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The Colossian Hymn–Colossians 1.15-20

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Paul aimed to drive home the point of the sufficiency of Christ by quoting what appears to be a preformed tradition—either a hymn or a poem—that commemorates the person and finished work of Christ.  It is likely that either Paul or one of his associates was the author of this piece, although we cannot rule out composition outside the Pauline circle.  The hymn is based broadly on the Jewish wisdom tradition where divine wisdom (a) reflects the divine glory, (b) serves as the agent of creation and (c) the agent of redemption (Wisd 7:22-28; cf. Proverbs 8).   As early theologians like Paul mulled over the significance of Christ, they found wisdom an ever-ready concept through which to filter the activity of Jesus.  Wisdom language and texts provided them a wealth of symbols and images to construe their newly found faith in a variety of ways and contexts.  There is much to commend Michael Gorman’s judgment: Colossians is an “extended commentary on Paul’s claim that Christ is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:18-25).”[1]Jesus the sage

 

The hymn can be divided into two parts: (1) the Son as Creator of all things (1:15-17) and (2) the Son as Head of the Church and Reconciler of all things (1:18-20).  We have used the christological title “Son” in our description of the hymn because of its presence in 1:13.  There are in fact no christological titles in the surviving text of the hymn.  Unlike the Philippian hymn that ends with the triumphant acclamation, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” there is no overriding christological claim in the Colossian hymn.  What you do have is a well-constructed series of christological reflections patterned loosely on Jesus’ work as God’s wisdom.

 

The first stanza of the hymn declares the Son to be the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (1:15).  The phrase “image of God” resonates with the tonality of the Genesis narrative where a similar phrase refers to the creation of “the Adam” in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27; cf. 1 Cor 11:7).  But Adam’s twin he is not because he is also the agent of creation, the one through whom, in whom and for whom all things are made (1:16).  The emphasis on God’s invisibility stands in contrast to the Son’s incarnation and especially the reconciling blood of the cross (1:19-20).  Some have taken the phrase “firstborn of all creation” to mean that the Son is a created being.  This can hardly be the case, however, when in the next line He is heralded as the creative agent behind “all things in the heavens and upon the earth” (1:16).  The “first” is therefore not in reference to time but to status as v. 17 makes clear (“He is before all things”).   By “all things” the hymn explicitly cites heavenly and earthly entities, visible and invisible realities, along with an entire assortment of angels, principalities and powers.  These are the spiritual powers feared and placated in the folk religion around Colossae.  Whether or not they recognize it, these powers along with the rest of creation exist subservient to the Son who holds all things together (1:17).

 

The second stanza celebrates the headship of the Son over the church and the (eventual) reconciliation of all things—perhaps even the competing powers—by the cross.  Paul wrote: “And He is the head of the body (of) the church” (1:18).  The hymn is apparently combining two important Pauline emphases: (a) the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-29 and Rom 12:3-8) and (b) the headship of Christ (1 Cor 11:2; cf. Col ???).   Paul and his co-workers were innovative theologians, evocative in their use of symbols and metaphors.  The image of the church as Christ’s body provided them with a variety of ways to configure the relationship.  Here the focus is on Christology not Ecclesiology so its construal emphasizes the headship and first-place-ness of Christ over against His people.  As the “firstborn from the dead” (1:18), the Son (cf. 1 Cor 15:20) leads the way from death to life.  He is the beginning of the new creation: in Him the resurrection from the dead has begun.  But there is more to affirm: the hymn continues “for in Him all the fullness [of God] was pleased to dwell” (1:19).   We have in this line a clear statement of what theologians refer to as “the incarnation,” namely, the man Jesus was the fleshy place of God’s indwelling.  This “indwelling” of God was not measured and cautious but total and daring.  In God’s good pleasure the totality of the divine nature and attributes filled the Son.  This made Him uniquely qualified to serve as the agent of reconciliation (1:20).  The working assumption of Paul is that humanity and the rest of creation had fallen out of God’s favor despite our glorious beginnings.  Furthermore, nothing below was able to establish peace, but God’s Son has come into the world and established peace through His blood on the cross.  For Paul, Christ on the cross was the locus of reconciliation.  And this reconciliation is not partial; it is universal with beneficiaries in heaven and on earth (1:20)

 

At one time the Colossians had been alienated from God because of evil.  “But now” God had reconciled them “through the body of His flesh” (1:21) so they could one day stand before Him holy and blameless.  The focus on the accomplished work of reconciliation was important for Paul because of how the Colossians were looking to other ascetic and spiritual strategies to “complete” their salvation.  The apostle wanted them to recognize that Christ was the agent of creation, the author of their reconciliation and the only true power in the universe.  What they needed to do now was to continue in that faith firmly established and not shift their focus to other, lesser powers.

 

[1] Gorman, 471.


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