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Colossians 1:15–23

Colossians  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  51:30
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Colossians 1:15–23 ESV
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. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Beginning in verse 15 of ch1 of Colossians Paul makes an important transition from a prayer for the church at Colossae. It is s change in the content of his letter. Specifically the literary device that he uses. Anyone know what it is?
He transitions from a prayer to a hymn.
The transition from the prayer in Col 1:9–14 to the hymn in Col 1:15–20 raises several important questions. Why did Paul include this hymn here following his prayer for the Colossians (Col 1:9–14) and before his personal statement (Col 1:24–2:5)? How does the content of the hymn, including its statements about Christ, relate to Paul’s argument in the rest of the letter? Did Paul direct the hymn at his opponents, whom he also engages in Col 2:6–23?[1]
Why would a biblical author choose to use this type of literature?

Hymns in the New Testament (ὕμνος, hymnos).

A hymn is a song in praise of a deity. In addition to being used for worship, early Christian hymns likely were used to teach doctrine to new converts through antiphonal singing (Bruce, Commentary on Ephesians, 285).
In the New Testament, the word umnos appears only in Eph 5:19, Col 3:16, Acts 16:25, and Heb 2:12; the verbal form of umnos occurs in Matt 26:30 and Mark 14:26. Pliny, in a letter to Trajan, mentions that Christians regularly sang hymns to Christ as a God (10.96–97).
Examples of possible Christian hymns include Phil 2:5–11, Col 1:15–20, Eph 1:3–14, Eph 5:14, 1 Tim 3:16, and 1 Pet 1:3–5. Among biblical scholars, there is no agreement on whether these texts are hymns, confessional statements, or merely the author’s own exalted prose (see, e.g., Fee, “Philippians 2:5–11,” 29–46).[2]
Most scholars agree that the passage is skillfully worded and rhythmically balanced, deserving to be called a poem. Some have gone beyond this, and suggested that it is, or contains, a hymn already well known before being quoted here.[3]
According to Bruce (1984, 55), the hymn is located early in the letter not merely as rhetoric but as a “safeguard” against the heretical teaching among the Colossian Christians. Similarly, Patzia (2011, 29) thinks the purpose of the hymn is to bring the Colossian believers back to a correct understanding of Christ (see Col 2:6–7) by establishing His “superiority or the preeminence of Christ in all things.” He argues the hymn sets up Paul’s exhortation to his readers to live “a moral and obedient life” in Col 1:21–23. Davids (2008, 256) includes Col 1:13–14 with the hymn since the verse contains “a hymnic praise of the Father leading to a hymnic praise of Christ.” In his view, the poetic nature of the hymn on Christ then allows Paul to explicate the significance of Christ’s cosmic work of reconciliation for his largely Gentile audience in Colossae. Barth and Blanke (1994, 194–95) state that the hymn celebrates “the Jewish Messiah as creator and reconciler of the universe” and suggest it is introduced in Col 1:12–14, where Paul speaks of believers being transferred into His kingdom. In the section subsequent to the hymn, Paul grounds his “universal mission charge” in the cosmic work of Christ. Still (2006, 287–89) understands Col 1:15–20 as a digression of praise for Christ between two sections in which Paul describes the Father’s work of reconciliation in Christ (Col 1:12–13; 1:21–23).[4]
The hymn in Col 1:15–20 is one of the most important and memorable passages in the nt. In it, Paul ascribes to Jesus significant titles such as “the image of the invisible God” and “the firstborn of the dead.” Then, in Colossians 1:19, Paul boldly claims that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The following resources discuss the importance of the hymn in Col 1:15–20 for the Christology of the nt and later theology.[5]

Jesus as the Image of God

One of the meanings of the phrase “image of God” means that people are created as God’s image—or, as His imagers (Gen 1:27). The image of God language in the New Testament brings this into focus: Jesus is described as God’s imager, and believers are to image Christ.
Two passages refer to Jesus as the image of God: 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15. These passages speak of the incarnation of Christ—the eternal God becoming a human being. Having been “found in appearance like a man” (Phil 2:7; compare Phil 2:1–11), Jesus—through the incarnation—made it so that God was accessible to our human senses. He accomplished the plan of redemption on the cross, and offers salvation to humanity.
The language, however, suggests more. Paul writes that believers are destined to be conformed to the image of God’s son, Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29). This language is a call to act as Jesus would—to live like him. Acting like Jesus points to the functional idea of the image of God; it suggests we think of the image of God as a verbal idea. By “imaging God,” we work, serve, and behave the way God would if He were physically present in the world. In Jesus, God was physically present. Thus, we are to imitate—or, image—Christ.
God wants all humans to believe in Christ and be conformed to the image of Jesus. As Jesus imaged God, so must we image Jesus. In so doing, we fulfill the rationale for our creation: we image God (Gen 1:27). This process is a gradual one: “And we all, with unveiled face, reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory into glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). In this passage, being filled with the Spirit is linked to imaging Christ—the ultimate fulfillment of our status as God’s imagers. One day, our imaging of Christ will transcend our life on earth. As Paul also says: “just as we have borne the image of the one man who is made of earth, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor 15:49).[6]

Firstborn of All Creation

The second part of Col 1:15 ascribes another title to Jesus: “the firstborn of all creation” (prōtotokos pasēs ktiseōs). The language of the phrase anticipates the related language of Col 1:18—“firstborn from the dead” (prōtotokos ek tōn nekrōn). This phrase is also well-known within Christian history due to theological controversies regarding the nature of Christ. Many commentators, including Arnold (2002, 380) and Bird (2009, 52–53), are quick to point out that this title does not mean Jesus was the first created thing or person. Rather, the designation “firstborn of all creation” is rooted in the language and theology of the ot in two primary ways. First, in Psalm 89:28 God calls David His “firstborn” (Hebrew bekhor; Greek prōtotokos [Psa 88:28 lxx]). Noting that God also gives this title to Israel in the ot (Exod 4:22; Isa 64:8; Jer 31:9), Garland (1998, 87–88) argues that the “firstborn” metaphor distinguishes Christ from the rest of creation. Christ comes before all creation, and He is over all creation. Second, the application of “firstborn” language to Christ may be rooted in the wisdom tradition of Second Temple Judaism (see Bruce 1984, 58–61). Certain strands of this tradition presumed that wisdom was present at the creation of the universe (e.g., Prov 8:22–31). Early Christianity may have applied this same idea—not as a prophecy, but more of an analogy—to Christ to explain His relationship to creation.
Although most commentators agree on the general background to the phrase “firstborn of all creation,” interpretations of its significance in Col 1:15, as well as in the broader context of the poem of Col 1:15–20, fall into two camps. First, interpreters such as Lohse (1971, 48–49) maintain that “firstborn of all creation” as a title emphasizes Jesus’ uniqueness and preeminence over all created things. In this way, “firstborn of all creation” highlights Jesus’ role as ruler. Second, other interpreters emphasize that the title primarily refers to Jesus’ preexistence before any created thing (see Abbott 1909, 211–12). The two meanings of the title “firstborn of all creation” are not exclusive; most commentators draw attention to both interpretations (see Davids 2008, 254–55).[7]

firstborn (prōtotokos)

In this context, the Greek word used here, prōtotokos, affirms Christ’s supremacy and sovereignty over all things (see vv. 17–18).
In its ot context, prōtotokos refers primarily to preeminent status, as the Israelites recognized the firstborn son to have special privileges. In some cases, the special status of the firstborn was applied to a son who was not born first. For example, Isaac was not Abraham’s first son, yet he inherited blessings that indicate that he was treated as the firstborn (Gen 16–17; 21:1–21). Jacob bought the birthright from Esau and swindled for the blessing, as well (Gen 25:29–34; 27:1–41). When Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph, he transferred the blessing of the firstborn son, Manasseh, to his younger brother, Ephraim (Gen 48:14–20).[8]

Head of the Body, the Church

The next major assertion Col 1:15–20 makes about the Son is that He is “the head of the body, the church” (hē kephalē tou sōmatos tēs ekklēsias; Col 1:18). In Colossians 1:15 Paul spells out the Son’s relationship to the Father (His image) and to creation (firstborn); in Col 1:18 he describes Christ’s relationship to God’s people, the church. The metaphor of Christ as the head of the church is not unique to Colossians. In 1 Corinthians 12:27 Paul tells the Corinthians they are individual members of “the body of Christ” (sōma Christou). In Ephesians 1:22–23 he uses language similar to the present passage when he declares that God put all things under the feet of Christ and made Him “head (kephalē) over all things for the church, which is ‘His body’ (to sōma autou).” Later in Ephesians, Paul describes the husband as the head (kephalē) of his wife in the same way Christ is the head (kephalē) of the church (Eph 5:23). Similar language is also found in Rom 12:4–5 and 1 Cor 11:3.
The main issue regarding this phrase is the meaning of the image of Christ as the “head” (kephalē) of the body (church). Scholars generally recognize two main ways of interpreting the description of Christ’s role as the “head” of the body in Col 1:18, both of which are supported by verses later in the letter. First, the text could imply that Christ is the head of the body in that He has authority over the church (see Hendriksen 1964, 76–78). This view is supported by Col 2:10, where Paul calls Christ the “head” (kephalē) of every ruler and authority. Second, some suggest that Christ’s role as head of the body means that He provides and sustains the church (see O’Brien 1998, 48–51). This understanding of Christ’s headship is reflected in Col 2:19, where Paul says “the whole” body is nourished and held together by “the head.” The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and some commentators argue in favor of a combination of the two (see Bruce 1984, 66–71).[9]

the firstborn from the dead

Refers to Jesus’ resurrection, which Paul regards as a template for the resurrection of all believers (e.g., 1 Cor 15:20–23; 1 Thess 4:14). Compare Col 1:15 and note.[10] Here first is literally first.

all the fullness to dwell in him

Refers to God being fully present in Christ, parallel with Paul’s statement in 2:9. Consequently, Christ is sufficient for the Colossians’ salvation.
This phrase echoes the glory of God filling the tabernacle (Exod 40:34). In the ancient world, people believed that deities lived on high places such as mountains (see note on Gen 11:3). For example, when the Israelites entered the wilderness, God met them on a mountain (Exod 19:3). But God did not stay on the mountain; He instructed the Israelites to build a tabernacle—a dwelling place for Him to live among His people (Exod 25:8). God came down and filled the tabernacle with His glory as a sign of His presence among them (Exod 40:34). The prophet Isaiah interpreted this cloud of glory as the Holy Spirit (Isa 63:11). This gracious act was God’s extension of friendship to the Israelites (compare Exod 33:11).
The Gospel of John describes Christ as the tabernacle or the dwelling of God (John 1:14)—an allusion that demonstrates the continuity between God’s presence among the Israelites and His presence in the person of Christ.[11]

Key Word Studies

Synistēmi, “To Hold Together.”

In Colossians 1:17 Paul uses the term synistēmi to describe Christ’s ongoing relationship to creation. In Colossians 1:16 he declares that all things were created in Christ, through Him, and for Him. In the following verse Paul says Christ is before all things and that in Him all things “hold together” (synestēken). The term appears 16 times in the nt, only two of which are found outside of Paul’s letters (Luke 9:32; 2 Pet 3:5). Paul’s more common use of synistēmi is a verb for “commending” someone (see Rom 16:1; 2 Cor 3:1; 5:12; 10:12, 18).
As Patzia (2011, 31) points out, here Paul uses synistēmi in the sense of preservation or coherence—He who brought creation into existence continues to sustain it. The language of the hymn is not unique in its use of such language. The Graeco-Roman philosophers believed that all things were held together in Zeus; the Jewish writer Philo maintained that God’s Logos sustained creation (see O’Brien 1998, 47–48). Paul’s point in Colossians is that Christ—the one through whom everything and everyone in creation exists—continues to sustain “all things” and prevent them from coming undone. As Wright (1984, 77–78) puts it, “no creature is autonomous” since they are held together in Him; all things in creation are God’s servants and dependents (see Pss 104; 119:91).[12]

Apokatallassō, “To Reconcile.”

The verb apokatallassō means “to reconcile.” The verb appears only three times in the nt, including twice within the present passage (Eph 2:16; Col 1:20, 22). More frequently, Paul uses the related verb katallassō and its cognate noun katallagē to refer to God’s reconciliation to humanity or the world. In Romans 5:10, for instance, Paul asserts that believers—having already been “reconciled”—should be confident in God’s salvation because He “reconciled” us to Himself while were still sinners (see also Rom 11:15; 1 Cor 7:11; 2 Cor 5:18–20).
Both terms belong to Paul’s wider theology of reconciliation. Paul typically speaks of believers being reconciled to God, not Christ (e.g., 2 Cor 5:20). By contrast, in Col 1:20, 22 reconciliation is with Christ through the cross. As Melick (1991, 225–26) points out, this reconciliation is also to God (the Father) since the Son embodies the fullness of God. Reconciliation with God now takes place only through reconciliation with Christ.[13]

Application Overview

The hymn embedded in Col 1:15–20 contains several significant christological statements. Collectively, these assertions point to the supremacy of Christ over all of creation, every power and ruler, the church, and even death. In Him the fullness of the God of the universe dwells. Paul’s hymn about the Son reminds us of our need to acknowledge and respond to Christ’s supremacy, not only by word, but in our actions as well. The progression of Col 1:15–23 reflects this call to christologically rooted ethics. Immediately after the conclusion of the hymn in Col 1:15–20, Paul exhorts the Colossian community to remain “established and steadfast” in their faith in Christ’s supremacy and work of reconciliation. For Paul, a firmly rooted faith begins with acknowledgment that Christ rules over every aspect of the created universe as well as our own lives. The hymn in Col 1:15–20 gives us the words to do precisely that (compare Col 3:16).[14]
[1] Brown, D. R. (2013). Colossians. (D. Mangum, Ed.) (Col 1:15–23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[2] Seal, D. (2016). Hymns in the New Testament. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[3] Wright, N. T. (1986). Colossians and Philemon: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 12, p. 68). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[4] Brown, D. R. (2013). Colossians. (D. Mangum, Ed.) (Col 1:15–23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[5] Brown, D. R. (2013). Colossians. (D. Mangum, Ed.) (Col 1:15–23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[6] Heiser, M. S. (2012, 2016). Jesus as the Image of God. In Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[7] Brown, D. R. (2013). Colossians. (D. Mangum, Ed.) (Col 1:15–23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[8] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Col 1:15). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[9] Brown, D. R. (2013). Colossians. (D. Mangum, Ed.) (Col 1:15–23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[10] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Col 1:18). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[11] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Col 1:19). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[12] Brown, D. R. (2013). Colossians. (D. Mangum, Ed.) (Col 1:15–23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[13] Brown, D. R. (2013). Colossians. (D. Mangum, Ed.) (Col 1:15–23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
[14] Brown, D. R. (2013). Colossians. (D. Mangum, Ed.) (Col 1:15–23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
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