By J. Hampton Keathley III
15) He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, 16) for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him—all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers—all things were created through him and for him. 17) He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. 18) He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead so that he himself may become first in all things.
From his prayerful concern that the Colossians might walk in a manner fitting to their new life in Christ, the apostle moves quickly into the main focus of this epistle—the exaltation and preeminence of Christ in His person and work. Part of the reason was the false teaching confronting the Colossians, but another reason is because nothing is more vital for experiencing the power of Christ and fruitfulness than an accurate understanding of both the person and work of Jesus Christ. Without truly understanding who Jesus really is and what He alone could and did accomplish through the cross, people become sitting ducks for cultic systems or false religious beliefs that seek to come to God other than exclusively through the Lord Jesus Christ. Always, all false belief systems either reject what the Bible teaches about the person of Christ (deny His deity or true humanity), or they seek to add something to the work of Christ (add some system of religious or ascetic works), or they will do both—subtract from His person and add to His work. In other words, what Christ accomplished on the cross is not sufficient, so some system of works is added as a means of true spirituality and access to God. This is precisely what the false teachers at Colossae were doing. As mentioned in the introductory material to this commentary, these false teachers apparently represented an early system of Gnosticism that would eventually take two forms, one ascetic (some type of religious self-denial) and the other licentious (lacking moral restraint). This philosophy included a Greek form of dualism that believed all matter was evil and that only pure spirit was good. The ascetics taught that the way to overcome the body, which is evil, was by self-abasement and severe treatment of the body. Compare Paul’s warning about “touch not, taste not” in Colossians 2:20-23. The licentious group taught just the opposite—that since the body was evil and only matter, it didn’t make any difference what you did with it, or they would advocate that unbridled licentiousness was the only way to rid the body of its evil.
From the standpoint of Christology, or the doctrine of the person of Christ, there were also two schools of Gnosticism that later developed. First, there was docetism, a form that derived its name from the Greek word dokeo, which means, “to seem to be.” Those who belonged to this school claimed that the human Jesus was only a phantom, that He had no body. In other words, He only seemed to be as far as His body was concerned, and this meant He only seemed to die on the cross. He was an angelic spirit who appeared in apparitional form or with an apparent body, but in reality He was not truly human or God come in the flesh who literally died for man’s sin. This form clearly denied both the person and work of Christ.
The second school can be called Cerinthianism from its founder, Cerinthus.
…Cerinthian Gnosticism, named after Cerinthus, a late contemporary of John at Ephesus, held that the man Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, was preeminent in righteousness and wisdom, that “the Christ” came on Him at His baptism and empowered His ministry, but left Him before His crucifixion; it was only a man who died and rose again. Either view eliminated the Incarnation and nullified Christ’s atoning work.124
So both systems ultimately denied that it was the God-man, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins. As John teaches us, this is nothing less than the spirit of Antichrist.
Who is the liar but the person who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This one is the antichrist: the person who denies the Father and the Son. Everyone who denies the Son does not have the Father either. The person who confesses the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:22-23).
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist, that you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world (1 John 4:2-3).
The plain teaching of Scripture, a truth backed up by the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus, is that without the incarnation there is no salvation and Christianity is just another religion. “Think of it this way: God needed a ransom so that man might be forgiven, but only he could meet his own demands.”125 The ransom required a sinless substitute. We could not die for ourselves or for anyone else because of our own sin, which is the case for all humanity with Jesus as the one exception. Thus, in the person of Jesus Christ and by means of the incarnation, Jesus Christ, the God-man Savior and our sinless substitute could and did die for mankind. As man He could die as our representative, and as God He could give us both eternal life and perfect righteousness.
As church historian, Reinhold Seeberg wrote that Athanasius realized that ‘only if Christ is God without qualification, has God entered humanity, and only then have fellowship with God, the forgiveness of sins, the truth of God, and imortality been certainly brought to men.’126
The truth of who Jesus Christ is according to the Bible has never been more important than it is today. There are those today who claim they believe in the Christ and that He is the way of salvation, but their concept of who Christ is falls into the category of Antichrist and is a modern day form of Gnosticism. Operating on the delusion that all people can reach godhood, many today believe that Christ exists in every person and that He is simply waiting to be discovered. Christ has become a generic term for whatever god one wants to believe in.
Interest in Christ is on the rise. A recent article in U.S. News & World Report says that “the quest for the historical Jesus is getting a new surge of scholarly energy.” Every day—in churches, in self-help groups, in discussions at home and in the office—Christ is discussed. In fact, interest in Him seems to be increasing right along with the proliferation of new species of privatized religion. Christ is being redefined to suit the syncretism of our times…
I’ve discovered that the less some people know about Christ the more they like Him. The baby in the manger touches even the most cynical soul who has long since given up on religion. The secularist who is bent on reforming society quotes selected verses from the Sermon on the Mount with reverence. And the religious types use Him as their example of humility, sacrifice, and basic goodness. He is worthy to be spoken about in hushed tones. He is, say some, the first among equals. Yet in all this He is often dammed by faint praise.
Since Christ said that the world would hate Him, we can be quite sure that when the world loves Him it is because they have made Him into something He is not. The biblical Christ cannot be dismissed; He stands in our path forcing us to make a decision, either to the right or to the left. In His presence neutrality is impossible. The babe in the manger quickly grows to become God, the King.127
Colossians 1:15-18 has been called “The Great Christology” because it sets forth Paul’s inspired conviction and understanding of just who Jesus Christ is. S. Lewis Johnson introduces his comments on this portion of Colossians with the following comments, which are very fitting to the focus of these verses.
One evening near the Sea of Galilee Jesus spoke to His disciples after a busy day of ministry and said, “Let us cross over to the other side.” When the multitude of people was dismissed, the disciples took their weary Leader into a boat and began to make their way across the lake. But there arose a lashing storm which churned the little sea into wet fury, and soon the boat and its occupants were in danger of being swamped. Anxiously and somewhat peevishly they turned to their sleeping Companion and brusquely aroused Him with, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” being quite unaware of the fact that there is no sinking with the Savior aboard. Jesus arose and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush! Be still!” The wind died, and a dead calm ensued. After He had rebuked them for their fear and faithlessness, they, awestruck, murmured to one another, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (cf. Mark 4:35–41).
If the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews had been present, knowing what he knew when he wrote his letter, he would have replied confidently, “Why, He is the effulgence of God’s glory and the stamp of God’s very being, and sustains the universe by His word of power” (cf. Heb 1:3). Paul the Apostle might have replied, “He is the image of the invisible God; He has primacy over all created things” (Col 1:15).
This line from Paul introduces the section of Colossians which has often been called, “The Great Christology.” We owe the section to the heresy of Gnostic Judaism, which was on the verge of infecting the little church in Colosse. Thus, in one respect at least we may be thankful for heresy, because the church of Jesus Christ would be impoverished substantially if it did not possess this significant testimony to the pre-eminence of its Redeeemer.128
In verses 15-18, Paul highlights several unique characteristics that qualify Jesus Christ to be the preeminent one who has supremacy over all things (cf. vs. 18). He is: (1) the image or likeness and manifestation of the invisible God, (2) the Firstborn or Sovereign over the first creation, (3) the Creator (architect, builder, and goal) of the universe, (4) the Sustainer of creation, (5) the Sovereign or Head of the new creation, the church, (6) the Firstborn from the dead, and thus (7) the Preeminent One of all things. Salvation, of course, is dependent on both the person and work of Christ, thus, in verses 19-20, Paul highlights the work of Christ as the Reconciler of all things, the one who makes peace. There is no one passage in the New Testament that lists so many characteristics that point to Christ’s deity as are found in this short, but powerful passage. It presents the supremacy of the person of Christ in relation to God (vs. 15), in relation to Creation (vss. 16-17), and in relation to the Church (vs. 18).
THE SON’S RELATION TO GOD THE FATHER (1:15)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation
HE IS THE EXACT LIKENESS AND MANIFESTATION OF GOD
From the accounts that have been preserved of the teachings of Cerinthus and other Gnostics, it seems clear that the Gnostics taught that the world was created not by the Supreme God, but by an inferior power. This was because;
…Gnosticism was a religious philosophy of metaphysical and radical dualism which taught that God was spirit and good, and that matter and the world were hopelessly evil. Therefore, God could not have created the physical world, because good cannot create evil. A lesser divinity, called by the platonic term Demiurge, committed the mistake of forming the world, in which souls as divine sparks are imprisoned and asleep…129
While Paul was not writing against full-blown Gnosticism as it would later develop, it seems clear that he was dealing with an insipient form that was mixed with certain Judaistic elements. Thus, the apostle asserts that Christ is nothing less than the exact and unique image of the invisible God. “Image” is eikon, a term that expresses the concepts of (1) representation and (2) manifestation. As Lightfoot shows, an image can be two things that come together in each image. An image can be a representation; but a representation, if it is perfect enough, can also become a manifestation.130 By the use of this word, Paul is stressing that Jesus is the perfect manifestation of God. To see what God is like, we must look at Jesus (cf. John 14:7-10; 1:14-18; 12:45; Heb. 1:3). And the description of God as invisible (the emphatic adjectiveaoratou), clearly shows both aspects of representation and manifestation apply here. Then, with the words, “image of God,” Paul uses the present tense of eimi (is), which stresses that Christ is always and everywhere the manifestation of God.
The very nature and character of God have been perfectly revealed in Him; in Him the invisible has become visible. Both Old and New Testaments make it plain that “no one has ever seen God.” The Fourth Evangelist, however, adds that “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). A similar statement is made elsewhere by Paul who, probably with the Damascus road experience in mind, asserts that “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (eijkwVn tou’ qeou’)” had dawned upon him. The God whose creative Word in the beginning called light to shine forth from the darkness had now shone in his heart “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:4, 6; cf. 3:18). The same point is made in another way by the writer to the Hebrews that Christ is the “radiance (ajpauvgasma) of God’s glory and the very impress of his being” (Heb 1:3).131
HE IS THE SOVEREIGN OF THE FIRST CREATION
The words “the firstborn over all creation” have been a source of great debate, especially with certain cultic groups, because they first appear to make Christ a part of creation. They would say that He is only the first created being, but this is totally erroneous for a number of reasons. Johnson has an excellent summary of the reasons such a view is false.
First, it is inconsistent with the context (cf. vv. 16–17). He existed before all things; in fact, He is the creator Himself. Jesus of Nazareth was not a newcomer at Bethlehem.
Second, it is inconsistent with the rest of the New Testament, which often affirms His uniqueness and responsibility for creation (cf. John 1:3; 3:16 , “only begotten”).
Third, the word prototokos has two connotations (perhaps derived from the fact that protos may mean first in time, or first in rank; cf. the English first): (1) priority, and (2) sovereignty. In view of the statement of verse eighteen, that He has become pre-eminent in all things, it seems probable that Paul has the thought of sovereignty primarily in view. The use of the word in the Old Testament confirms this, for in Psalm 89, which is strongly Messianic, the Psalmist says of Christ, “Also I will make Him my firstborn (prototokon), higher than the kings of the earth” (Ps 89:27, LXX). Paul, then, effectively counters any claim of the heretics that Christ was only an angelic emanation from God and part of the creation. He is creation’s Lord.132
To this, Geisler adds the following cogent arguments;
Though it is grammatically possible to translate this as “Firstborn in Creation,” the context makes this impossible for five reasons: (1) The whole point of the passage (and the book) is to show Christ’s superiority over all things. (2) Other statements about Christ in this passage (such as Creator of all [1:16], upholder of Creation [v. 17], etc.) clearly indicate His priority and superiority over Creation. (3) The “Firstborn” cannot be part of Creation if He created “all things.” One cannot create himself. (Jehovah’s Witnesses wrongly add the word “other” six times in this passage in their New World Translation. Thus they suggest that Christ created all other things after He was created! But the word “other” is not in the Gr.) (4) The “Firstborn” received worship of all the angels (Heb. 1:6), but creatures should not be worshiped (Ex. 20:4-5). (5) The Greek word for “Firstborn” is protokotos. If Christ were the “first-created,” the Greek word would have been protoktisis.
“Firstborn” denotes two things of Christ: He preceded the whole Creation, and He is Sovereign over all Creation. In the Old Testament a firstborn child had not only priority of birth but also the dignity and superiority that went with it (cf. Ex. 13:2-15; Deut. 21:17). When Jesus declared Himself “the First” (ho protos; Rev. 1:17), He used a word that means “absolutely first.” “Firstborn” also implies sovereignty. The description “firstborn” was not a fairly common Old Testament designation of the Messiah-God. “I will also appoint Him My Firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth” (Ps. 89:27). While this regal psalm refers to David, it also designates the Messiah, as seen in Revelation 1:5, where Christ is called “the Firstborn from the dead (cf. Col. 1:18) and the Ruler of the kings of the earth.” So “Firstborn” implies both Christ’s priority to all Creation (in time) and His sovereignty over all Creation (in rank).133
THE SON’S RELATION TO CREATION (1:16-17)
…for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him—all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers—all things were created through him and for him. He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him.
With the word “for,” the apostle begins his explanation and proof why Jesus Christ is the Sovereign over all creation. “For” is hoti, a causal conjunction, “because, since.” It points the reader to the reason Christ is in the image of God, i.e., because He is the Creator by virtue of His work as the Architect, Builder, Goal, and Sustainer of the Universe.
HE IS THE ARCHITECT, BUILDER, AND GOAL OF THE UNIVERSE (1:16)
The apostle exclaims that Christ, the Father’s beloved Son (1:13), is sovereign because of His relation to creation. Three prepositional phrases are used to describe this relationship. These are: (1) en auto, “by him,” or “in him.” (2) di autou, “through him,” or “by means of him.” And (3)eis auton, “unto him.” Most translations render the first phrase with “by him,” which is a possible translation, but doubtful because the next phrase, “through him,” again declares that He is the agent of Creation. If we take the en in the local sense and not the instrumental sense, this tells us that the Son is the place where the eternal plans and ideas of creation have their abode. As Johnson explains;
…we have an illuminating contribution to Pauline thought, which may be set forth most clearly by means of an illustration. Several steps are involved in the construction of a substantial building. First, an architect is obtained to design the building and prepare plans and specifications in accordance with the expressed desires of the owner. Then the plans are submitted for bids by builders or contractors, and a builder secured. After the completion of the edifice, it is occupied by the owner and devoted to its intended use. Our Lord is not only the builder of the universe; He is also its architect and owner. All things have been created in Him (the eternal plans for the creation abode in Him), by Him (He acted as builder) and for Him (the creation belongs to Him and is to reflect His glory). Before the indescribable majesty of the eternal Christ we are constrained to respond reverently;
“Then sings my soul, My Savior God to Thee: How great Thou art! How great Thou art!”134
The all-encompassing scope of the Son’s creation is described in the words, “all things” (repeated twice for emphasis, once at the beginning and once at the end of this verse), but even this is expanded by a chiasm seen in the words, “the things in the heavens and upon the earth, the things visible and invisible.” “Heaven” corresponds to the invisible and “on earth” to things visible. The relationship can be shown as follows:
in heaven, — and upon the earth — things visible — and invisible.
Then, the all-encompassing scope of Christ’s authority is expanded even further by the inclusion of thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, which are references to the invisible world of angels, both good and evil. With the Colossian heresy in mind, the apostle lays stress on the hierarchy of angelic powers to stress “…even the cosmic powers and principalities, which apparently received some prominence in that heresy, were created in Christ. Good or bad, all are subject to him as Creator.”135 The terms thrones (thronoi), powers (kuriotetes), rulers (archai), and authorities (exousiai) show that in the angelic or spirit world there is a highly organized dominion. As seen later in this epistle, the false teachers were attempting to influence some of the Colossians to engage in the worship of angels (Col. 2:18), but the apostle declares that Christ reigns supreme over all of them (cf. Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Phil. 2:9-10; Col. 2:10, 15).
HIS TEMPORAL PRIORITY TO THE FIRST CREATION (1:17A)
He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him.
Paul has described Christ as the architect, builder, and goal of the created universe, but what is His place in relation to the present? Verse 17 describes this in two ways. First, He has temporal priority to all things created (vs. 17a), and He is the Sustainer of the universe (vs. 17b).
The pronoun “he” is best understood as the emphatic use of autos. This is suggested by the wider context, which lays stress on Christ’s unique position and preeminence above all things. It means, “he himself, he and no other.” “Among supernatural potentates Jesus has no rival for the lordship of the universe (v. 17a) and the church (v. 18).136
“He is” describes Christ’s absolute existence as the eternal “I Am.” Paul does not say, “he came to be (ginomai) before all things,” but that “he is (autos estin, the intensive autos with the present tense of eimi, “I exist, I am”) before all things.” This is Paul’s way of saying what Jesus said Himself in John 8:58.
8:57 when the Jewish people who had been listening to him replied, “You are not yet fifty years old! Have you seen Abraham?” 8:58 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (ego eimi)
The Jews then picked up stones to stone Jesus, which was the normal punishment for blasphemy in the Old Testament. This attempt to stone Christ shows they believed He was committing blasphemy and understood He was claiming to be God. Jesus Christ is not some lesser created being who later created the universe or matter, but the eternal God Himself who existed as the I Am before anything was created.
“Before,” in “before all things,” is the preposition pro, which may refer to time or to priority, status. Though the primary use is that of time, due to the context (He is the sovereign over all creation [vs. 15], and has first place [vs. 18], both elements are surely included here.
HIS WORK AS THE SUSTAINER OF THE FIRST CREATION (1:17B)
Paul summarizes the Son’s relation to creation with the words, “and all things are held together in Him.” “Held together” is the Greek sunistemi, “to bring together, unite, collect,” and then, “continue, endure, exist, hold together.”137 Christ is not only the one who brought all things into being as their efficient cause, but He now holds them together as their conserving power.
This means that not only is the Son the agent of creation in the beginning, and the goal of creation in the end, but between the beginning and the end, during time as we know it, it is he who holds the world together. That is to say, all the laws by which this world is order and not chaos are an expression of the mind of the Son. The law of gravity and the rest, the laws by which the universe hangs together, are not only scientific laws but also divine.
So, then, the Son is the beginning of creation, and the end of creation, and the power who holds creation together, the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Final Goal of the world.138
THE SON’S RELATION TO THE CHURCH (1:18)
In verse 18 Paul affirms Christ’s superiority and supremacy over a new creation, the church. Here the apostle moves from the cosmological to the soteriological because the Colossians must also recognize that the Creator of the cosmos is also supreme head of the church as their Savior. There are three key elements that stand out here.
FIRST, HE IS THE SOVEREIGN HEAD OF THE NEW CREATION (1:18A)
He is the head of the body, the church —
To demonstrate the unity and caring function of believers for one another, Paul had previously used the figure of the human body as a metaphor of the church (1 Cor. 12:12-27;Rom. 12:4-8). In 1 Corinthians, the head was presented as just another of the members of the body (1 Cor. 12:21), but here in Colossians, undoubtedly because of the heresy at Colossae that was threatening Christ’s supremacy, the apostle changes and broadens the metaphor, and Christ is presented as the head of the body, which is the church. The personal pronoun “he” is again autos, and as in verse 17, it represents the intensive use and should be understood to mean, “he himself, he and no other.” The intensive use of autos sets the individual off from everything else as a means of emphasis and to set forth a contrast.139 Christ is superior, and this superiority is declared in contrast to the above principalities and powers of evil (Col. 2:10; cf. Eph. 6:12), and to angels (cf. Col. 2:18 with Heb. 1:4-13).
He is here described as “the head of the body, the church.” The obvious meaning of “head” (kephale), especially in this context and in Paul’s use of this term as a description of Christ, is that of authority, supremacy, director, control. This use is clearly established in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament where kephale is used to render rosh, which carried the double meaning of “head” and “ruler” (cf. Jdg. 10:18; 11:8 with 11:9, 11; 2 Sam. 22:44). This is further supported by Paul’s emphasis in Ephesians 1:22-23, “And God put all things under Christ’s feet and he gave him to the church as head over all things. Now the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
That He is the head of the body stresses several things as to Christ’s Headship: The first is Christ’s supremacy, authority, and right to direct His body, the church. The second, and closely related, is that the church is a spiritual organism connected to Christ and through which He acts and manifests Himself. As the body is powerless and dead without the head, so the church is powerless and dead without Christ. The body receives its direction and impulses from the head. Thus, every word and action of the church is to be governed and directed by the Lord Jesus as its head. Jesus must, therefore, be the one who directs and empowers the church.
…Without him the Church cannot think the truth, cannot act correctly, cannot decide its direction. There are two things combined here. There is the idea of privilege. It is the privilege of the Church to be the instrument through which Christ works. There is the idea of warning. If a man neglects or abuses his body, he can make it unfit to be the servant of the great purposes of his mind; so by undisciplined and careless living the Church can unfit herself to be the instrument of Christ, who is her head.140
Johnson points to another important truth seen in Christ’s headship.
Finally, the use of the word head, as Vincent Taylor has indicated, asserts His inseparability from the church, but it also includes His identity with it. The Lord of glory has bound Himself to His body in indissoluble union, but He is still its Lord, the first-born, although “the firstborn (among many brethren” (cf. Rom 8:29). We glory in the wonder of this oneness, but we still sing our grateful hymns of thanksgiving to Him; we carry on no dialogue with ourselves.141
The figure of the church as the body reminds us of a number of elements: (1) Submission—the church is always to submit to its head. (2) Union—every member of the body is in vital union with Christ who is its source of life. (3) Unity—the church is one body of mutually adapted parts that are to be working together as a team, as one. (4) Diversity—the church is a diversity of abilities and gifts varying in function, in strength, and in honor, yet all are vital to the body. (5) Mutuality—each member is dependent on one another as are the members of our body. No man is an island. (6) Necessity—the growth, care, function, and submission of each member of the body to its Head is vital for the effective function of the body.
Is it necessary to point out that Paul knows of no earthly head of the church? The Head is not in New York, London, Paris or Rome; the Head is in heaven.142
SECOND, HE IS THE CREATOR OF THE NEW CREATION (1:18B)
…as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead…
Paul then adds, “as well as the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” Literally, “who is the beginning…” “Who” is the Greek hos, a relative pronoun that refers back to the “he” (autos) of verse 18a, but it has a causal sense and points to the reason Christ is the supreme head.143“Beginning” is arche, “beginning, origin,” but it,
…may be interpreted in any one of three ways: as referring to (1) supremacy in rank, (2) precedence in time, or (3) creative initiative. There is, of course, truth in each of these, but it seems best to see in Paul’s word the idea of creative initiative. The meaning then is that Christ is the origin and source of the life of the church, the fount of its being (cf. NEB).144
Headship belongs to Him because He is the source, power, and originating cause of the life of the church.
The statement, “the firstborn from the dead” is appositional and explains why Christ is the origin and life of the church; it further supports the truth of Christ as the source and originating cause. “Firstborn” is again prototokos (see vs. 15), but here the emphasis by context is on Christ’s supremacy in time. He is the first one to break the hold of death in a glorified body by virtue of the resurrection. As such, He is the beginning of a new creation of God;
…At Genesis 49:3 the two terms “firstborn” and “beginning” appear together to describe the firstborn as the founder of a people (cf. LXX Deut 21:17 and Rom 8:29). The resurrection age has burst forth and as the first who has risen from among those who had fallen asleep (ejk tw`n nekrw`n) he is the first-fruits who guarantees the future resurrection of others (1 Cor 15:20, 23).145
THIRD, HE IS THE PREEMINENT SOVEREIGN IN ALL THINGS (1:18C)
…so that he himself may become first in all things.
“He” is again the intensive autos, and should be understood to mean “he himself, he and no other.” The idea is “he alone has become preeminent.” Grammatically, “so that he may become,” can be understood as expressing the result of the preceding, specifically, the resurrection, or these words may be taken as pointing to the divine purpose through the resurrection. The Greek text has hina with the subjunctive mood of the verb ginomai, “become, be,” which normally expresses purpose, but sometimes it may express result. If “result,” it still expresses God’s intended result.
“So that in everything he might have the supremacy” in one sense is a summary of all that Paul has affirmed from v. 15 to this point, but syntactically it must be seen as expressing the purpose of the immediately preceding statement about Christ’s being the beginning, the firstborn from the dead. He rose from the dead in order that his preeminence might become universal, extending both to the old creation and to the new. He had always been first, but by his resurrection he entered upon an even wider and more significant sovereignty (cf. Acts 2:26; Rom 1:4).146
The purpose of it all is that He might become pre-eminent in all things. The Apostle appears to contrast the use of genetai (AV construes with proteuon and renders, “might have the pre-eminence”) with the estin (AV, “is”) of verse seventeen. He is supreme over the first creation by virtue of His work of creation. By virtue of His incarnation, cross and resurrection He has taken the supreme place in the new creation, the church, and by this spiritual work He has now become preeminent in all things.147
Also, the use of “became” (ginomai), is probably designed to show a contrast between the “is” (estin) of verse 17a and the “became” (ginomai) of verse 18c. In relation to the universe, Christ is the “I Am,” the one who always is, but in relation to the church, He became the supreme head by His glorious resurrection.
According to the teaching of the false teachers confronting the Colossians, Jesus did not have first place; He was only one of many emanations from God, but not the supreme Son of God and the preeminent one. So, many people today reject Christ as the only way, and assert He is only one of many ways to God, or just a part of the way to God. But the Bible emphatically states that Jesus Christ is the only way, and the one and only name by which anyone can be saved. This is because of Who He is and What He accomplished by virtue of His death and resurrection. “The same eternal Logos (John 1:1) who ‘became flesh’ (John 1:14) and ‘humbled Himself’ (Phil. 2:8) is now ‘exalted’ by God the Father ‘to the highest place’ and has been given ‘the name that is above every name’ (Phil. 2:9).”148
Summing up the great facts of these verses, we have seen that Christ is:
(1) The Sovereign of the First Creation: He is the very manifestation of God by virtue of the fact He is the sovereign Creator God and the Sustainer of the universe (vss. 15-17). All creation, visible and invisible, all the angelic beings, have their source in Him.
(2) He is the Head of the Second Creation, the Church, which is His body: He is the very origin and source of the church by virtue of His resurrection as the first born to break the hold of death. As the resurrected Lord, He has conquered every enemy (death, sin, and Satan), or every power that stands to oppose God’s purpose for the human race. As the Head, He is to direct and empower the church to fulfill its purpose in the world, so the church must learn to live in submission to Him (vss. 18a).
(3) He is the Preeminent One: By virtue of Who He is (the Sovereign Lord, Creator, Sustainer, and Head of the Church), and by virtue of What He accomplished through the resurrection, God’s overall purpose is that Jesus Christ and no other might have preeminence and be Lord of all (vs. 18b).
There are undoubtedly many points of application that might be made from these verses, but four things stand out, especially in the context of the false teachers at Colossae.
- Christ alone is to be the object of our worship, the sole means of deliverance from the power of darkness, and the means of transference into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, the only one in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12), or religious system that can bring us to God (John 14:6).
- No Christian leader, like Diotrephes of 3 John 1:9, should ever seek to have the place of preeminence, nor should Christians seek to put their leaders, no matter how skilled or dynamic, on a pedestal (cf. 1 Cor. 1:11-17; 3:4-9). Such actions not only usurp Christ’s place of preeminence, but they cause pride in people and cause them to get their eyes off the true source of blessing and fruitfulness in ministry (again cf. 1 Cor. 3:6-9).
- The same also applies to the worship of angels. Angels, at least the good angels, are ministering spirits, sent out by the Lord to render service to the body of Christ (Heb. 1:14), but they are never to be made preeminent or worshipped in any way as in prayer or in seeking guidance from angels (cf. Rev. 19:10; 22:8). Our prayers are to be directed to the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Finally, the figure of Christ as the head of the body, which is the church, is one of seven major figures that teach us a number of important truths regarding Christ’s relationship with the church, and ours to Him (for an overview of these seven, see the addendum at the end of this study). Weirsbe has some excellent and practical points on this figure:
There are many images of the church in the New Testament, and the body is one of the most important (Rom. 12:4ff; 1 Cor. 12:14; Eph. 4:8-16). No denomination or local assembly can claim to be “the body of Christ,” for that body is composed of all true believers. When a person trusts Christ, he is immediately baptized by the Holy Spirit into this body (1 Cor. 12:12-13). The baptism of the Spirit is not a post-conversion experience—for it occurs the instant a person believes in Jesus Christ.
Each Christian is a member of this spiritual body, and Jesus Christ is the Head. In Greek usage, the word head meant “source” and “origin” as well as “leader, ruler.” Jesus Christ is the Source of the church, His body, and the Leader. Paul called Him “the Beginning” which tells us that Jesus Christ has priority in time as far as His church is concerned. The term beginning can be translated “originator.”
No matter which name you select, it will affirm the preeminence of Jesus Christ in the church. The church had its origin in Him, and today it has its operation in Him. As the Head of the church, Jesus Christ supplies it with life through His Spirit. He gives gifts to men, and then places these gifted people in His church that they might serve Him where they are needed. Through His Word, Jesus Christ nourishes and cleanses the church (Eph. 5:25-30).
No believer on earth is the head of the church. This position is reserved exclusively for Jesus Christ. Various religious leaders may have founded churches, or denominations; but only Jesus Christ is the Founder of the church which is His body. This church is composed of all true believers, and it was born at Pentecost. It was then that the Holy Spirit came and baptized the believers into one spiritual body.
The fact that there is “one body” in this world (Eph. 4:4) does not eliminate or minimize the need for local bodies of believers. The fact that I belong to the universal church does not release me from my responsibilities to the local church. I cannot minister to the whole church, but I can strengthen and build the church by ministering to God’s people in a local assembly.149
124 D. Edmond Hiebert, An Expositional Study of 1 John, Part 1: An Exposition of 1 John 1:1-4(Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 145, #578, April 1988), 200.
125 Erwin Lutzer, The Doctrines that Divide, A fresh Look at Historic Doctrines That Separate Christians (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. 1989), 33.
126 Lutzer, 29.
127 Erwin Lutzer, Christ Among Other gods (Moody Press, Chicago, 1994), 22-23.
128 S. Lewis Johnson, “Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians, Part III,” Bibliotheca Sacra(Dallas Theological Seminary, vol. 119, # 473, Jan. 62), 12.
129 Albert A. Bell Jr., A Guide to the New Testament World (Herald Press, Scottdale, PA, 1994), 156.
130 J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1879 reprint 1961), 145.
131 Peter T. O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary, Colossians, Philemon, gen. ed., Glenn W. Barker, NT., ed., Ralph P. Martin (Word Books, Publisher, Waco, TX, vol. 44), 43.
132 Johnson, 13.
133 Norman L. Geisler, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament edition, ed. John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck (Victor Books, Wheaton, 1983), electronic media.
134 Johnson, 15.
135 O’Brien, 46.
136 Murray J. Harris, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, Colossians & Philemon(William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1991), 46.
137 Walter Bauer, Wilbur F. Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979), electronic media. Here after referenced as BAGD.
138 William Barclay, New Testament Words, Combining A New Testament Wordbook and More New Testament Words (SCM Press LTD, Bloomsbury Street, London, 1964), 144.
139 BAGD, electronic media.
140 Barclay, 145.
141 Johnson, electronic media.
142 Johnson, electronic media.
143 Harris, 48.
144 Curtis Vaughan, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1976-1992), electronic media.
145 O’Brien, 50-51.
146 Vaughan, electronic media.
147 Johnson, electronic media.
148 Geisler, electronic media.
149 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Complete (Victor Books, Wheaton, Ill., 1986), 51-52.
- Hampton Keathley III, Th.M. was a 1966 graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and a former pastor of 28 years. In August of 2001 he was diagnosed with lung cancer and on August 29th, 2002 he went home to be with the Lord.
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