Colossians 1:15-20 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him – all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers – all things were created through him and for him. He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross – through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven.
I stared with confusion at the swinging ceiling lamp in my daughter’s bedroom. She rested there fast asleep when the phone rang. My husband asked, “Did you feel it? There was an earthquake. Our office building has been evacuated.” The coming hours and weeks revealed that an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck in China’s Sichuan province, crushing 70,000 people beneath collapsing buildings and leaving more than four million homeless. At the moment of impact, our buildings shook like leaves in the wind, over 1000 miles away. Was God reigning pre-eminent on this day in history? As the last twenty-four hours unfolded, full of human tragedy and suffering, was God aware? In control? Working for good? How we answer this question makes a difference. Are we standing on solid ground, or shaking in the wind like my apartment building?
Suggested Study Timeline:
Day 1: Read the whole book of Colossians, noting how 1:15-20 fits into the whole.
Day 2: Focus on Colossians 1:3-14 and Colossians 1:21-2:3 and meditate on Paul’s before and after context to our passage.
Day 3: Read Colossians 3 & 4 to see how Paul expects their beliefs to impact their living.
Day 4: Reread the whole book of Colossians, putting together the ‘truth’ and ‘practice’ sections2.
Day 5: Answer the “discussion” questions.
Day 6: Answer the “application” questions.
Day 7: Reflect on personal application for this week and spend time in worship!
Background for the book of Colossians:
Colossians is one of the ‘prison epistles’ thought to be written by Paul during his first captivity in Rome, likely around 58-60 AD. Paul writes to the church at Colossae, largely Gentile, which he has not personally visited but was likely evangelized by Epaphras. His main purpose is to address the ‘Colossian heresy’ reported to him by Epaphras. The church struggled with Jewish influences which sought to add or improve upon the gospel by encouraging the church to adhere to a legal system suggesting greater forms of spirituality. They emphasized circumcision, special seasons, asceticism, angel worship, and ‘mysterious truths’3.
Background Context for Colossians 1:15-20
This passage is one of the richest ‘Christ’ passages in the New Testament. It is part of a larger section where Paul reminds the church of their hope in the gospel and prays they will grow in the knowledge of God. You could say Paul is praying “I want you to grow to know God better. Now here is what He is like…” In the section that follows Paul shares that it is this supreme Christ who saved them. There are no secret truths or greater levels of spirituality. Christ Himself is the mystery revealed, this One in whom they hope. Like most of Paul’s letters, the rich ‘know/believe’ (Ch. 1&2) part of the book proceeds the practical ‘live it out’ (Ch. 3&4) section. The later portion details Paul’s application of truth towards the troubles the church faced at this time in history.
What is meant by “firstborn” over all creation (Colossians 1:15)? This word has been the source of major conflict throughout the history of the church. Does “first-born” imply that the Son was brought into existence by the Father? In modern times, it is still used by some to say that Christ was created, not existing before time. However, the source of the conflict dates back to one of the first major heresies of the church. The “Arian Controversy” was begun by Arius, a bishop of Alexandria, who stated that there was a time when the Son did not exist. He was condemned at one of the first major councils of the church, the Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD. Another Greek word specifies a child who is born first among siblings, yet the word in our passage conveys the Jewish cultural idea of the first born sons’ rights4.
Do you quote the Nicene Creed in your church? It was written in response to this heresy. “…We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…begotten of the Father…of the essence of the Father… begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…” We can take clues from history that problems arise when one single phrase or verse alone supports one’s beliefs. Many cults and heresies arise from isolated Biblical passages. We can be assured that our beliefs are doctrinally sound when the whole weight of the Scriptures supports them.
Discussion Questions: Grasping the Meaning
1. Make a list of Christ’s qualities in Colossians 1:15-20.
2. What does it mean that Christ is the “image of the invisible God”? Is this the same or different than saying man is made in the image of God5? (See Hebrews 1:3; John1:14; 14:9; Colossians 2:9.)
3. What “invisible” things has He created (1:16)? What are the “thrones”, “dominions”, “principalities” and “powers6”?
4. In light of the reference to Christ being “firstborn”, how would you answer someone who says this passage proves that Christ was created7? (Read “historical tidbit” above.) What difference does it make whether or not Christ was created?
5. What is the meaning of “all things are held together in him”? What things? (Is he talking about atoms? The universe? Relationships? International politics? Others?) What do you think would happen practically if God ceased to hold all things together?
6. “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son.” What does this mean? What is “all his fullness”? (See Colossians 2:9.) In what ways are the Father and the Son the same? In what ways are they different8?
7. How would these truths have made a difference to the heresy the Colossian community faced?
8. Write down any further questions about this passage.
Application Questions: Grasping the Heart
1. Leaders who have ultimate rule are not necessarily comforting. What else do we trust about Christ that makes His rule reassuring? What passages would you turn to if explaining this to a Muslim (who believes God is in charge, but not gracious9?)
2. Unpack the meaning of “all things are created for him.” What does this mean for the created world? What does this mean for those who don’t trust Him? What does this mean for the world’s corruptions? Does it reflect any responsibility on Christians towards creation? Is it our responsibility to seek to conform the world around us (people, governments, the environment) to His standards10?
3. Reflect on Colossians 1:19, followed by John 1:16. Journal your thoughts here. What does it mean to you that this Christ is the one in you? (See Colossians 1:27.)
4. In our personal lives, we may quickly confess His sovereignty from all eternity. But are there any current attitudes or worries of your heart that betray your confession?
5. On a larger scale, there are many times when our world may appear to be outside of Christ’s sovereign control. What most recent tragedy in your culture or community might seem to suggest that Christ is not currently over all things? In view of this tragedy, what spiritual questions and doubts surfaced in your own mind and heart? What were the responses of believers and unbelievers around you? How does this passage speak to such a calamity? What can we affirm? What questions are left unanswered?11?
6. What is one way that your reflection on the sovereign reign of Christ has made Him appear more beautiful and glorious to you this week? Write a prayer praising Christ for His rule of the universe and your life and asking His help to grow in these truths.
7. Share with one another what truths have been most meaningful to you. Spend a moment writing down the insights you have heard from others during this study that have enriched your own perspective.
8. What is your action step for today? (What do you need to confess? What conversation do you need to have? What do you need to pray? What needs to change in your thinking or what actions need to be taken? As a result of this study, how do you most desire to grow?)
Group prayer requests for the week:
We praise you as the One who holds our world together by your great power. Yet, how desperately we want to walk by sight, and not by faith! We want to see your powerfully manifested now and still fear the world which does not submit to your rule. We fear the evil, sorrow, and tragedy of the walk-by-faith world. If our hearts are not resting in the reality of eternity, then your rule does not feel comforting. You must accomplish a supernatural work in our hearts to desire ultimate safety and hope rather than present security and comfort. Lord, please work this in us!
1 Verses 13 and 14 are also in the natural break for this passage, so include them in your study this week if you like. I did not include them because we will study His work on the cross in a later passage.
2 The first 2 chapters of Colossians are sometimes called “orthodoxy”, doctrine rich teaching which Paul wanted to impart. In Chapters 3 and 4, Paul outlines his “orthopraxy”, which explains how these doctrines about Christ should make a difference in their daily lives.
3 “Epistle to the Colossians”, International Standard Biblical Encyclopedia, in Biblesoft Electronic Database [CD-ROM] (International Bible Translators, 1996).
4 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 243-244.
5 “Men could not have done it (renewed the image of God in mankind), for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, who could recreate man made after the image.” St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1944), 41.
6 See similar words used in Ephesians 6:2; 1 Peter 3:22; Ephesians 1:21.
7 See also John 1:1; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2
8 For further study of the relationship between the Father and the Son, look up: Matthew 24:36; John 5:21-23; 8:28-29; 10:25-30; 14:9-12; 17:1-5; 20:21.
9 After adding your own, these are also helpful: Psalms 46:10; Ephesians 2:4; Philippians 3:21; Colossians 1:20; Titus 3:4-6; 1 John 1:9.
10 Historically, we can see the effects of ‘forced conformity’ to God’s standards: 1) The Crusades forced ‘disciples’ to convert, but history showed that decisions of the will do not make for transformations within the heart! 2) The Puritans who attempted to create a perfect society based on God’s standards faced a rude awakening one generation later when their unconverted children took the helm. We know that one day all men will see His ultimate rule. Yet it begs the question, What role do we play in helping others come to realize His pre-eminence in this life?
11 Meditate on Paul’s circumstances as he is writing about Christ over all things! Also meditate on Christ’s responses to those who questioned His lack of displayed power: Matthew 26:53; John 19:8-11.