Colossians 1:15-19

© Rosemary Bardsley 2014

Paul now begins to give more detail about this the Son of God, the ‘Son of his love’. In this very short letter we find a greater number of descriptions of the person of Christ than in any other of Paul’s letters. He does this to remind the Colossian believers who it is that they have believed in, and who it is in whom they were trusting for their salvation. The false teaching that was permeating the church was seriously reducing the person and significance of Jesus Christ. Like a kind of embryonic Gnosticism it seems to have been giving Christ a very minimal identity and importance, luring these believers into supposed knowledge of God additional to the knowledge of God revealed in the Son, and into an understanding of salvation in which their own religious performance was necessary to maintain their acceptance with God.

To bring these believers back to faith in Jesus Christ as God, and to an exclusive trust in Jesus for salvation, Paul here begins to put before them, and us, the real truth about who Jesus is. By these descriptions of Jesus he outlaws the diminished concepts of Jesus promoted by the false teachers.

Colossians 1:15:

‘He is the image of the invisible God’ – One of the foundational facts about the person of Jesus Christ is that when you look at Jesus you are actually seeing God. This is affirmed by both Jesus himself and his apostles:

John 1:18: ‘No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

John 12:45: ‘When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me’

John 14:9: ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’

2Corinthians 4:6: ‘For God … made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’    
Hebrews 1:3: ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being …’

Because Jesus Christ is the visible likeness (image) of the invisible God no one need ever again ask ‘what is God like?’ In seeing Jesus Christ we see precisely and exactly what God is like. In seeing Jesus Christ we see God. In knowing Jesus Christ we know God. A radical implication of this truth is that unless we see God when we see Jesus Christ our god is not the true God. If our god is different from Jesus Christ then our god is not God. It is as simple and as devastating as that. Jesus Christ is the true God.

In addition to the above verses are a small number of verses that actually identify Jesus as God:

Romans 9:5: ‘ … the ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised.’

Philippians 2:6: ‘Jesus Christ: Who, being in very nature God …’

Titus 2:13: ‘… the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ’

1John 5:20: ‘And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life’.

We should not think that this seeing and knowing Jesus Christ is limited to those who saw him in his human flesh. There were many who saw him and knew him physically yet still did not see and know God - consider the leaders of the Jews. No. This seeing and knowing Jesus Christ which is seeing and knowing God is spiritual, and possible only when God himself rips away the blindness with which Satan has darkened our minds. This seeing and knowing is a gift of God’s grace. We can only know the Father if the Son reveals him to us. We can only know the Son if the Father enlightens us. [For further input study the meaning of 2Corinthians 4:6; Matthew 11:25-27; 16:17.]
‘he is … the firstborn over all creation’
When we consider the title ‘firstborn’ we need to remember that its primary significance is in relation to role and position, not time. The ‘firstborn’ in a Hebrew household was the one who was the heir of all the father possessed; he held a position of priority and authority in the Father’s household. So, Esau, the first to be born, sold his birthright to his twin brother Jacob, thus giving to Jacob all the rights and privileges of the ‘firstborn’ (Genesis 27).

In addition, firstborn does not mean first created. That which is born is of the same essence as that which gave birth to it. That which is created is made of different stuff from its creator. To say that this verse teaches that Jesus was the first thing God created [a Jehovah’s Witness teaching] infers that Jesus is not of the same essence, or stuff, as God.

Jesus Christ is prior in terms of time - he existed eternally before all created things. But he also holds the position, rank and authority of the firstborn over the whole created universe.

This phrase, which is a Messianic title, teaches us:

He is absolute heir of the Father [see also Hebrews 1:2; Psalm 89:27]
He is begotten before all ages
He has priority of rank/honour over all creation [see also John 5:23]
He is in the position of authority over all creation
He is the acknowledged head of God’s household.    

Colossians 1:16:

‘For by him all things were created … all things were created by him …’ By these phrases Paul anchors the ‘firstborn’ title in the fact that Jesus created all things. He is in authority over all things because he is the creator of all things. In this verse Paul takes the trouble to ensure that he leaves no room for us to think that anything at all exists apart from the creative power and action of Jesus Christ: everything in heaven and on earth, everything visible and invisible, even all ‘thrones or powers or rulers or authorities’ – all things we created by Jesus Christ. Nothing is excluded. Nothing was created by some other power. Nothing exists in and of itself.

And we also are included in this ‘all things’. We exist because Jesus Christ created us. And those things of which we are afraid, that seem so much more powerful than us, these things also were created by Jesus Christ, and on that basis he stands in authority over them. And those things, such as angels, which the false teachers were giving more importance than Jesus Christ – these things are created things, created by Jesus Christ. They are not greater than him, rather, they are dependent on him for their existence.

But there is something even more amazing here: it is this Jesus – this image of the Father, this one with the authority of the Firstborn over all creation, this one who created all things – this is the one whose death purchased our redemption. This amazing truth will be the focus of Paul’s teaching shortly.

‘and for him.’ Not only are all things, including us, created by Jesus Christ: all things were also created for Jesus Christ. The significance of this ‘for him’ is found when we hold this phrase together with the previous one – ‘by him’. ‘By him’ refers to the source and origin of all things. ‘For him’ refers to the purpose and goal of all things. Jesus Christ is, as the Scripture states, the beginning and the end of all things. The Alpha and the Omega. All things come from him and all things find their goal and purpose in him. Nothing has independent origin and nothing has independent significance or purpose.

There are three flow-on impacts of this Christ-centred perspective:

[1] This truth wraps our lives up in a great and overwhelming security. If all things were created through him and for him, then there is nothing in all creation which is beyond the limit of his control, and there is nothing in the whole universe which can or will ultimately defeat his purpose.

[2] This truth of our creation by Christ and for Christ, gives overpowering significance to our lives. Our existence has its source and its goal in Jesus Christ. He is its beginning and its ending. We are here because of him and for him. No one, in the light of this truth, is permitted to negate or think poorly of themselves and their existence.

[3] In the context of the Colossian heresy, all of the supposed sources of enlightenment to which the false teachers were directing the Christians are obviously less than Christ, rather than being necessary additions to and more significant than Christ.  If they exist at all they are mere created beings, dependent on him for their existence and dependent on him for their purpose and meaning. Any teaching that takes us to a supposed knowledge of God through such beings and additional to Jesus Christ can be automatically identified as false.

Colossians 1:17:

‘he is before all things …’ Not only do all things have their origin and goal in Jesus Christ, they are also inferior to him because he is ‘before all things’. Paul here refers to the eternal existence of Christ: he existed before time and space began. In ascribing eternal existence to Christ Paul is deliberately identifying Christ as God, because God is the only eternal being.

Consider these Scriptures,  which refer to the ‘eternity’ of God in the King James Version:

Isaiah 57:15: ‘… the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity’
Jeremiah 10:10: ’he is the living God, and an everlasting king’

And this anticipation of Jesus Christ [KJV]:

Micah 5:2: ‘a ruler … whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting’

The New Testament also refers to the eternity of Jesus Christ:

John 8:58: ‘before Abraham was born, I am’
John 1:1-4: ‘In the beginning was the Word … he was with God in the beginning’.

God is the eternal one; the New Testament claims eternality for Jesus Christ.  The obvious truth is that Jesus is God.

Important note: Like the Arian heresy in the early church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, deliberately choose to deny the eternality, and therefore the essential deity, of Jesus Christ. They rewrite the Colossians verses above as:

’16 because by means of him all [other] things were created …. All [other] things have been created through him and for him. 17 Also he is before all [other] things and by means of him all [other] things were made to exist’ [New World Translation].

Note the repeated insertion of the bracketed ‘other’. This is a deliberate reflection of the JW belief that Jesus Christ, the ‘Son’ of Jehovah, is a created being, the first thing to be created by God. In keeping with this belief, the word ‘firstborn over all creation’ is interpreted to mean ‘first created’. But the word ‘born’ has quite a different meaning from the word ‘created’ as indicated previously in these study notes.

‘and in him all things hold together’ – This truth is also taught in Hebrews 1:3: ‘sustaining all things by his powerful word’. Nothing that exists exists apart from the sustaining power of Jesus Christ. Every that exists exists in the form in which it exists because of Jesus Christ. The chair you sit on, the metals in your vehicle, the water you drink and the food you eat, exist in that manner because of Jesus Christ. Should he withdraw his sustaining, cohesive word, the whole universe would disintegrate and become nothing.

Consider: the stuff you are made of - from the visible outside to the invisible DNA strands that contain all the coded information that makes you you (note that the information in one human DNA strand would fill 1000 X 500 page books of small print) - all is held together by Jesus Christ. Whether we acknowledge it or not we are dependent on him in the most absolute sense. Without him we would cease to exist.  

It is this powerful Creator-Sustainer whom the Colossian false teachers were belittling, and reducing to a preliminary first step towards knowing God that we can leave behind as we progress to further knowledge from other sources. It is this powerful Creator-Sustainer on whom we are totally dependent that the false teachers were inferring could not save us or keep us saved without our adding our own religious qualifications and works to his. The perspectives of the false teachers in Colosse were not only false, they were ridiculous. The real Jesus needs no supplementation. The real Jesus is so superior to everything else that the addition of anything else either for knowledge of God or for salvation is laughable. But it is also blasphemous in its denial of his deity. And that is not laughable at all.

Colossians 1:18:

Lightfoot paraphrases verse 18 thus: ‘And not only does He hold this position of absolute priority and sovereignty over the Universe – the natural creation. He stands also in the same relation to the Church – the new spiritual creation. He is its head, and it is His body. This is His prerogative, because He is the source and the beginning of its life, being the First-born from the dead. Thus in all things – in the spiritual order as in the World – He is found to have the pre-eminence.’ [p 156, ibid]

‘And he is the head of his body, the church’ Having taught us of the utter and absolute supremacy of Jesus Christ over the universe and all that it contains, Paul now turns to the supremacy of Jesus Christ over the church. Christ is ‘head’ of the church. The New Testament uses the concept of ‘head’ and ‘body’ to communicate the position of authority that Christ has in relation to the church. Just as a body is controlled by the head, so the church is dependent on and subject to Christ.

The authority of Jesus Christ over the created world was based on the fact that the created world owes its existence and its purpose/goal to him. Similarly, the authority of Christ over the church is here defined by Paul as issuing from the fact that the church owes its existence and its future to him. Not only are we dependent on Jesus Christ for our physical existence, we are also dependent on him for our spiritual life. We, the church, owe our life in the presence of God, both now and for eternity, to Jesus Christ.

‘he is the beginning and firstborn from among the dead’ - Paul thus describes Jesus Christ as the Source of the church’s life. Where does our existence as the church originate? It originates in Christ. Without him we would have no spiritual life and no existence as ‘the church’. He is ‘the beginning’ of the church.

How come the church possesses life, when all other humans are ‘dead’? Because Jesus Christ, our substitute, rose from the dead: he is ‘the firstborn from among the dead’. As ‘firstborn from the dead’ he stands in authority over death, and guarantees the ‘life’ of all who are united to him by faith. In this is our assurance that we who believe in him have already, spiritually, passed from death to life, and will, at the end of the age, physically experience resurrection.

To read further about the present and future liberation from death that the believer has in Christ, read John 3:36; 5:24; Ephesians 2:4-6; Colossians 3:1-4; 1Corinthians 15:35-57.

‘he has first place in all things’ – Again in acute contrast and distinction to the watered-down perception of the importance of Christ taught by the false teachers, Paul emphasises the utter priority and supremacy of Jesus Christ. There is no room here for additional powers or authorities besides and beyond Jesus Christ. By virtue of creation and by virtue of his resurrection he and he alone occupies the position of authority over all things. This is the Jesus about whom the Gospel speaks. This is the Jesus whom the false teachers had replaced with a lesser, imaginary, impotent Jesus.

Colossians 1:19:

‘For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him’ – Rather than be cowed into a compromise and diminish his perception of Christ, the false teaching has motivated Paul to make an ultimate statement about the real deity of Jesus Christ: all of the fullness of God dwells in him. All that God is, Jesus Christ is. Whatever God is, Jesus Christ is. No compromise.

Is God holy? Then Jesus is holy.
Is God eternal? Then Jesus is eternal.
Is God omnipotent? Then Jesus is omnipotent.
Is God omniscient? Then Jesus is omniscient.
Is God the Judge? Then Jesus is the Judge.
Is God the source of all things? Then Jesus is the source of all things.
Is God the all-sufficient One? Then Jesus is the all-sufficient One.

Everything. All. Whatever. What God is Jesus is. The fullness – the whole of what God is – Jesus is.

Similarly in Colossians 2:9 Paul states: ‘For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form’.

These two verses are extremely significant. They stand against all who deny the full deity of Jesus Christ. They also stand against all who teach that there is more of God to know beyond Jesus Christ. All the fullness of God dwells in Jesus Christ. There is nothing more to know about God than what is true about Jesus Christ. Take anything away from Christ, and what you have is less than God. Add anything to Christ, and what you have is less than God, for in adding something other than Jesus Christ you dilute and distort what was the pure truth about God. You can neither take from nor add to that which is complete, and still maintain and retain that perfection. Any addition or subtraction changes it from truth to error. In Jesus Christ we have God’s perfect and final revelation of himself. In Jesus Christ we have God.

This fullness of God was not something transient that was in Jesus Christ for a season, then left. The verb translated ‘dwell’ is katoikeo - which refers to permanent residence. This truth exposes the falsity of some historic heresies, which viewed the ‘deity’ of Christ, or in their perception, the manifestation of God in Christ, as a transient thing.

Note also that Paul states ‘God was pleased’ for it to be this way. God the Father was pleased that the Son should have the same nature as the Father. God the Father was pleased that in this real human being, Jesus of Nazareth, the fullness of God dwelt in human form. This is not contrary to the Father’s will or nature. This is actually what God the Father wanted to happen. He wanted us to see him. He wanted us to know him. By seeing and knowing his incarnate Son. When the divine Son became man, this divine nature, this fullness of God which was his from eternity, did not cease or diminish. As Colossians 2:9 indicates, it continued to dwell in Christ, even in his bodily form.

This verse is exceedingly important in Paul’s argument. Vincent’s Word Studies contain this comment about the false teaching Paul was confronting:

‘There must also be taken into the account the selection of this word fullness with reference to the false teaching in the Colossian church, the errors which afterward were developed more distinctly in the Gnostic schools. Pleroma fullness was used by the Gnostic teachers in a technical sense, to express the sum-total of the divine powers and attributes. “From the pleroma they supposed that all those agencies issued through which God has at any time exerted His power in creation, or manifested His will through revelation. These mediatorial beings would retain more or less of its influence, according as they claimed direct parentage from it, or traced their descent through successive evolutions. But in all cases this pleroma was distributed, diluted, transformed, and darkened by foreign admixture. They were only partial and blurred images, often deceptive caricatures, of their original, broken lights of the great Central Light” (Lightfoot). Christ may have been ranked with these inferior images of the divine by the Colossian teachers. Hence the significance of the assertion that the totality of the divine dwells in Him.’

Paul is not only deliberately asserting the full deity of Jesus Christ, but he is also deliberately confronting the Colossian heresy head on, using its own terms.