Paul reminds us that salvation comes only through Jesus, who creates and redeems.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that Jesus is fully God and fully human.
Understand that if we want to know what God looks like, we need only look at Jesus.
Understand that we should only worship Jesus because he created and is over all things.
Catching up on the Story
Paul has just finished praising the Colossians for their faithfulness to the gospel of Christ, which has produced in them a deep love for all the saints. Moving from thanksgiving and praise for the Colossians, Paul begins to list a few things that he is praying might come to pass in their lives. He prays that they might fully know God’s will so that they can produce good fruit and that they endure all things with patience and joyful praise to God. All this, Paul says, is possible for the Colossians because they have been brought from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, the kingdom of God.
There seems to have been some group or philosophy which had been gaining acceptance within the Colossian church that was subtracted from the importance and supremacy of Christ. Much of what Paul has written has been a direct counter to the group or philosophy competing for dominance. This passage takes the form of a hymn that may or may not have been original to Paul. In any case, hymns have a fantastic way of conveying theology.
Image and Firstborn of God
Paul likely took a hymn already known to those in Colossae and expanded it to help serve his theological cause. Martin refers to verses 15-21 as “a performed hymn stitched into the fabric of a pastoral discussion” (Martin, 104). Martin makes this assertion based on rhythmical and metrical factors that are not readily apparent in our English translations. The text looks like prose to us but is not. Ingeniously, Paul takes what was already known and possibly used by those seeking to gain theological dominance and expands and elaborates on it so that the true nature of Christ might be known.
Paul’s use of the hymn begins by stating that Jesus is the image (eikon) of the invisible God. In other words, Jesus, in his humanness, is the physical, tangible, and exact representation of God the Father. Jesus is the way we know what God the Father looks like. In this way, Paul plays on both Jewish understandings of divine Wisdom and Greek usages of Logos. James Dunn notes that Wisdom and Logos “have to be understood as ways of speaking of God’s own outreach to and interaction with his world and his people” (Dunn, 88). Jesus not only shows us who God is through his incarnation but also reveals to us who we are being transformed into.
In the second half of verse 15, Paul moves forward, confessing that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. This does not mean that Jesus is one of the created beings. While the word Paul uses can be translated as “eldest child,” if Paul had wanted to imply that Jesus was God’s first creation, he would have used a different word. Instead, given Paul and Jesus’ Hebrew context, Jesus as the firstborn is “(1) God’s appointed ruler over all creation with priority in time and primacy in rank; (2) Israel’s Messiah; and (3) a Son of God like Adam and Israel” (Bird, 52).
Verse 16 declares that in (the word Paul uses could also be translated as “by”) Christ, all things were created. All of the heavens were made in and by Christ, all things on earth, all things visible and invisible, everything. “All things” even include seats of powers (thrones), dominions, and powers, which usually carry a negative connotation. Jesus, the Son, is the creator and Lord of all things. Paul rounds out verse 16 by saying that all these things were created through him and for him. The things Christ created that have become evil were good at one time. It stands to reason that they, too, will benefit from Christ’s redemptive work.
Cosmos, not Chaos
Verse 17 further builds the case for the preexistent supremacy of Christ. Jesus is before all things, and all things are held together by Jesus. In other words, Jesus is not only the creator but also the glue that holds everything together. “Christ is the reason why there is a cosmos instead of chaos” (Baird, 54). He is the sustainer of creation.
Verse 18 begins a minor shift in the tone of the hymn. So far, the remarks about Christ have been cosmic in scale. No, however, the scale is diminished a little, and attention is given to the function of the church in relationship to Christ. Using common body imagery, Paul declares that Christ is the head of the body, which is the church. Here we understand Paul to be talking about the church universal, not just the local Colossian congregation.
The church, then, derives its existence from the Head from which it came. This was the ordinary line of thought in the ancient world. The church owes its existence to Christ, who is the head. He has accomplished this through his death and resurrection. Paul remarks about Christ that he is the first born from the dead. Meaning that Christ is the first of the resurrection. The church now finds its existence in Christ as the head will follow in the resurrection.
Verses 19 and 20 moves from more of the local back out to the universal. Paul’s statement that “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” in Christ reasserts the statement from the beginning of the hymn that Jesus is fully God. To look at Christ is to look at the Father. “The implication is clearly that there is no more divine nature to be found in angels or lesser supernatural beings. Union with the divine must come through Christ or not at all” (Witherington III, 136).
It seems that the Colossian church was struggling with a train of thought that led them to believe that union and relationship with God could be had by some other means other than Christ. Paul is making it clear that this is not the case. No lesser spiritual being will do. Nothing other than Christ will do.
Finally, verse 20 brings us toward redemption. Generally, evangelical Christians speak only of individual salvation. A primarily personal understanding of redemption would have been a foreign idea to Paul. Instead, Paul understood God’s greatness in Jesus Christ to reach and redeem all that is, all of the created order. God in Christ is reconciling, bringing all things into right relationship with him. And it pleased God to do so.
In verse 21, Paul turns toward us, narrowing the scope of God’s redemption from cosmic to the church. It pleased God to bring about our redemption even when we were “estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds!” There is a sense of movement in Paul’s words, too. We aren’t just pronounced saved. God’s work through Christ is to render us holy, blameless, and irreproachable, and this takes time, and some effort on our part, as verse 23 indicates. What Christ is doing, we must cooperate with so when we appear before God in the end; we will be blameless.
The issue at stake in the Colossian church is one of lordship. Who will the church confess has ultimate power and authority? Who will the church confess is responsible for creation and all that is in it? Who will the church serve as their head, the one from whom all direction and guidance are given?
For Paul, the answer to all those questions is an unabashed Jesus. Jesus’ superiority over anything that might assert itself as god is unquestionable, simply because Jesus is God. Jesus is the head of the church. We are his body, even though we used to be hostile and estranged from our creator.
Bird, Michael F. Colossians and Philemon, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009).
Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing; Paternoster Press, 1996).
Witherington III, Ben. The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).