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 the 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 become incarnate. Marvel at that as you think of the infant Jesus this holiday season.