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Who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature.—Col. I. 15.
THE apostle having mentioned our redemption, doth now fall upon a description of the Redeemer. He is set forth by two things:—
First, His internal relation to God.
Secondly, By his external relation to the creature.
Doct. It is a great part of a believer’s work to have a deep sense of the Redeemer’s excellency imprinted upon his mind and heart.
Here I shall show:—
I. How it is set forth in this verse.
II. Why this should be much upon our minds and hearts.
I. How it is set forth in this scripture:—
1. That he is ‘the image of the invisible God.’
2. ‘The first-born of every creature.’
For the first expression there I shall consider:—
1. What belongs to an image.
2. In what respects Christ is the image of God.
3. How he differeth from other persons.
1. What belongeth to an image, and that all this is in Christ. In an image there are two things—impression and representation. Both are in Christ. There is a divine impression upon him, and he doth represent God to us.
[1.] For impression, there is:—
(1.) Likeness; for an image must be like him whom it representeth. An artificial image of God, or such as may be made by us, is forbidden upon this account: Isa. xl. 18, ‘To whom, then, will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?’ What is there among all the creatures that can be like such an infinite and almighty essence? or by what visible shape or figure would they represent or resemble God?
(2.) Deduction and derivation. The image is taken from him whom it is intended to represent. It is not some casual similitude between two men that have no reference or dependence one upon another; hut such as is between a father and his only-begotten son; as it is said of Adam, Gen. v. 1, ‘He begat a son in his own image;’ and so it is verified in Christ because of his eternal generation. Like him, because begotten of him.
(3.) There is not a likeness in a few things, but a complete and exact likeness; so Christ, as the second person, is called, Heb. i. 3, ‘The express image of his person.’ There is not only likeness, but equality. God cannot make a creature equal to himself, nor beget a son unequal to himself.
[2.] Representation; for an image it serveth to make known and declare that thing whose image it is. If light produce light, the light produced doth represent the light and glory producing; and the more perfect and immediate the production is, the more perfect is the resemblance; a lively expression of the pattern and exemplar. And this is the reason why the word invisible is added, because God, who in his own nature is invisible, and incomprehensible to man, revealeth himself so far as is necessary to salvation to us by Christ. Visible things are known by their visible images, with more delight, but not with more accuracy. The image is not necessary to know the thing; but here it is otherwise. We cannot know God but by Christ: John i. 18, ‘No man hath seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.’ God is invisible, and incomprehensible by any but Jesus Christ, who being his only Son, and one in essence with the Father, he doth perfectly know him, and reveal unto mankind all that they know of him. Thus you see what belongs to an image.
2. In what respects Christ is the image of God.
[1.] In respect of his eternal generation. So Christ is ‘the express image of his person’—not substance, but subsistence. We do not say that milk is like milk, nor one egg like another, because they are of the same substance; so Christ is not said to be of the same substance, but of the same subsistence. He is, indeed, of the same substance with him whom he doth resemble, but the image is with respect to the subsistence; so he resembleth the Father fully and perfectly. There is no perfection in the Father but the same is in the Son also. He is eternal, omnipotent, infinite in wisdom, goodness, and power.
[2.] As God incarnate, or manifested in our flesh; so the perfections of the Godhead shine forth in the man Christ Jesus, in his person, word, and works.
(1.) In his person. They that had a discerning eye might see something divine in Christ: John i. 14, ‘We beheld his glory, as the glory of the only-begotten of the Father.’ There is the as of similitude, and the as of congruity; as if a mean man taketh state upon him, we say he behaveth himself as a king, but if we say the same of a king indeed, we mean he behaveth himself king-like, that is, becoming the majesty of his high calling. So we beheld his glory as, &c., that is, such a glory as was suitable and becoming God’s only Son. So Christ was angry with his disciples because they were too importunate to see the Father, though they saw him ordinarily, conversing with him: John xiv. 7, ‘If ye had known me ye should have known my Father also, and from henceforth ye know him and have seen him.’ The Father is no otherwise to be known but as he hath revealed himself in Christ; and having seen and known Christ, who was his image, they might both see and know him; and when Philip saith ‘Show us the Father and it sufficeth us’—this will convince us all without further argument—Christ answereth, ver. 9, ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.’ They might see the Father’s infinite power acting in him, his wisdom teaching by him, his goodness in the whole strain of his life; so that in Christ becoming man, God doth in and by him represent all his own attributes and properties, his wisdom, goodness, and power.
(2.) In his word; where God is revealed to us savingly, so as we may be brought into communion with him, so it is said, ‘lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them,’ 2 Cor. iv. 4. As God shineth forth in Christ, so doth Christ shine forth in the gospel. There we have the record of his doctrine, miracles, and the end for which he came into the world; and this is the great instrument by which the virtue and power of God is conveyed to us, for the changing of our hearts and lives: 2 Cor. iii. 18, ‘Beholding the glory of the Lord as in a glass, we are changed into his image and likeness, from glory to glory.’ Some sight of God we must have, or else we cannot be like him: the knowledge or sight of God with mortal or bodily eyes is impossible; the external manifestations and representations in the creature is imperfect, and sufficeth rather for conviction than conversion, or to leave us without excuse, than to save the soul, Rom. xii. 1 (they have not the excuse of fault less ignorance). To know him in the law, or covenant of works, doth but work wrath, Rom. iv. 15, or revive in us a stinging sense of our hopeless condition. To know him in person, or to see his glorious works, or hear his glorious words, was a privilege vouchsafed but to few, and to many that made no good use of it; therefore there is only reserved his word to bring us into communion with God, or the glass of the gospel to represent the glory of the Lord, that we may be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; there the knowledge of God is held out powerfully in order to our salvation.
(3.) His works—all which in their whole tenure and contexture showed him to be God-man. If at any time there appeared any evidence of human weakness, lest the world should be offended and stumble thereat, he did at the same time give out some notable demonstrations of his divine power. When he lay in a manger at his birth, a star appeared, and angels proclaimed his birth to the shepherds; when he was swaddled as an infant, the wise men came and worshipped him; when he was in danger of suffering shipwreck, he commanded the winds and the waves, and they obeyed him; when he was tempted by Satan, he was ministered unto by the angels, Mat. iv. 11; when they demanded tribute for the temple, a fish brought it to him, Mat. xvii. 26; when he was deceived in the fig-tree (which, was an infirmity of human ignorance), he suddenly blasted it, discovering the glory of a divine power; when he hung dying on the cross, the rocks were rent, the graves opened, the sun darkened, and all nature put into a rout. Though he humbled himself to purchase our mercies, yet he assured our faith by some emissions and breakings forth of his divine power. Well, then, though it be our duty to seek and find out God’s track and foot-print in the whole creation, and to observe the impressions of his wisdom, goodness, and power, in all the saints; especially this is our duty to admire his image in Jesus Christ, for in his humanity the perfections of the Godhead shine forth in the highest lustre. Whatever perfection we conceive to be in his person, word, or works, the same may we conclude to be in the Father also. Did the winds and seas obey Christ? the whole creation is at the beck of God. Did Christ show himself to be the wisdom, goodness and power of God? surely God is infinitely wise. Was Christ holy and undefiled? surely so is God—light in whom is no darkness at all. Was Christ loving, pitiful, and compassionate, not abhorring the most vile and miserable, whether in soul or body, that came to him for relief? surely God is love, and he will not be strange to those that seek him in Christ.
3. How he differeth from other persons; for the saints also are made after the image of God: Col. iii. 10, ‘And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him;’ Eph. iv. 24, ‘And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.’ I answer, There is a great difference between the image of God in man and the image of God in Christ.
[1.] Man resembleth God hut imperfectly. Man was made, and is now made, after the image of God, but with much abatement of this high perfection which is in Christ, for he hath all the substantial perfection which his Father hath. In other creatures there is some resemblance, but no equality: other creatures are made like God, but he is begotten like God.
[2.] It is derivative from Christ. God would recover man out of his lapsed estate by setting up a pattern of holiness in our nature: Rom. viii. 29, ‘Whom he did foreknow he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren.’ None was fit to restore this image of God that was lost, but God incarnate, for thereby the glory of God was again visible in our nature. God is a pure spirit, and we are creatures, that have indeed an immortal soul, but it dwelleth in flesh; therefore to make us like God, ‘the Word was made flesh,’ that he might represent the perfections of God to us, and commend holiness by his own example.
Secondly, The next thing ascribed to Christ is that he is ‘the first born of every creature:’ that is, born of God before any creature had a being, or begotten of the Father of his own proper essence, and equal with him before anything was created and brought forth out of nothing. But here the adversaries of the eternal Godhead of Christ triumph, and say, The first-born of the creatures is a creature, one of the same kind. I answer—If we grant this that they allege, they gain nothing, for Christ had two natures—he was God-man. As God, he is the Creator, and not a creature; for the apostle proveth that ‘by him all things were made:’ but as man, so he is indeed a creature. This double consideration must not be forgotten: Rom. i. 3, 4. Our Lord Jesus Christ was ‘made of the seed of David according to the flesh, but declared to be the Son of God, with power according to the Spirit;’ therefore we must distinguish between Christ and Christ, what he is according to the Spirit, and what he is according to the flesh.
2. I answer—That metaphors must be taken in the sense in which they are intended. Now what is the apostle’s intention in giving Christ the appellation of the first-born?
Four things are implied by this metaphor:—
[1.] Identity of nature.
[2.] Likeness of original.
Nothing else can be insinuated into the mind of man by such a form of speech but identity and sameness of nature between the brethren, which is true as to Christ’s humanity: Heb. ii. 14, ‘Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also took part of the same;’ or else sameness of stock, which is true also, for the same reason: Heb. ii. 11, ‘For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one; for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren;’ or priority of time, for the first-born is before all the rest; or else dignity, authority, and pre-eminence. Now, which of these doth the apostle intend? The two last the pre-existence of Christ before anything was made, as appeareth by this reason, ver. 16, ‘For by him all things were made, whether they be in heaven or in earth;’ and also his dignity and authority above them, as appeareth by the frequent use of the word. For the first-born in families had authority over the rest. When Jacob had got the birthright, this was a part of Isaac’s blessing: Gen. xxvii. 29, ‘Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee.’ Sovereignty was implied in the birthright, so David is called ‘the first-born of the kings of the earth,’ Ps. lxxxix. 27, as the most glorious amongst them. So here nothing else is intended but that Christ is in time and dignity before all creatures.
Thirdly, Though Christ be called the first-born of every creature, it doth not imply that he is to be reckoned as one of them, or accounted a creature. It is true, when it is said, Rom. viii. 29, that ‘he is the first-born among many brethren,’ it implieth that he is head of the renewed estate, that he and all new creatures are of the same kind—allowing him the dignity of his rank and degree; for God is his God, and their God his Father and their Father. But here it is not the first-born amongst the creatures, but the first-born of every creature. And for further confirmation, here is not identity of nature, for he is not at all of the same nature with the angels—those principalities and thrones, dominions and powers, spoken of in the next verse—nor issued of the same stock with any of them. Mark, he is called the first-born, not first created, which must be understood of his divine nature and eternal generation of the Father before all creatures. The creatures are not begotten and born of God, but made by him. So Christ is primogenitus—that is, unigenitus, the first-born, that only-begotten. In the following verse he is brought in, not as a creature, but the creator of all things. The first-born is not the cause of the rest of the children. Peter was the first-born, yet may be a brother to James and John, but not a father to them. Now all the rest of the creatures are created and produced by him; he is not reckoned among them as one of them—he is the image of the invisible God.
II. Why this excellency of our Redeemer should be so deeply impressed upon our minds and hearts? For many reasons.
1. This is needful to show his sufficiency to redeem the world. The party offended is God, who is of infinite majesty; the favour to be purchased is the everlasting fruition of God; and the sentence to be reversed is the sentence of everlasting punishment. Therefore there needed some valuable satisfaction to be given to reconcile these things to our thoughts; that we may be confident that we shall have redemption by his blood, even the remission of sins. There are three things that commend the value of Christ’s sacrifice—the dignity of his person, the greatness of his sufferings, and the merit of his obedience. But the two latter without the former will little quiet the heart of scrupulous men. His sufferings were great, but temporary and finite—the merit of his obedience much; but how shall the virtue of it reach all the world? And if he be but a mere creature, he hath done what he ought to do. I confess a fourth thing may be added—God’s institution, which availeth to the end for which God hath appointed it; but the scripture insists most on the first—the dignity of his person—which putteth a value on his sacrifice: Acts xx. 18; Heb. ix. 13, 14; at least there is an intrinsic worth. This answers all objections. His sufferings were temporary and finite; but it is the blood of God,—he hath offered up himself through the eternal Spirit.
2. To work upon our love, that Christ may have the chief room in our hearts. There is no such argument to work upon our love as that God over all, blessed for ever, should come to relieve man in such a condescending way: 1 John iii. 16, ‘Hereby we perceive the love which God hath to us, in that he laid down his life for us: ‘that very person that died for us was God. There was power discovered in the creation, when God made us like himself out of the dust of the ground; but love in our redemption, when he made himself like us. The person that was to work out our deliverance was the eternal Son of God. That God that owes nothing to man, and was so much offended by man, and that stood in no need of man, having infinite happiness and contentment in himself, that he should come and die for us! Hereby perceive we the love of God. When we consider what Christ is, we shall most admire what he hath done for us.
Thirdly, That we may give Christ his due honour; for God will have all men to honour the Son as they honour the Father, John v. 23, he being equal in power and glory. The setting forth of his glory is a rent due to him from all creatures. We are to praise him both in word and deed, in mind, and heart, and practice, which we can never do unless we understand the dignity of his person. We are apt to have low thoughts of Christ, therefore we should often revive the considerations that may represent his worth and excellency.
Fourthly, That we may place all hope of salvation in him, and may make use of him to the ends which he came to accomplish. We can hardly consider the work of redemption but some base thoughts arise in our minds, nor entertain this mystery, with due respect to the truth, and greatness, and admirableness of it, without raising our thoughts to the consideration of the dignity of the person who is to accomplish it: Heb. iii. 1, ‘Therefore, brethren, consider the Lord Jesus, the great high priest and apostle of our profession.’
Fifthly, That we may the better understand two things:—
1. The humiliation of the Son of God.
2. The way how we may recover the lost image of God.
1. The humiliation of the Son of God. Certainly, he that came to redeem us was the brightness of his Father’s glory and the express image of his person. Now, how did he humble himself? Was he not still the image of God in our nature? Yes, but the divine glory and majesty was hidden under the veil of our flesh: little of it did appear, and that only to those who narrowly did observe him; the brightness of his glory did not conspicuously shine forth. Was this all? No; his dignity was lessened; there was capitis diminutio, the lessening of a man’s estate or condition,—as of a man degraded from the senatorian order to the degree of knight, thence to the plebeian. Thus was the eternal Son of God lessened, less than God, as mediator: John xiv. 28, ‘My Father is greater than I.’ As God incarnate he took an office designed to him by God, and obeyed him in all things. They were one in essence, John x. 30; yet with respect to his office to save souls, he was lessened. Nay, not only less than God, but lesser than the angels: Heb. ii. 7, ‘He was made a little lower than the angels.’ Not born so, but made so. Man is inferior to an angel as a man in the rank and order of beings; the angels die not: therefore his incarnation and liableness to death is a great lessening of his dignity; so not in respect of office only, but human nature assumed.
2. It showeth us how the image of God may be recovered; if we be changed into the likeness of Christ, for he is the image of God. His merit should not only be precious to us, but his example. It is a great advantage not only to have a rule but an example; because man is so prone to imitate, that an example in our nature maketh it the more operative. His excuse is ready at hand: we are flesh and blood—what would you have us do? Therefore Christ came incarnate to be an example of holiness. He had the interests of flesh and blood to mind as well as we; and so would show that a holy life is possible to those that are renewed by his grace. He obeyed God in our nature; therefore in the same nature we may obey, please, and glorify God, though still in a self-denying manner. The foundation of it is laid in the new birth. The Spirit that formed Christ out of the substance of the Virgin, the same Spirit is ready to form Christ in you. He maketh new creatures; so that there is not only Christ’s example, but Christ’s power.
Use 1. Then let the excellency and dignity of Christ’s person be more upon your minds and hearts; think often of those two notions in the text—that he is the image of the invisible God, that therein you may be like him. You cannot be the image of God so as he was, but you must be in your measure. ‘The fulness of the Godhead dwelt in him bodily,’ but you must be ‘partakers of the divine nature.’ He showed himself to be the Son of God by his works, when the Jews said he blasphemed when he said he was the Son of God: John x. 27, ‘If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not.’ He allowed them to doubt of them, if he did not those works which were proper to one sent from God. Certainly this is the glory of man, to be the image of God; there is no greater perfection than to live in the nearest resemblance to his Creator. Christ is more excellent, because he hath more of the image of God upon him.
2. Consider, again, that he is Lord of the whole creation, and therefore called ‘the first-born of every creature.’ Well, then, we should be subject to him, and with greater diligence apply ourselves to the obedience of his holy laws, and use the means appointed by him to obtain the blessedness offered to us. There is in us a natural sentiment of the authority of God, and we have a dread upon our hearts if we do what he hath forbidden; but we have not so deep a sense of the authority of Christ, and play fast and loose with religion, as fancy and humour and interest lead us. Now, from this argument, you see we should honour the Son as we honour the Father, and be as tender of his institutions as we are of the commandments evident by natural light; for he is not only the messenger of God, but his express image, and the first-born of every creature. Not to believe him, and obey him, and love him, is to sin, not only against our duty, but our remedy and the law of our recovery.
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