This article analyses how the letter to the Colossians explains Jesus; is Jesus God? Is He equal to the Father? Or is He a created being? Did He exist before He became a human being?
Colossians has been selected for this purpose because it contains perhaps the most elevated view of Christ of all of the New Testament letters. Colossians 1:15-19, in particular, is Paul’s most comprehensive explanation of the Person of Christ. This is the second article in this series. The first is Jesus in Colossians; Introduction.
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
He is King over the whole Universe
He is “seated at the right hand of God” (3:1). As discussed in the previous article, this statement makes Him distinct from God, but also means that He has the highest position in all the universe; subject only to God. Similar statements include:
1:16 “God created the whole universe … for him.” (Good News Translation).
1:18 “He Himself will come to have first place in everything”.
2:10 “He is the head over all rule and authority”.
He existed before all things
1:17 “He is before all things”.
The International Standard Version explains this verse as follows
“He himself existed before anything else did”.
Therefore, there never was a time that He did not exist. Since all things were created through Him, even time commenced through Him.
He is the visible likeness of the invisible God.
“He is the image of the invisible God” (1:15).
Other translations clarify the meaning:
“Christ is exactly like God, who cannot be seen” (Contemporary English Version).
“Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God” (Good News Translation).
This statement draws a distinction between God and Christ: While God is invisible, Jesus can be seen. Nevertheless, in Him we can see what God is like. When Philip asked, “Lord, show us the Father”, He responded, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
In Him the Fullness of Deity dwells.
There are two verses in the letter that refers to “the fullness” that dwells in His Son:
“It was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him” (1:19; NASB).
“For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (2:9; NASB).
According to 1:19 it is “all the fullness” but in 2:9 it is “the fullness of Deity”. It is therefore assumed that “all the fullness” (1:9) can also be understood as “the fullness of Deity”.
Some translations therefore interpret “the fullness of Deity” as God’s fullness, for instance:
“God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (NIV; 1:19).
“For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body” (New Living Translation; 2:9).
Other translations take it one step further to interpret this fullness as God Himself, for instance:
“For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ” (New Living Translation; 1:19).
“God himself was pleased to live fully in his Son” (Contemporary English Version; 1:19).
“God lives fully in Christ” (Contemporary English Version; 2:9).
This seems to go beyond the literal reading of the text. To say that God lives in Christ might give the impression that the Son is the Father, as some propose. The text says that God gave “all the fullness to dwell in Him”. This maintains a distinction between God and His Son and it implies that His Son is subordinate to the Father. This subordination is also seen in the following:
(1) He is “seated at the right hand of God” (3:1).
(2) The very description of Him as “Son” (1:13) indicates that He is subordinate to the Father.
(3) Jesus in Colossians; Introduction identified the Father as the Active Force both in creation and salvation, with His Son as the Means through which he works.
In Christianity we often hear that the Son is co-equal to the Father. This is not what the Bible teaches.
Some translations interpret the “fullness” as divinity:
“It was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God” (Good News Translation; 1:19).
“God was pleased to have all of his divine essence inhabit him” (International Standard Version; 1:19).
“For the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity” (Good News Translation; 2:9).
This also seems to go beyond the meaning of 1:19, but such translations are consistent with 2:9.
“In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form”. We should be careful not to make too much or too little of this statement:
To say that He is the Father or that He is co-equal to the Father would be making too much of this statement, for he received “all the fullness of Deity” from the Father. This means that He is distinct from God, the Father, and also that He is subordinate to the Father. God is the Power behind everything.
But it will be an even worse error to make too little of this statement. Since “all the fullness of Deity” dwells in Him, He is God. He is not God, but for us, for all practical purposes, He is God.
Holds all things together
“In Him all things hold together” (1:17 NASB).
The Good News Translation seems to reflect the idea well:
“In union with him all things have their proper place”
Another translation of the same phrase:
“He holds all creation together” (New Living Translation).
This is a profound concept. Hebrews 1:3 similarly says, “He … upholds all things by the word of His power”. Given this, how could there be any questions about His divinity? He is not God, but for us, for all practical purposes, He is God. Even though He is not God, “all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23).
Firstborn of all creation
Some argue that, since “He is … the firstborn of all creation,” that He is part of creation, and therefore a created being. Consider the context of this statement:
“15 He is … the firstborn of all creation, 16 for by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things.” (1:15-17 NASB)
Note the important word “for”. This word links the statement that “He is … the firstborn of all creation” to the statement in verse 16 that God created everything through Him.
There are at least two ways to understand “the firstborn of all creation”.
The First to exist – “Firstborn of all creation” may mean that He was the first to exist. This would then have a similar meaning to verse 17, which says, “He is before all things”. Verse 16 talks about God creating all things through His Son. Immediately before verse 16 we find the statement that “He is … the firstborn of all creation” and just after verse 16 we read “He is before all things.” It is therefore proposed that “He is … the firstborn of all creation” is the same as, “He is before all things”.
The Supreme One – Alternatively “firstborn of all creation” may mean that He is the most important of all creation because He created all things. The word “firstborn” (prōtotokos) initially meant literally the one born first, but in the Jewish culture over time became a designation of preeminence (Gen. 49:3–4; Ex. 4:22). For example, David, the youngest of Jesse, was named “firstborn” (Psalm 89:20–27). Manasseh was born to Joseph first, but Ephraim, his younger brother, was “firstborn” due to his position as given by their father Jacob (Gen. 48:13–20, Jer. 31:9).
Jesus is both “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15) and the “firstborn from the dead” (v18; cf. Rev. 1:5). But He was not literally the first to be raised from death. Lazarus, for example, was raised from death before Him. “Firstborn from the dead” therefore means to be the most important person ever to be raised from death.
If this principle is applied to “Firstborn of all creation”, then it means He was the most important One ever to be born. Most non-literal translations render the phrase with this meaning:
“The firstborn over all creation” (NIV);
“He is the first-born Son, superior to all created things” (Good News Translation).
“Preeminent over all creation” (New Heart English Bible).
But the first alternative seems to fit the context better. Consider the role of the word “for” in the full statement, and the two alternative ways of understanding the statement:
(1) He was the first to exist for God created all things through Him.
(2) He is superior to all creation for God created all things through Him.
Both statements may be true, but the cause-result relationship in the first statement seems more logical, and is therefore preferred here.
Did God create His Son?
As shown above, the typical response to this challenge is that “firstborn of all creation” does not mean that He was first, but that He is supreme over all. However, it was also proposed above that, in this instance, “firstborn of all creation” should be literally interpreted as that He was first to exist.
Another argument against the view that His Son is a created being is that He created all things (1:16), and therefore could not have been created Himself.
The argument proposed here is that He was not created, but that He was born—“He is … the firstborn”. This is justified as follows:
(1) Some translations add the word “Son” to the phrase. The Contemporary English Version, for instance, translates the “firstborn of all creation” as the “first-born Son, superior to all creation”. The title “Son” carries over from verse 13, where Jesus is the Father’s “beloved Son”.
(2) Colossians emphasizes the Father-Son relationship, for instance: “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3).
(3) Created beings are also sometimes called sons of God, but Jesus is His Unique Son. John often refers to Jesus as “the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).
Like a human father brings forth a human son, God brought forth His Son. If He was born, He was not created. What this means is difficult to imagine, for it is hidden in the infiniteness of God.
But perhaps all of these arguments are irrelevant. Contrary to the general understanding in Christianity, it was already shown that the Bible maintains a clear distinction between God and His Son. However, it also says that:
In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.
He always existed, for even time was created through Him.
He upholds all things by the word of His power.
If these things are true, why would it matter whether He was created or born? We cannot even understand the difference.
Is Jesus God?
Colossians teaches that God created all things through the One who become Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ holds all creation together. He is distinct from God, but King over all the Universe, subject only to God. He existed before all things and there never was a time that He did not exist. In Him we can see what God is like, for He is the visible likeness of the invisible God. God gave all the fullness of Deity to dwell in Him. This means that, for all practical purposes, He is God. Since He upholds all things by the word of His power, there cannot be questions about His divinity. All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He was not created, but He was born; the only begotten Son of God. A human father brings forth a human son, but God brought forth God’s Son.