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The Colossian Hymn–Colossians 1.15-20

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.

Resurrection and New Creation

Recently (Nov 16, 2018) N. T. Wright gave a lecture at the Lanier Theological Lecture in Houston, TX, on “Resurrection and the New Creation.”  It was vintage Wright.

Here is the URL:

https://www.laniertheologicallibrary.org/videos/

Or you can click here

 

They Come in Pairs (No, its not about Noah’s Ark)

I’ve been inspired recently by posts from Dr. Creig Marlowe and some comments I heard recently by N. T. Wright.  There is some new thinking here for me, but as Ecclesiastes reminds us: “there is nothing new under the sun.”

It has to do with a series of binaries in Genesis 1.   Here is a list:

1.1       heavens and earth

1.4       light and darkness

1.5       evening and morning

1.9-10  seas and dry land

1.14     sun and moon

1.27     male and female

Now there may be other binaries here in Genesis 1, but these are the ones I want to focus on.  “Formless and void” (tohu wavohu) comes to mind as a distinct possibility. creation Adam and Eve

These binaries form complementary pairs which are not only created by God but participate with God in the next steps of creation.  In a way they become co-creators with God because they provide the raw materials for the coming days of creation.  There is a logic to the days of creation which you have probably already noticed.  Days 1-3 provide the raw materials and realms into which the creatures of days 4-6 live (I use the term “creature” here not so much as a living thing but a thing which is created):

 

Realm                                           Inhabitants

Day 1   light                                      Day 4   sun, moon, and stars

Day 2   sky and waters                 Day 5   birds and fish

Day 3   dry land                             Day 6   land creatures and humanity

This structure is intentional at several levels but it does show order coming from chaos, countering the formless and void state described in Genesis 1.2.

Dr. Marlowe is correct that some of these binaries form a hendiadys (literally, one through two). A hendiadys is an expression of a single idea by the use of two words often connected with “and” or some other conjunction.  “His legal case is not black and white” uses a hendiadys.  “Black and white” is not describing the color of the case but essentially that the facts of the case are not clear.  In Genesis 1.1 “heavens and earth” describe not so much two things but one for which there is no Hebrew word “the universe.”  “Heaven” means everything above your head and “earth” means everything below your feet, in a sense then everything.  That is why we translated Gen 1.1 in The Voice: In the beginning God created everthing, the heavens above, the earth below . . . ”

Here again is our list of binaries with a suggestion of how to see the hendiadys.

1.1       heavens and earth = the universe

1.4       light and darkness = the progression of time

1.5       evening and morning = a day

1.9-10  seas and dry land = the earth

1.14     sun and moon = signs and seasons (again, the progression of time)

1.27     male and female = humanity

In each case God, as it were, turns to the created thing to invite it to work with him in the ongoing task of creation.  So, for example, God says to the earth to bring forth vegetation, plants and seeds (1:11-12). He says to the waters/seas and the skies: bring forth fish and birds (1.20-23). Then God says to the land: bring forth land creatures of every kind (1.24-25).  When God says, “let us make humanity . . . ” people have wondered about the “us.”  Is God speaking to and for the Trinity?  Not necessarily.  That certainly is one way Christians have read the text.  Given everything that has gone on so far in Genesis 1, however, I think God is speaking to the created order itself.  The “us” would include God, the sun, moon, stars, waters, seas, dry land, and other land creatures.  Human beings are made up of the same elements as the stars, the earth, and all the critters.  Now, I’m not arguing that we should have a scientific reading of Genesis; what I am suggesting is that there is an internal logic to the creation story of Genesis 1: God creates something and then uses that creation to create the next thing. In this way all things are dependent and related. Genesis 2 reinforces this when it says that God sculpted Adam/humanity from the earth/dust and breathed in him the breath of life (2.7-9).  So Adam is made up of previously created elements along with the divine breath.

The final binary “male and female” deserves special attention.  Male and female make up one thing, humanity, and this humanity reflects the image of God.  But it is in their differences, their complementarities that male and female reflect the imago dei.  Male has no greater claim than female on imaging God.  It is in their union together and distinctions from one another that God’s likeness is on full display. We live at a time when people want to deny or erase the male-female distinction: to do so is to  assault humanity itself and diminish God in the process.  Here is the commentary embedded at Genesis 1:27 in The Voice:

The crown of God’s creation is a new creature, a creature that can sound the heartbeat of its Creator. That creature, made male and female, reflects God’s own relational richness. The human family is to join God in the ongoing work of creation. The earth below and the sky above with all their inhabitants are too beautiful and too good to be left alone. They need the tender care and close attention that only God’s favored creature can give.

In Genesis 1:28ff. God blesses the humans and gives them the prime directive: be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.  In other words, humans are now directed to participate with God in the ongoing work of creation.  God no longer creates ex nihilo.  He uses preexisting elements and persons in order to fashion the next generation. Through the sexual union male and female become one flesh and life as we know it goes on.

 

 

 

 

 

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