Is Jesus God? Or is He a created being? – A study of the letter to the Colossians

ColossiansThis article discusses the view of Jesus in the letter to the Colossians; is Jesus God?  Is He equal to the Father?  Or is He a created being?  

Colossians has been selected for this purpose because it contains perhaps the highest view of Christ of all of the New Testament letters.  Colossians 1:15-19, in particular, is Paul’s fullest explanation of the Person of Christ.  This is the second article on Jesus in Colossians.  The first is the Introduction.

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

He rules over the entire Universe.

The Father's Right HandHe is “seated at the right hand of God” (3:1).  As discussed in the previous article, this statement means that He is distinct from God and subordinate to God.  But it also implies that He has the highest position in all the universe; next to God.  Other statements indicating His extremely high position are:

1:16God created the whole universe … for him.” (Good News Translation).
1:18He Himself will come to have first place in everything.
2:10He is the head over all rule and authority.

He existed before all things.

1:17He 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 image 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 confirms the 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.

The Essence of Jesus ChristThere 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).
For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (2:9).

While 1:19 refers to “all the fullness,” in 2:9 it is “the fullness of Deity.”  It is therefore assumed that “all the fullness” (1:9) is equivalent to “the fullness of Deity.”  Some translations interpret “the fullness of Deity” as follows:

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).

God Himself

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).

God being fully in Jesus would be consistent with Jesus’ prayer, in which He said, “You, Father, are in Me and I in You” (John 17:21).  But this does not mean that Jesus is God.

Divine essence

Other translations interpret 2:9 as that Jesus is God:

ColossiansIt 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 seems to go beyond the message of Colossians.  It was God who 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 distinction and subordination is also seen in the following:

(1) He is “seated at the right hand of God” (3:1).
(2) He is the visible likeness of the invisible God.
(3) As “Son” (1:13), He is subordinate to the Father.
(4) The Father is the Active Force both in creation and salvation, while His Son is the Means through which the Father works.  See Jesus in Colossians; Introduction.

Christianity often teaches that the Son is co-equal to the Father.  Colossians, in contrast, consistently makes a distinction between God and Jesus.  Therefore, to interpret 2:9 as that Jesus is God, would be contrary to the persistent teaching of Colossians.

Conclusion

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 co-equal to the Father would be making too much of this statement.  But it will be an even worse error to make too little of this statement.  Perhaps we should conclude with the NIV’s statement “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.”  What this means is further discussed in the concluding section of this article: Is Jesus God?

He holds all things together.

In Him all things hold together” (1:17).

Another translation of the same phrase:

In union with him all things have their proper place” (Good News)
He holds all creation together” (New Living).

This is a most profound concept.  Hebrews 1:3 similarly says, “He … upholds all things by the word of His power.”  Just like God created all things through Jesus, it is proposed that God holds all creation together through Him.

He is the firstborn of all creation (1:15).

His beloved Son … is … the firstborn of all creation, for by Him all things were created” (Col. 1:13-16).

The word “for” sets a causal relationship.  In other words, He is the firstborn of all creation because He created everything.  This could be understood in at least two ways:

Most important: He is the most important Being in all of the universe because He created everything.  OR

First to exist:  He was the first to exist because He created everything.

Both statements are true.  The question is what Paul meant.

Preeminent

FirstbornThe word “firstborn” (prōtotokos) initially literally meant the one born first, but over time became a designation of preeminence (Gen. 49:3–4; Ex. 4:22).  For example, David, the youngest of Jesse, was called “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).

The interpretation that “firstborn” (prōtotokos) means preeminence is supported by the following:

Jesus is also the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; 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.

Paul elsewhere stated, “become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8:29).  “Firstborn” here implies preeminence.

The word “firstborn” in Colossians therefore does not refer to a literal birth, but means that He is superior over all creation.  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).

First to exist

Consider again the context in which we find the phrase:

He is … the firstborn of all creation, for by Him all things were created… He is before all things.” (1:15-17 NASB)

The word “for” links “the firstborn of all creation” to the creation event.  Since the creation event implies a time reference, it is possible to understand “the firstborn of all creation” to have a reference to time.  In other words, that it literally means that Jesus was the first to exist, for God created all things through Him.  This would then have a similar meaning to verse 17, which says, “He is before all things.

Created

Some argue that “Firstborn of all creation” means that Jesus is part of creation, and therefore a created being.  In other words, that God created His Son.  This interpretation is not supported here, for the following reasons:

Firstly, Paul’s main message in these verses is that Jesus created all things (1:16).  If all things have been created through Him and for Him, then He was not created Himself.

Secondly, as explained, the word “firstborn” in this context can quite naturally be understood as meaning “superior to all created things.

Thirdly, if He was born, He was not created.  John often refers to Jesus as the Only Begotten Son of God (1:18; 3:16, 18).  “Begotten” must be understood different from created.  He was not born like a human child is born, but God brought forth His Son.  What this means is difficult to imagine, for it is hidden in the infinity of God.  For a further discussion, see Only Begotten Son of God.

Does it really matter?

But perhaps all of these arguments, about whether He was created, are irrelevant.  Contrary to the general understanding in Christianity, Colossians and the Bible in general maintains a clear distinction between God and Jesus.  See also Jesus is not the same Person as God.

However, the Bible also says that in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form (2:9), that He always existed, for even time was created through Him and He upholds all things by the word of His power (1:17; Heb. 1:3).  Since these things are true, why would it matter whether He was created or born?  We don’t even understand the difference.

Is Jesus God?

Jesus ChristAs shown in the previous article. Colossians maintains a clear distinction between God and Jesus.  This is seen in statements such as that Jesus sits at God’s right hand, and that He is the image of the invisible God.  Such statements imply that Jesus is not God, but subordinate to God.

But Colossians also teaches that God created all things through Jesus, that Jesus Christ holds all creation together, that the fullness of deity dwells in Him, that He is the visible likeness of the invisible God, that He existed before all things and that He rules over all the entire Universe, subject only to God.  Therefore most Christians worship Him as God.

Both views are valid.  Actually, the question, whether He is God, is a bad question, for it depends on what one means by the title “God:

Most High: The angel said to Mary that Jesus will be called the Son of the Most High.  When the Bible makes statements such as that God is invisible, or that Jesus sits at the right hand of God, or “There is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,” then the Bible refers to the Most High as God. Using this definition of the title “God,” Jesus is not God.

Worship: But the word “God” also has a more general meaning, namely a being who is worshiped by other beings.  Many false gods are worshiped in the world.  However, one of the articles in this series concluded that we must worship Jesus.  When we use the title “God” to identify the One we must worship, then Jesus is God.

The question, whether Jesus is God, therefore creates unnecessary disagreement due to a confusion of terms.  The Bible in a few places describes Jesus as God, but that does not make Him the same as or equal to the Most High.  To be technically correct, we should use the Bible’s definition of the title “God,” which excludes Jesus.

Summary

Jesus rules over the entire Universe.  He is seated at the right hand of God.  God created the whole universe for him.  He is the Head over all rule and authority.

He existed before anything else did.  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.  In Him we can see what God is like.  He said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

In Him the Fullness of Deity dwells.  Some translations take this to mean that Jesus is God.  This is contrary to the message of Colossians.  Colossians consistently maintains a distinction between God and Jesus and implies that Jesus is subordinate to God.

In Him all things hold together.  Hebrews 1:3 similarly says, “He … upholds all things by the word of His power”.

He is the firstborn of all creation.  Some argue that this means that He is part of creation, and therefore a created being.  This interpretation is not supported here, because Jesus created all things, and could not have created Himself.  Secondly, He was “born;” not created.   The word “firstborn” in 1:15 probably means pre-eminence, saying that Jesus is superior to all created things.

Is Jesus God?  The New Testament generally reserves the title “God” for the Most High, which excludes Jesus.  But if the use the title “God” to identify the One we must worship, that includes Jesus.

Articles related to the question: Is Jesus God?

1.    The three views of the Son
2.    Jesus existed prior to His birth in the form of God.
3a   Jesus in Colossians – Introduction
3b    Jesus in Colossians – I He God?  Current article
4.    Did Jesus empty Himself of equality with God?   Next
5.    Who is the Word in John 1:1?
6.    Jesus is not God.
7.    God is the Head of Christ.
8.    In the Bible Jesus is called God.
9.    He is the Only Begotten Son of God.
10.  God created all things through His Son.
11.  We must worship Jesus.
12.  Jesus has equality with God.
13. 
Who is Jesus? – Summary of the series of articles
14. Where do we find Jesus in the Old Testament?

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