Col. 1:15-20: Jesus as God

The subject of greatest debate surrounding Colossians 1:15-20 is what it implies about the divinity of the man Jesus.  It was Jesus’ claim to be God that ultimately led to his crucifixion.  And it is belief in the reality and veracity of his claim that continues to separate orthodox Christians from every other sect and world religion.  Most notably, Arius, in the late third and early fourth centuries, contemplating what it meant to be the “firstborn of all creation,” concluded that Jesus was a created being.  According to Arius, Jesus was the first created being and the being through which all else was created, but he was in no way to be associated with God himself.  Though the bishops at the Council of Nicea in 325 almost unanimously agreed that Arius’ teaching was heretical, it continued to be influential.[1]  The question of Jesus’ divinity continues is of vital importance and Colossians 1:15-20 is a crucial text in that discussion.

One of the most helpful ways of conceptualizing Jesus’ divinity has been put forward by Richard Bauckham.  Bauckham’s argument is that the understanding of monotheism in Second Temple Judaism was based on God’s unique identity, which was primarily defined by God’s role as creator and ruler of all things.  While he was creator and ruler of all, he revealed himself specially and personally in his covenant with his people, Israel, until his eschatological rule would be realized in all the earth.  This understanding of God was strongly monotheistic, but did not imply unitariness.  In fact, discussions on the role of Wisdom and the Word in creation both in the Old Testament and in Jewish writings from the Second Temple period seem to imply that these entities could be conceived as part of the divine identity itself.[2]

It is against this backdrop that we see most clearly the massive implications of what the poem in Colossians 1:15-20 says about Jesus’ identity.  As has already been noted, our passage begins by identifying Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” and goes on to discuss Jesus’ role in creation at length.  Many have persuasively argued for an allusion to the Wisdom of God in these verses.[3]  As Bauckham has argued, then, Jesus, as the Wisdom of God, would be included in the very identity of the one, unique God of Israel.  In contrast to Arius’ interpretation, these verses describe Jesus not as a created being, but as the unique Creator and Ruler of all and, therefore, God himself.

However, understanding God as simply Creator and Ruler of all does not do full justice to the biblical record.   God is also identified as YHWH, the God of Israel.  God’s identity, then, becomes bound up with a specific people beginning with the Patriarchs.  He makes a covenant with Abraham, the first of the Patriarchs, promising to bless him by multiplying his offspring into many nations and by giving to those offspring the land of Canaan.[4]   God restated this oath to Abraham’s son Isaac, then again to Isaac’s son Jacob.[5]   Because of these covenantal relationships God has with the Patriarchs, he is known as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”[6]   However, God reveals himself even more intimately by revealing his personal name, the tetragrammaton, YHWH, to Moses leading up to the Exodus.[7]   God’s identity becomes defined not only by his relationship with all of creation, but more specifically, by his relationship with his people, Israel.[8]  With this in mind, it is appropriate to speak of God as both Creator and Ruler of all and the Covenant Redeemer of his people.

Again, with this backdrop, the statements of Col. 1:15-20 become more startling.  The transitional section of the poem introduces the second stanza by defining Jesus as “the head of the body, the church.”  The relationship between Jesus and the church is fleshed out more fully by the following verses.  He has died on the cross, making peace through his death, and has been raised from the dead, so that he is preeminent in everything.  Jesus’ sin-atoning death and life-giving resurrection inaugurated a new covenant and a new exodus.[9]  This new covenant is not made with only one ethnic, geo-political people, but to all who believe, from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.[10]  And the new exodus is not an escape from a human dictator and his oppressive regime, but from the principalities and powers of darkness that rule this world.[11]  Jesus’ life and work, as the fulfillment of the covenants and promises of the Old Testament, place him squarely in the divine identity of God as Covenant Redeemer.

Therefore, with Bauckham’s understanding of the divine identity in mind, it becomes clear that the author of the poem in Col. 1:15-20 intends for us to see Jesus as God.  He is portrayed as Creator and Ruler of all creation and Covenant Redeemer of the new creation, all of which forces the reader to consider him as part of the divine identity.  However, the poetic language also points us in a very different direction.  While the poem clearly points us towards an understanding of Jesus’ divinity, it also forces us to consider his humanity.

[1] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology:  An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2011), 737.

[2] 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),, 16-17.

[3] Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 88; Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 118; O’Brien, Colossians-Philemon, 43.

[4] Gen. 17:5-8

[5] Gen. 26:4-5; 35:12

[6] Ex. 3:6

[7] Ex. 3:13-15

[8] Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, 8.

[9] James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment:  A Biblical Theology (Wheaton:  Crossway, 2010), 357.

[10] Rev. 5:9

[11] Eph. 6:12

This entry was posted in Biblical Exegesis, Christology, Colossians, Systematic Theology, Theology Proper and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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