You can download the PDF of this article here: The Christological Hymn of Colossians 1
(I recommend using the PDF for these longer articles.)
Colossae—more relevant than we realize:
Paul’s high Christological Hymn in Colossians 1 is the main focus of this article, it is quite possibly one of my favourite texts of the letters of Paul and I absolutely love it! Hopefully by the end, you will also—but we should first establish some context.
Paul was writing to the church in Colossae, in response to reports of dangerous teachings which were rising up in the church. Colossae had been a city of high importance and success prior to the first century as it was located on an important highway which caused a considerable mixing of different ethnic and religious groups. However, when one of the roads was moved, Colossae began to decline. The diversity of the city and exposure to the latest ideas via travelers passing through made it a marketplace for philosophical and religious ideas, not unlike what we have in our modern internet-age contexts. “This diversity helps explain the apparently syncretistic religious movement that was affecting the Colossian Christians and that gave rise to the letter.” However, the content of letter does suggest that most of the Christians in Colossae were Gentiles. Also the lack of OT quotations or references to the law seems to suggest this as well.
It was first thought that the problem at Colossae was Gnosticism. However, because a lot of what Paul addresses has to do with Jewish elements such as Sabbath observance, festivals and an interest in angels, some suggest that it may have come from the local Jewish mystic and Pagan folk belief which called on angels for help and protection from evil spirits perhaps introduced by a shaman-like figure within the church. “For the false teachers were apparently suggesting that Christians needed to go ‘beyond’ the gospel'” for them to experience spiritual ‘fullness.’ This is often the case with false teaching, it may not subtract from the gospel, but will instead preach “Christ and…” However, the gospel needs no addition.
However, Paul doesn’t overtly address the false teachers or teachings specifically and it was likely a mix of several things. Instead he speaks in general terms—so much of what it was exactly is left to speculation and theory. Whatever the specifics are, “[Paul] does not minimize the threat presented by the demonic powers but emphasizes the supremacy of Christ over all powers. He asserts the unity of Christians with the exalted Christ, which entails their sharing in his power and authority.” In his response, Paul’s first line of attack against the dangerous false teaching is that he sets one of the highest definitions of the deity of Christ in the hymn of Colossians 1:15-20. Paul emphasized the sufficiency of Christ, so therefore believers did not need to add mystical experiences as a way to relate to God. Because of the nature of this letter, it makes it easy for us to see Paul’s prescriptions for a solution—mainly refocusing on Christ—as applicable to a wide range of problems we face today.
The importance of Christology:
This is vitally essential to the modern church today, where all sorts of false doctrines and perversions have been creeping in—everything from wiccan practices, to ‘Christian mysticism’; the import of eastern religious practices like mantras, mindless trance-like states, and meditative Hindu yoga. There are various heresies about Christ such as Kenosis Theory, Ebionism, Adoptionism, Docetism and Arianism and even Trinitarian heresies like Modalism and Tritheism invading mainstream Evangelicalism. Even Islam’s desire to demote Jesus to a mere prophet poses a threat to the modern Christian’s concept of Christ. There is not enough time to go through all the heresies here, however—as in the banking system—you learn to spot a counterfeit by being thoroughly familiar with the real deal. Christ is enough. “Because Christ stands in a unique relationship to God, he, and only he, is able to bring all things in creation back under God’s sovereignty and thereby provide believers with the resources that they need to live and flourish in a world dominated by hostile powers.” We should be careful of any teachings that distort the character and identity of Christ, or which add to or take away from what is revealed in scriptures. Jesus is the central figure to salvation, so we endanger people’s eternal destinies if we play games with the doctrine of Christology. Paul chastized the Corinthians harshly in 2 Corinthians 11:4,
“For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.”
He continues speaking of these who preach a different Jesus that, “…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” (2 Cor. 11:14-15) In Galatians he warns, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Gal. 1:8) If someone is preaching another Christ or a distorted Christology, they aren’t playing on the same team and we should beware. Right Christology is essential to the Christian. Even John tells us to discern and test the spirits in this regard;
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” (1 John 4:1-3)
How the letter to the Colossians helps us understand Christology:
“Paul’s letter to the Colossians has had an impact on Christian theology and practice out of proportion to its size. Christian thinkers since the patristic period have turned to its teaching about Jesus’ role in creation and his pre-eminence over the church to formulate their Christology.” So Paul’s response in his letter to the Colossians is vital to our proper understanding of Christology today and plays an important role in the canon of scripture. In response to new atheist university students, N.T. Wright accounts a rather humorous exchange that would happen:
“I developed a stock response: “Oh, that’s interesting. Which god is it you don’t believe in?” This used to surprise them… they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they didn’t believe in: a being who lived up in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally intervening to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response… “I don’t believe in that god either.”…”I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.”
Christology is important to the believer, because—as He is seen—so will He be treasured. If our view is narrow, only from an isolated Christology developed in the Gospels such as sections of Mark, some may conclude that Jesus was only a humble prophet, healer or even Messiah, who “wishes to deflect the attention given to him, especially as healer, to the true source of the healing, God.” However, by taking into consideration the whole canon of the New Testament—while there is much diversity in the descriptions by various authors of who Jesus was—we gain a more complete understanding of Christ as He is fully revealed, especially through the writings of Paul. “Christology is the theological heart of Colossians, and, like the spokes of a wheel, all the other themes of the letter radiate from it.” It is from this approach that we will examine Colossians 1:13-20.
Being “in Christ”:
There is one last thing before we jump into the hymn. The first part of chapter one is the set up for the hymn that erupts from Paul in verse 15. So I’ll quickly review what has happened prior to it. From verse 2, the phrase “in Christ” was Paul’s preferred term for believers. He described them as “in Christ”—for in Christ all the life of the believer is held and hidden in Him, as we place our whole lives in Him. This is the identity of the believer that is so essential to Paul.
Being “in Christ” means:
- Christ encompasses the entire life of a believer—they are hidden in Him.
- The believer is exclusively joined with Him—cannot be in Christ while being in Artemis or in anyone else.
- The believer cannot be in the world system or wisdom, Christ determines the whole behaviour of the believer.
- The believer is inseparably joined with Christ—Romans 8:38-39.
- The believer is joined into a new family of believers with no dividing lines—Romans 12:5.
R.E.O. White said it this way:
“As the physical environment exerts its pressure on a man, makes its demands, shapes his days, so the inner, psychological and spiritual environment, our being in Christ, exerts pressures and offers resource. That was the simple but basic secret of being a saint amidst paganism the secret, too, of astonishing endurance. For whatever the pain and peril, to be in Christ was to be at heart out of this world and beyond the reach of harm.”
So with that in mind let’s take a look at this brilliant passage of scripture. I’ll be using the NASB for English translations and utilize some quotations from the early church fathers to shed light on how the earliest believers understood Christ.
“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:13-14)
The verb ῥύομαι (rhuomai—“rescue, deliver”) used here usually has an eschatological final sense to it. Elsewhere, when Paul talks about sharing in the Kingdom of God he speaks in a future sense (1 Thes. 2:12; 2 Thes. 1:5; 2 Tim. 4:1, 18). However, in this verse, Paul says that believers have already (aorist tense) been transferred into the Kingdom.  So in one sense, there is a reality which is already but also not yet—and it is this surety of the salvation of believers, which is not yet finally realized but is so surely to be brought to completion—that Paul at this point writes as if it has already been accomplished. It is this ‘realized eschatology’ that Paul has in mind:
“Paul has been giving thanks for the Colossians’ Christian experience, praying for their growth in understanding, recalling especially the need to be constantly grateful for all that Christ has done – and there his mind takes fire. In a rush of kindling thought, at least fifteen tremendous statements about Jesus tumble one over the other…”
What follows next is a hymn. The hymn in 1:15-20 erupts from Paul like a supernova with resplendent shining glory—eclipsing everything around it in affirming Christ’s absolute supremacy, uniqueness, incomparability, and ultimate and total pre-eminence—demonstrating that there is “none beside Thee” in our whole experience of salvation through Him. The hymn is the expression of his mind responding to the glory of the Gospel, as should be ours. While I will only be focusing on the Christology of the hymn in Colossians here, it is essential that we have an understanding of who Christ is as presented in the whole cannon of scripture—so I’d encourage you to do your own further study into who Jesus is revealed in the Bible.
“He is the image of the invisible God…” (Col. 1:15a)
In verses 15-20, most scholars agree that Paul is quoting an early hymn as the phrases fall into matching rhythmic units in Greek and there is a clear structure of two strophes. However, what is this image in verse 15? In this question we deal with the very incarnation of God in Christ. The image of God could mean something belonging to God, but from the context it has the connotation of Christ “imaging” God.
“In Greek philosophy, however, the image has a share in the reality that it reveals and may be said to be the reality. An image was not considered something distinct from the object it represented, like a facsimile or reproduction.”
The Greek term used, εἰκὼν [eikōn] may mean simply “resemblance,” however because of the close identification between the Son and God implied in verse 9, the word refers to “complete likeness.” Also, the second element of the word’s meaning is “manifestation” which meant that the symbol was more than just a mere symbol. “The symbol brought with it the actual presence of the object.” The early church father, Origen (182-254 CE) said, “Now this image contains the unity of nature and substance belonging to Father and Son. For if the Son do, in like manner, all those things which the Father doth, then, in virtue of the Son doing all things like the Father, is the image of the Father formed in the Son, who is born of Him, like an act of His will proceeding from the mind.” So, Christ is the exact, visible, representation of God, illuminating the very essence and activity of God Almighty (See John 5:19). Origen continues:
“Our Saviour, therefore, is the image of the invisible God, inasmuch as compared with the Father Himself He is the truth: and as compared with us, to whom He reveals the Father, He is the image by which we come to the knowledge of the Father, whom no one knows save the Son, and he to whom the Son is pleased to reveal Him. And the method of revealing Him is through the understanding. For He by whom the Son Himself is understood, understands, as a consequence, the Father also, according to His own words: ‘He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father also.'”
It is important to note the adjective (ἀόρατος—aoratos—”invisible”) which Paul uses to describe God. God is spirit, and thus invisible. John makes it clear that no man has seen God. So how can we know a God which is imperceptible to our natural senses? It is through the only begotten Son that God is made to be understood. Origen makes the analogy that it is like a statue so enormous that it filled the whole world. However, due to its immensity we are unable to perceive it. But, if a smaller statue were made perfectly in its likeness so that we could perceive it, we could acknowledge that we have seen the former because we saw the latter. Similarly, Jesus is made the express image of God the Father by divesting Himself of His ‘equality’, or rather, His imperceptible magnitude of glory which we cannot contain or perceive, “so that we, who were unable to look upon the glory of that marvellous light when placed in the greatness of His Godhead, may, by His being made to us brightness, obtain the means of beholding the divine light by looking upon the brightness.” The invisible God is made visible in Christ; the incomprehensible is expressed in human terms.
If the invisible God was to be represented and embodied in the flesh, Christ would be the substance of all His essence. All that God is ‘abstractly’ to us, Christ expounds visibly. Some may argue that this ‘belittles’ God or makes Him less great by coming down, however C.S. Lewis eloquently expands on this divine mystery of the incarnation saying:
…it is the show of “the power of the Higher, just in so far as it is truly higher, to come down, the power of the greater to include less. Thus solid bodies exemplify many truths of plane geometry, but plane figures are not truths of solid geometry; many inorganic propositions are true of organisms but no organic propositions are true of minerals; Montaigne became kittenish with his kitten but she never talked philosophy to him. Everywhere the great enters the little—its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness.”
Christ is the testimony to the greatness of God, as the embodiment of the Divine essence and co-equal with God the Father. Shirley Guthrie puts it this way:
“He is not like a king who preserves his majesty and honour only by shutting himself up in the splendour of his palace, safely isolated from the misery of the poor peasants and the threat of his enemies outside the fortress. His majesty is the majesty of a love so great that he leaves the palace and his royal trappings to live among his subjects as one of them, sharing their condition even at the risk of vulnerability to the attack of his enemies. If we want to find this king, we will find him among the weak and lowly, his genuine majesty both revealed and hidden in his choosing to share their vulnerability, suffering, and guilt and powerlessness.”
“…the firstborn of all creation.” (Col. 1:15b)
“Firstborn of all creation” is another phrase which has been problematic even from as far back as the heretic, Arius in the fourth century, who contended that this was evidence that Jesus was a created being. Though thoroughly refuted by the early apostolic church fathers and deemed a heretic in 325 A.D., he laid the foundations for others such as Charles Taze Russell—who sprouted the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other heresies such as the Eternal Generation of Christ. Of the term used—πρωτότοκος [prōtotokos]—scholars consider that when it “was used in NT times the force of the second half of the term (born, from tichtō, to give birth) was lost unless it referred literally to a birth (as in Luke 2:7). In other words, the term could refer to rank, rather than birth or origin.” Furthermore, the Jewish concept of birthright influences the meaning of the word. So, “the term ‘firstborn’ referred to a rite (ritual) that accorded the first son a special place in the family. The term soon lost the meaning of the first in time and developed the meaning of first in priority.” The metaphor distinguishes Jesus from creation—which is why He is “firstborn OVER all creation” (as some translations—NIV, NLT, NET, etc.—correctly render it) and not “in” all creation (which NO major translation renders it).
Unlike what the Arian controversy in the fourth century disputed, the focus is on Christ’s primacy which is made clear in the following verse. The connecting word, ὅτι [hoti] means “because”. So what follows is the explanation that Christ is supreme over all creation “because” it was by him all things were created as the “firstborn of creation.” We can see this echoed in Romans 8:29-30 where Christ is described as the firstborn of a new community of believers that is to be glorified. In being the “firstborn”, Jesus has appropriately become what He always was. That is, the pre-existent Lord of all creation has become the human Lord of the world, reflecting the God whose human image He has now come to bear. God’s salvific purposes from before creation are embodied in Christ.
“A humanist Christ, however sympathetically portrayed, will not serve us here, can bring no unique revelation, no authoritative divine disclosure. Only He who stands over against us on God’s side of the great divide and steps toward us, the unique revealer and redeemer, unrivalled in all that relates to God, can meet our need.”
It is important for us to maintain the transcendent-immanent tension which expresses the continuum between the unknowable God and His self-revelation in creation.
“For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.” (Col. 1:16)
Paul continues to reveal Christ as Creator in verse 16. In Colossae, some may have been toying with the idea of other powers filling the void between God and the world. It seems like they thought there was some sort of chain of spiritual intelligences to bridge the gap in place of Jesus—somewhat similar (though not entirely) to the way Roman Catholics view praying to the saints or Mary as ‘mediators’ to God.
“[Paul] stresses the superiority of Christ over these supernatural beings, but the proponents of the false teaching in Colossae may have believed that these beings were Christ’s rivals or, what is more likely, they may have thought that veneration of these beings provided additional access to the benefits of salvation.”
Paul lists the names of some of these supposed lords of the spiritual world almost contemptuously and emphatically declares that Christ is before them, above them and if they exist—He made them! All things were created for Him—the ultimate goal and purpose of the existence of all things is to the glory of God, which Christ shares. “The extent of this supremacy is emphasized by citing three specific ways in which Christ and the creation are related: in him all things were created … all things have been created through him and for him.” Similarly, in John 1, it reveals Jesus as the Word— λόγος [logos]—or the “reason” for all that is and life itself. Christ is the highest end for all creation. There is no need for ‘mediators’ for, “there is ONE mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5)
Paul’s stress on Christ’s supremacy over all powers, dominions and authorities—both spiritual and natural—can be seen as emphatically opposing the Pagan and mystic influences which encouraged reliance on angels and spiritual forces. Equally, all our trust should be in Christ and put no confidence in men or created things. Paul encompasses everything by his first statement in the clause—”all things” (τὰ πάντα) being created by Him, then if that wasn’t clear enough, goes on to explain every conceivable thing to reemphasize the point. The image of Christ we get at the end of this verse is massive—He towers high above everything created, is supreme over both heavenly and earthly realms, Lord over the visible and invisible, the uncontested Sovereign over every power, position or authority and all of these were not only made by and through Him, but He also made them for His own glory!
“He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (Col 1:17)
After, in verse 17 Paul states that, “He is before all things,” after listing these things, he re-asserts that Jesus was God’s pre-existent agent in creation. Paul seems to be on a merciless rampage through the use of this hymn to utterly destroy these false teachings against the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. John Chrysostom (c.349-407 CE) said that Paul was “tearing up the deadly doctrine by the roots.” Since He is before and behind all things, we can keep Him out of nothing. All life, all truth, goodness and beauty are His and nothing is inherently evil since it was all created by Him with its ultimate being and goal being found in Him. Because of this, Christian faith is all-encompassing and cannot be kept in any special corner of a person’s life. Creation and redemption, secular and spiritual, all are united in Christ—He is the cosmic Lord, King of the universe—the Saviour of all.
Paul follows this by stating that, “in Him all things hold together”. They are held in being by His divine hand, even the very molecules of the hands of those who crucified Him! Paul doesn’t just answer the question about where to put Christ in the scheme of things, he silences it. Since they are created and sustained through Him, Chrysostom said, “Not only did He Himself bring them out of nothing into being, but Himself sustains them now, so that were they dissevered from His Providence, they were at once undone and destroyed.”All created things originate from previous things and are dependent on something prior which is not themselves. Not so with Christ, He depends on nothing! Rather, He is the source of all being—all things depend on Christ, He is the ‘sustainer’ of creation.
“A mechanic may construct his machine and then leave it to work because when he leaves, God’s laws take it up and the materials keep their solidarity—the steel continues to be strong and elastic and the vapor keeps its expansive power. However, when God constructed His machine—the Universe—he cannot leave it. There is no second God to take care of it. “Not from a single atom of matter can He for a moment withdraw his superintendent and support. Each successive moment, all over the world, the act of creation must be repeated. The existence of the world witnesses to a perpetuity of creating influence. Active omnipotence must flood the universe, or its machinery stops, and its very existence terminates.
The signs of an all-pervading supernatural energy meet us wherever we turn. Every leaf waves in it, every plant in all its organic processes lives in it; it rolls round the clouds, else they would not move; it fires the sunbeam, else it would not shine; and there is not a wave that restlessly rises and sinks, nor a whisper of the wanton wind that ‘bloweth where it listeth,’ but bespeaks the immediate intervention of God.”
The universe is not self-sufficient, nor are people, no matter how much we may deceive ourselves into thinking we are. We are not self-made men and women. God is active in the creation of all things AND in the sustaining of all things—He is not a deistic god who creates and leaves His creation to run on its own. Instead, it speaks of God’s current sustained interest and activity in all of creation through Christ, and by further extension—all of the Christian’s life is held together also by Christ, every tiny to great detail.
“He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” (Col. 1:18)
For verse 18, our modern understanding of the head as the seat of intellectual direction would probably be anachronistic to place on Paul’s understanding. The Hebrews would instead speak of the thoughts of the heart. The head to Paul would be speaking of the position of ultimate leadership and authority over the church. In Paul’s time, philosophers were known to compare the cosmos to a body. Paul here applies this metaphor to the church. The church is subject to Christ as her Head and Lord, Christ is chief in the church.
Therefore, a church which has lost touch with Christ has in effect, “lost its head.” Without Jesus as the head, the church becomes a corpse, a husk and pretence of dead traditions fossilized in an institution without any real function, beauty or strength. The destinies of creation and the Church are bound together. The Church does not exist to merely meet the needs of its members or institution, but rather to carry out the redemptive purposes of its head through the preaching of the Gospel and living worthily of Christ.
In Revelations 1:5, we see the term “firstborn from the dead” also used as it is here in Colossians referring to the resurrection. The title “firstborn” here implies more than just Christ’s own resurrection as the first to conquer death, but also has an eschatological push of the promise that He will bring many sons to glory as expressed in Hebrews 2:10. If He is the firstborn from the dead, then there must be more to follow Him after as the second, third, etc. It is with this in mind that the late Rev. R.E.O. White wrote;
“He is the first fruits of all that sleep in him. So the risen Christ within the church becomes the ground and focus of all Christian hope: through Him the church tastes already a future life, and belongs already to another world. Set within the present world to live, to minister, to evangelize, perhaps to suffer, she yet holds her citizenship in another country, and enjoys a timeless communion.”
The verse continues that Christ is firstborn of the dead so that in everything He might have supremacy or be preeminent. “What Christ had by natural right he had not yet exercised. “The puzzle caused by sin: though always Lord by right, he must become Lord in fact, by defeating sin and death.”” This is also seen in Hebrews 2:9, where, because of Him suffering death, Jesus is crowned with glory and honour. “But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.”(Hebrews 2:9)
“To the query ‘Why is there but one God?’ a child answered: ‘Because God fills every place, and there’s no room for another one.'” If Christ is your Lord, there is no room for any other. By the end of verse 18, Christ has been described as equal to Yahweh (v.15), Creator of everything, the reason for creation and the One to whom creation exists to glorify (v.16), before everything and the One holding it all together (v.17), and finally the ultimate ruler of all authority/governance, not just there at the beginning—but IS the Beginning, and the first fruit of the resurrection from the dead (v.17). It is here that Paul forcefully, categorically, and vigorously slams the flag down on the universe—“PREEMINENT! SUPREME!” in everything. He lays claim to the entirety of reality. No contenders. We should pause to ponder the implications of this—for how terrifying is it then when anyone would attempt to negate, usurp, belittle, deny, or disobey this ultimate authority of Christ?! How great the multiplication of any sin or offense against Him? How can we stand a chance against such a Power or bring any sliver of earned merit to His greatness? Thanks be to God that Christ is for us. Only in light of this can the statement, “then who can be against us?” finds its true force! You want to know the secret to bold, uncompromising witness that will willingly give up its life? It’s found here in a massively glorious and enormous view of Christ as He is—the Sovereign Lord uncontested of all!
“For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him,” (Col. 1:19)
In verse 19, the question must be asked of what exactly is the “fullness” spoken of here? The Greek πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα [pan to plērōma] translated “all the fullness” means the totality of the essence of God. Christ was not lesser to God, but co-equal. The Gnostics (a heretical cult in the early centuries) used “fullness” language and some tried to say that the hymn was actually a praise to a Gnostic redeemer figure. “A more plausible variation of this thesis suggests that the hymn may have picked up the language from the Colossian false teachers and turned it against them.” So it seems to have a polemic thrust. Paul was responding to the false teachers who were trying to convince Christians to experience true “fullness” by following their teachings by saying, actually, the “fullness” you seek is only to be found in Christ.
Ambrose of Milan (337-397 CE) said, “In regard of His Godhead, therefore, the Son of God so hath His own glory, that the glory of Father and Son is one: He is not, therefore, inferior in splendour, for the glory is one, nor lower in Godhead, for the fullness of the Godhead is in Christ.” Furthermore, the phrase “was pleased to dwell” calls to mind the Old Testament, where God chooses his dwelling place. Also some connect it to Mark 1:11, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” So, in Jesus, God finds full satisfaction with Him. The word for dwell used κατοικῆσαι [katoikēsai] is an active aorist infinitive and means to permanently settle or inhabit. It simply states, God was pleased to dwell fully and permanently only in Christ. Christ supplants the temple or any other divine dwelling place made by human hands and represents God directly in person.
“and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Col 1:20)
Concluding the hymn in verse 20, it seen in Paul’s other letters that we were once by nature, “children of wrath” (Romans 8:7) and “hostile to God” (Ephesians 2:3). The word ἀποκαταλλάσσω (apokatallassō), meaning “reconcile”, is used in the literary Greek of the time only in 3 places—here, in verse 22 and in Ephesians 2:16—so it may well be a term coined by Paul. The word “presumes a state of estrangement or hostility.” It is part of the irony in our self-estrangement from God that we also blame God for it.
“Man turns against the God whose love he has outraged; the alien becomes an enemy alien, bitter at heart, “hostile in mind.” The gulf of estrangement widens as man refuses every overture of love, every invitation to return; he disbelieves every promise of mercy and erects barricades against every approach of God – then blames God for his self-isolation and despair.”
On this point, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 CE) said this:
“For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness. Of no small account was He who died for us…”
So we find God as the active party in reconciliation, not that man pursues an elusive God through long nights of soul seeking, or merit for accumulating good deeds, but that God has done it through Jesus as He cries, “it is finished” on Calvary’s hill—God invites us home. Christ is peacemaker between God and man. God has reconciled all things—as we’ve seen previously—to Himself through Christ by His blood and sacrifice on the Cross. The Gospels show us vividly Christ’s humanity and now He stands in the gap between this world and Heaven, as fully divine and fully man, the God-man bridges the divide. “As the arms of the cross spread wide to embrace all men, so they reach up and down to draw heaven and earth together.” Our separating sins are borne and carried away in the sacrifice of Christ as a new covenant is established.
Not only that—the reconciliation of the Gospel is not limited to humanity along but rather to all things, on earth or in heaven. “The scope of reconciliation includes the material creation, the animal world, humanity, and spiritual beings.” It is a universal reach of the Gospel’s implications. Creation itself is being restored and redeemed—as all creation groans in anxious expectation of its liberation from bondage and decay (Romans 8:19-22). We usually think of reconciliation in terms of a broken relationship involving the willingness of both parties to be reconciled. “Here, however, reconciliation involves more than a voluntary movement. The natural creation was subjected to sin ‘not by its own choice’ (Rom 8:20), and its reconciliation will be of God’s choosing in his time.” It is the restoration and achievement of the Old Testament idea of Shalom or peace which is accomplished through “the blood of His cross.” This is not to say that there is some sort of ‘universal salvation’—that all people will be saved—but rather that it is a “cosmic restoration or renewal” through Christ’s redemption of those in Him and conquering of those against Him.
In conclusion, we live in an increasingly secular society today which regularly scoffs at the Christian faith. When confronted with the scorn of modern-day scoffers, nominal church goers may be tempted to water down the Gospel and accommodate the culture or altogether abandon their faith. When Christians have little confidence in their faith, they will be overly tentative in their claims and shaken by challenges. Paul wrote to the Colossians to strengthen their grasp on who Christ is so that they would treasure Him more greatly and hold unwaveringly to Him. By seeing Christ in light of His supremacy in all things, gratitude can overcome anxieties which would otherwise overtake a person who looks for security in something other than Christ. Christ is at once the scandal and the glory of Christianity. It is exclusively in “none but Thee” that God’s redemption plan is enacted.
“He is the One in whom, according to all Hebrew ideas of sonship, God’s own character is reproduced, and God’s own life finds full expression. In Him, God Himself has entered human history. Originally in the form of God, Christ emptied Himself, and was made Man – such is the grace of the eternal Son. Of no other in all creation could that be said. Christ stands unrivaled in rank, as the only begotten Son of the everlasting God.”
This is the central wonder of the Gospel, that the Saviour appeared, that Word became flesh, that He was sent and came, that He took upon Himself the form of a slave, found in human form. Language fails to express it adequately, this is why we see the Gospel and New Testament writers struggle in so many different ways to convey this wonder as their imaginations fail to picture what this really means. Christ—the timeless Lord—belongs in eternity, but He chose to be in time.
“In an age of dissolving standards and fading traditions, when cleverly posed questions are taken for answers, and the challenge to ancient insights is itself taken for wisdom, to be confused becomes the badge of modernity, and agnosticism becomes a convenient evasion. Yet if Christ be indeed the self-disclosure of God in human experience, there is no room left for agnosticism… Light has come: men may continue to love darkness and ignorance if they will, but now it is self-chosen.”
We are left then with a choice for each of our lives, either Christ be Lord of all—or not Lord at all.
The death of an obscure Jew on a seemingly God-forsaken hill in a backwater corner of the Roman empire should have attracted no notice and been quickly forgotten in history, however His story has come to transform modern thought and religion. Paul does not abandon Jewish monotheism, but rather he modifies it to a Christological monotheism to place Jesus Christ within the description and definition of the one God. The Christological hymn in Colossians 1 expands and elevates our view of Christ and presents a diversity of titles for Jesus: He is the visible image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, through Whom and for Whom all things have been created, He is before all things and ‘sustainer’ of all things. He is the head of the church, firstborn from the dead, in Whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and the peacemaker between God and man redeeming all things to God. Therefore, all who claim to know or hear God must also recognize Christ and hear His words.
“In the end, the high doctrine must nourish high devotion. Only when we think adequately about who Jesus is do we give Him the rightful place within our lives.”
Our status of being redeemed of Christ has an eschatological thrust forward toward its perfect fulfillment in the Heavenly courts as we stand in God’s presence holy and blameless, but at the same time we do not wait for reconciliation to relationship with God—we have it now—in the reality of being at all times accepted by the Beloved. The experience of this reality though is predicated on the three conditions Paul lays out for the enjoyment of Christ’s reconciliation; “…that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel…” (Col 1:23) The endurance and perseverance of the saints is vital to a true salvation experience of Christ as Reconciler and Redeemer. When we give Him His rightful place as Lord of all, only then does “faith become sight” and can what we profess be actually seen as true in our lives. It is for this same reason that Jesus Himself asked in Luke 6:46, “why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?”
I’d highly recommend R.E.O. White’s book – “In Him the Fullness” – which is listed below in the Bibliography for further reading if you can get your hands on a copy—it was really well written and very inspiring to read!
Ambrose of Milan, “Exposition of the Christian Faith,” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896.
Chrysostom, John. “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Colossians,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. Ashworth and John Albert Broadus, vol. 13, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889.
Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. R. W. Church and Edwin Hamilton Gifford, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894.
Crossway, The ESV Study Bible, Wheaton, Illinois. Crossway, 2008.
Dunn, James D.G., The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.
Garland, David E., The NIV Application Commentary: Colossians and Philemon, Terry Muck, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Zondervan, 1998.
Guthrie, Shirley C. Jr., The Nearness and Distance of God, International Documentation 71, 1976.
Harris, Murray J., Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: Colossians & Philemon, Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
Lewis, C.S., Miracles: A Preliminary Study, New York, Macmillan, 1947.
Melick, Richard R. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991.
Moo, Douglas J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008.
MacDonald, Margaret Y., Colossians and Ephesians, Daniel J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina Series Volume 17, Collegeville, Minnesota. The Liturgical Press, 2000.
Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.
Powell, Mark Allen and David R. Bauer. Who Do You Say That I Am? Essays on Christology. 1st ed. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.
Tan, Paul Lee. Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times. Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996.
White, R.E.O., In Him the Fullness: Homiletic Studies in Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, London. Pickering & Inglis, 1973.
Wright, N.T. and Marcus Borg. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. 1st ed. New York, NY. HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 26-27
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 27
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 67.
 Crossway, ESV Study Bible, 2290
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 54–55
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 61
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 25
 Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 157
 Powell, Who do you say that I am?, 39
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 63
 White, In Him the Fullness, 13
 Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians, 77
 White, In Him the Fullness, 38
 Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians, 84
 Garland, The NIV Application Commentary, 87
 Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 215
 Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century, 248
 Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century, 248
 Origen, “De Principiis,” in Fathers of the Third Century, 249
 Lewis, Miracles, 134
 Guthrie, The Nearness and Distance of God, 41-42
 Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 215
 MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, 58-59
 Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 216
 Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 216
 White, In Him the Fullness, 42
 Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians, 90
 MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, 60
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 120
 Chrysostom, Saint Chrysostom: Homilies, 271
 Chrysostom, Saint Chrysostom: Homilies, 271
 Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, 488
 White, In Him the Fullness, 50
 Garland, The NIV Application Commentary, 92
 Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, 503
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 132
 Ambrose, St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, 234
 Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians, 102–103
 White, In Him the Fullness, 54
 Cyril, S. Cyril of Jerusalem,, 91
 White, In Him the Fullness, 55
 Melick, Philippians, Colossians, 225
 Melick, Philippians, Colossians, 225
 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians, 136
 White, In Him the Fullness, 39
 White, In Him the Fullness, 41-42
 White, In Him the Fullness, 5