You’ve made your way into the letters of Paul—welcome to the wonderful world of biblical poetry! “Wait,” you say, “I thought I was reading an apostolic letter.” That’s true, but remember, Paul the apostle grew up steeped in biblical literature, and he was a consummate poet in his own right. Paul has filled his letters with metaphors that stack one on top of another, and quite often he’s embedded short poems into his essays and correspondence. Some poems are most likely his own (like the one we’ll explore in this essay), and others were adapted from the hymns and songs sung in the early churches (likely the poem in Philippians 2:6-11, or the short line in Ephesians 5:14).
But first, let’s acquaint ourselves with the people who first received this letter from Paul. Paul wrote this letter during one of his many imprisonments for announcing Jesus as the risen Lord (see Col 4:18). It’s addressed to a group of people that Paul had never met, who met together as a church community that he did not start. This church at Colossae was planted by a co-worker of Paul's named Epaphras (see Col 1:7-8 & 4:12-13).
Epaphras just so happened to have recently visited Paul in prison, and he updated him on how well the Colossians were doing overall. But Epaphras also mentioned some of the cultural pressures tempting them to turn away from Jesus. Paul wrote this letter to encourage the Colossians to address the issues that Epaphras had raised and to challenge them to a higher devotion to Jesus.
But before Paul moves into lecture or preaching mode, he opens with a long prayer of thanks to God for the Christians in Colossae (Col 1:4-12). He’s heard of their faithfulness, and he wants it to continue. The first place his mind goes is to how amazing Jesus is. He knows that true and ultimate devotion to Jesus doesn’t come primarily from being commanded, but rather from being enraptured by the beauty and profound love of Jesus. It makes perfect sense why Paul moves into a poem that is all about—can you guess?—the power and love of Jesus.
Like a symphony, the music of the poem and its main themes fall into two movements, depicting Jesus first as the human embodiment of the Creator (Col 1:15-17), and second as the head of the New Creation (Col 1:18-20) that is reconciled to its Creator.
Jesus as Creator
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and by him all things hold together.
Paul depicts Jesus as the eternal Son of the Father, the image of the invisible God, and thus the rightful heir of creation (v. 15). Second, he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe (vv. 16-17). There is no doubt that the “he” in verse 15 refers to the “beloved Son,” who accomplished the New Exodus (“redemption”) from slavery to death and sin by his death and resurrection. Paul is describing Jesus in the most exalted and cosmic language available to him in the Old Testament scriptures.
The first affirmation of Jesus is not what he did or became but what he eternally is, namely the “image of the invisible God” (v. 15a). While the New Testament authors sometimes use the term “God” (Theos in Greek) to refer to the Son or Holy Spirit, normatively this word refers specifically to the person of the Father.
Such is the case here in verse 15a. The Son is the image of God, which indicates his eternal identity and relationship with the Father. Notice that the hymn before verse 18 does not bring into view the incarnation since it focuses in verses 15-17 on Jesus’ identity as Creator. So, although Jesus is indeed the image of God by his humanity, as taught elsewhere (see 2 Cor 4:4), Colossians 1:15 is describing him as the pre-existent image of God the Father.
The concept of the image that we discussed above plays a vital role in how we understand the term firstborn (in Greek, prwtotokoj). Because Jesus is the image of God, he is by right the firstborn. This concerns not the fact that he was the first creature to come into existence but rather his ownership of the cosmos. It is a term of rank and authority, denoting Jesus’ right to rule creation (see also Heb 1:6).
We see this term firstborn used elsewhere to convey the idea of authority and privilege rather than being born first sequentially. In Exodus 4:22, Yahweh speaks of the people of Israel as his “firstborn son.” In Psalm 89:27, the Davidic king is called God’s “firstborn, greatest of the kings of the earth.” Israel was not the first nation to exist; neither David nor Solomon was the firstborn among their families. Chronological origin and timing then are not the concern of either passage but instead of that of preeminence.
We have already seen how Paul’s hymn identifies Christ as the Creator of all things. Not only is the initial making of the universe centered on Christ but also is its goal: “all things have been created through him and for him” (v. 16). Jesus is not only the agent of creation but also its goal. Thus, Paul sees the biblical storyline from the beginning finding its terminal point in the person of Jesus.
By recalling the Genesis 1 creation account with phrases such as “image,” “heaven,” and “earth,” Paul wants us to think about creation through Jesus-colored lenses. The cosmos was created for him, so everything is ultimately about him. It’s like the author of a story wrote himself into the story as its main character, but in this case, it is not egotistical since the author of the story is God the Creator.
Jesus’ centrality in history is specifically confirmed in verse 18 where it is said that he is the head of the church and firstborn from the dead “so that he might come to have first place in everything.” The Son’s preeminent stature then was not an afterthought or incidental consequence of God’s plan of redemption. Creation itself was made to magnify God’s beloved Son. In other words, reality’s heart beats to the glory of Jesus. In fact, he is the one that causes reality’s heart to beat, for “by him all things hold together” (v. 17). Jesus as Creator brought heaven and earth into existence and ever since has sustained their existence, even after becoming incarnate.
18 He is also the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile everything to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
As Christ is the author of the entirety of creation, so also is he the author of the entirety of the New Creation. Hence, he is not only the firstborn over all creation but also the “firstborn from the dead” (v. 18; cf. Rev 1:4), meaning that he is the rightful ruler of the resurrection age that is to come.
As Creator, the Son is responsible for the making of all things in heaven and on earth, including “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Col 1:16), which is the New Testament’s way of talking about the realm of spiritual beings commonly referred to as angels. As Redeemer, the Son’s shed blood on the cross has assuredly secured an eternal peace in the new heavens and new earth (v. 20).
By his death and resurrection, Christ has inaugurated the New Creation age and ensured its eventual expression (see Gal 1:4). His authority and power were put on display by bringing into existence the heavens and the earth. His authority and power are also demonstrated in his bringing into existence the new heavens and new earth. Jesus, the Son of God, is at the center of creation and redemption.
Though the truth about who Jesus is and what he has done might sometimes blow our minds, we nonetheless have great reason to sing about the faith handed down to us since the days of the apostles. This hymn preserves for us the core truth of who Jesus is as Creator and Redeemer. Anything short of these affirmations is not biblical and thus not the gospel. Colossians 1:15-20 presents us with a Christology that is truly revolutionary and thus worth singing. And a Christology without singing is a Christology not worth having.