The Preeminence of Jesus Christ Colossians 1:15-20


Colossians 1:15-20

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In v. 14 Paul mentioned the Father’s “beloved Son.” That reference to the Lord prompted an extensive identification of Jesus Christ that then proves to serve as a transition to the main argument of the letter. That introduction of Jesus Christ which is before us tonight in vv. 15-20 of Colossians chapter 1 has been long referred to as Paul’s “great Christology,” Paul’s most elaborate identification of the Lord Jesus as the God-Man, God incarnate. It stands next to John 1:1-14, Philippians 2:5-11, and Hebrews 1:2-4 as perhaps the most important texts in the New Testament for the identification of Jesus Christ and the nature of the incarnation of God the Son, the Second Person of the Triune God.  It is unquestionably the most famous paragraph of the letter to the Colossians. A commentator I read entitled these verses “The Heart of the Gospel.” [Moo, 107] There is an immense literature of scholarly works devoted to these six verses alone. Indeed in the commentaries reference is made to the virtual “cottage industry” of writing on Col. 1:15-20. And no wonder. These few verses were immensely important to the theological development of the Christian doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ in the early centuries of after Pentecost, have been crucial to all subsequent Christian reflection on the person of Jesus Christ, and are immensely important today to the preservation to a distinctively Christian conception of the world.

It is my task to demonstrate those two facts to you this evening. Almost certainly at least part of the motivation for this digression about Jesus Christ was Paul’s concern that the believers in Colossae were being tempted to look to something else than Jesus himself as the way of salvation and the fullness of life. Virtually every form of false teaching dealt with in the New Testament in some form or fashion diminished the place of Jesus Christ himself in the believer’s active consciousness in order to add to him or beside him some other principle, or being, or performance. As Paul makes clear in 2:8, this is what was happening or in danger of happening in Colossae. There were other principles and other spiritual powers that were being elevated in their minds to a place if not above at least alongside of Jesus. But Paul will have none of it. The way to heaven and the way to true goodness and happiness in life is the way of Jesus Christ and so Paul begins with a magisterial statement of the supremacy of Christ in creation and redemption.

Before we begin to read this immensely important text, a few comments about its structure. The reader of the text in Greek immediately notices that the passage stands out from its surrounding context. [Moo, 107] In fact, in the standard Greek New Testament (Nestle-Aland) vv. 15-18 are set apart as a poem. It is commonly thought that what we have before us here is an early Christian hymn or perhaps an early confession of faith. Of course, it could have been written by Paul himself and there are reasons to think that not unlikely. They would be too complicated to identify here but there are any number of linguistic details that separate vv. 15-20 from what goes before and after in the letter.

I won’t bore you with the details, but it is generally thought that the verses before us have a highly stylized structure, either two stanzas or three with a shorter one between the two main stanzas. Notice, for example the similarity between the beginning of v. 15 and the beginning of v. 18, the use of “firstborn” in each, the phrase “in heaven and on earth” in v. 16 and, its reverse,  the phrase “on earth or in heaven” in v. 20 and it goes on and on. [cf. O’Brien, 34]

Text Comment

v.15

Paul’s vision is expansive in these verses. The word “all” [πãς] occurs eight times in these six verses. Christ created everything and he is reconciling or pacifying the entire cosmos to himself.

The phrase “image of God” is, as you know, immensely important to our Christian faith. “Image” in the ancient world usually referred to something that looked like or represented a god. “Image” was what the statue was called that Nebuchadnezzar erected in Daniel. In Revelation the word occurs ten times to refer to the beast who seeks to displace God. Idols were images or representations of gods. But, we read in Genesis 1:26 that man was created in God’s image and here in Colossians (in 3:10) we read of believers in Jesus being renewed in the image of our creator. [Moo, 117] An image of God can be a good thing or a bad thing.

As Paul affirms here and as Judaism and Christianity alike confessed, God is invisible. But Jesus Christ is the image, the representation of the invisible God, a way, indeed the only way in which he might be seen. And so we read in the New Testament such statements as these:

“No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” [John 1:18]

“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 God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [2 Cor. 4:4, 6]

“[The Son] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” [Heb. 1:3]

And in a few verses we will read that in Christ, that is in Jesus of Nazareth, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” [v. 19] a statement repeated in 2:9.

Here Jesus is also referred to as “the firstborn of all creation.” You will understand why Arius and his followers in the 4th century and Jehovah’s Witnesses today appeal to the use of this term to prove that the Son of God had a beginning and so was not fully equal with God the Father. Does not the term “firstborn” indicate that the Son had a beginning; that there was a time when he was not, which is what the Arians used to say about Jesus, that there was a time when he was not. That could never be said of the one true and living God? But while the term certainly could be used in that literal sense of the first child of a parent, the first to come from the womb, as Jesus was Joseph and Mary’s firstborn, the term also has a metaphorical sense based on the ancient practice of giving the firstborn preeminence in the family and in his father’s inheritance. We read in the OT of the right of primogenitor, viz. the right of the first born to inherit and to take his father’s place in the family.

If any of you have seen the magnificent Biltmore estate near Asheville, N.C., the largest home ever built in the United States, five acres under roof, you’ll have some appreciation for the right of primogeniture. The Vanderbilt who built that house was third in line. His older brother, first in line, got the company, the family business. The third son just got a large sum of money. What is a man going to do with a lot of money? Well, he’s going to build the biggest house that’s ever been built in the United States and then he’s going to read. The house has an absolutely magnificent library! He was an avid reader. He would travel and do all kinds of interesting things, but he would not run the family business because he wasn’t the eldest son.

What is more, as “image of God” refers to Christ’s relation to God, “firstborn of all creation,” refers to his relation to the creation. The firstborn son was always the father’s heir and Jesus Christ as the firstborn of creation is its heir. It all will come to him. It is his by right. And as Paul goes right on to say, Christ is not a part of the creation, but the creator himself, or as Athanasius put it, “the creator of the creatures.” [Lucas, 51] Arius and the Jehovah’s Witnesses include Christ among the creatures, the first of the creatures they called him, a part of creation. But Paul says he is the creator of all things! The term “firstborn” then expresses sovereignty and supremacy of rank, not of chronology. [Cf. Moule, 63-65] Take, for example, the Lord’s promise about David in Psalm 89:27: “I will make him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” David was neither the eldest son in his family nor the first of Israel’s kings, but he was to become the Lord’s firstborn in rank and in privilege. The term refers to his exalted status, not his chronological origin. Later, Jewish rabbis would even refer to God himself, who they all believed had no beginning, as the “firstborn of creation.” [Moule, 65]

v.16

The point of heaven and earth, visible and invisible is to leave nothing out: Christ created it all. Because cosmic powers featured in the teaching that was troubling the church, as we read in chapter 2:10, 15, and 18, it was important for Paul to remind his readers that these powers likewise were subject to Christ as their creator. They could not rival him in any way. But it is not only that he created all these things; he created them for himself! That he is the goal of the creation further emphasizes his supremacy and how important it must be for us to recognize this ourselves. I saw again the other day the bumper sticker which many of you have seen: “God is my co-pilot.” I’m sure the person who put that bumper sticker on his car thought he was saying something reverential about God and confessing his faith in God. But what sort of compliment to God is it to make him your assistant, your second-seater, your back-up! God is not your co-pilot. Christ as God is your Maker and you are his creature! You exist in every fiber and every breath of your being for him. Start and finish there.

v.17

Abraham Kuyper used to speak enthusiastically about the pluriformity of life, how the world teems with God-ordained diversity. Things are different, people are different. If you’ve never thought about it in these terms, I think you will with just a little bit of thinking realize this is what makes life so fascinating to you, so beautiful, so endlessly intriguing, this God-ordained diversity. There are so many different things, so many different people, unlike one another in so many ways. But this diversity should not lead to d fragmentation — as it does in our post-modern day — to an obsession with diversity,  to a rejection of what today are scorned as “the tyranny of wholes” — metanarratives (i.e. the big “stories” e.g. where we came from, who we are, where we are going, sort of explanations of life) and generalized groupings, such as societies, peoples etc. Those are out of fashion in our post-modern day because they suggest some purposeful organization of human life and purpose for it; but they shouldn’t be because the rich diversity of human life is all held together by the unifying and integrating lordship of Christ. [In R.J. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper, 16-19] There may be and are African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, white Anglo-Americans; there may be men and women; there may be heterosexuals and homosexuals, there may be wives and husbands, parents and there are children. There are certainly Americans and Iranians, but all of them have but one Lord and one Maker and one Ruler who determines the destiny of their lives: Jesus Christ. This is one supremely important reason for evangelism: much of the world lives with no understanding of their origin or their true purpose. Life for them can never be what it ought to be until their lives are lived in submission to the one who made them for his purpose.

v.18

With this verse Paul moves from a cosmological perspective to a soteriological one. As the creation, so supremely the church lives and must live in vital union with Christ its head and creator. Christ is the founder of this new humanity; that is what it means to call him the firstborn of the dead; he is the conqueror of death and as the risen God/Man he is the progenitor of a new race. We’ve been chosen to be conformed to the image of God’s Son that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. He is the beginning of the new creation as its creator just as he was the beginning of the cosmos as its creator.

The motto of my alma mater, Covenant College, is taken from the King James Version of this verse: “In all things Christ preeminent.” They take it seriously. In the scholarship being practiced in that school it is readily confessed that if a subject is not intimately related to Christ and to the revelation of the truth that is in him and from him, we do not truly understand that subject. If he is the purpose of all things, as we read in v. 16, and the unifying principle of all things, as we read in v. 17, then whether the subject is mathematics or physics, biology or psychology, history or philosophy, theater or art, physical education or modern languages, we can master such a subject only by coming to understand its interrelations to Jesus Christ as creator, Lord, and goal of everything. That’s why so much of what passes for education in the American academy is no form of education at all. You remember Kuyper’s famous dictum, first uttered in the speech he gave at the opening of the Free University of Amsterdam, “there exists not the breadth of a thumb in all the universe but Christ says, ‘It is mine!’” If that is true, and Paul says here that it is, then education is no education — it is rather an effort in spreading error and falsehood — unless in that education Christ is preeminent. The amount of so called facts that may be taught along the way only obscures the fact that real understanding has been entirely missed.

v.19

By “fullness of God,” a phrase that will be repeated of Jesus in 2:9, is meant all of God’s attributes and activities, all of his personal traits and characteristics, or, in other words, all that God is is in Jesus Christ.

v.20

Nothing has been said of the Fall, of the creation lying under the judgment of God. All of that is assumed and so we hear next of God reconciling the world to himself through the sacrifice of Christ. The world obviously is estranged, separated from God if it needs to be reconciled to God. Paul in Romans 8 famously writes of the creation being eventually freed from its bondage to decay leading to the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:19-21). Obviously this has not yet come to pass, but it is the promise of Christ’s death and resurrection.

We have already had mention of the resurrection, now we are reminded that the resurrection followed the crucifixion. Blood in the Bible, remember, virtually always is a synonym of death. “By the blood of his cross” means “by his death on the cross,” but the frequent mention of blood in the Bible highlights the sacrificial nature of the Lord’s death on the cross, because, as you remember, in the ritual of sacrifice it was the blood — the sign of the death that had occurred — that was sprinkled on the altar to make atonement.

It appears from the way in which Paul approaches the situation in Colossians that Paul does not think that these Christians have been willful or irresponsibly complicit in giving an ear to the false teachers who have come among them. The problem is that they are young believers. Their convictions are still immature. Their theological sense has not yet been sharpened in the fires of controversy. They hadn’t the intellectual wherewithal to detect the false note in the teaching they were hearing. They imagined that this new teaching was a fresh and exciting addition to what they had originally heard from Epaphras. [Lucas, 44-45] And so, Paul thought, what was needed was a bracing reminder of the supremacy of Jesus Christ, who was both their Maker and their Savior. So he gave them this reminder of the majesty of his person and work that would make his sufficiency as their Savior and Lord obvious to them. There need be, there cannot be something added to .

Now there are some obvious conclusions that we can draw from these verses. First, within three decades after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, it was obviously a commonplace to have the full honors of the Godhead ascribed to Jesus Christ and for him to be described with a wealth of divine attributes. Jesus Christ is the creator of heaven and earth, he is the one for whom everything was made, and so on. [Moule, 3-6] Not only Colossians, but certainly Colossians is the demonstration of the falsehood of the typical liberal notion that the church’s confession of the deity of Jesus Christ came along later and was not a part of her confession of Jesus from the beginning.

Second, this remarkable confession of Jesus Christ as the one “in whom the fullness of God” dwelt was made of a man everyone knew to have been crucified by the Romans outside of Jerusalem a few decades before. This astonishing juxtaposition of the deepest ignominy, death by crucifixion, and the highest conceivable glory, the glory of Almighty God, lies at the very heart of our faith. But to say such things about a man put to death in such a cruel and humiliating way is extraordinarily powerful proof of the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Where did such a remarkable idea come from: that Jesus of Nazareth, executed by Pontius Pilate, was in fact the fullness of God? It came from the astonishing fact that he had risen from the dead and carried new life with him out of the tomb. There is no doubt — it is mentioned in the NT itself and then soon thereafter by pagan critics of Christianity — that the very idea that a man executed by the Romans might be the living God, the Maker of heaven and earth sounded utterly preposterous to the Gentile world, as it does to the Muslim world today. It would have sounded utterly preposterous to a Jew, as well as blasphemous, but this belief originated among the Jews, rapidly spread among the Jews — unlikely as it was — because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead! When face to face with the resurrection one’s conventional ways of thinking are shattered and the mind and heart are opened to new ideas! Remember Thomas, a week after the resurrection — a Jew with monotheism in his bones — falling before this man — however different, however changed, still obviously and absolutely the same man who had grown up in Nazareth, had the ministry in Galilee and Judea, and crying out, “My Lord and my God!” For any Jew to do that would be blaspheme unless there was some reason to believe that in fact this man was the Living and True God and the resurrection was that reason. Jesus Christ is not preeminent because of the resurrection only to be sure. He is the living and true God, the creator of everything that is, and the Savior of the world. But the reason we know that Christ is preeminent as God, as Creator, and as Savior is because of the resurrection.

Third, if you ponder the way in these verses the resurrection is mentioned and then the crucifixion afterward, I think it becomes clear that the nature of Jesus’ death on the cross, its purpose and power, were not really grasped until after his resurrection on the third day. No one would have conceived of his death on a Roman gibbet as the sacrifice of the Lamb of God that would take away the sin of the world except for the fact that he rose from the dead. The fact of the resurrection — his conquest of death; his power over death — forced a re-reckoning with the nature of his death. Obviously he hadn’t been crucified because he couldn’t prevent his enemies from doing their worst to him. If he is the Lord of life and death, then obviously he was the Lord of the Jews and the Lord of the Romans! As he had often said, though his disciples had not understood him, no one took his life from him; he gave it up of his own accord. It was his being alive again that opened their minds to the staggering nature of his death: that he had died on the cross as the atonement for the sins of the world, or, as Paul puts it here, the means by which the world might be reconciled to God.

It was this historical fact of the resurrection that, perhaps more than anything else, shaped the early church’s growing confidence in her understanding of Jesus as the God-Man, as God having appeared in human nature.

You have this generally admitted in early expositions and defenses of both the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ. The point was that the history of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection forced upon the world the need to think about God differently. These men — the apostles of the Lord Jesus and then the Christian ministers who followed them — I say they all believed in one God. They were all monotheists through and through. That God was a unity was a proposition concerning which there was not the scintilla of a doubt. But now that unity simply had to be conceived of in a different way. Obviously God, though he was one, was not a solitary being; even within the one God there was a communal life. The proof of that was that Jesus Christ was God and yet he was always praying to his heavenly Father and he then promised to send the Holy Spirit which he did.

As Origen wrote in the third century, “Through God’s revelation in Christ we become ‘spectators’ of the depth of God.” [Cited in Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 92-93] The modern German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it this way: “As God reveals himself, so he is in his eternal deity.” [Syst. Theol. i, 300] In other words, the incarnation, Jesus being the eternal Son of God and the Creator of Heaven and Earth but now having added to himself a true and authentic human nature, is the way the world has been given to see who and what God is. We nowadays refer to the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity, that is the persons of the one God as they are in themselves and in their interrelationships with one another, hidden from us, so far above us, and the persons as we learn to know them in the great work of salvation: the Father choosing and sending, the Son coming and suffering, the Spirit enabling. But what the theologians of the early church realized was that the history of the incarnation — what they called the economy — was a revelation of the Triune God in his essential nature. He is not something different in what he showed to us of himself in Jesus than what he has always been and will always be in himself.

Here was Jesus saying that he was before Abraham, that he and the Father were one, that he had been sent into the world by his Father and was returning to his Father, that he would send the Holy Spirit, that he would come again to judge the earth, and on and on, statements that had fallen largely on deaf ears until the resurrection. And now come the apostles saying that Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the man who died on a Roman gibbet outside of Jerusalem, was the creator of heaven and earth, the eternal God, deserving of the worship of all men. When he was sent by the Father, when he existed before Abraham, when he prayed to his Father and said he was returning to his Father, when he promised to send the Holy Spirit, when it was now clear that he was the Lord of life and death, when he associated his name with that of the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room and in the Great Commission, it had been made clear that there were more persons than one in the Godhead — the doctrine of the Holy Trinity — and that Jesus himself was literally the one true and living God — the doctrine of the incarnation, God becoming man.

Upon this double foundation — Trinity and incarnation — the faith of the Christian church rests, has always rested and will rest forever. And it arose from and could not have arisen in any other way than by the historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his subsequent ascension to the Right Hand. We know who God is because he appeared in the world in Jesus Christ. In Christ we learn who God is and what God is like, and in the life and death and resurrection of Christ we learn what God has done for us and for our salvation.

During the Second World War, Thomas Torrance, later the celebrated Edinburgh theologian, was serving as a chaplain in the British army. One day in the heat of battle he came across a soldier wounded and dying.

“As I knelt down and bent over him, he said, ‘Padre, is God really like Jesus?’ I assured him that he was — the only God that there is, the God who had come to us in Jesus, shown his face to us, and poured out his love to us as our Saviour. As I prayed and commended him to the Lord Jesus, he passed away.” [Cited in Letham, Union with Christ, 37]

We need to be reminded of the spectacular importance of this again and again. Our Maker, the one who gave us life, the one who owns our life, the one to whom we are responsible for the life we live because he made us for himself, that one and no other, came into the world and gave himself for us to free us from our sins and reconcile us to him and give us eternal life. What is God like? You have only to look at Jesus to know and in fact that’s the only way you can know what God is like. The result of this is that anyone who denies the incarnation of the Son of God cannot know the truth about God, about what God is like, and what he has done. The only way to know God and the only way to be reconciled to God is through Jesus.

“One of the distinctive contributions — if not the distinctive contribution — of Colossians is its comprehensive vision of reality with the focal point of Christology.” [Thompson in Moo, 107] That is, as we read here in vv. 15-20, Jesus Christ unifies, perfectly unifies, the meaning of human life: because he is God, it comes from him and its requirements are fixed by him. Because human life has gone awry, because we have been alienated from God, we were in need of a way back to our Maker and our rightful purpose. And because Christ is God, he was alone able to make such a way for us. He is the origin of human life — of your life and mine — and he is the end, the culmination of that life, either as Savior or as judge. It really is true: in him all things hold together! No wonder the word “all” appears so many times in these few verses!

Once you know this, you know everything you need to know about your life: where it came from, to whom it belongs, what has gone wrong with it, how it can be put right, and where it is going. What we have in this identification of Jesus in Colossians 1 is a comprehensive worldview or philosophy of life. And, of course, this is what the Colossian Christians needed to realize and what we need to realize a hundred times a day. Any addition to Jesus or diminishment of him in our understanding of our faith must be a capital error, a fundamental mistake, because inconsistent with the nature of reality as it has been revealed in Jesus the incarnate God. The Colossian false teachers were tampering with this majestic, perfectly sufficient explanation of the origin and destiny of human life. They weren’t simply tampering with the way of salvation — bad enough! — but with the very nature of reality itself.

Take a few examples of this line of reasoning as it bears on the sort of teaching the Colossian believers were getting. If Christ is the creator and lord of all the heavenly powers, then obviously he doesn’t need their assistance to bring men and women to himself and to heaven. If he uses them at all — and he does use the angels, of course — it is because he has chosen to grant them such a role, not because they are in and of themselves essential or necessary. And if Christ the maker and sustainer of the entire universe — if without his will electrons would stop circling their nucleus — then obviously it would be supremely foolish to doubt his power to preserve the individual believer from conversion to glory. [Lucas, 46-47]

The very heart of your faith, if you are a Christian, is the movement we trace from the statements in vv. 15-17 — Christ in his glory as God, the Creator and the sustainer of the universe and the purpose and point of everything that is — to the statements in vv. 18-20 — where we read of his resurrection and the blood of his cross. Creation and redemption together — the human story from beginning to end because it was the creator who became the redeemer! It is your story from its beginning to its end. This was precisely the claim that first staggered and then transformed the world: that no one less than the living God became man and suffered and died to save us. If the creator of heaven and earth died for sinners, then obviously, necessarily, undoubtedly, that death is and must be salvation for all who trust in Jesus Christ and in the same way and just as obviously there is not some other way to heaven nor is there something else that is needed. The God who gave you existence, your first life, if you will, is the one who must and can give you your second life. If Christ is the head of the body, as we read in v. 18, then obviously our destiny rests with him.

I know I have not begun to do justice to the great truth expressed in these few verses. To make you feel the staggering implications of this truth, I sometimes think, requires that somehow you hear it for the first time and to reckon from a blank slate with what you are actually being told – that your Maker came to be your Savior. It had not been long since the Colossians heard all of this for the first time. It is the end of all false thinking about God, about man, about the world, about life, about morals, and about the future. It unifies all reality and places it under the Lordship of Christ. And for believers, it is the end of all doubts and fears:

“For those who have been redeemed by Christ, the universe has no ultimate terrors; they know that their Redeemer is also creator, ruler, and goal of all.” [Bruce in Moo, 124]