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The first stanza of this confession relates Christ to creation, beginning with the claim that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Most scholars locate the important idiom image within the Hellenistic world, where it referred to various media of divine revelation. For example, according to Platonic thought, the entire cosmos is the visible "image" of the invisible God (see Lohse 1971:47) and the natural order properly guides our imagination about God's identity. In fact, under the influence of Plato, Hellenistic Judaism interpreted God's act of creation as informed by preexistent and eternal images or expressions of God's Wisdom. In this mythic sense, then, creation is the visible, historical counterpart of invisible, heavenly reality. The precepts and principles of God's Wisdom form the very substance of all things. These "images" of the Creator do not merely "represent" or help us "visualize" God; rather, they actually make what is hidden in God concrete and knowable, so that we may know and enter into fellowship with God.
Paul's understanding of Christ's significance takes shape in a Greek philosophical environment that defined image in this way. In referring to Jesus as the image of the invisible God, Paul means that Jesus is the very substance of God's purposes and intentions for creation. He is God's pattern for all of life, and through him God will restore a broken and fallen creation in his likeness. In this regard, Paul's claim for Jesus may be intended as more than an apologia for his cosmic importance as Lord Christ. I think Paul uses image to echo the biblical story of creation, when God created male and female in God's own image (Gen 1:27). Paul's ultimate point is that the Christ event brings to historical expression the ultimate purpose of God's creation of all human life. On the one hand, Jesus exemplifies humanity's faithful response to God; but on the other hand, he also discloses God's faithfulness to humankind. God's good intent in creating human life is to enjoy a faithful relationship with every person. Because of Christ, this intent can now be realized for those who are in him.
The next claim for Christ, that he is the firstborn over all creation, is surely one of the most difficult in the New Testament. Of course Paul's claim about Christ's "birth" is not to be taken literally, as Arius did in the early fourth century or as the Jehovah's Witnesses do today. In their antitrinitarian polemic, Arians argued that Jesus was merely the first human being ever "fathered" by God—in a literal sense, the first of a new creation. If they were right, the Lord Jesus would not be God's substantive equal and there could be no Trinity.
Such heresy stems in part from a failure to appreciate the Old Testament background of Paul's expression. Scripture refers to Israel as God's firstborn child (Ex 4:22; compare Jer 31:9; Is 64:8) and so expresses God's election of Israel for salvation and defines its special place in God's redemptive plans. Especially in the Exodus text, the phrase expresses the Lord's faithfulness to Israel, a faithfulness that ultimately ensures its salvation from the evil pharaoh. In Paul's handling of this biblical tradition, Christ and not Israel is cast as God's Son (1:13). God's faithfulness to Christ ensures his resurrection and triumph over death, and in him over all those evil powers that keep a fallen creation captive to spiritual darkness and the consequences of human sins (1:13-14).
It is possible that another ingredient of the background to Paul's use of firstborn is the ancient idea of a birthright, which gave the firstborn a privileged status and responsibility within the family (Lightfoot 1879:144-45). Again, if we push this connection too far we risk losing a fully trinitarian theology, for even the firstborn son is not the equal of his father within the household. If Paul had in mind the birthright, it would be only as a metaphor for Jesus' unique and distinctive role within the creation as agent of its salvation. Paul's idiom is better understood through Jewish Wisdom, which he believes is best personified by Jesus (see above). Even as God "created" Wisdom in the beginning (Prov 8:22) by which to create all things (Prov 3:19), so now Jesus is properly understood as God's true template by whom the divine purposes for all things are perfectly revealed.
The next christological formulation (v. 16) only expands and clarifies the cosmic result of God's triumph over evil through the Son. Creation itself contains all things . . . visible and invisible. In fact, Paul shares the view of his contemporaries that the cosmic order includes a spiritual realm of invisible . . . thrones or powers or rulers or authorities and a parallel but physical realm of visible . . . thrones or powers or rulers or authorities. According to Paul's teaching these two realms are fully integrated, so that a spiritual reality lies behind the societal, whether for good (the Spirit of the Risen Christ empowering the church to worship and bear witness to God) or evil (the evil one empowering the enemies of Christ to undermine the church's worship of and witness to God). As a matter of Paul's incontrovertible "theo-logic," all these spiritual powers and their various historical agents have their final destiny in negative or positive relationship to the One in whom all things were created.
The NIV incorrectly translates Paul's "in him" (that is, Christ) formula as by him, missing the intended force of the phrase. Paul typically uses "in him" or "in Christ" as a metaphor for restored relationships or, even more specifically, the spiritual home of those who belong to Christ, where he (rather than the evil one) rules over them (v. 13). In this particular confession, however, Paul presumes that the destiny of the entire created order—both its spiritual and its physical realms—is linked to Christ's destiny. Further, God's positive verdict on Jesus' messianic work, indicated by the raising of him as Lord Christ, shows that God's purpose for creation will ultimately be carried out (Rev 21:1—22:5).
Christ embodies God's will for all creation; Christ is the content and goal of God's grace, by which God's will is now being brought to reality within history. When the ruling elites of society resist the teaching of Christ, they actually prevent the "good life" from being realized. In whatever form it finally takes, rebellion against God is self-destructive simply because it is at odds with the life-generating resources that God has built into creation. Any secular pretension or humanistic hubris will eventually be exposed as self-deceptive and false, utterly incapable of empowering a person for good. (Hence the recent collapse of Soviet communism.) Claims for national sovereignty or for individual rights, if not subjected to Christ's absolute claim on all things and every power, are without any foundation and are surely idolatrous.
Believers must never confuse the secular with the sacred. It is easy to fall into this confusion in the West, especially in America, where public rhetoric often employs a sacred idiom to maintain public conduct that is often secular. The point Paul makes here has less to do with Christ's exalted status than with the consequences of his messianic work, which brought a fallen creation back under the Creator's sovereign reign. To deny Christ as the Lord of God's creation is to deny the redemptive consequences of Christ's death; to reject God's desire to delight in the inherent goodness of creation is to reject the prospect of a new creation of redeemed humanity in Christ.
The next set of christological formulations (v. 17) repeats in chronological fashion the critical relationship between Lord Christ and all things. The previous confession stated that the destiny of all things is predicated by being in Christ. Similarly, if Christ was before all things, and if all things have their beginning by him and their purpose for him, and if in him all things hold together in a coherent and logical way, then the wise thing to do is to line up under the lordship of Christ in order to enter into God's salvation. As Wright nicely puts it, "No creature is autonomous. All are God's servants (Ps 119:91) and dependents (Ps. 104)" (Wright 1987:73).
The final item of the confession's first stanza (v. 18) is clearly transitional from God's first creation to God's new creation, the church. This too alludes to the Old Testament narrative, where the genesis of creation (Gen 1—11) is linked to the genesis of Israel (Gen 12—50). In the biblical narrative these two stories are found together in the book of Genesis, because the story of the one cannot be told without the story of the other: the election of God's people will result in the restoration of God's creation. Likewise, the careful structure of the confession, which locates the initial claim about the church within a stanza about creation, prevents us from assuming that the destiny of the one is somehow distinct from the destiny of the other: both church and creation are "in Christ," and the destiny of each is inextricably bound together because of and for him.
Paul often uses the head-body metaphor when referring to the relationship between Christ and the church (O'Brien 1983:57-61). Sometimes Paul uses the body metaphor to express the interdependent relationships among gifted believers within the church (1 Cor 12:10-26). In this context, however, the emphasis is on Christ more than the church: Christ is Lord of the church even as the human head governs the body. Certainly this image of the human body leaves the impression of organic unity between Christ and the church: each is necessary to the other, since a headless body is as useless as a bodiless head (compare Eph 4:15-16).
Perhaps the relationship Paul has in mind stems from his participatory Christology: as members of Christ's body, believers participate by grace through faith in the history of the historical Jesus, from his death to his exaltation. Those who belong to the faith are liberated from the consequences of their sins through participating in Christ's death, and now experience a transformed life through participating in his resurrection.
The critical point to make, however, is that our participation with Christ in the salvation of God takes place in real time. If all things are fashioned with Christ in mind and for his glory (v. 16), and if the church and Christ are inseparable as body and head, then in some extra special sense the redeemed community embodies in real time all that God desires for creaturely existence. Paul resists any theological jargon that might allow believers to speak of their participation in Christ's body without reference to their actual experiences. Christianity is a practical religion, made up of believers who live in and for the restoration of a broken and fragmented world. Our testimony to Christ's lordship is a mended life, made whole again by God's healing grace.