He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created… He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 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.
And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him… at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…
Colossians 1:15-18, Philippians 2:8-11
I don’t know what you know about Henry Ward Beecher. I suspect not much. You likely know his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but unless you are an antebellum scholar or have in interest in pastors from the past, the name probably means little to you. However, in his day, Henry Ward Beecher was, as they said, gospel sharp. I explain him as a delicate mix of Jerry Falwell, Rick Warren, a subtle pinch of Joel Osteen, and several dashes of adulterous scandal. His celebrity caused a statue to be made in his honor that still stands in Downtown Brooklyn to this day. One story illustrates his national clout. A friend accused Beecher of adultery after the friend’s wife admitted the affair. In response, Beecher’s church exonerated him and excommunicated the friend. An ensuing civic court settled as a hung jury, and Beecher had the Congregational church exonerate him. All the while, the entire episode played out on every front-page paper in America.
I say all this because recently I took a little romp through Beecher’s sermons. In one, Beecher preaches on self-denial and taking up the cross of Christ. He laments that people say, “I cannot deny myself for Christ. It is too hard,” yet in the next breath they show how much and how often they deny themselves for a little bit of gold or power. Now, there is much to be said in that statement. You may find Beecher’s morality suspect and find him more self-indulging than self-denying (in fairness, the sermon was in support of the temperance movement and Beecher was a lifelong teetotaler), but I hope you can feel the power of that rhetoric. Our problem as human beings has never been our ability to deny ourselves or even to die for something greater than ourselves. It is just that we too willingly die for the wrong thing. We deny ourselves for ourselves. We take up our own cross dreaming of our own self-resurrection and the better and newer life we can create for ourselves. We control our bodies, not so that we might not be disqualified, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:27, but so that we can be in charge of qualifying ourselves.
That is why, when you encounter little passages like those above from Colossians and Philippians, it can be unnerving. In Colossians Paul makes it quite clear that everything, I mean everything, is about one man—Jesus Christ. The world is created by, but also for Him. He inherits its beauty and majesty (that’s what it means to be the firstborn). He is the One who redeems but also the One for whom the redeemed have been redeemed. He is raised from the dead in order to be the first of the new creation and thereby eternally over all. Christ is the first to the last and then back again. And because of this, in Philippians, Paul says, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. There is no option. There is no way around, every knee and every tongue.
And that is unnerving because often in self-denial we come on our own terms. We come with what we will deny in hand, keeping back what we want to hold on to. We play it safe. We come to negotiate with Christ. “See what I’ve given up for you?” we say. But Christ comes with the cold reality of His eternal dominion. He is King over all the created and recreated. And He will look you in the face and say – Everything in you. Every single thing must bow down.
Your dreams, hopes, and goals. Your reputation. Your career. Your family. Your health. All these and more, they all must bow down.
He will do that, because He denied Himself for you, yet He held nothing back. He played it unsafe. He humbled and denied Himself all the way down to the cross. In other words, there is no one else who could legitimately demand this of us, and there is also no one else who we would want to demand it. All those other things to which we bow down are violent taskmasters. They demand all, yet they give nothing. But Christ demands all, because He gave all. And when you bow to Him, amazingly, all those things He inherits he also gives to you. All his privilege and standing, He shares with you. In other words, Christ demands all, because He continues to give all. So let Him work. Let Him into all those corners of your heart. Let them all bow down and rejoice.