“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” – Colossians 1:15-20
Have you ever struggled with one of these ultimate questions? “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Or “Why does evil exist?” The Apostle Paul did.
I have been studying Colossians with my Sunday night Bible study group, and we have been working together to memorize the above passage from chapter 1. It is one of the most dense passages of Christology in the New Testament.
This passage has the tone of an early hymn that was written to articulate the glory of Jesus Christ. Paul probably either composed it himself or simply incorporated it into his letter. Based on the imagery and Greek grammar, there are some structural markers that may help a reader to organize and better understand this passage. I attempt to explain the structure below and show some of its significance. If you are not a language person, you probably should just stop reading now.
Still here? Well, then I think you are pretty cool. Let’s dig in!
First, notice the similarity in the clauses “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” and “He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead.” Not only do these two phrases repeat the imagery of Christ as the “first-born,” but both are actually dependent clauses in the Greek introduced by the relative pronoun. Literally translated, these lines begin, “Who is . . .” instead of “He is . . .” The NAS above has smoothed the reading by making independent clauses of these two lines, but if you check your dusty King James Version, you’ll find that the old guys nailed it.
Also, both of these “who” clauses are followed by a causal clause that begins with the subordinating conjunction “for/because.” These clauses explain how the assertion of the “who” clauses are true.
These similarities suggest that the “who” clauses begin two separate sections within this passage.
Second, notice the similarity between the lines “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” and “He is also head of the body, the church.” Again, we see two independent clauses beginning with “He is . . .” Well, this time, they really are independent clauses in the Greek. In fact these two lines, which are right next to each other in the middle of the passage, are the only two independent clauses in the entire passage. The other verbs in these six verses are governed by either the relative pronoun or subordinating conjunctions. I take from this observation that these two lines provide the focal point of the hymn around which every thing else revolves.
This observation distinguishes these two lines from the rest of the passage. So the structure is as follows: “who” clause with its constituents, the focal point in two lines, and another “who” clause with constituents.
Third, notice that there are some interesting structural plays in the dependent clauses that fill this passage. For example, verse 16 is a dependent clause that is a chiasmus with an “A B C C’ B’ A'” pattern, and even within this larger chiasmus there is a smaller one. Consider the mirror symmetry of “heaven and earth” with “visible and invisible.”
Other structural plays exist between verses 16 and 20. Notice that verse 20 ends with the inverse of the phrase “heaven and earth” from verse 16, “things on earth or things in heaven.” Also, there is an inversion of the order of the last line of verse 16, “All things . . . by Him,” in verse 20, “through Him . . . all things.” (The word for “by” and “through” is the same in the Greek.)
Now, based on these grammatical notes, I have attempted below to more accurately reflect the Greek and to structure this poem. There is some debate over the exact structure, but I think of it in terms of a two stanza hymn with a chorus in the middle:
Who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.
Because by Him
all things were created,
in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–
All things have been created
through Him and for Him.
And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
And He is the head of the body, the church.
Who is the beginning, the first-born from the dead;
So that He Himself might come to have first place in everything.
Because it was the Father’s good pleasure
for all the fulness to dwell in Him,
and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself,
having made peace through the blood of His cross;
through Him, I say,
whether things on earth or things in heaven.
Hopefully, you can more readily see now that Paul has integrated into his letter a structured hymn that either he wrote or the early church was already using.
So what does all of this mean beyond the fact that Scripture contains structural beauty? Well, now we can analyze the context of the individual lines in the poem within the broader structure. Here are some observations.
1. Stanza 1 is about the eternal, divine supremacy of Jesus. One of the clearest evidences of divinity in the Bible is creatorship; thus, this stanza emphasizes that all things exist because of Jesus. Because Jesus is the creator, he has ownership rights over everything. In this sense, he is the “first-born over all creation.”
2. Stanza 2 is about the redeeming, resurrected supremacy of Jesus. In this stanza, Jesus is the “first-born from the dead.” Here we learn that Jesus is not only the divine creator of all things, but he is also the appointed reconciler of all things.
3. Stanza 2 contains the only purpose clause in the poem. This clause is very important first, because purpose clauses are always important but also because it is alone in this hymn. It is an addition to the poem so important that Paul was willing to break the structural symmetry between stanza 1 and stanza 2 to include it.
In this clause, we learn that Jesus was raised to life “so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything.” Paul asserts that not only did the Father want his Son to receive glory through his creative work, but he also wanted his Son to receive glory through his redemptive work. God allowed Jesus to die for sins and be raised to life so that in every sphere imaginable he might be supreme.
4. Notice how the chorus is a great summary of stanzas 1 and 2. The first line of the chorus emphasizes Jesus’ creatorship, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” The second line emphasizes his relationship to his redeemed people, “He is the head of the body, the church.” And both lines emphasize his supremacy with the words “before” and “head.” “Head” of course, is an intimate way of expressing Christ’s leadership of the church which is his “body.”
5. So the main point of this hymn is that Jesus is supreme in every possible way. He is supreme as the creator, and he is supreme as the redeemer, especially as the redeemer of his people. He is supreme over mankind, and he is supreme among mankind. He is the supreme giver of life, and he is the supreme reclaimer of life.
Now let me carry this just a little bit further. Creation is a term associated with existence, and redemption is a term associated with the tragic nature of human history. In other words, for Jesus to be the supreme creator, something has to exist, and for him to be the supreme redeemer, something had to go wrong. Therefore, I believe that this passage teaches that everything that exists and everything that has ever gone wrong with existence has been for one over-arching purpose: that Jesus Christ receive the supreme glory and honor.
So I boldly claim that in Colossians 1:15-20, Paul gives the answer for the questions at the beginning of this piece. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that Paul gives every answer to these questions; I am saying that Paul gives the ultimate answer to these questions.
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” “So that Christ can be shown as the supreme creator.”
“Why does evil exist?” “So that Christ can be shown as the supreme redeemer.”
The only reason I can muster that a person would not be content with these answers is if he did not understand his own subordination to the all-surpassing greatness of Christ. But I personally am happy to be subordinate. I don’t believe I have a choice anyway. After all, I need what his supremacy provides, to exist and to be saved from my miserable existence.