The Christ Hymn, Colossians 1:15-20

The Colossians Christ Hymn is one of the most important passages in the letter to the Colossians and relates Christ to his identity in God, in creation and in the church universal. It lies in the first chapter of the book and reads as follows:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
For in 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,
Making peace by the blood of his cross,
Whether on earth or in heaven. [1]

Colossians 1.15-20 (ESV)

I am simply overwhelmed by the content of this passage – its simple beauty, its deep truth, its parallelism – this passage is one of my favourite in the Bible and it is one of the deepest and most important passages to the development of Christianity as a whole. It shows the role of Christ in creation, the power of Christ over all, and ultimately, the redemption in Christ that we now find.

An important part of the structure of this passage is parallelism. The most prominent example of this is “firstborn” which occurs in both the bottom and top strophe, and another example is the repetition of “in him . . . all.” This sets the structure of this passage that, if taken in its entirety, is a beautiful representation of Christ across time. It starts with what exactly Christ was, “the image of the invisible God” then continues into his role in creating and sustaining all that exists, and ultimately moves through redemption to the cross in which we find our redemption. These short verses in this passage beautifully and adequately expresses what it means to believe in a person that was both God and man and shows us all that through Christ we have the ultimate assurance in our salvation. Now the most profound implication of this is that God is not a deistic god that is a god that merely created the universe and left it to its rules and laws. Rather, this says, in direct contrast, that God has not abandoned the universe to the powers of darkness, but rather has put into motion and effected a plan to reconcile us to himself through Christ, whose death is the one event that has made this plan sufficient to fully reconcile us to God. In short, this one passage sums up the whole Bible, from creation to final reconciliation – the two ends of temporal history, and to further elaborate on this I’d like to address the rest these thoughts on the three themes of Christ, creation and the Church universal and all in the overarching biblical motif of reconciliation.

Who is the one that Christians call Jesus Christ? It seems a simple question, after all Christians are named after Christ (which means anointed one), but for all the simplicity that Christians now look at the nature of Christ, it was this very nature that cased some of the most profound divisions in the church in its early history. Though this passage isn’t totally sufficient in differentiating and selecting which of these variants were true, it was certainly of significant influence. In the end, orthodox Christianity did choose on one formula for the nature of Christ, a formula that is expressed in the Nicene Creed, one of the most beautiful affirmations of universal Christianity, widely used in both Eastern and Western branches:

And [we believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ,
The only-begotten Son of God,
Begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God;
Begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,
By whom all things were made. (Nicene Creed, Lines 5-10)

This expression has parallels with the passage in Colossians which notes that Christ is the “firstborn,” that is to say, begotten and that the “fullness of God . . . dwell[s]” in Christ paralleling the nature of Christ as having one substance with the Father. The nature of Christ being God is also shown in this idea of “image.” What exactly is an image of something that is invisible? Much as atheists deride us for believing in something they liken unto an “invisible pink unicorn,” which somehow has the property of pinkness though invisible, how can there be an image of that which cannot be seen? To answer this we must also look back to Gen 1:27 which explains that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Humanity is made in God’s image, which means that we have a rational mind, an eternal spirit, and the capacity of choosing right from wrong apart from the will of God. In a similar sense, that which is spiritual, God’s nature, was made man. This is not saying that Christ was God in man, or that Christ was created after God, but rather this is that Christ is one person with both a divine and human nature. Now that Christ has made that which was previously invisible, visible, we can learn about God through the life of Christ, that image of perfection replete with dignity and honour.

An important part to explain further before continuing on to the church is this concept of “firstborn.” Jesus is both the “Firstborn of all creation” and the “firstborn of the dead.” I’d like to show that there are two senses of the word firstborn expressed in this passage though they are both the same word (both in English and in Greek). Firstborn really has two concepts that can be seen throughout the bible, a physical aspect, being the actual first born, and the second, a holder of the birthright, an heir. These are not necessarily one and the same and an example would be Genesis 25 and the lives of Jacob and Esau. The first occurrence of “firstborn” reflects this second idea, an heir. Jesus has been an eternally existing person of the Godhead, but it is this nature as heir that allows for salvation. For as an heir, Christ also receives the inheritance of grace and power that he can then give to us in turn as coheirs with Christ [2]. Thus it is through the nature of Christ as the Only Begotten Son of God that allows for our salvation by the sharing of God’s nature through inheritance. The second firstborn reflects the first meaning as a chronological firstborn. To be firstborn of the dead is to be the first resurrected from death unto life, and this was done in Christ when he conquered the grave, shattering the dominion of death and destroying power of darkness over our lives [3]. To this end he became the firstborn of a new nation, a nation whose citizenship we gain when we also die to self, becoming the second born of death [4]. Thus it is through participation in Christ that we also can be resurrected with him.

The next part of this passage is the idea of creation. Creation is the sum total of the universe, everything that is “in heaven and on earth”, and all that is “visible and invisible”. This passage does not contradict Genesis 1:1 where God created the world. This is because the person of the Father, in a sense, designed the universe and held all the creative power behind its creation but Christ was the means by which it was created. Thus, all creation is subordinate to Christ and under him in all things as the created to the creator. This is affirmed when Jesus rises from the dead on the third day in that, overcoming that last vestige of power, death, Christ has put the totality of creation into submission and as Christians we can rest in this power knowing that nothing else in all creation can defeat our strength in Christ [5]. Now in that Christ created the world, it is also sustained through him. The whole universe is absorbed into Christ and contained within him, and his power allows everything to exist, including humans replete with their free will. Ultimately this means that unity and truth can only exist within Christ, as the final role of creation is to bring glory to God inasmuch as this temporal reality allows for the existence of spiritual beings that can love God for all eternity, showcasing his glory into the ages to come.

From creation comes humanity, and from humanity comes the Church universal and this universal church consists of “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, [and] the fullness of Him that fills all in all”[6]. To be part of the elect is to also have been offered reconciliation with Christ through the blood of the cross. This is to mean that this idea of Christ as the head of the body is important in that it was the body that was crucified on the cross. Meaning that after joining the body through that one baptism for the remission of sins [7], we are crucified together with Christ on the cross, drawing power from him so that our spirits may today be reborn as a new creature [8], and our bodies resurrected with Christ on the final day. With him, together, we suffer and are crucified with Christ so that we may truly die, and through death let the power of Christ fill through us and quicken us [9]. This idea of dying with Christ on the cross is so central to Christianity that we are instructed to take up our cross daily [10], an act similar to the Eastern Orthodox conception of sanctification as theosis, becoming like God through kenosis, a process in which we empty ourselves, surrendering all our claims to divinity and self rule, so that Christ may flow through us [11]. The ultimate work of Christ draws all of creation unto himself culminating in the ultimate reconciliation of creation, the emergence of a new heaven and a new earth that I await daily, maranatha [12]. Thus, through him that created, we are reconciled to Christ through the blood of the cross.

One important aspect of the reconciliation that we have in Christ is that this reconciliation is through Christ alone, and though in the end he beings all things to himself, this does not mean that all people are among the elect and will eventually join Christ in perfect unity. We as people have been utterly disposed against God, at war with him to the extent that the language of reconciliation is that of an ambassador seeking peace between two hostile nations. In that sense we are as two nations that have been reconciled together by an ambassador, Christ, and where we were previously hostile to God, we have been made at peace through the blood of the cross and we are no longer part of the powers and principalities that are hostile to God

After reconciliation we finally emerge in the Church, that single body of believers, everywhere. And together, we all have Christ as the head, the leader of the body in all things. There is only one head, and he is Christ, this is to say that there is no other leader, no other thought that should capture a Christian but that which is Christ’s. Without the head there is only Chaos, darkness, and emptiness, for what is a flock without its most perfect shepherd? Together we are united in Christ, in one body, working for the good of the whole, and when we together act for the good of the body, expressing our participation in it outwardly, the church universal becomes the ultimate visible expression of God’s work in reconciling all things to himself. More than that though is that the body is good. One of the central concepts of christanity is that the body is not evil. It has inherent dignity and honour becasue it is made in God’s image. This is why Christians in the Roman empire eliminated crucifixion and branding as modes of punishment; they were inherantly distructive to the image of the Body. Thus, by participating in the body we become part of something that is good and it is through the church that Christ is magnified, that God is glorified and more are drawn unto reconciliation. And for Church universal, the Bride of Christ, this makes participation in the church the single greatest consummation of our relationship with Christ. This consummation is not found in individual struggle, but in active participation in the Church, the Body of Christ, wherein we struggle together towards the mark of the high calling of God [13], bearing each other’s burdens while carrying our own load [14], and building the City of God (Augustine, de Civitate Dei) on this earth so that the Bride of Christ may emerge in glorious perfection in the last days. And after the relationship started upon our acceptance of Christ as Lord, Redeemer, and Saviour (the maker of ultimate peace between God and man, eliminating the enmity between the two), participation in the church forms the most perfect public expression of the Christian’s relationship with God.

This is the beauty of this passage. It is an exposition of history, from creation to redemption, and its parallelism reinforces the nature of Christ as the reconciler of all things. This passage is both important historically, as influential in the development of our understanding of the Nature of Christ and an understanding of this passage lets us more fully appreciate the Body of Christ in all its beauty. I personally cannot express the level of awe and wonder I have at being part of the elect, and a member of the Body of Christ, but it is my hope that this has helped whoever reads this to gain an understanding of the church and the role of Christ in our reconciliation with God.

References

[1] Versification from http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/early-christian-hymn_martin.pdf I note that it’s not entirely agreed upon by the academic community, but I personally support this specific versification of the passage.
[2] Rom 8.17 (ESV) and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and [co-]heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
[3] Rom 6:9 (KJV) Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.
[4] Phil 3:20 (ESV) But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ
[5] Col 1:11 (ESV) May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy
[6] Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 25,  http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/
[7] Acts 2:38b (ESV) “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”, Nicene Creed “[we] confess one baptism for the remission of sins”
[8] 2 Cor 5:17 (KJV) Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
[9] Eph 2:5 (ESV) even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
[10] Lk 9:23 (ESV) And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
[11] http://www.anamchara.com/2010/01/12/theosis-and-kenosis/
This is not to say that I am espousing Protestant kenotic understanding of Christ, for the conclusion of that makes Christ less than two essences in one person united in one hypostasis. One must understand that Eastern Orthodox theology is far less certain on specifics and focuses more on the mystical than western branches of Christianity. Theosis is one of those mystical concepts.
[12] Rev 21:1 (ESV) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
[13] Phil 3:14 (KJV) I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
[14] Gal 6.2,5 (ESV) Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ . . . for each will have to bear his own load.

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