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).
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.