Commentary on Colossians 1:15-28
As Dean Wormer said, “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.”1
To put it another way (call it the Colossians way), “Estranged, hostile, and evil-deed-doing (21) is no way to go through life.” Colossians 1:15-28 is a Christological proclamation, ode, and solution to these existential dangers.
There are two parts to this reading. The first, verses 15-20, is a poem which catalogs and celebrates the characteristics of Christ. The second, verses 21-28, summarizes the implicit question of the letter—will the Colossians remain firm in holding to the true faith (verses 21-23)—and it reinforces the author’s claim to apostleship and concern for the Colossians Christians (verses 24-28). While the second section of the reading is no doubt important I will focus on the Christ-hymn, which is central not just to the present reading but to Colossians as a whole.
The Colossians Christ-hymn
The first five verses of the present reading are a poem or “Christ-hymn” which flow out of the final introductory verses of the letter (1-14). The final two verses of last week’s reading from Colossians are worth recalling as we move into this poem:
“13[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
The gospel message, that we are rescued, transferred from death to life, moves on to a description of God’s beloved Son…2
15Who is the image of the invisible God,the firstborn of all creation;
16for in him all things were created,in heaven and on earth,things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers all things have been created through him and for him.
17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross [all things] whether on earth or in heaven.
The Colossians Christology is striking in that, while the cross is mentioned the suffering and death of Jesus are not the primary focus of the hymn; this is in sharp contrast to the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. Much like the Christology of John, Colossians emphasizes the power and divinity of the Messiah. The Christ is described as the source of all created things, as that which quickens and sustains all things, as the head of all things.
There are any number of ways one might go in preaching this hymn, comparing the Christ/creation ideas in John 1:1-5, Revelations 3:14, and Hebrews 1:10 (and perhaps even Proverbs 8), or the role of Christ as head of the church (cf. Ephesians 5), among others. I will highlight two others.
First, is “first-born.” Prototokos, employed in Colossians in 1:15, 18, occurs in 116 verses in the Bible, most of which are in the Septuagint. The word is used only 8 times in the New Testament. In Luke 2:7 the first-born is Jesus, as the first child of Mary and Joseph. In Romans 8:29 it is the predestining work of God in transforming the believer of Jesus after the image of Jesus which makes Jesus the prototokos; in this sense “first-born” seems to express the eldest child relationship of Jesus with all humankind. In Hebrews the word is used variously of Jesus (1:6), in remembering the Passover (11:28), and of the heavenly believers (12:23).
In Colossians prototokos is employed in two different ways. First, Jesus is the prototokos of all creation (1:15). As already noted this proclaims the Christ as integral to the creation of the world and is, in and of itself, an important theological claim. Second, Jesus is the prototokos of the dead (1:18; the same phrase occurs in Revelations 1:5). In this sense “first-born of the dead” is a simple statement of the resurrection—both that of Jesus and the promised resurrection of the believer in Christ.
Individually each statement is, of course, striking and significant, but together the two phrases work to form something more. Jesus is both first-born of the creation and of the dead. What this does is connect the act of creation with the promise of resurrection—in reverse. For Colossians resurrection is essentially an act of creation—not resuscitation, but re-creation, not just new life, but new creation (compare 1 Corinthians 15:50).
A second striking line from the Colossians Christ-hymn is that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (1:15; cf. 1 Timothy 1:17). For many Christians this claim may not seem to be unique, but with the exception of 2 Corinthians 4:4 (and slightly differently in Hebrews 1:3) nowhere is it stated so clearly. The claim that Jesus is the very image of God is critical to Colossians.
What is more, the phrase itself gets at the mystery (Colossians 1:27), offense, and perhaps even paradox of Christology—is it possible to have an image of that which is invisible? That the Christ is the image of the invisible God communicates two things intended to shape and support the faith of the Colossians, and of the present day congregation. First, is the claim of revelation. In Jesus we meet God face-to-face; nothing less than our very Creator’s presence is what drives the Christology of Colossians and this hymn. Second, is that—coming around again to the creation/redemption connection—God’s Son reflects the image of God back to the creation. As humankind was shaped in the image of God, so the first-born of creation—the redemption of all creation—returns as the image of God sent to humankind.
Here is the word of truth, the Gospel according to Colossians, the answer and antidote to a creation estranged and hostile: the first-born of creation, made the first-born of the dead, makes of us the first-born of faith.
1Animal House, Dir. John Landis. Universal Pictures, 1978.
2The verses as I present them here are almost identical to the NRSV, with some change in ordering in an attempt to represent the flow and pattern of the poetry.