ligonier Ministries (which did the survey with Lifeway mentioned at the top) put out an excellent summary of who Jesus is, much in the style of the old creeds.
I encourage you to take a look at it to see if it helps you sort through the key truths about Jesus. If you scroll to the bottom, you will see a link to their Affirmations page which goes into more detail (like, a lot of detail), including biblical references.
Note: this group is "Reformed", meaning they hold a Calvinistic view of the Bible. In matters of Christology, we are basically in lock-step with them. The matters of salvation (soteriology) in the Reformed perspective that I have a concern with -- namely that Christ only atoned for the sins of the elect, and that there is no human responsibility in salvation -- don't show up in this statement at all. This is a solid, robust summary of what the Bible teaches about Jesus.