Col. 1:15-20: Jesus as Man

At the time of the writing of the book of Colossians, there were still men and women alive who had walked with Jesus and witnessed him eating, drinking, and sleeping.  Therefore, his humanity was easily attested to by living witnesses.  Despite the presence of living witnesses, however, questions of Jesus’ real, historical, human life began to arise very soon after his death.[1]  The fact that Jesus really existed and existed as a man has consistently been held as necessary by Christians throughout the ages.  While the two stanzas of Col 1:15-20 declare amazing truths about Jesus’ divinity, they also have massive implications for his humanity as a visible image of the invisible God who died in the flesh to establish the new covenant.

The opening phrase of the poem, though likely containing an allusion to Wisdom and linking Jesus to God, also explicitly links Jesus to humanity.  Jesus is described as the “image of the invisible God.”  God is described as “invisible” in keeping with the biblical teaching that no one had seen God.[2]   God is uniquely holy and utterly transcendent.  He resides in the heavens.[3]   He is beyond the reach of men.[4]  He also chose to dwell in the holy of holies.[5]   It was in the holy of holies that a select, consecrated few could enter his presence.  Even for the high priest, it was only after a purifying ritual and with a sacrifice for sins that he could enter the holy of holies without God breaking out against him.[6]   However, Jesus imaged this invisible and unapproachable God in his fleshly existence.  Jesus was bold enough to say that if you see him, you have seen the Father.[7]   It was by becoming flesh and blood and dwelling among us that Jesus was able to visibly represent the invisible God to mankind.

Jesus’ humanity is also echoed in the second stanza of the poem.  The author states that “all the fullness of God” was pleased to “dwell in him.”  The statement itself seems a bit odd and is usually thought of as a polemic against a certain heresy present in Colossae.  There is debate over the exact nature of the heresy, but it seems to have entailed a belief in some sort of intermediary figure between God and man.  It may have also been made in reference to an early form of Gnosticism.[8]  In either case, it is written in opposition to the idea that God was not only transcendent, but blocked from interacting with humans.  Instead, God’s Wisdom, Word, and all the other divine attributes were present in Jesus Christ.  For the statement to achieve its full polemic force, Jesus must have actually existed on earth as a man.

Another argument for Jesus’ humanity can be made from his reconciliation of all things to himself.  The second stanza goes on to speak of how Jesus reconciled all things to himself through the blood of his cross.  It is through the shedding of his blood on the cross that Jesus is able to accomplish the reconciliation of all things.  This obviously requires him to have blood to shed.  His bodily existence is a prerequisite to dying on a cross.  Taking this line of thinking further, the church fathers argued that Christ had to take on a full human nature.  In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, “Whatever is not assumed is not redeemed.”[9]   Since the poem is couched in a section of the letter that is dealing with the redemption of the members of the church at Colossae, it is important to remember that it is by assuming a full human nature that Christ was able to redeem people fully.  By virtue of his perfect life in full obedience to the Father, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead, all of which must have been and were accomplished in the flesh, Jesus is able to stand before God for us.

Knowing that Jesus came to earth as a human, taking on full humanity, makes him the perfect starting point for a theological understanding of man.  Since Jesus is the image of God, by looking at him we can more clearly see what it means for us to be made in the image of God.  And by looking at Jesus’ redeeming work, we are able to see how we are to relate to God and to one another.  Therefore, in the words of Karl Barth, “The ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus… Theological anthropology has no choice in this matter.  It is not yet or no longer theological anthropology if it tries to answer the question of the true being of man from any other angle.”[10]

[1] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology:  An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2011), 366.

[2] John 6:46

[3] Ps. 115:3

[4] Job 37:23

[5] Ps. 11:4

[6] Lev. 16:1-3

[7] John 14:9

[8] Peter O’Brien, Colossians-Philemon, vol. 44 of Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 1982), 52.

[9] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Epistle CI,” (Accessed December 1, 2012).

[10] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, Translated by G.W. Bromiley, G.T. Thomson, Harold Knight (New York:  T&T Clark, 2010), 132-133.

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

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