“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.” (Colossians 1:15-20, ESV)

 It seems like a slow day here at the Fish Tank, so I thought I’d offer up a brief exegetical note on the famous Pauline hymn of Colossians 1:15-20.  Some of the most exalted and profound Christological reflection in the New Testament takes place here, and the vast corpus of scholarly literature on it seems despairingly endless.  Though this memorable portion of the letter is undoubtedly poetic in its language and syntactical structure, this significant fact is hidden by virtually all the English translations, which tend to disguise its beauty under the veil of normal prose.

The focus of Colossians 1:15-20 is on the unmatched preeminence and superiority of Jesus Christ over both the creation of everything and the redemption of everything.  He played the central part in the inauguration of the space-time universe long ago, and he now occupies the indispensable role in the drama of salvation for God’s fallen creation.  He is king of the world and ruling head of the church.  There is no sphere–in heaven or on earth, invisible or visible–in which he takes second place or is relegated to a merely subordinate position.  Jesus is to be worshipped, honored, loved and obeyed above every other rival claimant in our lives, for he is uniquely worthy of such an uninhibited, total response.

That is, accordingly, who Jesus Christ really is.  “And you have been filled in him!”  So says Paul in Colossians 2, as we discover that the theology of 1:15-20 actually serves the quite practical purpose of reminding these early Christians that since everything they need is already to be found in Jesus, it is foolish and dangerous to look anywhere else for anything else.  “As you received Jesus Christ the Lord, so continue to walk in him” (2:6).  This, incidentally, is the best succint way I know of to summarize and capture the spiritual heart of Colossians.  The absolute, unqualified sufficiency of Jesus for his people demands that their focus stay riveted on him alone, unswayed and undistracted by all the other possible usurpers that clamor for their hope and contend for their faith.  Jesus is enough.  Read Colossians again.  Once you see this, you can’t miss it.

In seeking to demonstrate why these things are so in 1:15-20, Paul draws out a number of striking, intentional parallels between Jesus’ identity and role in creation (1:15-17) and his identity and role in the church, or new creation (1:18-20).  You can see them below:

He is (hos estin)

Firstborn (prototokos) of all creation = the image of the invisible God

Because (hoti)

In (en) him

All things (ta panta) were created

Through (dia) him

For (eis) him

All things (ta panta) were created

                                                                        On heaven (ouranois) or in earth (ges)

He is (autos estin)

Firstborn (prototokos) from the dead = the beginning, the head of the church

Because (hoti)

In (en) him

All (pan) the fullness of God dwells

                                    Through (dia) him

For (eis) him

All things (ta panta) are to be reconciled

                                                                        On heaven (ouranois) or in earth (ges)

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