The Fullness: Colossians 1:15-20
The Redeemer’s Hymn – 1:15-20
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 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 and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Many scholars believe that these verses constitute, at least in part, an ancient Christological hymn. Whether or not Paul is the author of the hymn is uncertain, though there does appear to be a poetic pattern and rhythm in the original Greek. While there is not consensus on how the hymn is divided (if at all), in general it is broken up this way:
- Section One: Verses 15-16
- Section Two: Verses 17-18a
- Section Three: Verses 18b-20
There seem to be two larger sections, each containing the word “firstborn” in the opening line. These larger sections are broken up by one smaller section. This shorter strophe (a chorus, perhaps?) contains sweeping theological statements that link the two larger sections together. While the structure of the hymn may be confusing, the theological themes it contains are quite clear. “[The First] section presents Christ’s relation to the created world. Paul answered basic questions about the origin and purposes of creation. The [second] section presents Jesus’ relationship to the redemption of what he created. Paul reminded the readers of the redemptive purposes of God in and through Christ.”[i]
The theology of the hymn is expansive, presenting themes found throughout the rest of the letter. It is fundamentally about the power and sovereignty of Jesus Christ. It presents him first as Creator, and secondly as Re-Creator. As N.T. Wright says, the hymn presents “the parallel between creation and new creation; hence the emphasis that is placed on the fact that each was accomplished by means of the same agent. The Lord through whom you are redeemed…is none other than the one through whom you (and all the world) were created.”[ii] The hymn is rich and dense with Christology, cosmic in scope, sweeping in nature. The word “all” appears seven times, and the phrase “all things” appears five times. The repetition of this vocabulary tells us that there is nothing that lies outside of the supremacy of Christ. Would that every song in our Sunday morning worship hour was bursting with such high theology!
Jesus is the perfect, fullest representation of God.
As the image of the invisible God, Jesus makes God known. Jesus is the perfect, fullest representation of God. In the Ten Commandments, God forbade his people from making an image of himself. Though every other god had images scattered throughout their lands and temples, YHWH had no image. This is because he had already created his own image, humanity, which had now become sinful and could no longer perfectly represent him. But, more wonderfully, he was preparing to reveal himself most fully in his Son. By calling Jesus the image of the invisible God, “Paul meant that Jesus brought God into the human sphere of understanding. He manifested God. …The point is that in Christ the invisible God became visible. He shared the same substance as God and made God’s character known in this earthly sphere of existence. The revelation of God in Christ is such that we can actually see him, even with all of our limitations.”[iv]
That Jesus is the firstborn over all creation does not imply that he, himself, was created, as many of the old heresies taught. Instead, it refers to his preeminence over creation. “The Greek word for ‘Firstborn’ is prōtotokos. If Christ were the ‘first-created,’ the Greek word would have been prōtoktisis.”[v] The distinction of the firstborn is his status as primary heir, and as many Old Testament stories remind us, this status was not always bequeathed to the one who was actually born first. While it can be tempting to fall into the heresy of Arianism – the belief that Jesus was a created being, of lesser substance than God the Father – it is certain that Paul did not intend to say this. In saying that Jesus is “Firstborn over all creation,” he is declaring that Jesus is “Lord over all creation.” We can, therefore, affirm the Nicene Creed which boldly proclaims, “I believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
Jesus existed before anything was created, and he exists sovereignly and supremely above all created things.
When Paul speaks of thrones, powers, rulers, and authorities, he is intending his readers to understand that this includes any power in any realm, physical or spiritual. Whether Caesar or Satan, any being that sits on any throne was created by, and is therefore of lesser power than, Jesus. No being, whether in heaven or on earth, whether visible or invisible, has supremacy over Jesus Christ. There is no higher authority to which you or anyone else will answer than Jesus. All things have been created through him. Nothing can usurp his throne. All things have been created for him. No one can steal his worship.
In verse 17, Paul continues the theme of Jesus’ universal supremacy by stating it simply: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” All of creation could conceivably devolve into chaos, but Jesus is the one who holds it all together. His power can be seen everywhere, for those who have eyes to see it.
And he is not far from any of us. He is, after all, the head of the Church. The Lord who is supreme and sovereign over all creation, who holds all things together with his nail-pierced hands, who was before all things, who created all things – this same Lord can be found in the Church, the source and instrument by which he implements his plan of new creation.
This great plan of new creation was inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, thus he is “the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead.” God is making all things new, and he is doing it through his resurrected Son, who is carrying out the Father’s plan through the Spirit-empowered Church. “Because humanity plays the key role in the ordering of God’s world, human reconciliation will lead to the restoration of creation, just as human sin led to creation’s fall. …All evil is to be destroyed through the cosmic outworking of the crucifixion: all creation is to be transformed in the cosmic results of the resurrection.”[vi] The cosmic results of the resurrection are the transformed lives and transforming work of God’s Spirit-empowered, Christ-centered, Gospel-proclaiming people. Christ has the supremacy. We are in Christ. We, therefore, do not simply sit back and watch him work; instead, we study his playbook and live out his calling as he works in us, empowering us by his Spirit, to accomplish his mission of redeeming what has been lost. “The new life in Christ is nothing less than the beginning of the new creation.”[vii]
Whatever you thought God was like, he is most fully like Jesus. Jesus replaces the God you thought you knew.
The reason that John could later say “God is self-sacrificing love” is because he saw God’s fullness filling Jesus. Jesus reveals God. Jesus is God. The power of this truth cannot be overstated. Humanity has always longed for a picture of its God, and we have only captured faint glimpses of him, even through the Old Testament prophets and the history of Israel. But now God has changed all of that. He has burst forth from heaven in the person of his Son, giving us not simply a picture or an image, but a flesh and blood man who dwelt among us, taught us, showed us the better way, and whom we killed. And in that killing, miraculously, graciously, mercifully, God did not allow us to start a war with him; instead, cosmic peace was made and universal reconciliation was accomplished through the blood of God-fully-revealed.
Jesus, the creator and redeemer of the world, has made peace between fallen, broken creation and righteous, holy God. All things, including you, have been reconciled to God. Because Jesus has the supremacy in everything, because he is both the firstborn over creation and from among the dead, because he holds all things together, and because all things were created in him, through him, and for him, in his death and resurrection he has reconciled all things to God.
There is no place that you can go in the universe where Christ does not reign supreme.
A second takeaway for us from this hymn comes from N.T. Wright’s excellent commentary on Colossians. He writes, “Christians must work to help create conditions in which human beings, and the whole created order, can live as God always intended.”[viii] Our task is not simply to save souls, though that certainly is a huge part of what it means to fulfill God’s mission on earth. But it is bigger than that, stretching into the redemption of political systems, economic structures, and ecological orders. It is here, on the level of systemic evil and injustice, that we encounter the most dangerous powers – the idols of man. But “the main thing that the gospel was bound to attack was idolatry.”[ix] The Gospel is not simply about giving us power to correct the problem of sin (though it includes that), but it is about reorienting our idolatrous hearts (both individually and corporately) toward the only true God, revealed in his fullness in Jesus Christ, who reigns supreme over all things. The task of every believer, and of every body of believers, is to proclaim the reconciliation of all things back to God through the peace bought through the blood of Jesus at the cross. The world’s (and our) proper response to this reconciliation is total and glad submission to the one who, dying to make peace, has risen from the dead and now reigns supreme over the world he wisely and lovingly created, holds together, and is redeeming.
[i] Melick, R. R. (1991). Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 32, p. 211). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
[ii] Wright, N.T. (1986). Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon (p.70). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
[iii] Ibid., p. 74.
[iv] Melick, p. 215.
[v] Geisler, N. L. (1985). Colossians. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 673). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
[vi] Wright. Colossians and Philemon (p. 81).
[vii] Ibid., p. 83.
[viii] Ibid., p. 84.