15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 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. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
[Follow this link for the Order of Worship with embedded videos of the recommended songs that accompany this study.]
[Pray for God’s help as we read, discuss, and meditate on Scripture today. Read Colossians 1:15-20 out loud to each other, several times.]
Paul ended his prayer report in Colossians 1:9-14 by thanking God the Father, because he “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Paul then used that closing statement about the Son, Christ Jesus, as a transition into this next section of the letter to the Colossians, where he wrote some of the most Christological statements about the supremacy of Jesus that are included in Scripture.
But did Paul write these statements? I’m not asking if Paul wrote Colossians, which I’m sure that he did. But the majority of commentators and scholars are convinced that these six verses are an ancient hymn that Paul has included in his letter to the Colossians. Was Paul capable of composing the words of this hymn? Certainly he was. On the other hand, he might have adapted an already existing hymn to suit his purposes for this letter. Either way, this hymn is now part of Scripture, and should be treated as such.
There are other examples of “hymns” in the New Testament: Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, and 2 Timothy 2:11-13.
Paul also quotes the Old Testament in many of his letters, and even quoted Greek poets in his evangelistic sermon in Athens (Acts 17:28).
So it’s not out of the question that Paul might have used an existing hymn at this point in his letter to the Colossians, especially considering that he instructed them to use “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” in their worship gatherings (3:16).
If we try to determine what the original structure of this hymn was, it may help you to see it as a hymn rather than just a paragraph of text. There are many suggestions for what might have been the original structure, although in the end we just don’t know for sure.
Here is one suggestion that seems to make sense:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
And 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. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
The first stanza (vv. 15-16) tells of Christ’s supremacy over all creation, the second stanza (vv. 17-18a) points to Christ as the sustainer of all things (you could think of this stanza as the chorus), and the third stanza (vv. 18b-20) tells of Christ’s supremacy in the church.
David Pao suggests that we could break that down a bit further with a five-part chiastic structure (A B C B’ A’):
A He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation…. (vv. 15-16)
B He is before all things (v. 17a)
C In him all things hold together (v. 17b)
B’ He is the head of the body, the church (v. 18a)
A’ He is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead…. (vv. 18b – 20)
Observation and Exposition
This passage is so densely packed with theology that we really need to go through it phrase by phrase and unpack it, at least to some extent. I could simply tell you that the summary of this passage is that Christ Jesus is preeminent, or supreme, over all the universe and over all the church. And it would be true, but it wouldn’t have the same effect as you seeing it for yourself in the words of Scripture.
“He is the image of the invisible God,”
- Read John 4:21-24. Why is God invisible?
- We first encounter the idea of the image of God in Genesis 1:27. What does that verse say about man’s relation to God?
- There’s an important distinction between Adam and Jesus as the image of God: Adam was created in the image of God, but Jesus is the image of God.
- Read John 14:6-11. This passage tells us more about what it means for Jesus to be the image of God.
- Even though Jesus is the visible embodiment of the invisible God, there are still many who can not or will not “see” this. Why is this, according to 2 Corinthians 4:3-4?
“the firstborn of all creation.”
- The word “firstborn” can be confusing. Does this mean that Jesus is the first being to be born in all of creation?
- Sometimes “firstborn” means exactly that: the one who was born first. See Luke 2:7 and Hebrews 11:28 for two examples of this usage.
- However, it can also have a metaphoric meaning of rank or status rather than the idea of being born first. Read Psalm 89:19-27 to see what God says about David.
- We know from 1 Samuel 16:11 that David is the youngest or lastborn of Jesse’s sons. But if he is the lastborn, why does Psalm 89:27 say he is the firstborn? Because it’s speaking of rank and not birth order.
- In the Greco-Roman context (the time and culture in which the New Testament was written), “firstborn” is also a legal term that refers to the one who is the legal heir of his father’s inheritance. As the heir, he also inherits the power and authority of his father over the household. See Hebrews 12:22-24 for an example of this. In 12:23, the term “firstborn” applies to believers who have died and are now in heaven, and have inherited God’s promises, especially the promise of eternal life.
- What about “of all creation?” The word “of” can mean “among,” but that would mean that Jesus was created too. However, we know from Colossians 1:16 that all things were created by, through, and for Jesus, so it can’t mean “among.” The word “of” can also have a comparison meaning, “before all creation,” or an objective meaning, “over all creation.”
- So the conclusion here? “Firstborn” refers to the unique and incomparable identity of Jesus Christ. There is no being or thing in the entire universe that is like him.
“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,”
- By starting this phrase with the word “for,” Paul is saying that this verse is the basis or underlying reason for verse 15, which we just went through.
- David Pao writes: “Paul again affirms the supremacy of Christ by describing his role as the unique agent of creation.” In other words, when God created everything, or all things, he did it as the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Son.
- Read 1 Chronicles 29:10-13. In this first half of David’s prayer, what does he say about God and his attributes based on the fact that God is the creator?
- This idea of God being praised and worshiped because he is the creator is a recurring theme throughout the Bible. Read Psalm 89:5-14 and Revelation 4:11 for just two examples of this.
- Hopefully on this beautiful spring day in May 2020, here in South Dakota, you have gone outside and looked around at the created world. But not just the world in general; take the time to look at specifics: the grass growing, trees and shrubs budding, the sun shining, the birds singing (and every species of bird with a unique song of its own), etc., etc. Jesus Christ created everything and every individual thing that you can see, hear, and feel. Think about that, and let it result in praise and worship of him as the Creator!
- But not just what we can see, hear, and feel. Paul says that Jesus created all things “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” What does that mean? He’s probably using opposing polarities, like “east and west” to communicate totality. Everything that exists, what can be seen and what cannot be seen, no matter where it is, was created by Jesus.
- Paul may also be “paving the way” for Colossians 2:18 and the error of people who were worshiping angels. Why would you want to worship an angel that was created when you can and should worship the one who created the angel?
“whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities”
- These are terms that in this context refer to spiritual beings, and probably all spiritual beings, both good and evil.
“all things were created through him and for him.”
- In this phrase Paul is explaining further what it means that “by [Jesus] all things were created.”
- By “through him,” Jesus is the intermediate agent through whom God the Father accomplished his acts of creation. See John 1:3 for more on this.
- By “for him,” Jesus is the goal of creation. What does that mean? According to David Pao, “as the goal of creation, Christ restores creation to its intended state,” looking ahead to verses 18-20, where we read that through Christ God has or will reconcile all things to himself.
- I suspect that “for him” also means that all things were created as a way to glorify Jesus Christ, or for his glory.
- Read Romans 11:36 for a slightly different way of saying what Paul said here in Colossians.
“And he is before all things,”
- “Before all things” is the English translation of two Greek words.
- See Titus 1:2 for an example of Paul using the word “before” to refer to time.
- The exact same two Greek words that Paul uses here in Colossians are used in James 5:12 and 1 Peter 4:8 to refer to rank, translated in both of those verses (in the ESV) as “above all.”
- So here in Colossians “before all things” could mean that Jesus is before all things in time, which he is because he never had a beginning and he created everything that exists, and he is above all things in rank (status), which he is because he is the one who created everything that exists.
- We tend to think of things that are hundreds or thousands of years old as ancient, which they are compared to us. But one of Jesus’s titles is the Ancient of Days, and that gives the word ancient an entirely new significance and weight when you think that the number of his days go back into eternity-past, on and on forever and ever.
“and in him all things hold together.”
- “in him” can have either an instrumental meaning, as in “by him,” or a locative meaning.
- “Instrumental” in the sense that all things owe their continued existence to Christ Jesus.
- “Locative” in the sense of cosmic unity. After all, he is bigger than the universe, is he not?
- Notice the progression of thought in this passage so far. Not only is Christ the Creator, he is also the one who sustains all of creation. He keeps it going. Theologians in past centuries thought of this sustaining work as if every moment was a recurring act of creation. Ponder that for a few moments. This entire universe could and would cease to exist if Jesus stopped sustaining it. One moment, the universe. The next moment, nothing exists except God. Not that it will happen, but it could.
- And here’s a further thought to ponder: was Jesus doing this sustaining work even while he lived on earth?
“And he is the head of the body, the church.”
- Paul now transitions from creation to the church.
- “head” refers to Christ’s authority over the church. Christ is supreme over all creation, and he is supreme over the church.
- “church” refers to the universal church, or all believers in Christ in all the world throughout all time, but surely it also applies to every local church. Christ is the authoritative head of every true local church.
- David Pao had a significant application of this idea: If the authoritative head of the church is also supreme over all creation, then the church has a crucial role in God’s plan of redemption. Reconciliation with God (salvation) is found in the gospel message that the church proclaims, and the church is the context through which God’s redemptive act is fulfilled. That gives new meaning and significance to what we do as a local church, does it not?
“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
- In verses 15-16 Christ is identified as “the firstborn of all creation.” Here in verses 18b-20 Christ is identified as “the firstborn from the dead,” meaning the new creation.
- Paul doesn’t say here that Christ was raised from the dead, but it is implied here, and affirmed throughout the rest of the New Testament.
- What does Paul mean by “firstborn” in this phrase? See Acts 26:23 for a further explanation of this.
- But wait a minute, weren’t there other people who were raised from the dead before Jesus was? Yes, there were, but what is the difference between every one of those individuals and Jesus? Right: they all died again. Jesus is the only one so far who has been raised from the dead and lives forevermore. Our time is coming, and his life is the guarantee of that promise.
- Another result of Jesus’s being the firstborn from the dead? His preeminence or supremacy. See Revelation 1:5 for more on this.
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,”
- Paul now points to the full deity of Jesus, to the truth that Jesus Christ is fully God.
- “fullness” and “filled” are words that Scripture often associates with God. See 2 Chronicles 7:1-2 and Isaiah 6:1 for examples of this. In these passages what is being filled, and what is it filled with?
- Here in Colossians the Greek text does not have the words “of God,” where most English versions add that in for clarity. We know from Colossians 2:9 that the fullness is referring to God, but why might Paul have left it out of this phrase in verse 19? David Pao suggests that Paul might have wanted to keep the focus on Jesus.
- “dwell” is another word that Scripture often associates with God, both in heaven (2 Chronicles 6:30) and on earth (2 Chronicles 6:18). The temple in Jerusalem could never really contain the fullness of God, but Jesus can and does. Jesus Christ fulfills the temporary role that the temple had, and he is now where we find and meet with the full presence of God.
- What’s even more amazing is that Jesus Christ, the personal human embodiment of the fullness of God, allowed himself to be killed by being nailed to a cross.
“and through him to reconcile to himself all things,”
- This may not be clear, but this is referring back to the “fullness of God,” so that this could be read as “and through him [all the fullness of God was pleased] to reconcile to himself all things.”
- This is why all the fullness was pleased to dwell in Christ — to reconcile all of creation to himself.
- Reconciliation implies a rift, an offense, between two parties: God and humanity.
- Read Romans 5:8-11. God, the offended (and innocent) party initiates the reconciliation, rather than humanity (you and me, the guilty party), making amends to the innocent party. And Christ accomplishes (pays for) this reconciliation rather than making the guilty party pay for it. Incredible!
- But in what way are “all things” reconciled to God through Christ? Reconciliation can mean more than just making amends. It can also mean “pacification” or “subduing,” or perhaps being “made right.” See Colossians 2:15 for an example of this.
“whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
- “making peace” is the means of God’s reconciliation, and “the blood of his cross” is the means of his making that peace with all things.
- Jesus Christ made peace “by the blood of his cross,” in contrast to Roman emperors and generals who “made peace” by conquest and military might. What a difference!
- This final phrase of this Colossian hymn proclaims the cosmic, or universal, significance of Christ’s humbling and shameful death on a cross.
- The universal scope of Christ’s peacemaking on the cross doesn’t mean that all of humanity will be saved, just like reconciliation also implied pacification or subduing. The terms of that peace will be either eternal life or eternal death, but there will be peace.
In closing, just this: hopefully this hymn and our unpacking of its meaning is a timely reminder for you of the supremacy of Jesus Christ in and over all the universe, and the incredible truth that the supreme ruler of the universe died on a cross and was raised from the dead so that you and I could have peace with him and eternal life, simply by believing in him and what he has done for us.