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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – God's Son Is Lord of the New Creation (1:18-20)
God's Son Is Lord of the New Creation (1:18-20)

The second stanza of Paul's christological confession begins with a different point: Christ is the beginning. The word beginning comes from the same word-family as rulers (1:16) and probably carries the same idea: the Lord Christ is at "the beginning of"—or "rules over"—God's new creation, the church, even as he is Lord now over the various elites of God's created order. At times the word carries a temporal meaning, referring to the beginning or first event of a sequence of events. So this claim for Christ's lordship over the church may have a historical aspect: Jesus' death and resurrection begins his cosmic lordship (compare Phil 2:9-11) and inaugurates the new age of salvation's history in him (1 Cor 15:12-28). Paul further expands the confession here by adding the appositional phrase the firstborn from among the dead. The new age initiated by Christ's death and resurrection constitutes nothing less than a new order of human life in Christ, the essential ingredient of which is victory over death in its various expressions.

Significantly, Paul recycles the word firstborn (prototokos), which he used earlier to stake out Christ's status as Lord over all creation (v. 15). This word, found in both stanzas, stakes a common claim in two different spheres, creation and church. The histories of God's salvation and God's creation are joined together under the lordship of Christ. God's triumph over spiritual darkness and human sins through Christ results in the restoration of a fallen creation and of sinful creatures, who now share a common Lord. This truth, made real in our common experience of God's powerful grace, will be completely demonstrated at Christ's return.

Of course, this future has a past in the empty tomb of Jesus. Appropriately, then, the prepositional phrase modifying firstborn is from among the dead, a metaphor for Jesus' resurrection. Since the final phrases of this second section (v. 20) speak of Christ's death, the confession of Christ's lordship over the church's salvation is bracketed by his death and resurrection. According to Paul, these two events constitute the messianic claim that inaugurates the salvation of God's creation. Further, the new life that characterizes the new humanity populating the new creation during the new age of salvation's history is the result of Christ's resurrection (compare Rom 6:4). In that Christ's dying and rising are past events, the new creation has erupted in the midst of a fallen creation, and the promised blessings of the new age are now being realized within the history of the church. Since the church's life in Christ is never divorced from creation's life in Christ, the church comes to understand its changed existence within and for the restoration of the world order.

Paul's orientation toward society modifies somewhat the natural conflict over values and convictions between the redeemed community and the rest of the world order (compare Col 3:9-10): conflict gives way to evangelism. As God's new creation, the faith community forsakes the old order but does not live in isolation from it. Rather, believers are called to live in the cultural mainstream as a new humanity and to call into question the old structures of "this present evil age" by its life with Christ and its proclamation of him. The church's incarnation of God's truth in deed and word would have absolutely no effect on other people if believers separated themselves from the lost. Worries about secular contamination only diminish the power of divine grace, which not only transforms believers but also protects them from evil.

The purpose clause that follows, so that in everything he might have the supremacy, articulates another result of God's positive verdict of Jesus' messianic mission in the empty tomb. The word the NIV translates supremacy comes from the word family of "firsts" (such as firstborn in vv. 15, 18) and focuses the purpose of God's new creation: to rank Christ as most important among all things. The phrase completes the earlier thrust of Paul's thinking that all things were created in him, by him and for him (v. 16), so that the extent of Christ's importance includes all things of both old and new orders.

Paul's confession returns to the question of Christ's lordship, but now to clarify what results from his faithful messiahship (compare Rom 1:3), when he "became" Lord by obeying God rather than by appealing to his preexistence (v. 17). But this new emphasis raises a question: how can Christ already "be" and then "become" cosmic Lord? Wright suggests a solution to this paradox in the distinction that Paul makes more clearly in other confessions about Christ, such as the one found in Philippians 2:5-11. There, according to Wright, Paul makes the distinction between a person's natural "right" that is not yet exercised and one whose status is ultimately legitimated by historical fact (1986:75). In this sense, Jesus has always been Lord of all; but as Messiah, by his faithfulness to God his preexistent status was proved valid.

Perhaps a more direct solution, however, lies in the twofold structure of the confession itself. In claiming Christ's lordship over all things, Paul makes a chronological distinction between Christ's preexistent lordship over creation and his postexistent lordship over the new creation. Therefore, while the preexistent Son is the firstborn over all creation and is therefore Lord over all things created, his lordship over the church began only after he became firstborn from among the dead at his exaltation (see Rom 1:3). With this in mind, we return to the phrase before us, so that in everything he might have the supremacy, to understand that everything does not refer to the all things created as in verse 16, but to all those new things that God's empowering grace continues to re-create within the faith community, beginning with Christ's resurrection.

At the core of the second half of the confession, sandwiched between claims for Christ's resurrection (v. 18) and his death (v. 20), are the redemptive results for humankind that follow from God's positive verdict of Jesus' messiahship. A great deal of scholarly attention has focused upon the meaning of the phrase for God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him—a claim to which Paul returns in 2:9 in arguing against the "hollow and deceptive philosophy" of his Colossian opponents (2:8). Frankly, this is a very difficult phrase to understand, and virtually every part of it remains contested among interpreters. Yet I think at least two elements should be included in its interpretation. First, Paul's intent is not to defend Christ's preexistence, a point he has already made. Rather, Paul's immediate interest is to confess Christ's lordship over the church. Thus, God's pleasure over Christ's deity explains God's verdict to make him Lord over every aspect of the church's salvation (v. 18; compare Acts 2:29-36). Second, by positing the fullness of God in Christ, Paul explains why Christ is an effective Lord. That is, God's fullness resides in the exalted Christ so that through him all things are reconciled to God.

While these two meanings may help provide the christological focus of this phrase, they do not settle a wide range of other interpretive issues. For example, what does the word fullness mean? In what sense does God's fullness dwell in him (the exalted Lord Christ)? What is the significance of Christ's blood and the nature of the peace that it provides the new creation?

Most modern commentators discount any explanation of fullness that argues for something other than a circumlocution for God. Actually, verse 19 does not include God; the verse's subject is fullness—literally, "all the fullness was pleased to dwell in him." Clearly, however, God is the implied subject of pleased, since a personal God can experience pleasure and the metaphor fullness cannot, and only God has the authority to define the relationship between Christ and the covenant community (compare Rom 9:6-29). But is fullness a metaphor of God's nature, as some understand, or perhaps of God's redeeming activity, as others suggest? When Paul speaks of the "grace of God" or the "righteousness of God" in his other writings, he intends the more Hebraic meaning of God's saving action rather than the more Hellenistic meaning of God's saving character. That is, Paul resists reducing God's grace or righteousness to a theological idea; for him God's grace or righteousness refers to God's work within history that transforms people and alters their destiny. Thus in Romans Paul speaks of grace as salvation-creating power and then locates God's righteousness within history (Rom 1:16-17)—first on the cross (Rom 3:22) and then in the actual experiences of the faith community (Rom 5—8). My point is that in a similar way, "God's fullness" is another idiom for divine action. God acted fully in Christ, and nothing of or nothing from God is lacking in Christ's work for us. God's redemptive activity on earth is mediated and God's faithfulness manifested through the Messiah.

This is precisely what God's resurrection of Jesus indicates to Paul. Easter convinced him—initially in his christophany on the Damascus Road—that the cross was neither scandalous nor foolish (see 1 Cor 1:22-24). In fact, the promised restoration of God's covenant with God's people and then all of creation, whether things on earth or things in heaven, is finally possible only in him and through him (compare v. 16; see Wright 1986:76, n. 3).

The effective outworking of divine grace within history through Christ is further nuanced by the phrase dwell in him. Hidden in the LXX usage of the word translated "dwell" (katoikeo) is a theological, even religious meaning: it is God who "dwells" in the holy place (Jer 7:3,7; compare Mt 23:21; Acts 7:48). In the New Testament, however, "the fullness of God" has come to dwell in the holy person, Jesus, who is the true temple for God's people of the new dispensation (Jn 2:19-21). In his physical absence, the disciples of the risen Christ form a community in him and are currently the "fullness of God" (see Eph 1:22-23). Thus, the faith community is God's true temple; in its particular life and special history God takes up residence on earth.

Paul's identification of the church as the temple of God (see 1 Cor 3:16-17) is enhanced by the grammatical emphasis placed upon the in him formula, which the NIV has softened by transposing the formula from the beginning of verse 19 and combining it with dwell at the end. In my view, Paul's understanding of the covenantal relationship between Christ and the church is encompassed in the in him formula. Believers dwell in Christ; as a result, they are the real beneficiaries of grace, since Christ is the medium of God's redemptive activities within history.

Indeed, just as this passage confesses faith in the exalted Christ, so must the confessing community define itself as the new humanity that finds its truest, most satisfying life in him. The validity of secular idols is already called into question by the faithfulness of Jesus and his subsequent exaltation as Lord. By dwelling in Christ believers are reconciled with God and can participate in God's triumph. This corporate dimension of the in him formula is underscored by Paul's shift of focus from Christ to the believers and by his thematic shift from Christ's resurrection to his death. God's resurrection of Jesus simply validates his death as the fulfillment of God's promised reconciliation for all believers who now reside in Christ.

Two different metaphors are used to interpret the redemptive importance of Christ's death—blood and cross. In a sense, the conflict between Christianity and Judaism boils down to an interpretation of Christ's death. According to the teaching of Paul, God saves the faithful from the self-destructive consequences of sin through the death of Jesus, God's Messiah. Jesus' death makes it possible to belong to him and to participate with him in the outworking of God's salvation on earth. According to the teaching of Judaism, however, Messiah will not die. Rather, it is faithful (messianic) Israel that suffers and often dies the martyr's death. In light of Israel's experience of suffering, then, religious Jews who anticipate the coming of God's Messiah interpret Scripture as teaching that Messiah will save Israel from its suffering and ultimately from its (i.e., God's) enemies.

While Paul does not emphasize the redemptive value of Christ's physical suffering (as does 1 Peter, for instance), he does emphasize Christ's death, which is even more scandalous. For him, the result of Christ's death is God's salvation, for in his blood and broken body we find our atoning sacrifice for sin. Religious Jews saw Jesus as having suffered the expected end of a Roman anarchist, which simply confirmed their judgment that he was a false Christ and not God's Christ.

We must not gloss over Paul's claims for the redemptive significance of Christ's death. The centrality of the crucifixion for Paul was a radical and intensely controversial claim in his day, though we often take it for granted today. Both metaphors Paul employs in this confession are intended to show the importance of the historical Jesus' execution for humanity's reconciliation with God. Blood, then, alludes to the religious importance of his death: blood is life attained by death, and is the priesthood's central image of covenant renewal. The blood of animal sacrifice, shed on the holy days of the Jewish calendar in accord with Leviticus 1—16, was symbolic of eternal life, the promise of God's covenant with Israel. For Paul, Christ's shed blood carries the same significance: the church's covenant with God for eternal life is renewed in Christ's atoning death (see Heb 9—10).

The second metaphor, cross, is more political. Although in Galatians 3:10 Paul alludes to the scandal of hanging an offender from a "tree" (compare Dt 27:26), his reference to Christ's cross in his writings challenges the usual Jewish argument that the church's Lord was executed in shame on a pagan cross. For Paul, the irony of this public perception is that Jesus' Roman death only underscored his fidelity to God's purposes (see Rom 3:21-25). Rather than symbolizing his disloyalty to Judaism or to Rome, the cross symbolizes Jesus' loyalty to God. His essential messianic credential is his profound confidence that God will make good on the covenant promise first made to Abraham and Sarah (compare Rom 4). The cross becomes the public symbol of the Messiah's fidelity to God's redemptive promises and triggers, as a result, the disclosure of God's empowering grace within history (see Rom 3:21-22; Gal 2:16-21; 3:22).

The verb making peace (eirenopoieo) expands the meaning of the verb to reconcile (apokatallasso). The community's experience of enjoying "peace with God" (Rom 5:1-5) is the tangible mark of being reconciled with God. It is of further significance that Paul links the peacemaking effect of Christ's death to his blood. Of course, this couplet echoes the Old Testament priestly tradition and may foreshadow Paul's later polemic against those who would maintain God's reign on earth by a system of mystical beliefs and ascetic rituals. Paul will argue that God's reconciling grace in the current age is not mediated through formal religious observance but by faith in the faithful Jesus.

Finally, Paul's idiom is inclusive: all things are reconciled to God through Christ. In a passage that explores the importance of Christ in terms of God's creation, I am led to understand God's reconciliation of all things as encompassing the nonhuman and inanimate worlds, so that "even the stones will cry out" in praise of God (Lk 19:40; see also Rev 21:19-21). While I think it unwise to speculate how God might restore each part of the natural world or whether there are animals in heaven, I also think it unwise to limit God's reconciliation to the human order of creation, for that denies grace its unconditional and universal character.

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