An Exegetical Analysis of Colossians 1:15-23
The book of Colossians was written by Paul and is noted as one of the most Christ-centered books in the Bible. The reference to Colossians as the most Christ-centered book in the Bible comes from the fact that it largely focuses on the work and person of Christ. In chapter 1:15-23, the book centers on the pre-eminence of Jesus based on Him as a unique person, as the maker of heaven and earth, and as the beginning and head of a new creation. The structure and approach used by Paul in these verses have been discussed widely and there have been arguments that verses 15-20 are structured in an early Christian hymn. Other arguments are that the verses are different from the Pauline epistolary prose and this may be a contention that Paul was not the author of the verses, rather, he quoted them from another source. The exegetical paper that follows analyzes the different aspects of the verses 15-23 in chapter one of the book.
General structural overview
Verses 15-20 of the chapter have been a point of argument with regards to the fact that this is seen as a hymnic composition or a deviation from a Pauline composition. Paul is seen as having applied one style in his works that feature a particular syntax and choice of words. The assumption is that the approach to style as used in one passage cannot alter appreciably in another work but the verses 15-20 show a deviation from the established Paul style of writing. As argued by some authors, Paul had an established normative style (Pauline style) that can be associated with profound meditation associated with a period of forced inactivity while in prison. For some who have studied the Pauline style of writing, they have focused on the use of filler words and sentence length, where they claim that the use of filler words was an unconscious literary habit that is evident in all his productions. Other associations attributed to Pauline style are the breaks that he has in most of his writings and this has been attributed to different ‘settings’ as he wrote his work. As much as there may be different approaches to determining the Pauline style and where a writing does not conform to this style, the fact that Paul himself claimed co-authorship means that identifying these variations may be difficult.
Despite the difficulty in attributing a writing to the Pauline style, verse 15-20 has a strong deviation from Paul’s writing in that it is not only stylistic peculiar but has an elevated style with a rhythmic lilt as well as an unusual vocabulary. Despite the deviation from the Pauline style, it does not imply that Paul would not have changed his writing style if he wanted to. Paul has been associated with poetic writings in the Old Testament and this means that he could as easily replicate this writing style in the New Testament. As such, despite the likely deviation from Pauline style, the hymnic writing of verse 15-20 does not imply that this was not Paul’s writing.
In extolling the hymnic elements of the text, the verses have been subdivided into different strophes. Strophe A is from verse 15-18a, while strophe B is from verse 18b-20. Strophes are usually the structural divisions in a poem and contain stanzas of different lengths and are characterized with the ancient Greek choral ode. The first strophe focuses on Christ and the creation while the second strophe focuses on Christ and the church. The rhythmic aspects of the texts are brought about by the use of parallelism, alliteration, and assonance of the first and last syllables in phrases and also words in each line. The repartition of words and phrases has also been associated with the poetic and hymnic aspects of the text. Some authors have defined certain correspondences in the texts as evidenced in the form depicted below.
The correspondences in the text above come from the recurrence as well as the placing of certain terms in particular positions. The importance lies in bringing out the emphasis in the creation order as well as redemption. The lines and words in the texts have been arranged to achieve a symmetrical composition that is aligned to hymnic compositions.
As regards, the content of these verses, the passage in its entirety focuses on the exposition of Christ who is the subject throughout the text. The aim of the passage is the establishment of Christ’s pre-eminence in reconciliation as well as creation. The content of the verses features his supremacy that is unrivaled and is also absolute in celestial and terrestrial beings. In line with emphasizing this supremacy, the verses feature a recurrence of the word ‘all.’ The placement of ‘heaven and earth’ shows the transcendence of Christ’s influence in both realms. Referring back to Paul’s circumstances as he wrote the epistles, he was a prisoner and this militates against the writing of a rhythmic passage in his letter. The contention is that the passage may have had an independent existence and that Paul turned to a hymn that was well known to the readers and himself. Essentially, he is using the hymn to emphasize and place an appeal that is already existent in the author’s mind. Paul may have borrowed the hymn from a liturgical praxis clearly known to his readers and himself.
Verse 15 of the passage falls in the first strophe and claims Jesus as the ‘firstborn’ of all creations and begins by noting that he is the ‘image’ of God who is invisible. The two contrasts and conflicting aspects are the notions of ‘image’ and the ‘invisible.’ The question that may arise is how something invisible is likely to have an image. The same reference is seen in 2 Cor 4:4 and in Heb 1:3. In analyzing the concept of the ‘image,’ Greek philosophy associates an image to the reality it represents and hence the image is no different from what it represents. The image becomes a reproduction of the reality and of another subject or object. In this case, Jesus has been referred to as the image of the invisible God and this means that there is no difference between the image and what it represents. Jesus is no different from God, but his representation is visible unlike the invisible representation of God. Jesus becomes the visible reproduction of God and is, therefore, illuminating the essence of God.
As regards other references of the invisibility of God and Jesus as the image, Paul insists on the invisibility of God’s qualities such as being divine and having eternal power. In Romans 1:20, Paul notes that this authority and heavenly nature have been clearly seen and understood so that men can have no excuse. By referring to seeing the invisibility, Paul is referring to Jesus Christ as God’s representation on earth and as the person who brings clarity to the invisibility aspect of God. Christ becomes the avenue that individuals can use to gain access and knowledge to this God who is invisible to the senses as he is a reflection, representation, and likeness of God.
The verse also refers to Christ as the firstborn of all creation. In reference to the term ‘firstborn’, it is usually associated with the first in birth and although Jesus is Mary’s firstborn, Paul uses the term to associate Jesus with other creation. He is referring to Jesus as the first of all creation but neither does it imply that Jesus was the first creation by God. Within the Old Testament, the term is associated with sovereignty and exaltation and is, therefore, an expression of status. In Psalms 89:27, the term has been used to denote status and exaltation above all kings of the earth. As such, the term as used with reference to Christ places him as an exalted being way above others and this means that he ranks high above all other creation, where his exaltation implies that other creations are subordinate to him.
In this verse, there is a reference to the fact that all things were created in him, and this verse is an explanation as to why Christ reigns supreme over all other creation. Although the passage depicted above notes ‘in him’ the NIV also translate the term as ‘by him.’ The reference ‘by him’ does not imply that Christ was the creator, rather, the implication is that the creation was through Jesus. The use of the term refers to the notion that all creation was not apart from Christ but he was the sphere within which creation took place. Jesus is therefore portrayed as the agent through whom God created all things and this also conforms to the passage in Heb 1:2 that notes that it was through the Son that the worlds were created. The implication is that nothing would have come to existence without passing through Christ and this also emphasizes the fact that our existence is due to Jesus Christ without whom the individual is naught. By postulation that the universe came into existence through Christ, he can also be considered as the creator of the universe if nothing came to existence without passing by him. Being the originator of the creation, Jesus is also the goal of the creation The use of the term ‘in him’ rather than ‘by him’ may have been an attempt by Paul to deviate from referring to ‘through’ that is also used in the second part of verse 16. Despite this, the term ‘in him’ shows Christ’s encompassing role in the creation of all things and this means that he retains control over these things.
The terms expressing authority and having power over other elements are such as ‘thrones,’ ‘dominion,’ ‘authorities’ and ‘rulers.’ Essentially, the terms refer to the exertion of power over other elements. Paul uses such terms in his text and avoids the reference to these powers as ‘gods’ or anywhere close with the Son of God. Even in the 2nd temple Judaism, the terms are used in reference to certain powers that are not supreme but have some patronage over human kingdoms. Jesus is exalted as the Supreme Being and this means that even these powers and dominions have to pass through him.
The verse continues with the extolling of the superiority of Christ over all creation and there is a reference that he is ‘before all things’ which is repeated in the note that ‘all things hold together in him.’ The use of ‘before all things’ gives a time precedence that also extends the notion of status, with the second part of holding things together showing that he creates a spiritual connection that holds his creation together. The precedence of Christ over all creations in time and status while also being the factor that holds the creation together shows that God did not abandon his creation, but he gave Jesus Christ as the sustenance of this creation. Further, the verse is re-affirming Christ’s cosmic significance and his pre-existence where he is before all things and is, therefore, superior to this creation and has a temporal priority.
The repetition of Christ as the factor holding things together also refers to his agency role in the creation, where all things were ‘in him’ and ‘through him.’ The universe coheres and holds together and this implies that he is the one sustaining and maintaining the universe. Christ’s role in upholding and maintaining the universe is also seen in Hebrews 1:2-3 that refers to the fact that it was the son of God that the worlds were created and he is also the one upholding them with his enabling and almighty word. Paul is, therefore, emphasizing Christ’s pre-eminence as the agency of creation as well as His role in ensuring that all things hold together. The universe was not just created, but Christ was given as the unifying factor and as the Supreme Being from whom sustenance of the universe comes from. As much as Paul is emphasizing these factors, the repetition of the words has to be associated with the fact that the verse falls within the hymnic creation. It falls as part of the poetic imagination as much as it emphasizes Christ’s pre-eminence.
There is a shift in focus as from verse 18 which serves as part of the second strophe. The first strophe focused largely on the fact that Christ is the supreme Being over all creation, but the focus shifts to Christ as part of the ‘body’ which is the church. The cosmic element of Christ has now been brought down to the earthly church and the body. The supremacy and exaltation that Christ has over the universe is now being extended to the church where he also has a supreme reign. In shifting the focus from the heavenly (supremacy over the universe) to the earthly (church), Paul refers to Christ as the ‘head’ of the body which is the church. Prior to the relation to Christ as the head of the body, Paul is comparing the church to the body where Christ is the ultimate leader. Tying Jesus to the church and also the fact that creation is through Him and sustained by Him, Paul is implying that the church’s and the creation’s destinies are bound together. The purpose that God has for his creation is gestated in the congregational life of the church. Christ as the ‘head’ of the church means that the body has to conform to his will and purpose which is that of redemption. As the head of the church, Christ gives life to the church and is also the supreme authority over the church. The church has to be worthy of Christ by fulfilling his role and purpose in the universe.
The second strophe also uses the terms ‘firstborn’ and ‘beginning’ and this is used to re-affirm Christ’s position over the church. As much as the terms re-affirm Christ as the head, they are used with reference to Him being ‘the beginning and firstborn from the dead.’ The verse is referring to Christ’s resurrection that becomes the new life for others. Further, the usage of the term means that the supremacy of Christ is not limited to the living creation or those in salvation only, but also the dead. Death is being used to refer to falling out of harmony and in a disordered state that may have been brought about by sin, but the fact that Christ conquered all this implies that his death and resurrection brings harmony in disharmony. By being the firstborn and beginning of those that are dead, there is a re-establishment of Christ’s pre-eminence in all things and not just the living creation.
The verse refers to the fullness of God and the fullness of Christ such that Christ is postulated as a full and not partial representation of God. The ‘fullness’ in this term is referring to God who is seeking to dwell in Jesus Christ. The term is seen as a circumlocution for God such that he pleases to dwell in Christ. With God dwelling in Christ fully, this is an extension of the fact that Christ is the image of God and this means that Christ also fully represents God. the notion of ‘fullness’ dwelling in Christ is also seen in other scriptures though they are not referring to God. In Colossians 2:9, the passage notes that it is in Christ that the fullness of all deity dwells in bodily form. The verse is no different from verse 19 that extends the notion of the fullness of God being pleased in dwelling in Christ. With the fullness of God being in him, Christ exhibits all the attributes of God that include his glory, wisdom, word, and His spirit. Within the Old Testament, God is described as dwelling in the temple mount (Psalms 68:16). Verse 19 may, therefore, be a denotation that God has moved his dwelling place from the temple mount and into the body of Christ. From Garland’s perspective, God’s redemptive power is now dwelling in Christ.
The focus of verse 20 is the universal reconciliation of all things either in heaven or the earth. The verse refers to this reconciliation as coming about following the making of peace through Christ’s bloodshed on the cross. Essentially, the universal reconciliation is coming at the cost of Christ’s death. Adjoining this to previous verses that note of the creation being through and in Christ, means that the pre-eminence of Christ is being emphasized in this verse. The creation was through Christ and so is the reconciliation through his death. The fact that Christ has to lose his spiritual form of existence and take a bodily form that would come down on earth and suffer means that salvation is not a mythical tale but one that has been embodied in the suffering of Christ. The suffering and agony that Christ went through on the cross were the sacrifices for reconciling all things and achieving redemption for all human beings.
Another perspective in the exegesis of this verse is that the need for reconciliation means that there have been shortcomings. The creation was through Christ and for him, but the need for reconciliation means that the universe has deviated from its ordained purposes and its intended relationship with Christ. The creation has lost the relationship that it was intended to have with the creator and this means that it is need of reconciliation, where the term is referring to the restoring of the relationship between sinners and their creator. Moo draws reference on the notion that reconciliation focuses on the sinners and their God by noting that the use of reconciliation is associated with marriage partners. Despite this postulation, the verse extends the notion that the reconciliation is for all things in heaven and earth and this implies that this is about all things that were created. With this reference, the reunion of all things in heaven and earth has been associated with the notion of universal salvation where God will not allow anything to be beyond the saving love of Christ. Also, the verse is seen as picking up from the Old Testament reference to the fact that God would establish universal well-being or peace where the peace will bring blessings and security to Israel. The need for the wellbeing comes from the fact that human beings have fallen into sin and are in need of restoration that Paul is referring to in this universal reconciliation. As such, the universal reconciliation is not being used in reference to cosmic salvation or redemption but on cosmic renewal or restoration. The cosmic powers are all evil and need to be subjected under Christ as their head. Through the death of Jesus Christ, God brings all his creation under his power, but it is important to note that this peace is yet to be established.
Verse 20 has dealt with the reconciliation of all things in the universe to God through the death of Christ, but verse 21 shifts back to the alienation of the individual from God. The use of the term ‘alienation’ refers to a deep sense of not belonging, being isolated, and lonely. Essentially, the verse is referring to the separation of human beings from their God and this is laying the basis or need for the reconciliation and restoration coming from the death of Christ. The shift in focus is intended to show the separation that exists between human beings and God as brought about by sin. Human beings have been subjecting themselves to the worship of false gods such that the worship of the true God seems alien to them. As such, human beings have been the instigators of their own separation from their creator through their sinful actions. Further, with the previous verse having focused on the reconciliation of the entire universe, verse 21 is extending the notion that the distension and separation are not just in the cosmic realm but has also taken hold in the personal sphere. The purpose of the reconciliation is depicted here as not just because of the shortcomings of the universe, but also due to the individual shortcomings.
Considering that the verse that follows focuses on the reconciliation of the individual, the shift in focus on this verse may be attributable to the need to introduce reconciliation from a personal perspective. Paul may have been showing that the purpose for the reconciliation comes down to the individual relationship with the creator. The shift of focus is therefore based on the need to emphasize the importance of reconciliation and what Christ’s death means.
Following the reference to the individual’s alienation from God, verse 22 refocuses on the message on reconciliation. In this reconciliation, the cycle of sin is broken and the alienated relationship between the individual and their creator is amended and this brings the individual closer to God’s purpose and holy character. The reference to the body of flesh jolts the reader back to Christ’s presence on earth as human and this is Paul’s attempt in re-emphasizing that Christ may be identified with God but he is also identified with the sinful nature of human beings. In his ‘body of flesh,’ Jesus shared in humanity’s life experiences, went through suffering for the sake of the sins of those on earth, and later endured death. The verse is therefore based on an eschatological focus where this historic act took place for the sake of the sins of humankind, but the relevance of this death still applies today. As much as Christ endured suffering in a body of flesh for the sake of humankind’s sins, this act is still relevant today and is as much a present focus as much as it is eschatological.
The usage of the term ‘body of flesh’ is re-emphasizing the sacrifice that Christ made for the sake of salvation and reconciliation. Being the Supreme Being over his creation, he did not take a spiritual form in ensuring that humanity is reconciled with God, but rather he procured salvation through sacrifice and self-oblation that ended up in death. God sent his son who came in the likeness of the sinful flesh and this means that he conquered sin in his flesh. Bruce argues that there was a necessity in the incarnation of the Son of God so as to demonstrate God’s righteousness in bestowing peace upon sinners. For those that have received peace following the sacrifice of his son in the flesh already have a direct access to him. Through his bodily sacrifice, the accused persons are awarded liberty rather than condemnation. The condemnation that the accused would have gone through has already been accomplished by Christ who was in his bodily form.
In this verse, the conditional element is that the reconciliation only takes place when the believer remains firmly founded and stable in one’s faith and not shifting from the hope embodied in the gospel. The interpretation of this conditional clause is that there cannot be an achievement of reconciliation if the believer does not persevere to the end. Full salvation is seen as only coming about when the individual holds steadfast to the hope preached in the gospel. The conditional clause was meant to extend the notion that Colossians had to adhere to the doctrine of the gospel and be planted in the faith that has been preached to them. Paul is postulating the fact that hope is an essential part of salvation as well as the fact that one must be established in the faith. The implication is that it is likely for the believer not to continue in the faith either by despair or having being pulled back to worldly aspects and this means that the believer cannot be subject to the reconciliation brought about by the death of Christ.
The universal proclamation of the gospel implies that the believers are expected to extend the preaching of the gospel to all creations. The statement does not imply that the gospel has been preached to all humankind, rather there should be aspects of progressing the gospel and getting more people to salvation. The reference to the universal proclamation of the gospel is also Paul’s intent to show that it is authentic and not just a message that appeals to a select number of people. Further, the use of the term ‘diakanos’ as Paul uses to refer to himself means that he has become a servant through whom God works through. Most notably, he is referring to himself as having been privileged to deliver the message of reconciliation to these people and is, therefore, a true exponent of this message.
The discussion above has analyzed some of the main elements of the passage in Colossians 1:15-23 that features a hymnic prose and the message of God’s reconciliation. The hymnic aspect is visible in verses 15-20 and has been attributed to an existing liturgical praxis known by the author and the audience. The hymn is emphasizing the message that Paul is delivering, and the message is on reconciliation between God and his creation, and this includes the individual human being. The reconciliation has been made possible by Christ who suffered in bodily form and this means that humankind has been saved from similar condemnation. Despite this, salvation will only come about if the believer holds steadfast to the faith and upholds the need to preach the gospel to all creations.
Balchin, John. “Colossians 1:15-20: An Early Christian Hymn? The Arguments from Style,” Vox Evangelica 15 (1985), 65-94
Bruce, Frederick. The epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians. Michigan: William B Eerdmans, 1984.
Dunn, James. The epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. Michigan:William B Eerdmans, 2014.
Garland, David. The NIV application commentary. Michigan: Zondervan, 1996.
Grant, Charles. Introduction to New Testament thought. New York: Abingdon-Cokes-bury Press, 1950.
Martin, Ralph. “An Early Christian Hymn – (Col. 1: 15-20),” The Evangelical Quarterly 36 (1964), 195-205
Moo, Douglas. The letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.
O’Brien, Peter. World biblical commentary: Colossians, Philemon. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.
Sumner, Paul. Divine council in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament. California: Pepperdine University, 1991.
 John Balchin, “Colossians 1:15-20: An Early Christian Hymn? The Arguments from Style,” Vox Evangelica 15 (1985), 65
 Charles Grant, Introduction to New Testament thought (New York: Abingdon-Cokes-bury Press, 1950), 232.
 Ralph Martin, “An Early Christian Hymn – (Col. 1: 15-20),” The Evangelical Quarterly 36 (1964),195.
 Ralph Martin, “An Early Christian Hymn,” 199.
 David Garland. The NIV application commentary. (Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 88.
 James Dunn, The epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. (Michigan: William B Eerdmans, 2014), 87.
 Frederick Bruce, The epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Michigan: William B Eerdmans, 1984), 61.
 Paul Sumner, Divine council in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament (California: Pepperdine University, 1991),22.
 Frederick Bruce, The epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians, 65.
 David Garland. The NIV application commentary, 92
 Frederick Bruce, The epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians, 72.
 David Garland. The NIV application commentary, 94
 Ibid, 95
 Douglas Moo, The letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008), 134
 Ibid, 135
 Peter O’Brien, World biblical commentary: Colossians, Philemon. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 54.
 Moo, The letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 137.
 Bruce, The epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians, 79.
 Peter O’Brien, World biblical commentary: Colossians, Philemon, 71.