He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Freshly reminded in today’s exhortation to be careful about overstatement, let me celebrate the importance of this passage just briefly before we dive into the details.
Colossians 1:15–20 is the most well-known passage in the letter, and for good reason. It is one of the high points in the whole New Testament, and it is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the greatest paragraphs in the history of the world. It is dense with foundational and all-encompassing truth, and it is boldly Christ-centered. These very well may be the most important six consecutive verses in the Bible. Here is the heart of the Christian worldview, undiluted, packed tightly into one short paragraph.
Scholars and lay readers alike have long noticed that as we move from verses 9–12, into verses 13–14, and then into verses 15–20, there a shift in Paul’s language from his typically long flowing sentences, to these short, simple poetic declarations about Christ.
Because these six verses have that poetic feel — like a creed or a hymn — some interpreters have speculated that Paul adopted it from early-church worship, and perhaps adapted it for his purposes here in the letter. Maybe. That would not be a problem if it were the case. But I see no good reason to think it more likely that someone else composed these lines other than Paul. The massive truth distilled here in such short space and simple sentences is theological genius at work, and plainly Paul, along with Luke and John, stands as one of the clear theological giants we know from the first-century church.
Also these six verses are carefully tied into the rest of the letter. This is no aside in the argument of the letter. This is the very heart and core of Colossians, indeed of Paul’s theology. Language here is picked up later in the letter: * Image returns in 3:10 * Christ over every power, 2:15 * Head of the church, 2:19 * Fullness of deity in Christ, 2:9 * Reconciliation, 1:22
A key feature, which has grown on me in our fresh study of Colossians as a church, is the importance of the word “all” in these six verses, and in the whole letter. The Greek word for “all” (translated “all,” “every,” and “whole” in various places in the letter) appears eight times in these six short verses. It is “the thread that binds the verses together” (Moo, 111).
The point of the hymn, in the words of Colossians 3:10, is “Christ is all, and in all.” The purpose of his hymn — this meditation on the glory of Christ — in the flow of the book of Colossians is to say that Jesus is enough. Not with overstatement, but if anything with understatement. The false teaching in Colossae must have been “tending to question Christ’s exclusive role in providing spiritual growth and security, and, thereby, his exclusive role in the universe at large” (Moo, 111). Paul answers with this amazing hymn, and in some sense gives the rest of the letter to unpacking it. The point of the poem: Christ is all. The purpose: Christ in enough; you need not supplement him with anything.
It was quite an intimidating task this week to look at the Himalayan peak of Colossians 1:15–20 and think about trying to capture its key elements for you in outline form. I felt overwhelmed at many points. But God was kind and opened my eyes to something deeply biblical and important I’d never seen in this text. It’s all over the rest of the Bible, but I’d never tasted it here like this before. That’s where we’re headed at the end. But we have a three-step process, through this text, to get there. And it is a marvelous journey.
1. Jesus Is the Lord of All Creation (verses 15–17)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
We said “all” is the thread that ties these verses together. Note the “alls” — five in the first three verses: * Jesus is firstborn of all creation * In him all things were created * All things were created through him and for him * He is before all things * In him all things hold together
Let’s jump in with the first “all.” What does it mean that Jesus is “firstborn of all creation”? To our ears, two thousand years later, that sounds simply like he was born first, or created first. The firstborn is the one born first, right? But “for” at the beginning of verse 16 won’t allow that. Jesus was not born or created first, because he was not created — if “all things” were created in him, then he must be uncreated.
While the term “firstborn” clearly comes from being born first, the meaning it came to take on is much richer and deeper. Throughout the Bible, firstborn has the meaning of most significant or, as we’ll see in verse 18, preeminence — “firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (verse 18). (As in Romans 8:29, “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”)
However, I suspect that Jesus being “firstborn” here has not been totally cut loose from some very important sense of first-ness, not just in preeminence, but in time (or technically before time). Verse 17 sums up verses 15–16 by saying, “he is before all things.” Surely, as God, uncreated, always existing — the old creeds says “begotten, not made” — Christ is before all things. But is that what’s in view here?
What Is the Image of God?
To answer that, we need to ask what it means for Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God.” That’s how the poem starts. Verse 15: “He is the image of the invisible God.” The word “invisible” here is helpful in clueing us in to what’s at stake with the concept of “the image of God.”
Jews and Christians alike use this “image of God” language quite often, because of its prominence in the creation account in Genesis 1:27 (“God created man in his own image / in the image of God he created him”), but how often do we pause to ask what this really means?
How would it help if we added the word “invisible”? We are made “in the image of the invisible God.” I find that to be illuminating. Accenting God’s invisibility points to the essence of what an image is: visible. And visibility is a property of created reality. God is uncreated, invisible. The world is created, visible. Visibility is created and derivative, not original. And Jesus here is said to be the visible image of the invisible God.
The implication is that right here in verse 15, in casting Jesus as the Lord over all creation, not only is his eternal Godness in view, but also his humanness. The eternal, invisible Son became visible by becoming man. That’s what it means for Jesus to be the image of God — image is connected to incarnation — and that should be what gives us our bearings in discerning what it means to be made “in” the image of God.
All Creation in, through, and for Jesus
Jesus is the image. We are in the image. Which is at least part, if not the whole, of what Paul means here that all things are in, through, and for him.
Before God created the world, he planned what it would be like for he himself to enter in as a creature in the person of his Son. Humanity is like the real-life avatar of God. Man is the creature designed by God for what he wanted to be and do in the world he created. Jesus, as the God-man, is the visible image of the invisible God, who foreknew before the foundation of the world what it would look like for the eternal Son to enter in as a creature, and in this sense he is “firstborn over all creation.” Not firstborn in that he was the first man created, but “firstborn” in the sense that the first man, Adam, was created “in the image of God” — and Jesus is the image of God (not just Colossians 1:15, but also 2 Corinthians 4:4, “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”).
Humanity may have been created last on the sixth day, but God did all his creating, from day one, in view of setting up the world for man, as one of which he would one day enter into his world.
So before the Father worked together with his Son to create all things, he already had in view what his Son would be like as his image in the created world, and he created all things in view of his Son, through the agency of his Son (working together with him in creation), and for his Son — to honor, glorify, and accent his supreme worth and majesty. All creation is in Jesus, through Jesus, and for Jesus. Which means everything in your life relates to Jesus. We often do not see how, but the problem is not with his being, but our seeing. Let’s help each other see it.
Even Evil Powers
What, then, is the meaning of this list of pairs in verse 16, “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities”? Answer: Jesus truly is Lord of all — even of Satan and his demonic powers.
If someone were to object to this exhaustive vision of Christ’s sovereignty and supremacy over creation, one of the first things they may say is, “What about angels and the spirit world? Even better, what about the demons?” We might suspect that if there were any part of reality that wasn’t in, through, and for Jesus, it would be the spiritual beings who have rebelled against God.
But the poems says no, even them. Whatever question you have. Whatever doubts you may have about the utterly extensively sovereignty and omni-relevance of Christ, the hymn says, “Yes, and that too.” There are no maverick molecules (R.C. Sproul), no square inch over which the risen Christ does not say, “Mine!” (Abraham Kuyper).
Upholding All Things
One last “all” in verses 15–17 (the end of verse 17): “In him all things hold together.” This flows from what we’ve been saying about the supremacy and centrality and preeminence of Christ in all creation, but it is distinct and worth making clear. Not only was Jesus in view and the agent and the goal of all creation, but he also “holds all things together.” Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Not only is his involvement exhaustive in creation, but also in every moment of every day. He doesn’t make the watch and walk away. He holds it in his hands, and actively keeps it ticking with his very own life every single second of every single day.
And so we stand in awe of the utter Lordship of Christ over all reality, even over Satan and the demons. Not only is he presently Lord, but in him, and through him, and for him was everything created, and he holds it all together every moment. And he is the image of God in the world. All reality is setup for the entrance of God himself into his creation. That’s #1 — all the universe is calibrated for the coming of Christ. Now #2 — what he achieves when he enters in.
2. Jesus Is the Agent of All Salvation (verses 18–20)
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
As impressive as it is for Christ to be Lord of all that exists in this world, in such utterly exhaustive and unrestricted terms, it is even more impressive that he is Lord of all in the world to come. He is “firstborn” not only in the first creation, but also in the ultimate creation, the new heavens and new earth, as head of the body of the redeemed people for which the new world is designed. The first world was designed for his entrance. The new world is designed for his endless reign as supreme over all and head of this body called the church.
The logic of the poem is that as impressive as is his role in creation (all things in, through, and for him), even more impressive is his relation to new creation — not the provisional world that has been (and still is), but the full and final world that is to come (and already is here in seed form in the risen Christ and his redeemed people).
As great a glory as it is for Christ to be the very image of God in whom, through whom, and for whom all things exist, his role in relation to the church is even more significant. As Paul says in his companion letter, Ephesians, it is “through the church [that] the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). And the church is the people among which God’s glory and praise reach their pinnacle. “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:20–21).
That Jesus is head means that he is leader and provider for the church. And that he has a body of people means he is not alone in the new age. A people are with him. But how does that happen?
How He Made Peace
The heart of this second part of the poem, which we will celebrate at the Table in a few minutes, is that Jesus made peace by the blood of his cross. There is a massive assumption between part one and part two of the poem: sin. The horror of humanity is that the creature made in God’s own image rebelled against God. We made war on the very one we were supposed to live to reflect. We did the most irrational, pathetic, evil thing we could do: we distrusted the one is who infinitely trustworthy and chose to go our own way, straight into destruction. This is why we live in a world of war and chaos.
So when the eternal Son of God finally takes up his real-life avatar (so to speak) and enters into the world as the one in whom and through whom and for whom the world exists, his mission is to make peace — not by killing the enemies of his Father, but by giving up his own life to atone for their sin against his infinitely worthy Father. He shed his own blood in grace in place of their blood being shed eternally in justice.
Will All Be Saved?
So now, not only is all created reality in, through, and for Jesus, but all redemption, all salvation, is in him, through him, and for him (those three prepositions appear in each section). But given the expansive vision of this poem — with “all” being the thread tying it together — you might reasonably ask, “If Jesus is the agent of all redemption, then are all people saved? Has he, or will he, reconcile all things to himself, such that all people, and all spirits for that matter — whether on the earth or in the heavens — eventually have peace with him and are saved eternally?
What is meant here is not that all people are saved (Paul makes plain later that God’s wrath is coming on those who don’t put off the old self, Colossians 3:5–10), but that all things — the whole creation — is restored by the reconciling work of Christ (like Romans 8:19–22), and that those who reject Jesus are sent to “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) and are not included in the reconciled realm.
Another way to say it is that there is no lack in the power and availability to all humans of Christ’s peacemaking, but it is those who embrace his saving work who will live with him in his fully reconciled, renewed world, while those who reject him are cast out beyond the realm of peace. And what makes the difference?
3) Jesus Is the Focus of All Final Satisfaction (verses 19–20)
This is what felt so fresh this week. Not only he is Lord of all creation and agent of all salvation, but he is the source and focus of all our soul’s final satisfaction. And where we see it is in two phrases in verses 19–20.
First, “reconcile to himself.” To reconcile means to remove the barrier and restore the relationship. The enjoyment of relationship is the goal. When Jesus makes peace by the blood of his cross, he doesn’t restore us to the creation to enjoy that as our final satisfaction; he reconciles us to himself. Yes, to each other. Yes, to the creation. But ultimately to him. He is the final focus.
Second, “all the fullness.” Verse 19: “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” All the fullness of God — which has made God supremely and infinitely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity from all eternity — all the fullness is in Jesus, and through him, we taste the very fullness of God as our final satisfaction. All the fullness of God is in Jesus not just for the sake of an effective redemption, but also for our eternal satisfaction in him. There is no delight, no goodness, no mercy in God that we must bypass Christ to access. All the fullness, all the joy, is in him.
And so Paul prays in Ephesians 3:16–19 that
according to the riches of his glory [the Father] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
All the fullness of God is in this man Jesus. Full humanity and the fullness of deity. We marvel at his bigness and might and omni-relevance, and we melt at his grace and mercy and meekness, and all that comes together in one spectacular person — all the fullness of God in this God-man — whom we will one day see and more fully know and enjoy without obstruction for all eternity.
He is creator, and more. And he is redeemer, and more. He is the supreme treasure who can satisfy our souls for all eternity. We were created for him, to taste in him all the fullness of God. And he reconciled us for himself, for relationship with him. And that relationship is why we ache, why we want, why we desire, why we long. Our heart will be restless until it finds rest in the one who made peace through the blood of his cross.