The Politics of Christ, the Beginning—Colossians 1:15-28 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In a powerful hymn of praise, Paul discloses the truth that must lie at the heart of all Christian political theology: Christ the first in and over all of the creation.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in 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 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.

21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 25 I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.

This week’s epistle reading opens with a dazzling paean of praise. Its surpassing radiance passing through a literary prism, the variegated splendour of the Son is displayed in each of its key facets.

N.T. Wright, developing an argument from C.F. Burney, suggests that the poem unpacks the various possible meanings of the Hebrew term bereshith, the term with which the book of Genesis—and the Scripture as a whole—begins. This term enjoys added significance by virtue of the implied identification of reshith with Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22. Wright summarizes the poem’s development of its bereshith theme as follows:

  1. (15a) He is the image [like Wisdom herself, and evoking Gen 1.26]
  2. (15c) He is the firstborn [like Wisdom herself: the first meaning of reshith]
  3. (17ab) He is supreme (προ πάντων) [the second meaning of reshith]
  4. (18a) He is the head [the third meaning of reshith]
  5. (18c) He is the beginning [the fourth, and climactic, meaning of reshith]
  6. (18d) He is the firstborn—this time from the dead [like Wisdom again, but now firmly as a human being]

The be of bereshith is also explored in each of its principal aspects—‘in him’, ‘through him’, ‘to him’ (verses 16, 19-20). In its unpacking of the term bereshith, its reference to the image of God, and in its expansive cosmic sweep, Colossians 1:15-20 evokes the creation account and situates the Son at the heart of its meaning.

Christ, the Son, is the firstborn and archetypal Image of God, the one who represents and symbolizes God’s rule in his world. He is the one in whom, through whom, and for whom all things were created. Whatever has been created—‘all things in heaven and on earth … things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers’—exists on account of him and for his sake. He is supreme over all, enjoying the prominence and priority of the head, the source and the first principle of all things.

Implicit in this poem is a rereading of the opening chapters of Genesis. Veiled in the very language of Genesis 1, Paul discovers the incomparable majesty of the risen Christ, the one who has always been there, yet has only now in the fullness of time been disclosed. Within this triumphant poem, one of the most fundamental and familiar scriptural passages of all reveals a transfigured aspect, as from its words the light of the glory of Christ shines forth.

The prominence and glory of the firstborn Son is revealed through his great act of reconciliation, with which the second half (verses 18c-20) of the bipartite poem is concerned. Christ’s status as the firstborn in creation is reaffirmed and secured in his status in its redemption as the firstborn from the dead, whereby the once-alienated creation is restored to its rightful ruler, heir, and source.

The Christology of Colossians 1:15-20 is an incredibly high one. Christ is presented as integral to the origin, constitution, and destiny of God’s creation in a manner that implies his divine identity in a striking and powerful manner.

Indeed, the very weight placed upon prepositions—‘in’, ‘by’, ‘for’, ‘through’—in assigning the single act of creation to Christ might hint at some proto-Trinitarian account of inseparable operations and appropriation. Christ’s activity and place in creation is divine yet personally distinct. The entirety of the unitary act of creation—both bringing it into and sustaining it within being—is related to his agency, yet in a particular way (one roughly hinted at in the specific prepositions employed) consistent with the assignation of the entire act to the Father in another. The same creative action constantly arises from the origination (‘from’) of the Father, the establishing and upholding of the Son, and the animation and perfecting of the Spirit.

Colossians 1:15-20 is a stunning articulation of a Christological monotheism; the one God—the Creator above all creation—is known in the Son. The intensity of the Creator’s authority is concentrated in him and the cosmic scope of the poem corresponds to this: if Christ’s role in the creation is as the poem describes it, there is nothing that falls outside of his authority.

Although the political force and implications of such a statement may be apparent, we do not have to make them explicit ourselves, for they are already prominent in the passage itself. Verse 16 declares that all ‘thrones or dominions or rulers or powers … have been created through him and for him.’ Implied in verse 20 is the fact that all such authorities are reconciled to God by Christ and his cross.

Political theology faces a continual danger of forgetting the kerygmatic core of our faith: Jesus is Lord. Just as the Son is the firstborn over all creation, supreme in all things, summing up all in himself, the head, the beginning, the source and the purpose of everything, and the reconciler and ruler of the cosmos, so this gospel declaration must provide the starting point for all Christian political thought and reflection.

Without such a starting point, political theology ceases to be truly evangelical—that is, it abandons the authoritative gospel proclamation that should provide its heart. While we may still be gifted political ethicists, we will have lost sight of the uniqueness of the one who is the Beginning and abandoned the foundational Christian truth.

Just as Paul argues in the verses following this poem in our passage, the heart of the Christian message is not some teaching that Christ taught, nor some moral example that he set—important though both of these things are—but Christ himself and the unique work he has done.

‘It is he whom we proclaim’—it is the uniqueness of Christ and his status within the creation that grounds the absolute authority of his message and example. Only with him as our starting point will everything else come into focus.

Who is the image
of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things were created
in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible things,
whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.

He himself is before all things.

And in him all things hold together.

He is the head of the body, the church;

Who is the beginning,
firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
by making peace through the blood of his cross,
through him, whether the things on earth or the things in heaven.

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