One of the most poetically beautiful passages about Christ in all of Scripture is in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The passage is beautiful in its structure, using balance, repetition, and diversity for emphasis and importance.

But the beauty of the passage is most directly displayed in its subject—Christ. From every angle, Paul displays the magnificence of who Jesus is and what he’s accomplished. The beauty of Jesus shines through all the different ways Paul describes him. See for yourself!

The following are some comments on Colossians 1:15-20 from the For Everyone Commentary Series by N.T. Wright and John Goldingay.

Colossians 1:15-20

Christ the Head

The poem we are now looking at – and I’ve laid it out like a poem so you can see how it ‘works’ – is based on the different meanings of the Hebrew word for ‘head’. As in English, so in Hebrew, the relevant word can carry several different ideas, and Paul is cleverly exploring and exploiting some of them. Watch how it works.

  • Jesus Christ, he says, is the firstborn. That’s the first meaning, which comes twice (in verses 15 and 18).
  • Jesus Christ is supreme (verse 17). I’ve translated it here as ‘ahead’ to hint at the same point.
  • Jesus Christ is the head of the body, which is the church (verse 18).
  • Jesus Christ is the beginning (also verse 18).

Christ the Point of it All

Part of growing up as a Christian is learning to take delight in the way in which God’s truth, whether in physics or theology or whatever, has a poetic beauty about it. But of course Paul isn’t writing this poem just to show off his clever intellectual fireworks, or to provide a sophisticated kind of literary entertainment. He’s writing this (or, if the poem was originally written by someone else, quoting it) in order to tell the Colossians something they badly need to know. What is it?

What they need to know above all, if they are to grow as Christians, increasing in wisdom, power, patience and thanksgiving, is the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ. The more they get to know, and know about, Jesus Christ, the more they will understand who the true God is and what he’s done; who they are as a result; and what it means to live in and for him. Much of the rest of the letter, in fact, is an exploration of the meaning of the poem. Look on to 2.3, for instance, where Paul declares that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ himself.

It’s worth, then, going quite slowly through the poem and pondering the depths of meaning that are to be found in it. Christianity isn’t simply about a particular way of being religious. It isn’t about a particular system for how to be saved here or hereafter. It isn’t simply a different way of holiness. Christianity is about Jesus Christ; and this poem, one of the very earliest Christian poems ever written, is as good a place to start exploring it as any. This is what the Colossians needed to know, and we today need to rediscover it.

Christ the Image of God

There are three things in particular which the poem points us to about Jesus Christ and about what God has done in and through him.

First, it’s by looking at Jesus that we discover who God is. He is ‘the image of God, the invisible one’. Nobody has ever seen God, but in Jesus he has come near to us and become one of us.

If there is somebody sitting in the next room, I can’t see them because there’s a wall in the way. But if there is a mirror out in the hallway, I may be able to look out of my door and see, in the mirror, the mirror-image of the person in the next room. In the same way, Jesus is the mirror-image of the God who is there but who we normally can’t see. We may be aware of his presence; many people, many religions, many systems of philosophy have admitted there is ‘something or somebody there’. But with Jesus we find ourselves looking at the true God himself.

The great thing about that is that the more we look at Jesus, the more we realize that the true God is the God of utter self-giving love. That’s why this poem comes right after Paul’s prayer that the Colossians will learn how to be grateful to God. When you realize that Jesus reveals who God is, gratitude is the first and most appropriate reaction.

Christ the Keeper

Second, Jesus holds together the old world and the new, creation and new creation. Jesus Christ, says the poem boldly, is the one through whom and for whom the whole creation was made in the first place. This isn’t just a remarkable thing to say about an individual of recent history. It is also a remarkable thing to say about the ‘natural’ world. The world was his idea, his workmanship. It is beautiful, powerful and sweet because he made it like that. When the lavish and generous beauty of the world makes you catch your breath, remember that it is like that because of Jesus.

But it’s also full of ugliness and evil, summed up in death itself. Yes, that’s true too; but that wasn’t the original intention, and the living God has now acted to heal the world of the wickedness and corruption which have so radically infected it. And he’s done so through the same one through whom it was made in the first place. This is the point of the balance in the poem. The Jesus through whom the world was made in the first place is the same Jesus through whom the world has now been redeemed. He is the firstborn of all creation, and the firstborn from the dead.

Christ the Reconciler

Third, Jesus is therefore the blueprint for the genuine humanness which is on offer through the gospel. As the head of the body, the church; the first to rise again from the dead; as the one through whose cruel death God has dealt with our sins and brought us peace and reconciliation; and, above all, as the one through whom the new creation has now begun; in all these ways, Jesus is himself the one ‘in whom’ we are called to discover what true humanness means in practice. We have so often settled for second best in our human lives. Jesus summons us to experience the genuine article.

There is much more that could be said about this wonderful poem. I hope what we’ve already said will encourage you to explore it further and meditate on it more deeply. But let me end with a pointer, which is in fact another key to the meaning of Colossians as a whole. In the Judaism of Paul’s day, quite a lot that he has here said about Jesus had already been said about the rather shadowy figure of ‘wisdom’. Part of Paul’s point is precisely this: if it’s wisdom you want, Jesus is where you have to look. What that meant for the Colossians we shall see as we go along. What it means for the twenty-first century is up to each of us to explore, with delight and – yes, once again – with gratitude.

For Everyone Commentary Series

As you can see, this is an excellent resource for those looking for an easy-to-read and yet informative commentary. For each passage of the Bible, these two scholars provide their own translation and comments for the reader. Available in individual copies or complete sets, these accessible commentaries are perfect companions for any Bible reader.

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