Supremacy of Christ: A Study of Colossians 1:15-23
by Michael R. Finney
1:15. First, Christ is the image of the invisible God. Besides the obvious meaning of likeness (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4), "image" implies representation and manifestation. Like the head of a sovereign imprinted on a coin, so Christ is "the exact representation of [the Father's] being" (Hebrews 1:3). As Jesus said, "Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Anyone who saw Christ, the visible manifestation of the invisible God, has thereby "seen" God indirectly. For "no one has ever seen God, but God the only Son ... has made Him known" (John 1:18). Paul wrote of the "invisible" God (1 Timothy 1:17), but Christ is the perfect visible representation and manifestation of that God. Though the word image' (eikon) does not always denote a perfect image (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:7), the context here demands that understanding. Indeed, like the word "form" (morphe; trans. "nature" in Philippians 2:6-7), eikon means the very substance or essential embodiment of something or someone. In Hebrews 10:1 "shadow" and "the very image" (eikon), which is Christ, are contrasted (cf. Colossians 2:17). So Christ's supremacy is first shown in His relationship with God the Father. Christ is the perfect resemblance and representation of God.
Second, Christ's supremacy is shown in His relationship to Creation. He is the Firstborn over all Creation. Though it is grammatically possible to translate this as "Firstborn in Creation," the context makes this impossible for five reasons: (1) The whole point of the passage (and the book) is to show Christ's superiority over all things. (2) Other statements about Christ in this passage (such as Creator of all [1:16], upholder of Creation [v. 17], etc.) clearly indicate His priority and superiority over Creation. (3) The "Firstborn" cannot be part of Creation if He created "all things." One cannot create himself. (Jehovah's Witnesses wrongly add the word "other" six times in this passage in their New World Translation. Thus they suggest that Christ created all other things after He was created. But the word "other" is not in the Gr.) (4) The "Firstborn" received worship of all the angels (Hebrews 1:6), but creatures should not be worshiped Exodus 20:4-5). (5) The Greek word for "Firstborn" is prototokos. If Christ were the "first created," the Greek word would have been protoktisis.
"Firstborn" denotes two things of Christ: He preceded the whole Creation, and He is Sovereign over all Creation. In the Old Testament a firstborn child had not only priority of birth but also the dignity and superiority that went with it (cf. Exodus 13:2-15; Deuteronomy 21:17). When Jesus declared Himself "the First" (ho protos; Revelation 1:17), He used a word that means "absolutely first." "Firstborn" also implies sovereignty. The description "firstborn" was not a fairly common Old Testament designation of the Messiah God. "I will also appoint Him My Firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth" (Psalm 89:27). While this regal psalm refers to David, it also designates the Messiah, as seen in Revelation 1:5, where Christ is called "the Firstborn from the dead (cf. Colossians 1:18) and the Ruler of the kings of the earth." So "Firstborn" implies both Christ's priority to all Creation (in time) and His sovereignty over all Creation (in rank).
1:16-17. The third characteristic of Christ is that by Him all things were created. In fact all things were created by Him (di' autou, instrumental Cause) and for Him (eis auton, final Cause), and in Him (en auto) they hold together (He is the constituting or conserving Cause). Christ is not only the One through whom all things came to be, but also the One by whom they continue to exist. Two other New Testament verses parallel this description of Christ: "Through Him all things were made" (John 1:3), and Christ the Son is the One "through whom [the Father] made the universe (Hebrews 1:2). The Father, then, is the ultimate Source (efficient Cause), and the Son is the mediating Cause of the world. The Son was the "master Workman" of Creation, "the beginning (arche) of the Creation of God" (Revelation 3:14, NASB).
The Son's Creation includes "all" things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. These indicate the entire universe, both material and immaterial. The hierarchy of angelic beings-thrones (thronoi) or powers (kyriotetes) or rulers (archai) or authorities (exousiai)-indicate a highly organized dominion in the spirit world, a sphere in which the Colossians were engaged in the worship of angels (Colossians 2:18) and over which Christ reigns supreme (cf. Ephesians 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Philippians 2:9-10; Colossians 2:10, 15).
1:18. Fourth, Christ is the Head of the body, the church. Besides being the Lord of the universe He is also the church's Head (cf. Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23). The reference here is to the invisible or universal church into which all believers are baptized by the Holy Spirit the moment they believe in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). This work of the Spirit began on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:1-2; 11:15-16). It is a special body in which there is "neither Jew nor Gentile" (Galatians 3:28) but a whole new creation of God Ephesians 2:15). The church is a "mystery... which was not made known to men in other generations" Ephesians 3:4-5; cf. Romans 16:25-26; Colossians 1:26).
Fifth, Christ is the Beginning (arche) and the Firstborn from among the dead (cf. Revelation 1:5). Christ was the first to rise in an immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:20), and as such He heads a whole new order as its Sovereign (cf. "Firstborn" in Colossians 1:15). Also Christ's resurrection marked His triumph over death (Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8). He was the "First fruits" of those who die (1 Corinthians 15:20) since, unlike others, He rose never to die again. He "was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4). So He continues to live "on the basis of the power of an indestructible life" (Hebrews 7:16). All this is so that in everything He might have the supremacy. Christ is given first place over all Creation. He is preeminent. The same eternal Logos (John 1:1) who "became flesh" (John 1:14) and "humbled Himself" (Philippians 2:8) is now "exalted" by God the Father "to the highest place" and has been given "the name that is above every name" (Philippians 2:9).
1:19. The sixth description of the exalted Christ is that all God's fullness dwell[s] in Him. Later Paul wrote, "In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (2:9). Colossians 1:19 is one of the most powerful descriptions of Christ's deity in the New Testament (cf. Hebrews 1:8). "Fullness" (pleroma), a key word in Colossians, is used in 1:19 and 2:9. (The verb pleroo is used in 1:9, 25; 2:10; and 4:17.) The noun means "completeness" and is used of a wide range of things including God's being Ephesians 3:19), time (Galatians 4:4), and grace in Christ (John 1:16). This full and complete Deity is said to "dwell" (katoikesai, "abide lastingly or permanently") in Christ.
1:20. The seventh feature of Christ is that He is the Reconciler. Through Christ God will reconcile to Himself all things. The phrase "all things" is limited to good angels and redeemed people since only things on earth and things in heaven are mentioned. Things "under the earth" (Philippians 2:10) are not reconciled. It is important to note that people are reconciled to God ("to Himself") not that God is reconciled to people. Paul spoke of "the many" (i.e., "those who receive God's abundant provision of grace") being "made righteous" through the Cross (Romans 5:19). To make peace through His blood means to cause God's enemies (Romans 5:10; Colossians 1:21) to become, by faith, His friends and His children (cf. Ephesians 2:11-19).
1:21. Having struck the note of reconciliation as the seventh characteristic of the exalted Christ, Paul then developed that theme. Reconciliation is necessary because people are alienated ("cut off, estranged") from life and God (Ephesians 2:12; 4:18). Before conversion the Colossian believers also were enemies or hostile to God in their minds as well as in their behavior, internally and externally. Sin begins in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28) and manifests itself in overt deeds (Galatians 5:19). ("In the sphere of your evil deeds" is better than NIV's "because of your evil behavior." People are not inwardly hostile vs. God because of their outward acts of sins; they commit sins because they are inwardly hostile.)
1:22. Reconciliation of sinners to God is by Christ's physical body through death. The Gnostic tendency of the Colossian heresy, with its Platonic orientation, denied both Christ's true humanity and His true deity. As John explained, it is necessary to confess "that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (1 John 4:2). Spirits cannot die, and "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Hebrews 9:22). In order to redeem humans, Christ Himself must be truly human (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 2:17). Thus Christ's real physical body and death were necessary for man's salvation (cf. Romans 7:4; Hebrews 10:10).
The result of Christ's death is redemptive to present you holy in His sight. This may mean judicially perfect as to a believer's position, or spiritually perfect as to his condition. Ultimately God envisions both for believers, and Christ's death is the basis for judicial justification (Romans 3:21-26), progressive sanctification (Romans 6-7), and even ultimate glorification (Romans 8). As Paul wrote the Ephesians, "He chose us in Him before the Creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight" (Ephesians 1:4). Christians are without blemish (amomous; correctly translated "blameless" in Ephesians 1:4 and Philippians 2:15; cf. "without ... blemish" in Ephesians 5:27 and "without fault" in Jude 24) in Christ, and also are free from accusation (anenkletous). This latter Greek word is used five times in the New Testament and only by Paul (here and in 1 Corinthians 1:8; 1 Timothy 3:10; Titus 1:6-7). It connotes one who is unaccused, free from all charges. Satan is "the accuser of the brethren" (Revelation 12:10, KJV), but Christ is their "Advocate" (1 John 2:1, KJV) or "Defense" (1 John 2:1, NIV) before the Father. Therefore by the merits of Christ believers are free from every charge (cf. Romans 8:33). In Christ the accused are unaccused and the condemned are freed.
1:23. This reconciliation in Christ comes only by an abiding faith if you continue in your faith. The Colossians had a settled faith established (i.e., "grounded" like a building on a strong foundation) and firm (hedraioi, "seated or settled"; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:37; 15:58), so Paul did not doubt that they would continue. In fact he spoke of the hope (confident expectation) which this gospel of reconciliation provides not only to them but also to the whole world to every creature under heaven. This is obviously a figure of speech indicating the universality of the gospel and its proclamation, not that every person on the globe heard Paul preach. In Acts 2:5 this phrase describes a wide range of people from various countries without including, for example, anyone from North or South America (cf. also Genesis 41:57; 1 Kings 10:24; Romans 1:8).