Col. 17-20: Transition to Christ and New Creation

The middle section of Col. 1:15-20 is marked by the repetition of “and he is” (καὶ αὐτός ἐστιν) at the beginning of verses 17 and 18.  The parallel language shows that these two verses should be read together.  The first “he is” statement, verse 17, is linked with the preceding stanza.  Verse 17 continues to speak of Christ’s relation to all of creation.  Jesus is “before all things,” both temporally and in rank, and “in him all things hold together.”  These statements are further reflection on Christ’s preeminence in creating and sustaining the universe.  However, the second “he is” statement, in v. 18a, proceeds in a different direction.  Verse 18a describes Christ as the “head of the body, the church.”  This statement is linked with the second stanza that is to follow.  These two verses act as the hinge on which the poem turns from talking of Christ as he is related to creation to  talking of Christ as he is related to the new creation.[1]

The third stanza is marked by the beginning “he is” (ὅς ἐστιν) of v. 18b, which parallels the beginning of the poem.  Here, however, Christ is defined as the “beginning” (ἀρχή).  Some have seen a continued reference to Wisdom in this term.[2]   However, with the transition of the middle section in mind, it seems more likely that the author is speaking of Christ being the beginning of the new creation.  This connection is made even stronger by the following phrase.  Jesus is also said to be “the firstborn from the dead” (πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν).  The lack of a conjunction implies that this is an elaboration on the previous statement.  As stated before, calling Jesus “firstborn” may have temporal significance or it may mean primacy of rank.  With the preceding mention of Christ being the “beginning,” the weight of emphasis seems to shift towards Christ being the beginning of the new creation in a temporal sense as a result of his being the first to be raised from the dead.[3]  However, it is no less true that he is still “firstborn” in the sense of rank over the new creation as well.  In fact, the following ἵνα clause is often interpreted as a purpose clause.  The rest of the verse is understood, then, to be saying that Christ was the first raised from the dead for the purpose of making him preeminent over all.[4]  What follows, then, is a short exposition of the person and work of Christ as it relates to the new creation.  Jesus being God, the creator of all things, is able to reconcile all things to himself through his atoning death on the cross.  Throughout the third stanza, the focus is on Christ’s relationship to the new creation.

Therefore, in this three part structure, there is a clear movement from a focus on Christ and creation to Christ and the new creation.  The poem serves a doxological purpose,Christ_On_The_Cross_Diego_Velazquez_1632 as Paul extols the person and work of Christ.  But when read in the context of the surrounding discussion of Colossians 1, it appears that Paul has something to say about the Colossians as well.  The poem is couched at the end of a prayer for the church in Colossae.  Paul is moved to this doxological poem by reflecting on Christ’s salvific work, redeeming and forgiving Paul and his audience.  The two themes of Christ’s redeeming work and the church he redeemed are inextricably linked.  It is to the church, after all, that Paul is writing.  The church is mentioned both in the poem itself and at the end of the chapter.  Throughout the course of the letter, Paul will continue to oscillate between commentary on the person and work of Christ and the persons and unity of the church that he redeemed.  That leads us to consider what Col. 1:15-20 is saying not just about Jesus himself, but also of those he died to redeem.

[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), 115.

[2] James D. G. Gunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon:  A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 97.

[3] Peter O’Brien, Colossians-Philemon, vol. 44 of Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 1982), 51.

[4] Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 98.

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