Commentary on Colossians 1:15-28
Our passage begins with an apparent paradox: Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (1:15). Probing into this striking statement brings us close to the heart of the letter’s bold Christological claims and its all-encompassing vision of healing and reconciliation.
The first section of the passage is often referred to as the Colossian “Christ hymn” (1:15–20). Some scholars have argued that these verses preserve ancient liturgical material that this author did not write but has rather incorporated into the letter. If so, the hymn’s vision of a created order that finds its structure and purpose in Christ nonetheless resonates with the “cosmic” Christology of the letter as a whole.
In Colossians, Christ does not bring reconciliation to the individual believer alone, nor only to the church, but to all of God’s creation.
Image, wisdom, cosmos, church
That God is invisible may go without saying. But what then does it mean to speak of Christ as God’s image (eikōn)? Here one place to start is with a similar statement in Colossians 2:9: “In [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (sōmatikōs)” (see also 1:19). Without getting caught up in later trinitarian formulations, we might begin by saying that Christ, for this author, is the “materialization” of God, what the spiritual deity looks like in the flesh.
A second striking claim thickens the plot: Christ is “the firstborn of all creation” (1:15) in whom “all things hold together” (1:17).
Here we must pause to consider a cluster of overlapping ways these phrases will have resonated with the letter’s ancient addressees. In Jewish wisdom tradition, the personified Lady Wisdom was often described as the first of God’s creations (Proverbs 8:22; Sirach 1:4; 24:9). She was, as the first-century Jewish thinker Philo wrote, “the first-born mother of all things” (Questions and Answers on Genesis 4.97).
More than that, Wisdom was often depicted as having had a role in creation itself. As Proverbs 3:19 puts it, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (see also 8:22-31). God’s Wisdom, then, was woven into the fabric of the created order. Accordingly, when Solomon sought to understand “the structure of the world (kosmos) and the activity of the elements,” he turned for instruction to Wisdom, “the fashioner of all things” (Wisdom 7:17, 22). How better to gain insight than by consulting the divine blueprint by which the world was made!
So when Colossians speaks of Christ as the one through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together, this is to portray Christ as the very wisdom of God, the living and intricate logic by which the world was made. Or, to put it differently, if Christ is the image of the invisible God, the cosmos itself bears the image of Christ—even if, as we will see, it has not always lived the part.
Given the cosmic scope of this vision, it is something of a surprise to come to Colossians 1:18: “Christ is the head of the body, the church.” Since the universe itself was often conceptualized in the ancient world as a body, and since we have just read that all of creation holds together in Christ, we might have expected the text here to read “Christ’s body, the world.”
Some scholars have seen in this unexpected reference to the church an indication that the so-called “Christ hymn” does not quite fit its current context in the letter to the Colossians. But perhaps the surprise is intentional, provoking readers to reflect on how church and cosmos intersect in Christ. Indeed, in this letter’s sweeping theological vision, the story of Christ’s ecclesial body is wrapped up in the story of the whole created order, the larger ecological body knit together in him.
For modern readers accustomed to thinking of humanity as standing apart from other creatures, this doubling of Christ’s body invites a reimagining of our place in the world God created. As Vicky Balabanksi writes, “the Church must be committed to Christ’s body, our ecological home, and our participation in the sacraments must help us perceive the world sacramentally.”1 Paradoxically, then, to dwell in the heavens with Christ (3:1) means belonging more deeply on Earth.
The reconciliation of all things
If this letter’s Christology incorporates the whole created order, so too does its vision of reconciliation in Christ. For, however masterfully designed, the intricate web of the cosmos has been strained, suffering hostility between creatures and estrangement from its creator (1:21; 2:8; 3:11).
Here the passage turns from creation to new creation. Echoing the earlier claim that Christ is “the firstborn of all creation” (1:15), the writer now describes him also as “the firstborn from the dead” (1:18)—the first sign, we might say, of the world’s renewal.
Our text does not indicate how the cross of Christ brings reconciliation. There will be more to say on that in Colossians 2:9-15. Here the focus is rather on the scale of what has been achieved: All things, in heaven and on earth, have now been reconciled to God in Christ (1:20). The brokenness and alienation that afflict the whole created order have been undone. Where once there was hostility and strife, Christ has now made peace.
Again, this cosmic vision of reconciliation is an invitation for the church to reimagine the scope of God’s renewing work. The reconciliation of believers with God outlined in Colossians 1:21-22 is part of a much larger story, the creation, estrangement, and then renewal of all that God has made. Indeed, in Colossians, the gospel is not only for humans, but is good news of restoration “for every creature under heaven” (1:23).
In these days of environmental degradation and ecological collapse, our own alienation and estrangement from the world God created is all too visible. The web of relationships that sustains God’s creatures is under severe strain. Here Colossians speaks a challenging but hopeful word: Christ has done this reconciling work. What remains is to live into this new reality.
- Vicky S. Balabanski, “Hellenistic Cosmology and the Letter to the Colossians: Towards an Ecological Hermeneutic,” in Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, ed. David G. Horrell et al. (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 105–6. For an ecological reading of the letter as a whole, see Balabanski, Colossians: An Eco-Stoic Reading, Earth Bible Commentary (London: T&T Clark, 2020).