What is the Gospel? Part Three: Cross
Note: From September 9–11, a large chunk of Westgate Church traveled up to Lake Winnipesaukein New Hampshire for our annual Sandy Island retreat. The focus of our time was “What is the Gospel?” Since not all were able to attend (and not every reader attends Westgate), I’m posting the sessions here—one per day for four days. Click here for Part One: News, Part Two: Kingdom, and Part Four: Grace.
WHAT IS THE GOSPEL? PART THREE: CROSS
In part two we saw the unfolding biblical story of God establishing his kingdom. This kingdom was compromised in the fall (Gen. 3), but we saw how God’s plan to redeem his kingdom was moving forward through Abraham, Israel, and David, and how that kingdom will ultimately be fully realized in a new creation. So what is it that takes us from the partially realized kingdom of Israel, which plummeted back into judgment in exile, to the gloriously perfected kingdom at the end of the Bible? What is the heart of the story? That is our question for part three.
Our key word here is CROSS. The cross is the center of the gospel message. The gospel is NEWS about God’s KINGDOM, which he is establishing through the CROSS.
Saying that the cross is the center of the gospel is not an attempt to elevate the death of Jesus at the expense of his life or resurrection. Clearly all of Jesus life’ and teaching, his death and resurrection, even his ascension and session in heaven (where he is seated at the right hand of the Father) and his return are instrumental in how God accomplishes his plan of redemption. But the cross is often described as the centerpiece of that process, such that the word is even used in Scripture as a shorthand summary of the person and work of Jesus. For instance, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:2: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18, 23). This doesn’t mean that Paul never talked about the life or resurrection of Jesus. He talked about God’s kingdom and salvation through Jesus, which was centered in the cross. Or Galatians 6:14: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (cf. 5:11).
The cross is central. And to examine the centrality of the cross of Christ, we’ll focus here on Colossians 1:15-23.
The Supremacy and Sufficiency of Christ (Col. 1:15-23)
In the opening lines of Colossians, Paul has been discussing how the gospel is at work among the Colossian church and throughout the world. In vv. 5-6 he notes how “the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.” This is the gospel through which God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). Through the cross God is establishing his kingdom, reclaiming a people for himself, that we might be God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule enjoying God’s blessing for the sake of God’s glory.
After explaining that we have been transferred into the Kingdom of God’s Son, Paul goes on to tell us a little more about this Son in whom we have redemption, and why he and he alone is qualified to accomplish God’s redemption and establish his kingdom.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16For 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. 17And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And 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. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. 21And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23if 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.
In short, Jesus Christ is supreme over all creation, and is therefore uniquely sufficient to establish God’s kingdom by dealing with our sin through his life, death, and resurrection.
Paul gives us two main reasons why Christ is uniquely qualified to restore God’s broken world, including our broken lives. Two ways of declaring Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency for God’s reconciling work. The first is Christ’s role in creation, vv. 15-17.
Christ’s Role in Creation (1:15-17)
He begins by describing Christ in v. 15 as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” We have to stop and ask, what does that remind you of? Genesis 1—the language of creation, image of God. We saw it in part two, how in creation God made man in his own image (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). But what is Paul saying here about Christ?
First, I think it’s saying that he’s human. Humanity was made “in the image of God”, and here is the perfect sample—one who actually does his job, faithfully bearing God’s image to the world in relationship with the Father. Jesus is and does everything that Adam, Israel, and you and I fail to be and to do. He never sinned, never succumbed to temptation or rebellion (e.g. Matt. 4:1-11; 1 Pet. 2:22). His was perfect covenant obedience—so that he might stand in our place, as our representative in both his life and death.
But this phrase is saying more than that he is human; it’s also attesting to his divinity or deity as well—that Jesus is God. And this is evident in several ways. First, whereas humanity is made in the image of God, Christ here is the image itself. Christ is the very template or mold for humanity—he is the True Human, the True Adam, after which we are patterned (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4).
And second, being the very image of God, he is the one who makes known to us the invisible God. Catch that language—he is the image of the invisible God. In the words of the Gospel of John, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (1:18). If we want to see God, to know God, to relate to and enjoy God, the only avenue given to us is his eternal Son, Jesus.
Third, Christ’s divinity is displayed in the language of being “the firstborn of all creation,” or better, “over all creation.” Which does not mean, as Arius mistook, that Christ is a created being. Christ condescended to creation; he took humanity into deity, taking on flesh and becoming part of it. But the person of Christ is not a created being. Rather, the language of “firstborn” speaks to his preeminence among humanity, such as Israel is described as God’s firstborn son in Exodus 4, or David in Psalm 89. And the simple evidence for that comes in v. 16—Christ was active as God’s agent in creation. “For by him all things were created . . . all things were created through him and for him.”
Christ was God’s agent in creation—it was made by him, through him, and for him—the whole thing exists for his purposes. He is supreme over all creation—all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible—even those forces on this earth that sometimes seem to be in opposition to God and his ways, what Paul lists as “thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities.” Christ is supreme over all. He precedes it all—v. 17, “he is before all things,” attesting to his eternality, to his pre-incarnate existence. And he sustains it all. The whole fabric of creation is held into play by Christ’s hands.
Paul begins by taking us back to Christ’s role in creation—he is the Father’s agent in creating and sustaining the whole cosmos, which is a fitting qualification for his role in restoring it to wholeness. If the problem in this world is that God’s vision for creation has been spoiled—his vision for his kingdom, then we need someone who has the authority and wisdom and power to fix it properly. We need someone who was there in creation, who was active in it in the first place, who has been active in sustaining it ever since. Only someone like that can properly restore it and bring it to completion. Only someone like that can accomplish God’s purposes and establish his kingdom. Only Christ is qualified to do this.
But how does he do it? This is where our key word comes in: Cross. In vv. 18-20, Paul now points to Christ’s role in redemption.
Christ’s Role in Redemption (1:18-20)
Notice the shift in focus in v. 18. Paul goes from speaking of Christ’s work among the whole cosmos and narrows his focus down to the church—the people of God in Christ. Why? Because out of the broken original creation, God is bringing forth a new creation, a new humanity, with Christ as its head. “He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (1:18). Christ is not only the agent of God’s first creation, he is the head of his new creation. The glorious eternal kingdom that we’re waiting for in the end has been brought near in part and in advance through Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
What ancient Israel looked forward to for all humanity in the age to come—the bodily resurrection of the dead, some to everlasting punishment, some to everlasting life (Dan. 12:2; John 5:24-27; 11:23-27), Christ took and broke into the present evil age with it, as the firstborn of the dead, the firstfruits of the resurrection—the first batch of the harvest that anticipates a full harvest yet to come (1 Cor. 15:20-26; Rom. 8:29). So God’s future new creation and eternal kingdom is already at work in this world through Christ, and those who are in Christ—his church. It has been inaugurated (begun), though it is not yet consummated (it’s not complete). Jesus said in his earthly ministry, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17; cf. v. 23). But we still see rebellion, idolatry, and treason; we still know it in our own hearts. We still live in the “meantime,” if you will. Only when Jesus returns he will consummate the kingdom—it will be fully here (cf. 1 Cor. 15:21-26). But it has already begun through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—new life, new birth.
And the whole purpose of this is to show off Christ’s preeminence—“that in everything he might be preeminent.” Christ alone is supreme, and therefore uniquely sufficient to accomplish God’s plan. Nothing can take his place. And here’s the reason why—v. 19: “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.” It was the pleasure of God not only to create the world through his Son, but to redeem it through him as well. God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The fullness of God dwelt in him—that’s temple language. Remember in the OT how the temple would be filled with the fullness and glory of God (e.g. Exod. 40:34-38; 1 Kgs. 8:10-11)? God came down in Jesus Christ, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). And he did so, v. 20, “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
God came down in Jesus to rescue a fallen and rebellious world and reconcile it to himself—“all things.” And when he says “all things” here, he means the whole realm of his creation: things in heaven and things on earth—everything that has been stained by sin because of the fall; everything that bears the marks of human rebellion. But what does he mean by “reconciliation”?
Reconciliation is the language of restoring peace. Not merely ending conflicts, but real biblical peace and wholeness—the OT vision of shalom. It’s taking something that was broken, whether it’s a relationship or the very fabric of creation itself, and putting it back together. Everything that was compromised in the fall: our relationship with God, our invitation into his presence, our joyful submission to his God’s rule, enjoyment of his blessing, and the magnification of his glory. All of it is being reclaimed and restored through the cross of Christ.
And the price of this reconciliation—the very means of that restoration and redemption—was the blood of his cross. The cross is the centerpiece of God’s plan of redemption. It is the heart of the gospel.
Now, in a lot of ways, this just doesn’t seem to make sense. How can the savage death of one’s king accomplish anything by way of establishing a kingdom or putting the world back together? But the cross is where God’s grand plan of reconciling the world actually breaks in and does its redeeming and transforming work. The substitutionary death of Jesus Christ deals with the problem of sin and rebellion against God, and it does so in two key ways:
First, through the cross Jesus atones for our sin. 1 Corinthians 15:3 tells us “Christ died for sins.” The fall of humanity messed up everything. But the biggest problem created by the fall is that we have offended God and stand condemned for our sin, guilty of high treason (cf. John 3:36). As a just king, God must deal justly with our sin. But how can a just king declare guilty sinners not guilty? Only if the punishment they deserve is poured out on a suitable substitute.
Under the Old Testament law Israel offered sacrifices to God, where their sin was placed on the animal and the animal bore their sin and died in their place. The Passover lamb was a chief example of this—when God was rescuing Israel from slavery in Egypt, he sent his destroying angel through the land to kill all the firstborn sons, since Israel was his firstborn son (Exod. 4:21-23; 11:1-12:51). But Israel was ultimately just as guilty as Egyptin their idolatry and rebellion (cf. Josh. 24:14; Ezek. 20:7-8). It was not because of their righteousness that they were saved (cf. Deut. 9:6-8). So why is it that the death angel struck down the firstborn of Egypt in judgment, but not Israel? Because God gave Israel a substitute—the Passover lamb. The lamb died in place of the firstborn. When the death angel saw the blood of the lamb smeared on the doorpost and lintel of each Israelite home, he passed over the home. The lamb took the wrath of God so that Israel didn’t have to.
According to the New Testament, Jesus is the true Passover Lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7). As 1 Peter 2:24 says of Jesus (echoing Isaiah 53): “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Jesus was our suitable substitute. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Jesus was both the priest and the offering.
The full weight of God’s wrath—his holy anger against our sin—was poured out on Christ in our place. He exhausted it to atone for our sin. God’s wrath against his people has been spent—there is no wrath left for the believer. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Wrath remains for those who reject Christ (cf. John 3:36). But for those who are in Christ, God now declare sinners like us ‘not guilty’ because our debt has been paid. This is what Paul describes in Colossians 2:13-14: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (cf. Rom. 3:21-26).
The second way that God deals with sin is this: through the cross Jesus destroys the power of sin, evil, suffering, and death by taking them onto himself. Look at Hebrews 2:14-15: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
On the cross, Jesus not only atoned for our sins but conquered evil, death, and Satan. He crushed the head of the serpent (cf. Gen. 3:15). When the world thought it was doing its worst, Jesus was actually winning. Paul continues describing the cross in Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities [i.e. the spiritual forces of evil] and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in it [that is, the cross]”. Jesus’ death took away sin’s greatest weapon—death. He disarmed it. And then he conquered it when he rose from the dead on the third day. As Paul says at the end of 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (quoting Isaiah 25 and Hosea 13):
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The cross is the centerpiece of God’s plan, the means of making it work. And Paul goes on in vv. 21-23 to show how God’s grand plan of reconciling all things to himself is applied specifically to his rebellious people.
Christ’s Redemption at Work in Us (Col. 1:21-23)
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23if 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.
Notice how Paul uses the same word, “reconcile,” and applies it the church. In establishing God’s kingdom, Christ establishes peace between rebellious sinners and a holy God. We go from being treasonous rebels, waiting on death row for our just execution, to being cleared of our charges, washed and redressed in rich garments, and invited to sit at the King’s own table as part of his family. Not because the charges weren’t true. But because God dealt justly with our sin by pouring out his anger on a perfect substitute—Jesus—that we might be forgiven. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” When we are united with Christ in faith, his righteous life is ascribed to us, and our damning sin is ascribed to him. Though we deserve something utterly terrible, we have been given something indescribably wonderful. That’s called grace—the grace of the gospel. We’ll talk more about grace in part four.
The reality is we are more sinful than we can ever acknowledge or imagine—every one of us. But God’s grace in Christ is more sufficient than we can ever appreciate or conceive. Or as Tim Keller says, “We are more flawed and sinful than we ever dared believe, yet we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope at the same time.” Or as John Newton wrote: “Thus while his death my sin displays / In all its blackest hue; / Such is the mystery of grace, It seals my pardon too.”
Through the cross God has given us his grace and his love. And he has done so for a purpose—to present us holy and blameless above reproach before God. He is rescuing us and restoring us as servants of God’s Kingdom. Jesus is cleaning us up, wiping us off, changing us from the inside out, clothing us in his own righteousness, holiness, and beauty, remaking us after his own image. He’s picking up the broken pieces of glass and fixing the mirror that sin shattered, so that we might increasingly be what we were created to be: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule enjoying God’s blessing for the sake of God’s glory. Faithful image-bearers of God, children, servants, who by the Spirit are called to continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that we’ve heard.
Christ is supreme. Christ is sufficient. He alone is able to bring peace and restoration to God’s vision for this world, for his kingdom, and for our lives. Without the cross, there is no gospel. Without the cross, there is no salvation. Without the cross, the news of God’s coming kingdom is not good news. It’s bad news, because it means that when the king arrives, rebels and brigands like us will finally be brought to justice for our rebellion. But the cross is good news. It changes everything. Through the cross we are rescued from our sin and redeemed for God’s kingdom. And through the cross and resurrection, God continues to work in and through us by his Spirit to accomplish his kingdom purposes.
So how do we come to share in the hope of the gospel of Jesus and his kingdom? Stay tuned for part four, where we’ll look at how we participate in the gospel by grace.