This is one of the most debated passages in the history of New Testament interpretation and requires more care than any in Colossians. In part the modern debate is over the meaning of its poetic language, which is understood against the backdrop of ancient literature and religion. Another aspect of the debate, however, is over its theological significance and especially the role this passage plays within the whole of Colossians. Let me offer a few introductory comments regarding Paul's pivotal confession of Christ before I comment more specifically on its meaning.
In this passage Paul employs various images of creation to clarify "the word of truth, the gospel" (1:5-6). By linking the lordship of Christ to God's creation of the entire cosmos, Paul's tacit claim is that Christians have been remade into a new humanity, characterized by their holistic spirituality. Against his ascetic opponents at Colosse, who have rejected the material for the spiritual, Paul confesses Christ as Lord over both worlds; he is the "cosmic Christ." Therefore, believers are to resist any teaching that divides their life into separate spheres, material and spiritual, which would also divide their loyalty to Christ. If Christ is Lord over all of God's creation, then those in Christ have been re-formed into a new creation and embody God's reconciliation of all things (v. 20).
By using the creation typology to underscore the holistic result of God's saving grace, Paul can also introduce the importance of Jesus' death (v. 20). The Creator's ultimate goal for the fallen creation is the reconciliation or restoration of all things; and this goal has already been achieved on the cross. Though the material effects of sin and fallenness remain all too evident, Paul can claim that the Creator's goal has already been realized through Christ and is already being demonstrated in the life of a new creation, the church.
Paul's point challenges today's church to change. More and more believers divide more and more things up. What we value in the privacy of our homes is often at odds with what we value in our public lives. At work, we often reflect the commercial values of survival and self-interest rather than the biblical values of self-sacrifice and fidelity. Modernity's dream of economic affluence and political influence often determines even the believer's behavior outside of home and congregation.
I recently spoke on "Human Sexuality and the Christian" at a singles' convention. My discussion of the Bible's teaching about homosexuality provoked many in the audience to make the modern distinction between sexual orientation and sexual practice, as though God's grace affected one's sexual practices (external) but not one's sexual orientation (internal). Paul's point is that such dichotomies between the visible and invisible, public and private, external and internal are false. His confession of Christ's lordship over all things shows his confidence that Christ's death establishes God's grace in every nook and cranny of God's creation.
This point is further clarified by a literary analysis of the passage. Commentators continue to debate its literary history, trying to identify its form and trace its function in the earliest church to its final form in this composition. Suffice it to say that no clear consensus has emerged on any of these issues. Most argue, however, that the poetic quality of this passage and its non-Pauline vocabulary suggest that Paul did not compose it from scratch; rather, he edited a hymn or confession that was already in use, probably by the Colossian readers (see introduction, under "The Author of Colossians"). Scholars arrive at this conclusion by carefully distinguishing the poetic images used to guide a congregation in prayer, to confess its faith in Christ or to sing its devotion to Christ from the more didactic descriptions of Christ used to instruct a congregation. The phrases used in this passage to express Christ's lordship are actually poetic metaphors and do not intend a literal description. These metaphors seek to point us to the truth about Christ's significance for human and salvation history.
Clearly, the poetic quality of this passage makes it more difficult for the modern interpreter to discern Paul's intended meaning for his first readers, although many scholars have attempted to so do. In its canonical form, its rhythmic pattern remains uneven and its stanza markers unclear (unlike what we expect in today's hymnals). Many agree with me, however, that two roughly parallel stanzas about Christ are introduced by a common grammatical construction. Thus, in verses 15 and 18 Christ is introduced by a relative pronoun (hos, "he") combined with the linking verb (estin, "is"), resulting in a crucial parallelism that sets forth Paul's essential convictions about the lordship of Jesus Christ: (1) he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (v. 15) and (2) he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead (v. 18).
This grammatical clue is crucial for interpretation, not only because it provides a nice balance to the passage but, more important, because it divides the passage into two integral christological themes that Paul will develop in the main body of his letter. The first theme, introduced in verses 15-17, considers the role of Christ within the created order, while the second, introduced in verses 18-20, considers his role within the new order of his kingdom now populated by God's people (compare v. 13). Paul's parallel claims about the Lord Christ nicely frame the Bible's conviction that God's creation and redemption are two parts of an integral whole. This theological conviction implies a practical point as well: the redeemed community is a new creation, and the current demonstration that God's grace has reconciled and reintegrated all things spiritual with all things material in accord with God's will.
The similarity of terminology with Jewish interpretation of Wisdom's work in both creation (Prov 8) and salvation (Is 40) provides yet another important clue to the teacher of this passage. Many religious Jews of the first century, such as Paul, ordered their lives by biblical Wisdom, not only because it provided practical advice for a wide assortment of daily affairs but indeed because this advice was viewed as the very "word of God" (Prov 30:5-9), necessary for salvation (Wisdom 6:24). Various New Testament writers make this same point. James, for example, views Wisdom as the heavenly "word" from God, necessary for salvation (Jas 1:17-21; compare 2 Tim 3:15). Matthew's gospel shows how Jesus taught his disciples the Wisdom of God for their salvation (Mt 7:24; 10:24; 11:25; 24:45; 25:1-9). Paul makes it clear that he follows in the way of the earliest church, then, by drawing upon Jewish Wisdom to explain his faith in Christ (compare 1 Cor 1:30).
Two core convictions of biblical Wisdom are important as background to Paul's understanding of Christ's cosmic lordship. First, Wisdom teaches that every aspect of human life (including its religious, social, political, family and economic dimensions) is to make visible the Creator's invisible intentions (see Heb 11:1-2). If God is true and good, so are the intentions for all that the Creator has made. So Israel's sages distilled their observations of human life into the Old Testament Proverbs to express the Creator's good intentions as guides toward the good life and away from misfortune.
Second, the messianic Jews (Jews waiting for Messiah to come) who lived around the time of Jesus and Paul linked Israel's practice of biblical Wisdom to the coming of the Messiah. What had first been composed as a social ethic to order Israel's national life now took on eschatological importance: the practice of Wisdom became a condition for Israel's entrance into God's promised salvation.
Taken together, then, these two convictions derived from the Wisdom tradition of Judaism inform Paul's convictions about Christ, who is the personification of Wisdom, and the church, which belongs to him: God's good intentions for all of creation are embodied in the Lord and are realized in the community of his kingdom.
Let me make one final comment in introducing this passage. Paul's confession of the lordship of Christ provides one of the New Testament's most important models for understanding the deity of Christ. In a day when many believers hold firmly to the incarnation of God in Christ but do not understand why, this passage takes on an even greater practical importance. For the apostle's confession that Jesus is cosmic Lord makes the even more profound claim that in the Lord Jesus Christ, God has been made one of us, for us. Certainly Paul's primary point in this compositional context is to claim something decisive for the Lord's messiahship: that is, Jesus' messianic work, especially his death (v. 20), embodies or incarnates the work of God. In fact, the truth about God's grace (vv. 4-5) is disclosed personally and within history by Jesus from Nazareth.
On this basis Paul revises the fundamentals of Jewish monotheism as well as his interpretation of Jewish Scripture; for him, true religion is no longer expressed by Judaism's daily recitation of the biblical Shema (Dt 6:4, an affirmation of faith in Israel's God) or compliance with biblical Wisdom's instruction through observance of Torah legislation or temple practice. Rather, all of God's truth contained in Jewish tradition has been made flesh in Jesus; further, the Creator's good intentions for all things, incarnated in Jesus, are embodied in the new creation, which is by and for and in him (1:16-17).
Christian orthodoxy does not conclude with incarnational Christology but with incarnational ecclesiology. The God whose grace and truth is made flesh in Christ's life is now incarnated in the church's life. Thus Paul's claim for the Lord Christ issues in a practical claim upon the Christian's life and constitutes yet another typology of God's grace: sinful humanity is transformed into new humanity with the capacity to live in accord with God's pleasures and to delight in the blessings God intended for the first man and woman. For this reason, Paul's defense of Christian faith in chapter 2 will give way to his description of Christian life in chapter 3.