Colossians 1.15-20: The Supremacy of Christ in Creation and Reconciliation

Colossians 1.15-20

This section is undoubtedly the most famous and distinctive contribution of the Letter to the Colossians.  Paul here, most likely, incorporates a traditional Christian hymn; though it’s possible that he has reworked it slightly in order to relate it to the readers’ present situation.  This rich hymn functions as the centerpiece of the gospel, drawing the readers’ attention in praise to God’s Son—the One in whom they (and we) have redemption (v. 14).  In addition, it serves as the basis or launching point for much of what Paul has to say in the rest of his letter.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For 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 (TNIV).

The first stanza demonstrates Christ’s role and supremacy in the creation of all things (vv. 15-17), while the second focuses on his role and supremacy in the reconciliation of all things (vv. 18-20).

Notes:

Verse 15 describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God.”  The idea is clear enough: the God, whom you can’t see, can be known or clearly seen in the person of Jesus (similar ideas are taught elsewhere in the N.T.  See e.g., John 1.1-18, which speaks of the “Word” [i.e., Jesus] as the one who reveals God’s person [1.18]; Jhn 14.9; Heb 1.3).  The next qualifier describes Jesus’ relationship to humanity: he is the “firstborn over all creation.”  This speaks more to his rank or his superiority over the rest of creation than to his existence before creation (the firstborn child in ancient culture was given an elevated status; see e.g., Gen. 25:29–34; 27:36; Ex 4.22; Ps 89.27), but both ideas are likely present.

Verse 16 tells us that the entire universe was created in, through, and for Christ.  The “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” refer to spiritual beings and are likely mentioned here in order to affirm Christ’s superiority over such powers (note Col 2.10, 15; Eph 1.21; 3.10; 6.12).

Verse 17 serves as a transitional verse between the two stanzas.  The latter half moves the focus toward Christ’s redemptive work in bringing about the new creation, which occupies the remainder of the hymn (vv. 18-20).  Here, Paul asserts that all things are held together in Christ.  This bold claim may very well be the center and apex of the hymn.  The entire universe owes its coherence to the resurrected person of Christ (Moo, 125-126).

Verse 18 informs us that Jesus is “the head of the body, the church.”  Say what?  Paul, elsewhere in his letters, describes those who come to faith in Christ as belonging to a new (corporate) entity, namely, the person of Christ: those formerly “in Adam” are now “in Christ” and a part of the new creation (see e.g., 1 Cor 15.22; 2 Cor 5.17).  Paul, here, develops the idea further by describing the universal church as Christ’s body; though, this idea that was already well under way (see e.g., 1 Cor 12.27; Rom 12.5).  The depiction of Christ as the “head” further develops the metaphor.

As the head, Jesus is supreme figure and authority of the church (cf. 2.10).  And according to Greek medical ideas, the head guides, inspires, and sustains the body.  Thus, as the head, Jesus has an organic connection to the church, his body.  He is, therefore, able to sustain and direct its activity (cf. 2.19).  Clear as mud?  Just understand that Jesus is the church’s leader and source of inspiration and that it is in him that people from all different scopes of life are brought together in unity (we’ll deal with this further in chapter 3).

This next part’s exciting.  In repetition of v. 15 (Greek: “who is… the firstborn of creation”), v. 18b reads, “who is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead.”  This clearly refers to Jesus’ resurrection: he is the first to rise from the dead; though, it also anticipates a future resurrection for those who belong to him (see also 1 Cor 15.20) (Dunn, Colossians, 97).  Jesus was given this place of prominence—as the founder of the resurrection—in order to demonstrate his supremacy over all things (v. 18c; cf. Rom 1.4).  Jesus’ resurrection and lordship mark the inauguration of the new age—a new beginning for creation (Dunn, 98).

Verse 19 probably alludes to Psalm 68.16, where God was pleased to dwell in the temple.  Christ is now where God in all his fullness can be found.  This reference may have a polemical thrust to it in order to counter claims of the false teachers, who were suggesting that true spiritual fulfillment was found outside of Christ.

Finally, we come to verse 20, which continues to explain why Christ is supreme over all things (v. 18) by describing what is happening under his lordship.  All things are being reconciled to Christ by way of the cross.  The word “reconcile,” presumes a previous state of hostility or estrangement (Louw and Nida 1:501). But now, through the violent and bloody death of the cross, peace has been established and the harmony restored.  Note also how v. 20 repeats the language of v. 16 (“all things [created in v. 16 versus reconciled in v. 20] through him and to him…whether in heaven or on the earth”). This suggests that the goal of Christ’s work of reconciliation is to reestablish harmony of the original created order (Dunn, 103-104).

It is also important to recognize that while people are the primary object of this reconciliation and redemption (1.14; 1.22), creation in general (or in its entirety) is being reconciled to Christ—an assertion clearly supported by the repetitive use of “all things,” as well as the catch all phrase “whether things on earth or in heaven.”  Thus, the redemptive work that is taking place in Christ is cosmic in scope.  This hymn describes God’s mission to restore the entire created order, to renew all things in Christ.

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7 Responses to Colossians 1.15-20: The Supremacy of Christ in Creation and Reconciliation

  1. Scott Mabee says:

    Nick, in reconciling things “in heaven,” do you think this is speaking of the angelic beings or the heavens of creation? If the angelic beings, what do you think this reconciliation means?
    Scott

    • Nic says:

      Scott,

      Excellent question… First we should note that the statement “whether things on earth or things in heaven” is a literary device (merismus), intended to convey the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work of reconciliation; we should, therefore, be careful in making definitive conclusions on the specifics here.

      That being said, I think “angelic beings” are at least one of the things that are being reconciled in heaven (v. 20), esp. in light of their being mentioned in v. 16 (see the notes and parallel texts of Ephesians there). The idea of spiritual beings who have power to influence lives here on earth is somewhat foreign to us in the Western world; nevertheless, the dark spiritual realm does exist and should not be taken lightly (Though, I’m also not sure that we can say that all of these angelic beings that Paul refers to are evil either. The point, in v. 16 anyway, is that the whole angelic realm was created by Christ; hence, he is superior to all things in heaven).

      As far as what this means, if the reconciliation of things in heaven applies to angelic beings…
      Several scholars suggest v. 20 teaches that Christ is “pacifying” the entire universe (“having made peace through his blood”). The idea is that all things, including angelic beings, are being put under the Lordship of Christ. In Christ’s work of bringing about the new creation, we see the all expansive rule of Christ taking over… every rebellious being must submit to him… He has triumphed over these powers by his victory on the cross (2.14-15)… his Kingdom is becoming a reality…He is Lord!

      You have me pumped up… but I guess we have to note, as it should go without saying, that Christ’s work of reconciliation is not yet complete, which is why we’re surrounded by evil day in and day out. But Praise be to God who has provided the answer in Christ! One day, God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28), and every knee will bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2.10-11)(Moo, 137).

      Amen?

  2. Mark Scherer says:

    Do you see the universal church coming to pass? I mean if the church is Christs body, as Paul confirms, then the body seems to be going in different directions with all of the different denominations. It seems to me the the movement now is to become a Christian and ignore denominations. With the advances of biblical study going more and more back to the original writings and not relying on ‘interpretations’ provided by earlier bibles that may have been written by poets or had a political bent to them, denominations are not as important as the basic message. It was only two hundred years ago that Americans were killing other Americans because of their different ‘Christian’ beliefs. Which way are we heading?

    • Nic says:

      Pops,

      First off, I’m no authority on church trends and growth. So, I’d like to hear what others think…

      I really don’t see the “the universal church coming to pass.” As you recognize, we see good reasons to believe that the universal church is coming to fruition, with denominational lines being blurred and a renewed attempt to get back to the core of the biblical message.

      But I hear you, why so many different denominations and divisions in the church? This is obviously not what God envisioned for his church body (apt metaphor, with the one body moving in all different directions). In fact, Jesus prayed that his followers would be one, and their unity would be a witness for the rest of the world (John 17). I don’t think the world is impressed with our efforts. In all seriousness, this must grieve God to no end.

      Which way are we headed (i.e., further division or unity)? I personally think we see a lot of positive things in the churches that suggest we are moving toward oneness. But that doesn’t mean that the denominational structure is going to change overnight. And creating on body out of so many different factions is no easy task. There are ecumenical movements out there, but they often fail because they seek unity for unity’s sake. We could spend quite a bit of time on all this; the topic deserves a whole lot more attention than just a small comment within a blog post…

      Bottom line, you’re right: the biblical message is much more important than denominations. The way forward, I believe, is to get back to the core of the biblical message and communicate it to the hurt and dying world that surrounds us. Perhaps, if we are faithful at that, others will take notice and follow suit.

      This may sound overly simplistic and naïve, but the fact of the matter is that if we work hard to seek truth in humility, we can find it… and better understand the biblical message. This is what seekwithme is all about.

      God, may we be brought together in complete unity in order that the world may know that you have sent your son, Jesus Christ, and love them dearly (cf. John 17.23).

  3. Scott Mabee says:

    Mark and Nick,
    It is sad that there are divisions within the “church,” but I think there is the real body of Christ which is composed of those who truly believe, and there are those who would say they are Christ’s and belong to a church who really don’t believe. It’s complex because we are all sinners and most of the christian denominations are separated by things that are not the gospel…things that are secondary issues and aren’t perfectly clear in the word. The disagreements are seen by the watching world as hypocritical, sometimes appropriately. Love and unity are winsome but the truth is also necessary. It is my belief that the gospel is what is important and the word is our ruler and truth. I think the future will bring polarization between those who believe and who don’t believe and that the true body of Christ will be more and more on fire for God, eventually breaking through the denominational barriers. But then again, what do I know….
    Scott

    • Nic says:

      Good point… the real body of Christ is in fact united, in him. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  4. Mark Scherer says:

    Thanks for the responses. I guess I am more encouraged by the fact that parishioners are now able to read and study Bibles that are truer to the original Greek and Hebrew than previously. Also the fact that some are now for the first time encouraged to read the Bible. We have friends who up until last year were not encouraged to read the Bible, that the priest would tell them about it. I thought it funny and also sad when he asked me, “Have you ever read any of the Bible?” Hopefully soon they will have Bible classes.

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