Jesus, the Image of the Invisible God (Colossians 1:15–29)
What difference does it make that we are bearers of the divine image in our work? One implication of this is that in our work we will reflect God’s work patterns and values. But how do we know God so that we know what those patterns and values are? In Colossians 1:15, Paul reminds us that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” Again, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). It is “in the face of Jesus Christ” that we can know God (2 Cor. 4:6). During Jesus’ earthly ministry, Philip asked him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus responded, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:8–9).
Jesus reveals God to us. He shows us how we as God’s image-bearers are to carry out our work. If we need help in grasping this, Paul spells it out: first, he describes Jesus’ infinite power in creation (Col. 1:15–17), and then he immediately ties that to Jesus’ willingness to set that power aside, to incarnate God on earth in word and deed, and then to die for our sins. (Paul says this directly in Philippians 2:5–9.) We look at Jesus. We listen to Jesus to understand how we are called to image God in our work.
How, then, can God’s patterns and values apply in our work? We start by looking specifically at Jesus’ work as our example.
Red Wine on a White Dress
Backstage before our annual banquet in my first job out of college, I knocked over a bottle, spilling wine on the white dress of our celebrity guest speaker, a host of one of the morning programs on network television. It was not a small stain, either; meaning even people at the back tables of this thousand-seat event would be able to see it clearly. Only a few of us knew how the stain got on the dress, but soon (I thought) the "whole world" would know.
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First, we see that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). Because Jesus has done that, Paul can appeal to us to “bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13). It was on this basis that Paul could ask Philemon, the slave master, to forgive and receive Onesimus as a brother, no longer as a slave. We are doing our work in the name of the Lord Jesus when we bring that attitude to our relationships in the workplace: we make allowances for others’ faults and we forgive those who offend us.
Self-sacrifice for the Benefit of Others
Second, we see Jesus with infinite power creating all that is, “things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” (Col. 1:16). Yet we also see him setting aside that power for our sake, “making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20), so that we might have a relationship with God. There are times when we may be called on to set aside the authority or power we have in the workplace to benefit someone who may be undeserving. If Philemon is willing to set aside his slave-owner authority over Onesimus (who does not deserve his mercy) and take him back in a new relationship, then in this way Philemon images the invisible God in his workplace.
Freedom from Cultural Accommodation
Third, we see Jesus living a new reality that he offers to us: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1–3). We are no longer bound by cultural mores that stand in contrast to the life of God within us. We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We can march to a different drumbeat. The culture of the workplace can work against our life in Christ, but Jesus calls us to set our hearts and our minds on what God desires for us and in us. This calls for a major reorientation of our attitudes and values.
Paul called Philemon to this reorientation. First-century Roman culture gave slaveholders complete power over the bodies and lives of their slaves. Everything in the culture gave Philemon full permission to treat Onesimus harshly, even to have him killed. But Paul was clear: As a follower of Jesus Christ, Philemon had died and his new life was now in Christ (Col. 3:3). That meant rethinking his responsibility not only to Onesimus but also to Paul, to the Colossian church, and to God his judge.