15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
17 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 and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Why is this a favourite passage?
This is one of the most dense and theologically intense descriptions of Jesus. It dates from around AD 60, written by Paul, and as such it is a remarkably early statement of the significance that Jesus had for the early church. Often theological complexity is taken as being evidence of a more developed theology – and that more developed theology is taken as evidence of late composition (this often comes in discussions of John’s gospel). Yet here we have a passage that is the equal of the Johannine prologue, and it is written within a generation of the crucifixion. It is worth emphasising that, in a Hebrew context, this is rank idolatry, for it is asserting a union between Jesus and God.
Verse 15a: the word ‘image’ is the greek eikon, from which we get not just the word ‘icon’ but the entire theology of iconography. The claim of Christianity is that in Jesus we see God, he is the window through which we see the divine.
Verse 15b: this verse gave rise to all sorts of controversies in the early church, and was the sort of verse used by the Arians to assert that Jesus was a creature (ie ‘born’). The Nicene council went through all sorts of philosophical hoops to reconcile the verses here, both with each other and with other texts. Jesus is begotten of the Father but not a creature – in other words, this verse is interpreted in the light of the later verses, not vice versa.
Verse 16: I see this as an ‘unpacking’ of logos-theology – that Jesus is the purpose of creation, everything else has a derivative purpose which is only intelligible in the light of who Jesus is. I might write on another occasion about the principalities.
Verse 17: another aspect of logos-theology – it’s not just that all things were created for Jesus (ie leading towards him, what he embodies) but that Jesus is what gives integrity to the whole. In other words, Jesus isn’t just the blueprint, he is also the keystone and cornerstone of the structure itself.
Verse 18: which means the church, which is Christ’s body on earth (as well as his bride and several other metaphors!). He is the beginning in the sense that the new creation (resurrection) in which all will eventually share has begun already through Jesus. This gives Jesus the authority of the first-born, a customary attribute at the time the letter was written.
Verse 19: I have some qualms with this verse as there are interpretations of it that tend towards the docetic, ie that eclipse Jesus’ genuine humanity. It is something of a fine distinction, to distinguish between calling Jesus fully God and calling Jesus God in human form. My qualm is that Jesus becomes a superman figure, with the philosophical descriptions of omniscience and omnipotence and so on, and that this distorts his character, evacuating him of any shared humanity. I would read the ‘fullness of God’ as ascribing to Jesus not the philosophical attributes so much as the spiritual ones, most of all the overflowing sharing of love. In other words, if we see the foremost attribute of God as being one of eternal and creative love, then it makes sense to claim that this love dwelt fully in Jesus and was embodied through his life. I don’t think it makes sense to ascribe omnipotence and omniscience to Jesus as he lived on earth (which leads to a kenotic Christology of course).
Verse 20: the wonderful claim that ‘all things’ are reconciled to God through Jesus, specifically his death on the cross. This is atonement theory, and again the ghost of penal substitution hovers morbidly around the interpretation of the passage. What is important here is the global and cosmic nature of the atonement – it’s not just that specific individuals with their passwords have been ‘washed clean in the blood of the Lamb’ but that the whole of creation has been put right with God. This cosmic healing – and the way in which it is an essential part of Christianity – is a doctrine that needs to be made more prominent today.
So we have a wonderfully expressive claim about the nature of Jesus in this passage, one that is philosophically pregnant, and thus ambrosia for the systematically inclined, like me.