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Sermon 4 - Colossians 1:17

Christ's Eternal Existence and the Dignity of His Person Asserted and Proved by Thomas Manton (1620-1677) (Volume 1)

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“One way to get comfort is to plead the promise of God in prayer, show Him His handwriting; God is tender of His Word.”

Sermon 4 – Colossians 1:17

“And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” Col.1.17.

THE apostle had asserted the dignity of Christ’s person by ascribing the work of creation to him: now the work of conservation and providence. By the same divine power by which Christ made all things he doth preserve and sustain all things.

In this verse two things are ascribed to Christ:-

First, His precedency in point of time, or his antiquity before all creatures: and he is before all things – that is, he had an eternal being before anything that now is created.

Secondly, His sustaining all things by his almighty power: and by him all things do consist. All creatures owe their continuance and preservation to him.

The first point is his precedency and pre-existence before all creatures whatsoever.

Doct. That Jesus Christ had a being before any of the creatures were made.

1. That he had a being long before he was born of the Virgin, for he was in the time of the patriarchs, as John viii. 48, ‘Before Abraham was, I am;’ to say nothing of that godlike way of speaking – I am’; not I was, but I am; that which I now plead for is, that he was before Abraham. The words are occasioned by Christ saying that Abraham saw his day and was glad, which the Jews understood not of a prophetical but of a real vision, and therefore objected the impossibility that he was not yet fifty years old, and how could he see Abraham, or Abraham see him? Christ doth not answer to their ill interpretation, but showeth that their very objection contained no absurdity if taken in their own sense, for he was not only in the time of Abraham, but long before, and so affirmeth more than that objection required. The Jews thought it absurd that Christ should be in the time of Abraham, but Christ affirmeth more, and that with a strong asseveration. He was not only by the constitution of God, but really existing before Abraham, for the predestination not only of Christ but of Abraham, and all the elect, was before the foundation of the world. If, in respect of special prediction, mark then what must follow. Then Cyrus must be in the time of Isaiah, Josiah must be in the time of Jeroboam, the calling of the Gentiles must be in the time of Moses, for they prophesied of these things.

2. That he had a being at the time of the creation, that is also clear; for it is said, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ John i. 1 – that is, when Christ set himself to create all things. The word beginning, signifies many things, but chiefly the beginning of all time, especially when it is put absolutely, without any limitation to the matter in hand. So John viii. 44, ‘The devil was a murderer from the beginning’ – that is, almost as soon as created; Mat. xix. 4, ‘He that made them at the beginning, made them male and female.’ So Heb. i. 10, ‘And thou in the beginning hast laid the foundations of the earth;’ and in many other places. Therefore Christ had a being when the world and all creatures were made, visible and invisible. So Prov. viii. 22 – . 31, ‘The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when be set a compass upon the face of the depth: when he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: when he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable parts of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.’ There the Wisdom of God, or the eternal Word, describeth the antiquity of his person. All the question is, what this Wisdom is that is there spoken of?

(1.) It is not human, but divine; for the Wisdom there spoken of was before the world was.

(2.) Whatever it be, it is not a divine attribute, but a divine person; for those things which are there ascribed to Wisdom cannot properly belong to an attribute, to be begotten, brought forth, ver. 23, 24. to have the affections of love, ver. 27, delight, ver. 31. All along the expressions agree only to a person. That Wisdom which inviteth sinners, promises the Spirit, threatens eternal destruction to those which hearken not to him, commendeth not the laws of Moses, but requireth obedience to his own laws – what can this Wisdom be but a person? If the intent were only to express that God is wise, what strange expressions would these be! To what purpose were it to give us notice that he was wise from the beginning, if there were no other mystery in it?

(3.) This person was Christ, who is the Wisdom of God, 1 Cor. i. 24; ‘And in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,’ Col. ii. 3.

3. That Christ was before the world was, from all eternity: Micah v. 2, ‘His goings forth are from everlasting.’ The prophet there speaketh of his birth at Bethlehem, and his eternal generation, and distinguishes the one from the other: ‘But thou, Bethlehem Ephrata, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting;’ or from the days of eternity. This last clause is added lest any should look upon this ruler as only man, and beginning to be at his incarnation. He that was born at Bethlehem was also true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity.

4. That Christ was God subsisting in the divine nature. I shall bring two places to prove that. The first, Phil. ii. 6, ‘Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but emptied himself, and made himself of no reputation.’ He was first in the form of God, before he appeared in the form of a servant. The form of God is his divine glory and blessedness, every way equal to God; the form of a servant is either his coming in the similitude of sinful flesh, or his subjecting himself to the curse of the law, or his humble and mean condition while he lived among men. It consists in one of these, or in all three. Now before he submitted to this, he existed in the form of God – that is, was clothed with divine majesty, and in all things equal with God the Father his being and existence which he then had was truly divine. The form of God is the very divine essence, as clothed with glory and majesty; this did justly and naturally belong to him, and was not usurped by him. The other place is Christ’s prayer: John xvii. 5, ‘And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thy own self, with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.’ God is said to glorify any person when he giveth him glorious qualities and powers; or by revealing and manifesting those glorious qualities which he hath; or when he doth receive him and treat him agreeably to his glory. The meaning of Christ’s prayer, then, must be of one or other of all these senses. When he prayeth that the Father would glorify him with that glory that he had with him before the world was, if you take it in the first sense, he desireth that God would bestow upon him as Mediator, or God incarnate, a glory suitable to that glory he had with him from all eternity; if in the second sense, he desireth his glory may be revealed, or become conspicuous in his human nature; if in the third, that God would receive him honourably and agreeably to that glory: which sense is the chiefest, for it containeth the other two. The meaning, then, in short, is, that he might be received to the full enjoyment of that glory which he had before the world was. Christ was from all eternity the glorious God. This glory of his Godhead, by his humiliation was not diminished and lessened, but obscured and hidden; and therefore prayeth that he may be received by the Father, and openly declared to the world to be the Son of God; or that the glory of his Godhead might shine forth in the person of Christ, God-man. Well, then, before any creature was, Christ had a divine glory. How had it he? The enemies of this truth say, By decree or designation, not by possession. But that cannot be: he that is not, hath nothing. If he had not a divine being, how could he have divine glory before the world? None can say Paul was an apostle of Christ before the world was, because he was appointed or designed to this work; yea, none can say he had faith and brotherly love when he was yet an unbeliever and persecutor; yet it pleased God to separate him from his mother’s womb, and predestinated him to have these things. Again, then, all true believers may thus pray to God, ‘Glorify me with,’ etc., for they are thereunto appointed. But this is absurd. Besides, if he had it then, how could he want it now? The decree is the same. It remaineth, then, that Christ had a being and substance in the Godhead before any of the creatures were made.

Use 1. This serveth for the confutation of those atheists that say, Christ took upon him the appellation of a god to make his doctrine more authentic and effectual. They confess the morals of Christianity are most excellent for the establishment of piety and honesty, but, men’s inclination carrying them more powerfully to vice than virtue, this doctrine would not be received with any reverence if it came recommended to them by a mere man, and therefore Christ assumed the glorious appellation of the Son of God, or pretended to be God – a blasphemy very derogatory both to the honour of Christ and Christianity, and quite contrary to the drift of the scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament. The Messiah promised in the Old Testament was to be God, all the prophets agree in that. Jesus Christ proved himself to be God by his word and works, and the apostles still assert it. Could they that lived in so many several ages as the prophets and apostles did, lay their heads together and have intelligence one with another to convey this imposture to the world? Surely, if Christ be the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, as clearly he is, then he is God, for that describeth him to be such; and if Christ usurped this honour, how did God so highly favour him with such extra-ordinary graces, by inspiring him with the knowledge of the best religion in the world, to authorise him with miracles, to raise him from the dead? And must this religion, that condemneth all frauds, and doing evil that good may come of it, be supported by a lie? Or cannot God govern the world without countenancing such a deceit? Or is it possible that such holy persons as our Lord Jesus and his apostles were, could be guilty of such an imposture? Did they do this by command of God? No, surely; for God, which is the God of truth, would not command them to teach a lie, or to make use of one. He hath power enough to cause the truth to be embraced by some other means; and a greater injury cannot be done him than to go about to gratify him with what he hateth; much less would God have commanded a mere man to call himself his eternal Son, and God equal to him, which is a blasphemy and sacrilege as well as a lie – the greatest of the kind, for mortal man to take upon himself to be the eternal God. If it were not by his express commandment, would he suffer such an attempt to go unpunished? Would he witness from heaven, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’? Would he have raised him from the dead, and so engaged the world to believe in him and adore him? Acts xvii. 31.

2. If Christ were before all things, let us prefer him above all things. This consideration is of great use to draw off our hearts from all created things, and to lessen our respects to worldly vanities, that they may be more earnestly fixed on what is eternal and glorious. He that was before the world was will be when the world shall be no more. Christ is from everlasting to everlasting, Ps. xc. 2. To him should we look, after him should we seek: he is first and last, the beginning and ending. It is for an everlasting blessedness, for the enjoyment of an eternal God, that our souls were made. He that was from the beginning, and will be when all things shall have an end, it is he that should take up our minds and thoughts. How can we have room for so many thoughts about fading glories, when we have an eternal God and Christ to think of? What light can we see in a candle when the sun shineth in his full strength? All things in the world serve only for a season, and then wither; and that season is but a short one. You glory in your riches and pre-eminence now, but how long will you do so? To-day that house and lands is thine, but thou canst not say it will be thine to-morrow. But a believer can say, My God, my Christ, is mine to-day, and will be mine to all eternity.’ Death taketh all from us – honours and riches, and strength, and life, but it cannot take God and Christ from us. They are ours, and everlastingly ours.

Secondly, We come now to the second point – his sustaining all things by his almighty power: ‘and by him all things consist.’

Doct. 2. That as Christ made all things, so he doth sustain them in being and working.

Let me explain this, how the creatures are preserved by Christ.

1. This is to be understood not only meritoriously as a moral cause, but efficiently as a natural cause of the creature’s sustentation for the apostle doth not consider here so much what Christ doth as a Mediator, as what he doth as God. It is true Christ, as Mediator, hath reprieved the world from that ruin which might come upon it for man’s sin; but here his merit is not considered, but his power: Heb. i. 3,’ He upholdeth all things by the word of his power.’ The weight of the whole creation lieth upon his hands. As Daniel telleth Belshazzar, that his breath and his ways were in the hand of God, Dan. v. 23, so is the being, life, and operation of all the creatures. If he should withdraw his withholding hand, they would quickly return to their first nothing; which showeth the great power of our Redeemer. Moses complaineth, Num. xi. 11, 12, ‘Thou hast laid the burden of all this people upon me. Have I conceived this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldst say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom?’ But Christ hath the care and charge of all the world, not to rule them only, but to sustain them. A king or a governor hath a moral rule over his subjects, but Christ giveth them being and existence, and doth preserve and keep them in their present state and condition from dissolution.

2. Not only indirectly, but directly. Indirectly, Christ may be said to sustain and preserve the creatures, as he keepeth off evil, or removeth those things that may be destructive to them: as he preserveth a town that repelleth their enemies. But directly, he preserveth them as he continueth his providential influence: Acts xvii. 28, ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being;’ as the root feedeth the fruit, or the breath of the musician maintains the sound: Ps. civ. 29,’ Thou taketh away thy breath, and they die, and return to their dust.’ Life, and all the joys and comforts of it, every minute depend upon God. It is by his providential influence and supportation we subsist. The greatest creature cannot preserve itself by its power and greatness, and the least is not neglected; both would sink into nothing without this continued influence.

3. He doth this not only mediately, by means appointed, but immediately, as his efficacy pierceth through all. God preserveth the creatures by means, for he giveth them those supplies which are proper for them: as to man, food and raiment; for other creatures, what may relieve them; and the wise dispensing these supplies, without any care and solicitude of the creatures, is a notable part of his providence. But here we consider his intimate presence with all things, by which he upholdeth their beings; which all the means of the world cannot do without him. God doth as it were hold the creatures in his own hand, that it may not sink into its old nothing, as a man holdeth a weighty thing. This is supposed to be alluded unto, Job vi. 9, ‘Let him loose his hand and cut me off.’ If he doth but loose his almighty grasp, all the creatures fall down.

4. Christ doth this so as that he doth not overturn their nature; he worketh by natural and necessary causes necessarily, with voluntary causes voluntarily. He that enlighteneth the world by the sun, causes man to discourse and reason; the sun would not shine if Christ were not the light of it, nor man discourse if he did not continue the faculty: John i. 4, ‘In him was life, and this life was the light of man.’ It is man seeth, man heareth, man talketh man acteth, but yet ‘the seeing eye, and hearing ear, is of the Lord,’ Prov. xx.12. As God hath made both, so he sustaineth both in their operation and exercise. All that we do naturally and spiritually we have from Christ.

5. He is not the bare instrument of God in sustaining the creature, but as a co-equal agent. As he made the world, and with the Father created all things, so he doth support and order all things. It is as well the work of the Son as of the Father, for he is God, equal with him in glory and power: John v. 17, ‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.’ And he hath a command of all the creatures, that they can do nothing without him, how much soever they attempt to do against him.

Secondly, Let me give you the reasons of this, why all things must subsist by him.

1. Because preservation is but a kind of continued creation, or a continuance of the being which God hath caused. God’s will in creation maketh a thing to be, his will in preservation maketh it continue to be. The same omnipotency and efficacy of God is necessary to sustain our beings as at first to create them. Therefore, it is said, Ps. civ. 2, ‘Thou stretchest out the heavens like a curtain,’ which noteth a continued act. God erected them at first, and still sustaineth them by his secret power in this posture; so that, with respect to God, it is the same action to conserve as to create. That the creature may have a being, the influence of God is necessary to produce it; that the creature may continue its being, it is necessary that God should not break off that influence, or forsake the creature so made; for the being of the creature doth so wholly depend on the will of God, that it cannot subsist without him. Nothing can be without the will of God, which is the cause both of the being and existence of all creatures. Therefore their being cannot be continued unless God will; therefore it belongeth to the same power to make anything out of nothing, and to keep anything that is made from returning to its first nothing.

2. It is impossible to cut off the dependence of the creature upon the first cause, for no creature hath a self-sufficiency to maintain and support itself. Things of art may subsist without the artificer, as a carpenter maketh a house, and then leaveth it to stand of itself, the shipwright maketh a ship, and then leaveth it to the pilot to guide it; but all things of nature depend upon Cod that made them, because they have their whole being from him, matter, and form, which he continueth no longer than he pleaseth, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven, visible or invisible. No impression of the agent remaineth in the effect when his action ceaseth; when the effect wholly dependeth on the cause, as when the air is enlightened which receiveth light from the sun, but when the sun is gone the light ceases: so when God withdraws the creature vanishes, for they have no other being than God is pleased to bestow upon them.

3. If it were not so, many absurdities would follow; as, for instance –

[1.] If things do subsist by themselves, then they would always be; for nothing would destroy itself.

[2.] Then the creature would be independent, and whether God will or no they would conserve their being; and then how should God govern the world? Therefore it undeniably followeth, ‘Thou hast made all things, and thou preservest them all.’

4. It would destroy all worship, and our piety and respect to God would be cold and languid. The service we owe to God is reducible to these four heads

[1.] Adoration of his excellent nature above all other things.

[2.] Affiance in his goodness, with expectation of relief from him.

[3.] Thankfulness for his benefits.

[4.] Obedience to his precepts and commands.

Now, unless we acknowledge his intimate presence with and preservation of all things, these necessary duties will either be quite abolished, or degenerate into a vain and needless superstition.

[1.] The adoration we owe to his excellent nature, above all other things in the universe. Alas! we see how little reverence and respect we have for the great potentates of the earth, whose fame we hear of indeed, but are not concerned in their favour or frowns, or have no dependence on them at all. The least justice of peace or constable in our neighbourhood is more to us than all these mighty foreign princes, with whom we have nothing to do but only to hear and read the reports of their greatness, when we have no other business to divert us. So cold and careless would be our respect to God if we did not depend on him every moment, and were neither concerned in his wrath nor love. Those practical atheists that were settled on their lees, and lived in a secure neglect of God, they fostered it by this presumption – ‘Tush! he will neither do good nor evil,’ Zeph. i. 13. Fine things may be told us of the excellency of his nature, but what is that to us? He hath so shut up himself within the curtain of the heavens, that he takes no notice or care of things here below. How soon would such a conceit dispirit all religion, and take away the life and vigour of it! But if you would plant a reverence and due veneration of God, you must do it by this principle, ‘In his hands is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind.’ No creature can subsist without him for a moment. Now this respect is due not only to God the Father, but our Lord Jesus Christ.

[2.] As to trust and dependence on his goodness for relief in all our straits and necessities. This is the grand principle that keepeth up an acknowledgment of God in the world, by prayers and supplications: Ps. lxii. 8,’ Trust in the Lord at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him.’ When you retire your souls from all secular confidences, and repose all your trust in him, you will be instant in prayer, and earnestly beg his relief; you see all things subsist by him, and it is in vain to expect any real assistance from the creature, but what God will communicate to us by it. Now, if it be not so, but the creatures could stand of themselves, and live of themselves, this would blast all devotion, and prayer be withered and dried up at the root; humbling ourselves to God in our straits and necessities would look like dejection or poorness of spirit, whining to no purpose.

[3.] For thankfulness for benefits received, which is the great means to knit the hearts of men to God, and the bellows which bloweth up the fire of love and religion in our hearts. How can we ascribe our deliverances to God, if he hath not a hand in all things? But when we acknowledge his sustaining and governing power, we see God in the face of the creature, and every benefit we receive representeth his goodness to us. But, alas! they have no thought or care of praise and thanksgiving that think not themselves obliged to God for the least hair of their heads. God is banished out of their sight, because they look for all from the creature. But they cannot enough praise and bless God, who is the strength of their lives, and the length of their days. They acknowledge that every good gift cometh from him, that he heareth their prayers, relieveth their necessities, continues their lives to them every moment; therefore God is all in all with them, but to others he is a shadow or nothing. His memory is kept up in the world by his benefits, Acts xiv. 17.

[4.] For obedience and service to him. Certainly dependence begets allegiance and observance. We are obsequious to those from whom we expect our dole and portion: Ps. cxxxi. 2, ‘As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maiden unto the hands of her mistress, so do our eyes wait on the Lord our God.’ The masters gave the men-servants their portion and allowance; and the mistress to the maid-servants: they looked for all from their hands, and therefore to them they performed their service; so do the people of God. What reverence do we owe to him who is our Creator and preserver, as well as Redeemer! As he made all things, so he supporteth all things. Did we see God in us and in all things round about us, these thoughts would be more frequent in us, and we will still be considering what we shall render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards us. But obedience soon languisheth where men think they subsist of themselves without God: Ps. lv. 19, ‘Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.’ They are not interrupted in their sinful course, and therefore have no reverence and respect to God.

Use 1. This doth strengthen our dependence and reliance on our blessed Redeemer. By him all things do subsist, therefore he can hear all prayers, relieve us in all our straits, supply us in all wants, preserve us in all dangers. All nations are in his hands, our whole life is in his keeping, and upheld by his intimate presence with us; our days cannot be longer nor shorter than he pleaseth. If he were absent from us, he might forget us or neglect us; but he is within us, and round about us in the effects of his power and goodness. Since he is so near us, why should we doubt of his particular care and providence? All nations are in his hands, the lives and hearts of friends and enemies, therefore our eyes should be upon him: Ps. xvi. 8, ‘I have set the Lord always before me, he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.’ We set the Lord before us both in point of reverence and dependence – for fear and trust agree in their common nature – and so it may note our care to please him, or our trust and quietness in him. All means are nothing to us, can do nothing for us without him.

2. It teaches us a lesson of humility. We depend on him every moment, can do nothing without him, either in a way of nature or grace; not in a way of nature, for God hath not left us to stand by ourselves on the first foundation of our creation. The creatures are not capable of subsistence without dependence on the first cause, but; merely live and act by his power: ‘In him we live and move and have our being:’ Ps. civ. 29, ‘Thou takest away their breath and they die, and return to their dust.’ The withdrawing his concurrence and supportation is the cause of all our misery. When he sees fit, all the creatures soon return to the elements of which they are compounded; all the strokes and judgments which light upon them are dispensed according to his pleasure. In a way of grace we are nothing, can do nothing without him, John xv. 6. He must have all the praise, Luke xvi. 14, 1 Cor. xv. 10, Gal. ii. 20. The more perfections we have, the more prone we are to fall if he sustain us not: witness the fallen angels, and Adam in innocency.

3. It teaches us a lesson of reverence and obedience. If God be so near, let us observe him, and take notice of his presence. He knoweth what he doth when he sustaineth such a creature as thou art. This thought should continually affect us – that God is with us, still by us, not only without us, but within us, preserving our life, upholding our being. It should be a check to our sluggishness, and mispense of time – Doth God now continue me? to what end and purpose? If God were absent or gone, it were more justifiable to loiter or indulge the ease of the flesh; but to spend my time vainly and foolishly, which he continueth for service, what have we to say?

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