Seeing the Right Image
Study #5 Colossians 1:15
by Bob Burridge ©2021
My brother Dale had a rather disturbing experience when he was 17. It was back in 1969. Lois and I had just gotten married. So when my parents, brother and sister visited Buffalo so see our relatives, I didn’t go along. They were planning a picnic for my sister’s birthday at an aunt’s house later that day, so Dale used the time before that to go off on his own for a while. He took the bus to the Museum of Science which he remembered from when we lived there. When he came back, the bus dropped him off a few blocks from where they were staying. Since it was a nice July day, Dale decided to walk rather than call for a ride.
Not knowing the area well, he found himself going through a neighborhood that didn’t seem very safe. He didn’t mean to go there, but he wasn’t real familiar with his alternatives. So he ventured on very cautiously through the housing project.
As he walked on, he noticed that a car suspiciously drove past him several times. Then things got worse. The car stopped, military officers got out, they walked up to Dale and demanded identification. My brother was only 17 at the time and didn’t have a draft card yet, which is what they asked for. But he did have his Florida driver’s license.
The officers looked at it and obviously didn’t believe it was legitimate. Evidently a soldier from near-by Fort Niagara had gone AWOL — and they were sure Dale was the man.
They were rather rough as they shoved him around and were not very willing to listen. They pushed my brother in the back seat of their vehicle, then drove him to where there was another car parked. In that car there were two women, the escaped soldier’s mother and wife. They were there to identify the prisoner so he could be taken back to jail at the fort.
To Dale’s surprise, the women weren’t sure if it was their man or not! One of them got out of the car and walked over to take a closer look. Then she asked him to take off his glasses so she could see his face better. Finally, after a very uncomfortable few moments, she said, “It’s not him.”
Of course there were humble apologies. They showed Dale the picture of the AWOL soldier. Dale said it could have been his own High School year book picture. The man was a dead-ringer. It was a case of mistaken identity.
There’s a more serious confusion that’s made every day. Many mistake a false Jesus Christ for the real one. They follow after the artificial ones, which are usually very appealing to fallen hearts. They’re often good counterfeits and are hard to distinguish from the real Savior. So they deceive many about what’s true about the real Son of God.
Our Triune God is misrepresented
horribly in our world.
Fallen hearts don’t want to believe in a Divine Lord who is really Sovereign over all things. They don’t want to have rules to live by, and moral limits to stay within. Worship takes up time they’d rather spend on themselves. They don’t want to thank God for their gains and opportunities. They like to think they did it all themselves. Giving to support a church takes away from their spending money.
Before we get too judgmental, we need to remember that we’re all born into that same fallen human race. Our fallen hearts are quick to look for a way to justify whatever we’d like to do. If it wasn’t for the power of God’s grace we would all prefer a more self-centered version of Jesus.
The Jesus loved by this lost world isn’t its Sovereign Lord who made all things. Believing in this false Jesus lets us imagine we control each event in the course of history. This Jesus is waiting to see what we each decide to know how the final judgment will come out. He comes begging to us for our souls, our obedience, our worship, and of course our financial support. Many make this tragic mistaken identity. They pursue this false Christ instead of the true one.
Even the early churches were targets of this confusion. When Paul wrote this letter to the believers in Colossae, they were already being confronted with false teachings about Jesus. Some tried to make him fit in with the views of the Rabbis who added their own ideas to the Scriptures. Others tried to blend the truth about Jesus with the pagan Greek philosophies and religions.
So when Paul mentioned Jesus, he added this important section telling us which Jesus he meant. He’s the one who has made a dramatic transformation in their lives. He’s the one who actually solved the infinite problem of sin. He’s the only one able to preserve justice while administering mercy by undeserved forgiveness. This next verse introduces one of this letter’s main themes: The pre-eminence of the true Jesus Christ.
Speaking of Jesus Paul wrote in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
First, Paul says that this true Jesus
is the Image of the invisible God.
Notice that it doesn’t say he was made in the image of God, as humans were. His being the image of God is very different than our work as his image bearers. Our duty is to represent our Creator in this world, even though finitely and imperfectly. We, like him, partake of being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. But unlike him we are not infinite, eternal and unchangeable in these things.
But Paul is saying that Jesus was not created as an imperfect reflection of deity. He is God himself. He is the Maker, not the thing made. He is eternally the image of the whole Godhead. He is the Word, the revealing of God. Therefore he represents the Godhead perfectly. Hebrews 1:3, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”. Later in Colossians 2:9 Paul writes, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, ”
There was an ancient debate by some who argued that if Jesus was an image, he couldn’t be the real thing the image represented. But when understood in the context of this chapter, the word image isn’t used in that finite and limited way. God purposed to reveal himself to us most directly and perfectly as the person of Jesus Christ. This person of the godhead clothed himself in finite form for a time, to show us a most perfect representation of what he, as God, has purposed in his love.
The Apostle John called Jesus the Word because he’s the expression of God to us. In his gospel he put it this way …
John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
John 14:9, “Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? ”
We learn about God by seeing Jesus. So how do we see and hear Jesus Christ today? How is he still the image of God for us? We don’t see him physically. God didn’t preserve what he looks like. But we know him from the record so carefully written for us in Scripture. God guided four different gospel authors to record an accurate story of his life. He spoke through the prophets before him and the epistle writers after him. Together we have a full treasury of what God has made known about himself in Christ.
Rather than reading all that, some think they learn about Jesus from pictures or figurines of him. In biblical times artists were able to preserve the likenesses of the philosophers and emperors. We know them from sculptures, engravings, and paintings. But God didn’t have the appearance of Jesus saved that way. We know he was a Jew, healthy and dressed in the ordinary styles of his day. But we have no idea what he looked like, or his facial expressions in conversations.
Many think they know what Jesus looked like. I’ve seen them say they’ve seen him appear in clouds, in a deformed potato, or a “sacred” stain on a wall. I remember a front page photograph in one of those grocery-store gossip papers showing an image of a long haired bearded head in the clouds with the caption, “Jesus returns”. To me it looked like the Beatle, John Lennon.
We have a medieval image of Jesus which came from artists, many of whom were heretics or pagans. Actors portray their version of his gestures and facial expressions in movies and plays.
The Bible tells us not to make physical images of God. It’s forbidden in the 2nd Commandment. Jesus is God. Though he took on a human form for a time, Jesus is more than that. No one has the right to make up what they think his physical form looked like. To make images of any person of the Trinity is to violate that moral commandment.
The Westminster pastors and Bible experts carefully drew up the answer to Larger Catechism question 109, “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it …”
There is real danger in reducing Jesus to pictures, figurines, or portraying him in movies and plays.
Instead, we should study his life in Scripture, and be satisfied with what God has preserved about him.
If God thought we, or our children, needed pictures to learn about him, he could have, and would have, given them to us. But he not only didn’t give us pictures, he told us not to make them.
There’s only one physical representation of Jesus that God commanded for us today. It’s his representation in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine. It doesn’t tell us what he looked like. It symbolically represents his work and continuing promise. That sacrament is carefully regulated in Scripture with solemn warnings against its misuse.
Today, many know the images of Jesus while few know what the Bible actually says about him. There are many false ideas about Jesus. That makes it hard to recognize the true one. Satan is smart. If he can’t get us to directly reject truth, he confuses us with distorting substitutes. But this is exactly what the early church faced too. Jesus warned his disciples in Matthew 24:23-26…
23. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.
24. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
25. See, I have told you beforehand.
26. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.
In his epistles John warned that many antichrists were falsely misleading the people in his time. We must learn about the Jesus as presented in Scripture, not as we imagine him to be.
Jesus is the firstborn of all creation.
Jesus wasn’t created or born into existence. He’s the Creator of all things created. In the next verse Paul immediately clears this up, Colossians 1:16, “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.”
The Apostle John begins his gospel removing any doubt about Jesus as the Creator of everything else. John 1:3, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. ”
The term “firstborn” had a well known and common use among the people to whom Paul wrote. It was a legal term representing the child who was primary in the home, the chief heir. This is how the word is used throughout the Bible.
Exodus 4:22, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son’ ”
Jeremiah 31:9, “With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble, for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.”
The term always has to do with the superlative dignity and authority of Jesus. It’s never about his origin for he had none. He’s eternal, and has always existed in the Trinity.
Later in Colossians 1:18 Paul makes it clear what he means by first-born, “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.”
In Hebrews 1:2 It says of God, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
The first-born son was always the one who had the inheritance, who ruled with the Father, and who had the highest honor, and the priority in all blessings.
It’s not that Jesus came into existence at some point in time, but that he is the first-born as to his honor and priority. Jesus has dominion over all things. We are heirs only in him.
This is an important characteristic in making sure we follow the true Jesus, not a counterfeit. If Jesus is just a great teacher or example we add to our lives to make them more complete, then he is not the Lord over all, the all pervasive master of every part of our lives.
The true Jesus is our Creator, our Redeemer, our only hope in this life and the next. He’s the one to whom we must devote our every thought and decision. All of life must be lived in ways that please him and that recognize the ultimacy of his honor. This is the genuine Jesus, the one we who stirs us to love, service, and worship.
We need to learn to appreciate the grandeur of the greatest thing to behold, the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ revealed to us in Scripture.
This is one of the problem with so called “innocent” pictures of Jesus. People say they don’t worship them, as if that’s all that was commanded. No, the Bible forbids us to make them or to possess them altogether. How can we look on what we believe represents this awesome Savior, then say that looking upon it never stirs our hearts to humble praise?
We must accept no substitute, allow no distortions. We need to be careful not to be taken in by look-alike imitations, though they may be less demanding on us and easier to picture in our finite minds. The enemy of our souls has us running off following a false-god, a look-alike. Meanwhile the true Jesus eludes many because they are satisfied with a substitute.
We will all face God in the final day of judgment. The eyes of the deceived will be open to recognize the distortion of the one they’ve been following. Like the military police after arresting Dale, the wrong suspect. They’ll hear the voice say, “It’s not him.” What a chilling realization! But unlike the embarrassed military police who wasted their time following my brother, they won’t get off so easily for spending their lives tracing the footsteps of an impostor.
Don’t make the error of mistaken identity with Jesus Christ. It’s too important a matter. The remedy is simple, it doesn’t require a scholar or minister. Open your Bible regularly, learn the Jesus described on those pages. As you behold him there, take time to stand in awe of his glory and wonder. Bow before him in humble and thankful prayer.
And Join with his spiritual family in his church. Stand together with your brothers and sisters redeemed by that glorious Sovereign Savior. He is infinitely more wonderful than anything all the created universe.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.