Colossians 1:13-20 Commentary: Paul’s Gospel, Part 1

13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in [or “by”] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in [or “by”] him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.  NRSV

In Col. 1:12 Paul completed his prayer for the Colossians—that they would have strength, patient endurance, and joyful gratitude. Now, in verse 13 Paul switches from prayer to a general description of what God has done in Christ. In other words, in verse 13 Paul begins an extended statement of the gospel that will conclude in verse 23 (“I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel”). However, Paul casts the gospel in a way that will speak specifically to the situation of the Colossian church. Paul’s gospel seems aimed at helping the Colossians toward the growing knowledge of God that he wants for them (Col. 1:10).

Colossians 1:13-14 Commentary

Verses 1:13 and 1:14 are a revealing summary statement of the gospel he will explain further in Col. 1:15-23. The backdrop of the first part of this summary (v. 13) is a conflict of spiritual powers—between the “power of darkness” and God’s “beloved Son,” Christ. The gospel for the Colossians, then, is that they (and Paul) have been rescued from the dark powers and transferred to the “kingdom” of Christ. Importantly, the word translated ‘kingdom’ here does not refer to a location in space, as for kingdoms with castles, princes, and princesses. Rather, it refers to the rule, reign, or power of a king. Thus, the Colossians have been transferred from the rule of dark spiritual forces to the rule of Christ. Christ’s power has won out over the powers of darkness.

What are these powers of darkness? So far in the letter we don’t know. However, Paul’s teaching later in the letter gives us some indication. In Col. 2:8 Paul calls them “elemental spirits of the universe,” and in Col. 2:15 he calls them “rulers and authorities” over whom Christ has triumphed through the cross. From Col. 2:18 it seems these powers might also be understood as angels that the Colossians were being urged (by false teachers) to worship and appease through various rituals. These verses from Col. 2 yield a picture of a church being undermined by a certain brand of idolatry whereby the Colossians were giving too much credence, and attributing too much power, to the demands of certain earthly dark spirits.

Paul’s message to the Colossians in v. 13, then, is that Christ and his power is supreme over these spirits, and that Christ has liberated the Colossians from the clutches of such dark powers. The second part of Paul’s summary statement of the gospel (v. 14) makes this clear: the transfer to the rule of Christ has accomplished “redemption” for the Colossians. Redemption, here, is an image of being liberated from captivity to a harsh master. Having been redeemed, the Colossians are now servants of the benevolent master, Christ, because of whom their sins have been forgiven (v. 14). This forgiveness of sin is the crucial element in God’s reconciliation of human beings to himself, since it is what brings about peace (v. 20) between God and people. It is proper for people to be ruled by God. However, sin generates conflict between people and God since by sinning people reject God’s rule over them. From v. 13 it seems that by rejecting God’s rule people also become subject to the rule of dark powers. By forgiving people in Christ, God gives up his claim against humanity and welcomes them back to their proper place—under his rule, or dominion. In this same act of forgiveness, then, people are redeemed from the rule of the dark powers and repositioned under the rule of God.

Colossians 1:15-20 Commentary

Having summarized his gospel in verses 1:13-14, Paul launches into one of the loftiest portraits of Christ in all of scripture. Perhaps its only parallel is John 1:1-14 where Christ is portrayed as the Logos of creation, equal to God. The structure of Col. 1:15-20 has led some scholars to view the passage as something like a formal statement of doctrine (perhaps formulated by others) that both Paul and the Colossians would recognize as authoritative. The passage, thus, may play a role similar to that of the Hymn of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11.

Paul begins the portrait with the claim that Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” (v. 15a). This claim contrasts starkly with the claim in Genesis 1:27 that human beings were made “in the image of God.” Christ is not in the image of God; rather Christ is the image of God. This is the first indication, then, that the portrait of Christ will distinguish sharply between creation—including humans made in the image of God—and Christ the Creator. In other words, Christ will be portrayed here as God himself, made visible in the man Jesus. Verse 15b continues in this vein, calling Christ “the firstborn of all creation.” Some interpreters—notably, the Jehovah’s Witnesses—have stumbled on this verse, taking it to mean that Christ was the first created thing, and thus that Christ is not divine but rather is part of creation. However, several things militate against such a view. First, the term translated “firstborn” does not necessarily mean the first thing generated or made. Rather, it can also simply be a title of preeminence, picking up on the preeminence of the firstborn son in ancient Hebrew families. In such families, the firstborn typically inherited far more than any of the other children, and thus was viewed as the best hope of carrying on the family name. Second, verse 1:16 makes it crystal clear that Paul does not mean by “firstborn” that Jesus was created by God. Quite the opposite: “all things in heaven and on earth were created” by Christ, including the dark powers (“dominions or rulers or powers”) that the Colossians have been thinking too highly of, and from whom the Colossians have been liberated in Christ. Thus, verse 1:16 makes it clear that the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation of 1:15 is incorrect. Here Christ is portrayed as Creator of all, a role that only God plays.

In case it wasn’t clear (!), Paul reiterates the claim that Christ is the Creator in Col. 1:17: “He himself is before all things, and in [or “by”] him all things hold together.” Insofar as Christ is “before all things”—meaning, before all created things—this verse makes him out as the divine generator and initiator of the universe. Interestingly, though, the verse does not stop there: Christ is also portrayed as that in (or, “by”) which “all things hold together.” Here is a side of God’s role as Creator that we contemporary westerners tend to neglect. Perhaps this neglect is a reflection of the continuing influence of Deism on our theology. According to Deism—a view typically rejected by Christians as heretical—God initially made the universe, but God has no role in its continued operation. Here, God is like a watchmaker that made a watch, wound it up, and then left it to run on its own. On this view, matter and physical laws are sufficient for the functioning of the universe, and so God does not intervene. However, Col. 1:17 contradicts this view: God not only initiated the universe; God also upholds it from moment to moment, and this role is simply part of what it means to call God “Creator.” Colossians 1:17b, then, recalls Acts 17:28: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” The divine Christ is both generator and sustainer of all creation.

In Col. 1:18 the doctrinal statement continues. There, Christ is portrayed as “the head of the body, the church,” “the beginning,” and “the firstborn from the dead.” Paul will return to the imagery of “head and body” in Col. 2:19 with greater specificity, so I will defer discussion of that image until then. However, in combination with the other claims of v. 18, the main point seems to be to reiterate Christ’s preeminence in all things, i.e., that he has “first place in everything.” This claim confirms the idea that “firstborn” simply refers (in vv. 15 and 18) to the special preeminent status conferred on the firstborn in ancient Hebrew culture, and not to being the first one generated. As if we needed a further statement of the divinity of Christ in this passage, verse 1:19 puts it baldly: in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” In other words, Christ is God. This passage, then, is a support to the Trinitarian doctrine that Christ “the beloved Son” (v. 13) and God “the Father” (v. 12) are two of the three co-equal members of the divine Trinity.

Col. 1:20 ends the doctrinal statement by reiterating the good news that God “was pleased to reconcile” all of creation to himself through Christ, by making peace between God and creation via the cross. Christ’s death on the cross atones for the sin of creation, opening the way for creation to return to its proper place under the rule of God. The idea here is not that all things are already reconciled to God through Christ’s death. Rather, it is that God would be “pleased” to reconcile all creation to himself by way of Christ’s death. In other words, Christ’s death opens the way for this reconciliation, though it has not yet been fully realized. After all, reconciliation demands something of both estranged parties, and what Christ did only represents God’s side of the relationship. People must still reciprocate the olive branch extended by God. Did “all things” in creation really need reconciling to God? What about rocks and trees? The picture of total cosmic reconciliation, here, takes seriously the idea of Genesis 3:17 that the ground was cursed by God because of human sin. In other words, just as human sin had implications for all of creation—including the inanimate ground—so the reconciliation effected by Christ’s cross can make peace between God and all of creation.

Colossians 1:13-20: Lessons

The lessons of this passage are too numerous to try to recount in any summary conclusion. However, at a minimum, it seems helpful to reflect on why Paul thought the Colossians needed to hear this version of the gospel, with its emphasis on the preeminent authority and power of Christ, liberation from the powers of darkness, and return to the governance of God. The answer, here, seems to be that the Colossians continued to attribute too much power and authority to the earthly elemental spirits from which Christ had liberated them.

What are the things to which we attribute too much power and authority in contemporary western culture? Wealth? Sex? Social status? Work? Knowledge? Celebrity? Entertainment? With respect to these cultural idols, Paul has a message for us: Christ made and rules over them all. If we are followers of Christ, none of these cultural powers should rule us, since Christ is our true ruler. Moreover, as Christians we need not appease these cultural powers, or fear retribution if we fail to appease them: all of them are subject to the power of our benevolent King. These powers may have some role in our lives, and properly so. Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of Paul’s point that whatever role they have, that role is subservient to the role of Christ in our lives. Christ alone is Lord.

A related lesson I draw from the passage is the idea that human beings are always subject to some sort of power or authority external to themselves. This seems to be Paul’s working assumption in the passage and in Colossians as a whole: if we are not submitted to God’s power and authority then we are submitted to some other power and authority—namely, the powers of darkness—whether we are aware of it or not. Another way to put this is to say that we are all worshipers: if we do not worship God we will worship something else, an idol. This teaching seems antithetical to the contemporary perspective. The modern culture holds that if we throw off the yoke of God’s power and authority in our lives, then we may govern ourselves. This is the view that humans are properly autonomous or self-governing creatures. According to this view, humans are properly free to make of their lives what they will, and to choose their aims and values on their own, according to reason. In a sense this is true: we do have some say in what aims and values we put at the center of our lives. However, Paul’s critique of the modern outlook might be that whenever we give some value or aim that role—when we make it the thing that structures our lives and drives us forward—we are no longer in charge. Rather, that value or aim has a life of its own, and it takes us places, as long as we serve it. We may shift from one governing aim to another, from one governing value to another, but make no mistake: we attribute ultimate value to, or worship, something, and so we are governed by something. In this passage, then, Paul suggests that Christians are those who have come under the highest governance of the universe—Christ. The implication is that Christ is the ultimate power that humans were made to worship, and that they are in darkness unless they do.