Listening for God's Voice
Beginning the Journey (for new Christians).
1, 2, and 3 John
1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 & 2 Timothy
2 Peter, Jude
7 Last Words of Christ
Christ Powered Life (Rom 5-8)
David, Life of
Glorious Kingdom, The
Jesus and the Kingdom
Lamb of God
Names of God
Names of Jesus
Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
Sermon on the Mount
2. The Supremacy of Christ (Colossians 1:15-19)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
How is Jesus seen in the culture around us?
- As a great teacher.
- As the founder of a major world religion.
- As a healer and miracle worker.
- As a great man.
Each of these describes Jesus accurately. But each falls short -- very far short -- of who he really is.
In this lesson, Paul explodes a merely human understanding of Jesus. He speaks of Jesus Christ in cosmic terms. If what he says is true, then Christ is worthy of our awe and worship and service. If it is not true, Jesus remains just a man. Let's examine these audacious claims for who Jesus is.
But first we need to set this letter in its proper context. As we discussed in the introduction, Colossians seems to have been written with two purposes in mind:
- To encourage and ground this relatively new Christian community, and
- To keep them from the seduction of false teachers, probably from a variety of mystical Judaism that tended to denigrate these Gentile Christians' faith in Christ in favor of the claims of Judaism.
Paul's answer to both needs is to help open their vision of who Christ is: his greatness and preeminence. If the Christians understand better who they have in Christ, any other religion loses its luster. In Christ alone they are fulfilled. They are complete in him.
The passage we'll be looking at next is the classic passage in the New Testament that can help us understand more clearly who Christ is. It is at the apex of Christology, the knowledge of Christ. I encourage you to pause and to read aloud these verses so your ears can hear the power of these words. Let them sink into your soul.
"15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by 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. (1:15-20)
We'll cover verses 15 to 19 of the hymn in this lesson, and consider Christ's reconciliation in the next lesson.
This passage seems to be a hymn or poem inserted into Paul's letter to the Colossians. Whether it is of his own composition or a hymn of anonymous authorship circulating among the churches of the first century we don't know -- nor does it matter. The passage is "skillfully worded and rhythmically balanced, deserving to be called a poem." 1
Throughout the New Testament epistles we occasionally see evidence of poems that can be recognized by several earmarks:
- The flow of the letter seems to be interrupted at these points,
- The style is elevated and differs from the normal prose of the letter,
- They are set off by introductory phrases that indicate a change (here, the relative pronoun "who",
- They tend to set up a contrast, and
- The vocabulary tends to be rare and highly stylized.2
In addition to our passage, we see examples of early hymns and poems in Ephesians 5:14; Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16; and 2 Timothy 2:11-13. Our passage is not only profound in what it reveals about Christ, it is a beautiful literary gem in its own right.
Our passage contains two parts. First, seven different cameos that highlight various aspects of Christ's supremacy (verses 15-18) and second, an explanation of how God fulfills his purpose through Christ (verses 19-20).
Let's begin our mediation on this passage with the first cameo:
"He is the image of the invisible God...." (1:15a)
This phrase introduces two contrasting concepts: image and invisibility. An image is something you can see. Invisibility, by definition, you can't see.3 The great glory of Judaism was its belief in one God who could not be seen. In fact, the Ten Commandments prohibit any kind of carved image of God, such as the idols that were so common in the ancient world. The people of Israel were to know God as a spiritual being, not as a physical being. Indeed, Jesus declared, "God is spirit" (John 4:24). This understanding of God's invisibility is part of the Christian understanding of God, as well.
"God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature...." (Romans 1:20)
"Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God...." (1 Timothy 1:17)
"[Moses] persevered because he saw him who is invisible." (Hebrews 11:27)
The amazing truth of Christianity is that the invisible God has allowed himself to be seen in Jesus of Nazareth. The word "image" is eikōn, "an object shaped to resemble the form or appearance of something, 'likeness, portrait,' then figuratively, by extension, "that which has the same form as something else (not a crafted object), 'living image.'"4 John's Gospel especially ponders this paradox:
"The Word became flesh and made his
dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and
Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth....
No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (John 1:14, 18)
"Philip said, 'Lord, show us the Father
and that will be enough for us.'
Jesus answered: 'Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.'" (John 14:8-9)
John's Gospel is clear that the Father and Son are different Persons, but that in the Son, God can be seen in all his glory. Amazing!
Q1. (Colossians 1:15a, 19) The great
understanding of Judaism was that God is spirit, not physical.
That he is invisible. Any idol that tries to depict him is
blasphemous. So what is the significance of the statement that
Jesus is "the image of the invisible God"? According to verse
19, to what degree does this image accurately represent God? Is
Jesus actually God in the flesh, or only a manifestation of God,
a kind of holograph?*
*A holograph might be like Princess Leia in Star Wars sending a message through R2-D2: "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope…."
The second cameo of Christ in this hymn is as Creator.
"15 He is ... the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him." (1:15b-16)
This verse uses the Near Eastern concept of "firstborn" (prōtotokos). "Firstborn" can suggest both birth order (as in 1:18b) and the special status accorded the firstborn son, as in our verse.5 "Firstborn over all creation" doesn't mean that Jesus is the first created being, but that he is preeminent over all created beings. A couple of Old Testament references show this use of the concept of "firstborn" as preeminent:
"Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son.'" (Exodus 4:22)
will also appoint him my firstborn,
the most exalted of the kings of the earth." (Psalms 89:27)
So Jesus is "the firstborn over all creation," the sum total of everything created. Verse 16 uses the verb "create," ktizō, "to bring something into existence, create." 6 But the author isn't talking about the fauna and flora of the earth so much as sentient beings, both human beings and spiritual beings (see verse 23), for he continues:
"For by him all things were created:
things in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible,
whether thrones or powers
or rulers or authorities;
all things were created by him and for him. (1:16)
The Jewish opponents of the church in Colossae apparently practiced angel worship (2:18), as did the Jews opposed in the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:4-14). They saw Jesus as human, not divine. But this Christian hymn states that Jesus is the Creator of all these lesser spiritual beings. He is above them all. In fact, they were created to serve him ("for him").
Later Gnosticism saw God as separated from human beings by a series of emanations of God, spiritual beings that were in between. The Bible is clear. Jesus, whom we serve, is their Master and Creator and is over them all.
In Lesson 1 we compared the "dominion of darkness" to the "kingdom of God's dear Son." Paul mentioned in Ephesians:
"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers (archē), against the authorities (exousia), against the powers (kosmokratōr) of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12)
In our passage he refers to a few of these levels of spiritual authority, probably referring to fallen angels, now in the demonic sphere:
"... Whether thrones or powers or rulers (archē) or authorities (exousia)." (1:16)
There's been a lot of speculation, especially in medieval times, about the exact nature of these ruling powers. But we don't know more than the Scripture tells us:
- "Thrones" refers to the seat of authority, and the power who sits on such a throne.7
- "Powers" (NIV), "dominions" (NRSV, KJV) is the plural of kyriotēs, the majestic power which is wielded by the kyrios, the lord and master.8
- "Rulers" (NIV, NRSV), "principalities" (KJV) is archē, "an authority figure who initiates activity or process, ruler, authority." 9 The word also occurs in Ephesians 6:12 quoted above, and at 2:10, 15, which describe Christ's power and victory over them.
- "Authorities" (NIV), "powers" (NRSV, KJV) is exousia, "bearer of ruling authority." 10
This passage ends with the words, "All things were created by him and for him" (1:16e). Jesus is not just one among various spiritual authorities. He is the Creator of them all and they exist to serve him.
Q2. (Colossians 1:15b-17) What does
"firstborn of all creation/every creature" mean? Is Jesus a
created being? If not, what does "firstborn" mean here? What do
verses 16-17 teach about Jesus' pre-existence? What does verse
16b teach about the purpose of creation? According to verse 17,
what is Jesus' past role in creation? What is his present role
Q3. (Colossians 1:16) "Thrones,"
"powers," "rulers," "principalities," "authorities," etc.
probably refer to both earthly as well as angelic and demonic
dominions. What does this passage teach about the relation of
these powers to Jesus? How should this affect our fear of them?
How should it affect our prayers?
The third cameo of Christ in this passage is found in verse 17a:
"He is before all things...." (1:17)
The Greek word "before" is pro, a "marker of a point of time prior to another point of time, earlier than, before." 11 This passage teaches the pre-existence of Christ. He is not just a human, nor a created being himself. He predates everything. We see this taught throughout the New Testament:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." (John 1:1-3)
"'I tell you the truth,' Jesus answered, 'before Abraham was born, I am!'" (John 8:58)
"And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began." (John 17:5)
Jesus is the "I AM," the eternally existent God, "who was, and is, and is to come" (Revelation 4:8). We see a similar idea in verse 18b, where Christ is spoken of as "the beginning."
There is a fourth cameo in verse 17b:
"... In him all things hold together." (1:17)
"Hold together" (NIV, NRSV), "consist" (KJV) is synistēmi, originally, "to bring together by gathering, unite, collect." As an intransitive verb it is sometimes used as "to be composed or compounded of various parts, consist" (as in the KJV), but also, "to come to be in a condition of coherence, continue, endure, exist, hold together." 12 This word also occurs in 2 Peter:
"... Long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed (synistēmi) out of water and by water." (2 Peter 3:5)
the earth and all its people quake,
it is I who hold its pillars firm." (Psalms 75:3)
"The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining13 all things by his powerful word." (Hebrews 1:3a)
The implications of this are that Jesus is not just the clockmaker who creates the timepiece and sets it in motion and then leaves it. He is one who continually sustains it and holds it together, despite all the forces -- both subatomic and large-scale -- that might blow it apart.
"And he is the head of the body, the church...." (1:18a)
Paul refers to the head-body analogy, which he develops more thoroughly in the next chapter, where he refers to an opponent of the Colossian church:
"He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow." (Colossians 2:19)
We'll consider the analogy more thoroughly later.
"Head" is kephalē. It means first, the physical head, particularly in the head-body analogy. But then extends to a figurative use as "being of high status, head." With living beings, kephalē refers to superior rank.14 We see this use later in the letter without the head-body analogy:
"... Christ, who is the head over every power and authority." (2:10)
But in our passage in 1:18a, the emphasis is on Christ's vital connection to and authority over the church. We are Christ's body here on earth and serve under his direction. The point is that Christ not only has priority over the principalities and powers, he is the supreme Head of the church itself.
Q4. (Colossians 1:18) How should the
assertion that Jesus is the "head of the body, the church"
affect the way we conceive of the church? Is he talking about
the universal church or a local congregation, or both? If we
believe that Jesus is the head of the church, how should that
affect the way we conduct our life and ministry as the church?
In what ways does the visible church represent the "head"? How
well do we as the body follow his leadership?
In addition to the concept of Christ's preexistence ("he is before all things"), Paul emphasis Christ as "the beginning":
"He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy." (1:18)
"Beginning" is archē. The basic idea of the word, however, is not "ruler" (as in verse 16), but "the commencement of something as an action, process, or state of being, beginning, that is, a point of time at the beginning of a duration." Here, in context with "firstborn," Paul is speaking figuratively of a person, "one with whom a process begins, beginning." 15 At the close of Revelation, Jesus says:
"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." (Revelation 22:13)
Christ shares this title with God the Father (Revelation 21:6).
Next, this hymn of Christ speaks of his resurrection:
"He is ... the firstborn from among the dead." (1:18c)
In verse 15b, "firstborn" was used in the sense of primacy due to birth order. Here, the idea of birth order itself is in view. Jesus is "firstborn from among the dead" here and in Revelation 1:5 in the sense that he is the first to be resurrected from the dead. His resurrection from the dead encourages us that we, too, will be raised at his coming. He is our hope.
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." (John 11:25-26)
"The prophets and Moses said ... that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles." (Acts 26:22-23)
"But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep...." (1 Corinthians 15:20)
Christ's 7-fold distinctives outlined in this hymn culminate with a purpose clause (Greek hina):
"... So that in everything he might have the supremacy." (1:18d)
"Supremacy" (NIV), "supreme" (NJB), "first place" (NRSV, NASB), "preeminence" (KJV) is prōteuō, "to hold the highest rank in a group, be first, have first place." 16 Jesus wasn't given these distinctives to make him preeminent. Rather, these distinctives demonstrate his preeminence. He is in first place -- above any person or any spiritual power, in all creation.
The hymn has reached its high point in the supremacy of Christ over creation. Now it considers his relationship to God:
"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell17 in him." (1:19)
"Fullness" is plērōma, "that which is brought to fullness or completion," here, "sum total, fullness," even " (super)abundance." 18 The word is used in second century Gnostic writings as a religious technical term, but here in Colossians it affirms that in Jesus, God is fully present and that Jesus is fully divine. This is used in a similar way in the next chapter (where we'll consider it in greater detail), as well as in Ephesians:
"9 For in Christ all the fullness (plērōma) of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and you have been given fullness (plēroō) in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority." (Colossians 2:9-10)
A book of the compiled lessons is available in both e-book and paperback formats.
"[I pray that you may] know this love that surpasses knowledge -- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:19)
"... Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. " (Ephesians 4:13)
So who is Jesus? Is he a good teacher? A prophet? An example? Yes, all these things. But he is more. He is supreme and he is God in the flesh!
Father, thank you for sending your best to us. I'm ashamed when I realize afresh who Christ actually is compared to how we welcomed him, treated him shamefully, and then put him on display on the cross as an example of how we treat God in our midst. Forgive us. Let Christ be supreme in us and all God's children. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:16-17, NIV)
1. Wright, Colossians, p. 68.
2. Ralph P. Martin, "Hymns, Hymn Fragments, Songs, Spiritual Songs," DPL 419-423, citing E. Stauffer, New Testament Theology (Macmillan, 1956).
3. "Invisible" is aoratos, "pertaining to not being subject to being seen, unseen, invisible," from a-, "not"+ oraō, "to see" (BDAG 94).
4. Eikōn, BDAG 283, 2.
5. Prōtotokos, BDAG 894, 2a.
6. Ktizō, BDAG 572.
7. Thronos (from which we get our word "throne") is "chair, seat," a chair set aside for one of high status, "throne," then, by extension, the power or person of the one who sits on the throne, "supreme power over a political entity, dominion, sovereignty" or "the enthroned" (BDAG 460, 2 and 3).
8. Kyriotēs is "the essential nature of the kyrios, especially, the majestic power that the kyrios wields, "ruling power, lordship, dominion" (BDAG 579, 3). The primary meaning of the adjective kyrios relates to possession of power or authority, in various senses: "strong, authoritative, valid, ruling"; then to that which is preeminently important principal, essential. As a noun it refers to "one who is in a position of authority, lord, master" (BDAG 577).
9. Archē, BDAG 137, 6.
10. The basic idea of exousia is a state of control over something, "freedom of choice, right." The word is widely used of governmental offices and individuals. Here, "bearer of ruling authority" (BDAG 353, 5b).
11. Pro, BDAG 864, 2.
12. Synistēmi, BDAG 973, B3.
13. "Sustaining" (NIV, NRSV), "upholding" (KJV) is pherō, "bear, carry," here with the specific meaning, "to cause to continue in a state or condition, sustain" (BDAG 1051, 5).
14. Kephalē, BDAG 541-542.
15. Archē, BDAG 137, 2. The idea of ruler or authority, which we saw in 1:16b above as "rulers" (NIV) or "principalities" (KJV), derives from the concept of one who begins or initiates.
16. Prōteuō, BDAG 892.
17. "Dwell" is katoikeō, "to live in a locality for any length of time, live, dwell, reside, settle (down)" (BDAG 534, 1b).
18. Plērōma, BDAG 828, 3b.
In-depth Bible study books
You can purchase one of Dr. Wilson's complete Bible studies in PDF, Kindle, or paperback format.
- Listening for God's Voice
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ