Col. 1:15-16: Christ and Creation

ChristCreationIcon-fresco-detailThe three part structure of Col. 1:15-20 helps us understand what Paul is trying to communicate through the poem.  The first stanza begins by describing Christ as the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως).  These two phrases are pregnant with meaning and have been the focus of much discussion and debate.   However, for our discussion, it is only necessary to point out that they refer to Christ’s relationship to creation.  By referencing the “image of the invisible God,” the author of the poem may be alluding to the Wisdom of God.[1]  Wisdom, the “quasipersonal” entity of Proverbs 8, was identified with the image of God in some Jewish writing.  Wisdom was understood to be the agent of God in creation.[2]  While connecting Jesus to this understanding of Wisdom has major implications for his divinity, it also connects him to creation in an intimate way.   More directly, referencing the image of God ties the text to Genesis 1:26-27.[3]  There God makes man “in his image” (κατ’ εἰκόνα θεοῦ).  However, here in Colossians, Jesus is not in the image of God, he is the image of God.   Again, this has major implications for his divinity, but it also ties him to mankind in an intimate way:  as the perfect human representation of the God in whose image we are all made.

The second phrase also has implications for both Christ’s divinity and his relationship to creation.  Being called “firstborn” can mean that temporally you are the first child to be born.  Understanding Christ as the firstborn in this way led Arius to believe that he was the first and greatest created being.[4]  However, the term “firstborn” can also indicate primacy of rank.  Since the first stanza goes on to discuss how all things are created “by him… through him… and for him” and that “in him all things hold together,” it seems likely that the term “firstborn” is used in the second sense, of Christ’s rule over all of creation.[5]  As Richard Bauckam has so clearly shown, creating and ruling over creation are the two “features of the divine identity on which Jews focused when they wished to identify God as unique.”[6]   Ascribing these features to Christ then would place him within the divine identity.  By beginning the first stanza with “image” and “firstborn” language, the author has made profound statements in favor of Christ’s divinity, but the same language speaks of Jesus’ creation of and participation in this world.  As much as this language speaks of Christ’s divine identity, it also shows his ties to this world.  With this in mind, the first stanza can be said to speak of the relationship between Christ and creation.

[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 118.

[2] Peter O’Brien, Colossians-Philemon, vol. 44 of Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 1982), 44.

[3] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), 58.

[4] Christian Classics Ethereal Library, “The Nicene Creed,” (Accessed December 1, 2012).

[5] Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 120.

[6] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel:  God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 8-9.

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