Throughout the history of the church, Christians have looked to the Pauline corpus in order to find answers on what is to be considered orthodox Christianity. This is mainly because Paul was appointed to be an apostle for Christ by the will of God and therefore, he is to be understood as a trustworthy source for Christ’s Church (Acts 9:15). Simply put, what Paul has to say about Jesus Christ is truth. Therefore, it only makes sense for Christians to look to Paul’s writings, in addition to the other New Testament authors, for the purpose of developing a proper Christological foundation. After all, out of all the New Testament documents, most are attributed to Paul and even more so, Paul has much to say about Christ, therefore his Christology matters. However, rather than mine the entire Pauline corpus in search of Christological gems, it is more sensible, due to space limitations and other criteria, to examine only a small portion of Scripture. In light of this, then, this paper will examine Colossians 1:15-20 with the sole purpose of revealing Paul’s high Christological view in order for Christians to develop a proper Christological foundation.
The above will be accomplished in the following sequence. First, a proper definition of Christology and why it is significant for Christians will be presented. This will be followed by a brief overview of the letter and its occasion. Third, the passage will be analyzed in its original language (κοινὴ). Fourth, some strong examples will be given on how Paul’s Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 is repeated elsewhere in the broader Pauline corpus. This is to show that Paul is consistent in his Christology. Lastly, a contemporary reflection on the passage will demonstrate the relevancy of Paul’s Christology to the modern church.
It should be noted that this paper will not focus on the occasion of the letter. The occasion will be addressed but only in the most minimal way. The focus is strictly narrowed down to Paul’s Christology within a small but rich portion of Scripture.
Christology and the Occasion of the Letter
Christology is the teaching and doctrine concerning the nature and work of Jesus of Nazareth. There are differing Christological views promoted in the world, some of which are not considered orthodox, and being that the person of Christ is the most important reality for Christianity, it is vital that Christians concern themselves with a correct view of Christ. Therefore, there must be a Christian consensus derived from the Scriptures about Jesus Christ that can be clung to in order to sustain what is believed to be the truth of Christianity.
The Church at Colossae and the Occasion of the Letter
The church at Colossae was founded by Epaphras and not Paul (Col 1:7). Furthermore, the church was most likely made up of Gentile converts. The town of Colossae was situated on the southern bank of the river Lycus, 100 miles east of Ephesus. By the time Paul wrote the letter, the social status of the town was on the decline.  Epaphras had visited Paul and informed him of the progress of the gospel in the Lycus valley and apparently, a new teaching had recently pervaded the church, which disturbed Paul enough to write the letter. There is speculation as to what the heresy was and nowhere in the letter does Paul give a formal exposition as to what it was. However, the heresy is not the focus of this paper but nevertheless, it is out of this occasion that Paul delivers this Christological passage, which will now be analyzed.
Prior to jumping headlong into what many scholars have claimed to be one of the great Christological passages of the New Testament, it is important to note that what precedes it is Paul’s prayer for the Colossians’ spiritual well-being. The apostle sets the stage in vv. 13 and 14 by reminding the Colossians of whom they receive redemption and forgiveness of sins. Note that before Paul even enters into his description of the person and work of Christ that he is giving the Colossians the main reason why they are to give thanks to God is because of his Son Jesus Christ. Already, Paul’s starting point is of admiration and great thankfulness for the atoning work of the Son through God the Father. It is with this frame of mind that Paul wants the Colossians to have as he moves them into the Christological passage.
It is also equally important to recognize the literary form of 1:15-20. The six verses of 1:15-20 have become known as the Christ-hymn. It falls into the genre of hymn because it is cast in the form of rhythmical prose and contains strophic arrangement which is found in early Christian hymns. The hymn contains two main strophes. The first is vv. 15-17 and praises Christ’s role in creation, and in the second strophe (vv. 18-20) Paul praises Christ’s redemptive role in the new creation. These two Christological themes are highly influential within Christ’s church and it is within the text of these two strophes that the analysis will continue.
Paul opens up line a in the first strophe with the following words, “ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, προτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως” (Col. 1:15 Nestle-Aland 28th ed.). He is the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation. This is an echo of the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and Paul is placing Jesus Christ not only at the beginning but he is stating that the Son is, in fact, God incarnate. In addition, this statement removes any thought that Jesus Christ pre-existed in human form. In other words, as the one who pre-existed all things, the pre-existent one became human when the time was appropriate.
Another insightful interpretation of line a proposes that the two words εἰκὼν (image) and προτότοκος (firstborn) are significant because Jesus Christ, being the image of the invisible God (1:15) has replaced fallen Adam who was the original image-bearer of God (Gen. 1:26-27; Gen. 3). In other words, Jesus, according to Paul, is the true image-bearer of God, which corresponds with his Christology elsewhere (1 Cor. 15:45; Rom. 5:17). Consequently, both of these interpretations fit together which will become more evident further into the analysis.
With the next line, Paul moves away from Christ’s relational role with the Father and into Christ’s unique position over creation. The line reads, “ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα” (1:16). For by him all (things) were created. The grammar here is extremely vital in the translation of Paul’s Christology. Notice that ἐκτίσθη (were created) is in the passive aorist (θη) and not active, which signifies that God the Father is the Creator; however, His role is passive and requires that Christ be the instrument by which creation is accomplished. With Christ as the active agent, Paul maintains the relationship between Father and Son while at the same time allowing God to maintain His ultimate status as Creator while seeing the Son as the instrument by which all creation occurred.
The following lines that round off the rest of v. 16 continue to confirm Jesus Christ’s role as the instrument by which God created through. The rest of the line reads, “ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ τὰ ἀόρατα, εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἀρχαὶ εἴτε ἐξουσίαι·” in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities; (1:16). Without lessening the other terms in the verse, probably the most significant phrase is τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ τὰ ἀόρατα (the visible and the invisible). What Paul has done with this phrase is cover the entire space of creation and not just the material world but also the spiritual realm. Paul is clearly adamant about getting his point across that everything was brought into existence by Christ. This cannot be emphasized enough with Paul’s Christology, which explains why v. 16 ends once again with him stating, “τὰ πάντα δι᾿ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν ἔκτισται·” all things, through him and for him were created.
In v. 17, the hymn quickly transitions over to Christ’s preexistence; however, it is important to recognize that it is an echo of Him being the firstborn of all creation (1:15). The line reads, “καὶ αὐτός ἐστιν πρὸ πάντων” – and he is before all things (1:17). Once again, grammar is vital here and even the slightest error will throw off Paul’s entire Christology. Paul uses the present tense ἐστιν (he, she, it is), which speaks clearly of Christ’s unchanging being. Note that if Paul used an aorist tense form it would have implied Christ’s changing being, which goes against the grain of Scripture passages like Malachi 3:6 that speak of God’s immutability. Paul is consistent with the God of the Scriptures.
The first main strophe closes with the words, “καὶ τὰ πάντα ἐν αὐτῶ συνέστηκεν” – and all things in Him hold together (1:17). As if it weren’t already clear, this line reemphasizes Paul’s high Christology by stating something that must occur as a result of the previous lines. Christ is the cause of creation and He is also the bond that holds the creation together. Simply put, Christ is presently upholding the universe and He always has and He always will.
Paul, in the hymn’s second main strophe, shifts the focus over to Christ’s redemptive role in all that He created. He begins by drawing attention to the church by stating that Christ is the “κεφαλὴ τοῦ σῶματος τῆς ἐκκλησίας” head of the body of the church (1:18). This line emphasizes the church’s dependent relationship to Christ. In essence, failure to connect with the head results in a loss of relationship with God, which means that the church (the body) is to be understood as existing in Christ. Additionally, κεφαλὴ is translated as authority or leader and even though it is presented in the form of metaphor here, it still preserves its meaning: Christ is the head (authority) of the church and not the “source or origin” as some groups have argued.
The following lines speaks directly to Christ’s redemptive role by visiting creation again (Gen. 1), only this time, things are drastically different. “ὅς ἐστιν ἀρχή, πρωτοτοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν, ἵνα γένηται ἐν πᾶσιν αὐτὸς πρωτεύων” He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, in order that in everything He might be preeminent (1:18). It is important to note that the word πρωτότοκος (firstborn) has already been used in this hymn. However, the meaning has now shifted from old to new. Regarding this shift, Fee states it best where he writes, “With an apparently deliberate echo of Gen 1:1, the Son of God is asserted to be the ‘beginning’ of the new creation, just as he is the cause of the former creation; and he is so as the result of his being the ‘firstborn’ with regard to the dead.” Consequently, as the firstborn of the dead, Christ also has the rights of the firstborn with regard to His church. Verse 18 is, indeed, a very powerful verse that places Christ in His rightful exalted position as head of the body, the church.
The following line is peculiar because there is no form of the word θεός mentioned anywhere. “ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ εὐδόκησεν πᾶν τὸ πλέρομα κατοικῆσαι” for in Him all the fullness was pleased to dwell (1:19). The question is: all the fullness of whom? The answer to this lies in Paul’s strict adherence to monotheism. In regard to the whom, N. T. Wright has pointed out that “the full divinity of the man Jesus is stated without any implication that there are two Gods.” In other words, it is implied. Accordingly, the fullness of God is the only viable answer to the question of who’s fullness.
In regard to verse 19, it must be seen together with verse 20 in order for it to properly fit within the hymn. Otherwise, it seems to be better positioned within the first main strophe on Christ’s relation to the Father (v. 16). It is for this reason that the two will be analyzed as one.
The final lines to the hymn stands at the heart of new creation in Christ and contains the εὐαγγέλλιον τοῦ Χριστοῦ. Beginning with verse 19 it reads, “ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ εὐδόκησεν πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα κατοικῆσαι καὶ δι᾿ αὐτοῦ ἀποκαταλλάξαι τὰ πάντα εἰς αὐτόν” For in Him all the fullness (of God) was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things (1:19-20). To reiterate, it pleased God to dwell fully in Christ in order to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. All things in this line covers the whole of His creation, which Paul stresses by pointing to γῆς and οῠρανοῖς one last time. The final thrust of the hymn states that all of this, that is, reconciliation, was made possible through Christ, “εἰρηνοποιήσας δι᾿ αἵματος τοῦ σταυροῦ αὐτοῦ”- making peace through the blood of His Cross. With this, Paul’s Christological hymn draws to a close and his high-exalted view of Jesus Christ is beautifully and explicitly presented.
This analysis of Colossians 1:15-20 has revealed Paul’s high-exalted view of Jesus Christ. To summarize in the order that it was expounded, Paul believes that Jesus Christ is the invisible God incarnate who preexisted with God the Father at the beginning before He took on human flesh. It was through Jesus Christ that God created all things invisible and visible. Moreover, the entire universe is being held together by Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Jesus Christ is the first to be raised from the dead and as a consequence, He is the head (authority) of the church just as He also has supremacy over everything else that was created through Him and by Him. Jesus Christ is God because all the fullness of God dwells in Him and reconciliation (of all things) back to God the Father is achieved through Jesus Christ. Paul concludes the hymn with the εὐαγγέλλιον that all of this has been made possible because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross where peace with God was made possible.
Paul’s Christology in the Broader Pauline Corpus
Paul’s Christology as presented within the Christ-hymn of Colossians expands outwards into the rest of Paul’s theology. In fact, the theme of Christology in the broader Pauline Corpus may not be as deliberately stated as it is in Colossians; however, Paul’s high-exalted view of Christ is evident throughout. It would be unrealistic to provide an example from every one of Paul’s letters here, but a few strong examples should solidify the claim.
The risen and exalted Christ is a crucial part in Paul’s Christology. In the opening to Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle makes the declaration that Christ, “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4 ESV, italics added). Where Paul uses the word declared (ὁρισθέντος), he is affirming that Jesus Christ was, in fact, exalted after he was resurrected from the dead. The two elements of resurrection and exaltation are key factors in Paul’s Christology, so much that without them – everything is pointless (1 Cor. 13-19). Recall that these two themes where prominent in the Christ-hymn where Paul states that Christ was the firstborn from the dead that in everything he might be preeminent. (Col. 1:18).
Christ’s Preexistence, which was heavily emphasized in Colossians 1:15, shows up again in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi in 2:6-11. Interestingly, this Philippian passage is also in the form of a Christological hymn. Regardless, Paul affirms his view on the preexistence of Christ where he writes, “[Christ Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6). Not only does this line claim the preexistence of Christ but it also places Christ on equal ground with God. In other words, to Paul, Christ is God, which falls directly in-line with his monotheistic convictions.
In Ephesians, Paul uses the metaphor of Christ as the head of the body just as he did in Colossians 1:18. Paul writes, “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ. . .” (Eph. 5:23-24). Although Paul is using this within an entirely differently context than in Colossians, his affirmations about Christ are unwavering. Christ is the κεφαλὴ of the church, which Paul makes quite clear where he explicitly states that the church is to submit to Christ.
In 1 Timothy 3:16, Paul employs yet another hymn. Without spending any significant amount of research on this passage, it is easily observed that this hymn contains two main themes. First, the hymn opens up with Christ’s incarnation, which, at the same time, implies His preexistence. Secondly, the hymn’s overarching theme is clearly set on the exalted Christ, which is evident in five out of the six lines that make up the entire hymn. Recall, that both of these themes were evident in the Christ-hymn of Colossians.
It is quite obvious from the examples provided that Paul was consistent in his Christology. Granted, only six letters were examined; however, this is sufficient in showing Paul’s uniformity in regard to his Christology. This is especially true when one considers that these letters were composed separately over a span of time. Paul’s Christology does show up in his other letters as well, and in some cases, Paul expands on his Christology. For example, in Galatians 4:4-7 and in 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul talks about Christ as the sent one, which is something that the hymn in Colossians does not express as clearly. Regardless, the main point has been shown that Paul’s high-exalted view of Christ is consistent throughout the broader Pauline corpus.
In the paper’s introduction, it was mentioned that the focus would be placed on Paul’s Christology and not on the occasion of the letter. However, the occasion of the letter is extremely useful when sifting out the importance of maintaining a proper and high Christology, such as the view that Paul has shown in his epistles. In the case of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, it is the occasion of the letter that bridges the ancient world to the modern.
Although the Christians at Colossae already had a foundational knowledge of who Christ was they still needed to strengthen their foundation and Paul realized that. Paul knew, all too well, that Christians everywhere, and not just at Colossae, were constantly under the influential pressures of a world that is hostile to Christ. The Christians at Colossae were confronted by opponents who challenged and lessened the sufficiency of Christ and their hope. This has been a recurring phenomenon in Christ’s Church in all times. Paul recognized this and he wrote to the Colossians in order to help them get a stronger grasp on who Christ is and to further explain the rich glories of all that God has done in Him. Therefore, the Christ-Hymn in Colossians was not a reprimand on the church at Colossae rather it was a fresh infusion intended to strengthen their foundations in Christ, and likewise, the same applies to the modern church as well.
Paul’s high-Christology is not exclusive to only Paul and his main purpose for sharing his view of Christ is for all Christians to embrace. Paul grasped just how vital it is that Christians in all times adhere to a high-Christology over that of a low-Christology in order to maintain a foundation that will not shift and change with the prevailing winds of the current age (Eph. 4:14). A high-Christology requires a full commitment from its adherents and furthermore, it results in solid convictions that are not easily broken. In contrast, a low view of Christ is noncommittal and quite often results in things such as itchy ears and a wondering eye. Again, Paul was not blind to this, which is why he so fervently fostered Christ’s Church with his high Christological doctrine.
Lastly, Paul was not just promoting an optional belief rather he was stating the very truths about Christ. Paul, as stated in the beginning of this paper, was an apostle for Christ by the will of God and therefore, he is to be understood as a trustworthy source for Christ’s Church (Acts 9:15). This means that any view that differs from what Paul states in his writings along with the rest of the New Testament Scriptures is incorrect. Therefore, Paul’s high Christology, which agrees with the rest of the Scriptures, is not optional and Christians in all times must align themselves with what the Scriptures proclaim about Christ.
It is my desire that this paper has not highlighted Paul but has made Jesus Christ its main objective. Furthermore, if the reader has been stirred enough to embrace the high Christology presented in this paper, which is rooted in the Scriptures, then may God be praised! For the Holy Spirit has yet again moved inside the heart of another one of God’s children! In closing, then, it is entirely appropriate to refer to Paul’s words that directly follow the Christ-hymn in Colossians:
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul have become a servant (Col. 1:21-23, NIV).
. Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2002), 222.
. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, The Ivp Bible Dictionary Series, vol. 7, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1993), 147.
. Ibid., 148.
. N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, ©1986), 23.
. F. F. Bruce, The Epistles To The Colossians, To Philemon, And To The Ephesians: The New International Commentary On The New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., © 1984), 55-56.
. Ibid., 56.
. Wright, 73.
. Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, ©2013) 299.
. Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition; ed. D. A Carson et al.; Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, ©1994), 1265.
. Wayne H. House, “Doctrinal Issues in Colossians: Part 2 of 4” Bibliotheca Sacra 149, no. 594 (April 1992): 183. ATLA Religion Database with ATLA Serials, EBSCOhost. Accessed August 29, 2017. http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000847939&site=ehost-live
. Ibid., 184.
. Fee, 306.
. House, 184-185.
. Fee, 307.
. Wright, 80.
. Wright, 80.
. Hawthorne and Martin, 102.
. Fee, 19.
. David E. Garland, Colossians/Philemon: From Biblical Text . . . to Contemporary Life, The NIV Application Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, ©1998), 32.
Bruce, F F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, © 1984.
Fee, Gordon D. Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, ©2013.
Garland, David E. Colossians and Philemon: From Biblical Text . . . to Contemporary Life. The NIV Application Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, ©1998.
Hawthorne, Gerald F., and Ralph P. Martin. The Ivp Bible Dictionary Series. Vol. , Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
House, H Wayne. “Doctrinal Issues in Colossians: Part 2 of 4: The Doctrine of Christ in Colossians.” Bibliotheca Sacra 149, no. 594 (April 1992): 180-192. ATLA Religion Database with ATLA Serials, EBSCOhost. Accessed August 29, 2017. http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000847939&site=ehost-live
O’Brien, Peter T. Colossians, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition; ed. D. A. Carson et al.; Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 1265. accord://read/IVP-NB Commentary#15978
Olson, Roger E. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2002
Wright, N. T. Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, © 2008.