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.
Colossians 1:15–20 ESV
It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most beautiful and glorious texts in all of Scripture. Only Philippians 2, John 1, and Hebrews 1 are able to match the eloquence and poetry that are used to express the supremacy of our Lord Jesus Christ. In answer to the gnostic heresy that was being taught in Colossae, Paul emphasizes here that Jesus is the agent of creation, and therefore, He is both the perfect representation of God and sovereign over all things. The constant repetition of the phrases “He is” and “all things” serve as a constant declaration of Christ’s universal and absolute supremacy. Thus, since the primary goal of this Christ hymn is to accurately declare the glories of Christ, we must ask ourselves throughout the study of this text whether or not our view of Christ matches the Bible’s view of Christ.
However, before we dive into the text, let me speak briefly in regards to this section in general. These six verses are clearly poetry from the organization and stylistic differences from the rest of the letter. Some have suggested that this was a common hymn from the early church that Paul adopted for this letter. Other claim that Paul composed the hymn himself during the writing of the letter. Either answer is sufficient and shows that the first generation of Christians had an extremely lofty Christology; however, I would lean towards Paul’s composition of this hymn because in many of his letters Paul is known to burst into poetry at the thought of the glory of God. As for the structure of the hymn, there are two major sections. Verses 15 and 16 discuss Jesus’ excellency in relation to His role in creating the cosmos. Verses 17-18a provide transition from the first section of the second, while Verses 18b-20 describe Jesus’ supremacy in relation to His role in creating the church.
THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD // VERSE 15
Verse 15 begins the first of two major sections within this hymn of Christ’s preeminence. Here Paul states that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Genesis 1:26 gives us our first indication of what this phrase could mean. Within that verse, God declares that He will “make man in our image, after our likeness.” Thus, humans were created to bear the image of God, to display certain aspects of God’s character that other creatures did not possess. However, though we were gloriously given the privilege of bearing a degree of God’s likeness, we never fully displayed the likeness of God. Of course, the presence of sin blurs our imaging of God even further.
Jesus, however, is different. Christ does not only bear the likeness of God; He is the exact imprint of God’s nature (Heb. 1:3). In fact let me just quote the rest of that sentence from Hebrew 1:3, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Furthermore, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
What then does this mean? Jesus as the image of the invisible God means that the glory of God has a face. The infinite and inexpressible majesties of God are fully seen in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has become a man, and this means that we are now capable of knowing God! Throughout the world, many people are interested in learning more about God. They want to know what He is like, how He created the world, why He allows evil and pain, etc. But there is a vast difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Since God is manifest in flesh, we are capable of knowing God just as we are capable of knowing anyone. Jesus embodies the fullness of God’s glory in a manner that we are able to comprehend. This is God speaking our language because we are completely incapable of speaking His tongue. Christ as the image of God is not God meeting us halfway, but rather God coming to us. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known (John 1:18).”
This thought of the personhood of God being fully expressed in Jesus Christ ought to also mold how we read the Bible. Since, in Christ, God is capable of being known, we should not read the Bible as we would read a biography. In the Scriptures, we are not learn interesting facts about God, as we would learn from a book that Theodore Roosevelt once gave a speech after being shot in a failed assassination attempt. That is an interesting piece of information, but it has no impact upon my present life. Instead, you should read the Bible more like a diary that a significant other or best friend has given to you that you might know them better.
Next, what does it mean that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation? Jehovah’s Witness certainly have a strong opinion on the interpretation of this verse. Their New World Translation adds the word “other” between “all” and “creation.” However, that is not the intent of this phrase. It does not say that Christ is the firstborn of all other creation, as if He was merely the first of all things created. Instead, firstborn refers here to a position of authority. Throughout the Old Testament, the principle of the firstborn is heavily emphasized. The firstborn was to receive double the inheritance of his brothers, and he was the one who was primarily designated for continuing the family heritage. In Genesis, Esau only became so furious at his brother Jacob for stealing his firstborn blessing because it was of such importance.
Psalm 89:27 also gives us a fairly good idea of the meaning of firstborn here. The psalmist declares of David: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” In this context, the term firstborn is a position of great authority, establishing David as the highest king on earth. There is also likely a messianic ring to this verse as well. Though David, Jesus is also receiving the prophecy that He will be the highest king of the earth, the firstborn. Thus, in this text, calling Jesus the firstborn of all creation means that He is in authority over all creation.
THROUGH HIM & FOR HIM // VERSE 16
The word “for” connects this verse with the previous. Jesus is the firstborn of all creation because by Him all things were created. This further illustrates that Jesus is not a created being; rather, He is the agent in whom all things were created. The proceeding phrases give clarification of the meaning of all things. Whether things are in heaven or earth, visible or invisible, they were all created by Christ. Thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities likely refer to both earthly rulers and spiritual powers. Thus, Paul is stating that there is no king, angel, or demon that is greater than Christ because all things were created in Him.
John 1:3 further states this thought: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” This clearly shows that there are only two categories for all things in existence: made and not made. In the made category, we have heaven, earth, the universe, angels, demons, humans, animals, etc. In the not made category, we have God. Thus, since both Colossians and John place Jesus in the not made category, we can only conclude that Jesus is God. We must have a clear understanding of the divinity of Christ or the prepositions found in this verse make no sense. If Jesus is not infinite God, how can all things be created by (or in) Him? How can all things be created through Him? How can all things be created for Him? Only by proclaiming Jesus to be God can we truly believe that creation exists for Christ, that He is the ultimate end and goal of all existence.
However, notice the much more personal implication of this this verse. If all things are created by, through, and for Christ, then we are included in that statement. We are things of earth and things visible, so we fall into the category of things created by Christ. This means that we, as individuals, were created by, through, and for Christ. Whether we accept or reject Him, Jesus is the ultimate end and goal of our existence. We only have life for the glory of Christ. We only have life through the sovereignty of Christ. This should establish a reorientation of focus. The purpose of our lives is not to work hard, have a few kids, see a few countries, own a nice house, have a few cars, retire early, and have fun until we die. The purpose of our lives is Jesus! We should strive to know Him and to show Him to others. If we truly see the greatness and the glory of Christ, how can we not live our lives to serve Him?
IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER // VERSE 17
With this verse, we now enter the transitionary section of this hymn. Here, Paul offers a summation and conclusion of Christ’s cosmic preeminence. Jesus was before all things. This harkens back to Genesis 1:1. In the first verse of the Bible, we find that God was preexistent. Before anything else was made, God was there. Paul is once more tying Christ inseparably to God by declaring the preexistence of Jesus.
Also notice the second phrase, all things hold together in Him. Christ is the sustainer of creation. Not only was creation made in Him, through Him, and for Him, it is also held together by Him. Hebrew 1:2-3 says this well: “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” All things are made in Christ and sustained by Him.
Once more, this also applies to us. We are included in the words “all things.” How often do we pause to remember that Jesus holds together our lives? Do we frequently reminder ourselves that we only have jobs because of the grace of God? Are we thankful that God has given to us another day of life? Because He holds all things together, all good things are from His hand. This is how James is able to declare: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
THE HEAD OF THE BODY // VERSE 18
Continuing the transitionary section, Paul now delivers the thesis of the next major part of this Christ hymn: Jesus is preeminent in the church. Paul clarifies that the body referenced is the church, which we must understand to mean the universal church. The apostle is not discussing local bodies of believers here, but rather he is speaking about all believers in general, the Church. Jesus is the head of all believers. What does this mean? Yes, it signifies His authority and leadership, but it also represents His founding of the church. As the head of the church, Jesus is our guidance and ruler. However, He also initiated the body of believers, which is what Paul discusses next.
Christ is also the beginning, the firstborn from the dead. What we make of this statement? I believe that Paul is discussing the resurrection of Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:12-23 give us an astounding taste of the importance of Christ being the firstborn from the dead. In the first section of that passage (vv. 12-19), Paul discusses the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, our hope is in vain. Next, he states what exactly our hope in Christ’s resurrection is: “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” The proof that we will be raise from the dead, that the gospel is true and God is no longer our enemy, is Christ’s rising from the dead. By His death and resurrection, Jesus has purchased our life and resurrection from the dead.
BY THE BLOOD OF HIS CROSS // VERSES 19-20
Because Jesus has conquered death, He has revealed His preeminence. Paul now explains the source of Jesus’ authority to rise from the grave and assert His preeminence: in Him is all the fullness of God. Jesus is the embodied God. As we discussed in verse 15, Jesus is the image of God, the exact imprint of His nature. It is this fullness of deity that makes Jesus able to proclaim: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Because of Jesus’ absolute divinity, He also has the authority to reconcile all things by His blood. This is the gospel. In order to have good news, we first need to know the bad news, and if peace and reconciliation needed to be made, then something must have gone wrong. Paul is referencing the problem of sin. God is completely and totally good, loving, and just; however, we are imperfect people who have sinned against God. Thus, because God is righteous and just, we deserve is complete wrath and justice. However, thanks be to God, a mediator stepped in! Jesus, who is fully man and fully God, lived the life that we were supposed to live (free from sin) and then died the death that we deserve to die (taking upon Himself the full wrath of God). By the shed blood of Christ, we are now able to have peace with God. We are now able to be reconciled to God. Jesus has paid our debt. He has erased our penalty with His death and resurrection. Now for the follower of Christ, there is no enmity between us and God. We no longer must carry the weight of our sin because Jesus took that burden upon Himself!
The common thought regarding Jesus today is that He was a good teacher. Most people believe that Jesus was highly intelligent Jewish man that spoke nothing but love and peace to a brutal and uncivilized generation. The truth of the matter is that Jesus is far more than a good teacher who proclaimed love. Jesus is God incarnate (God made man). All of creation was created in, through, and for Christ. He is also the sustainer of all things. Without Him, all of existence unravels. He is completely divine, of one substance with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. It is only through Him that we have reconciliation with the Father. The question then to ask ourselves from this text is: does my view of Jesus match Paul’s view of Jesus? If it does not, then your view of Christ is far too small.