God and Christ Jesus in the letter to the Colossians: Who are they and what are their roles?

What view does the letter to the Colossians present of Christ Jesus?  Is He God?  Are we saved by Christ Jesus, or by God?  Who created all things and who reconciled all things; God or Christ Jesus?

Purpose

This article is a study of the letter to the Colossians.  The purpose is to understand who Christ Jesus is.  The next article addresses that question more specifically.  The current article lays the foundation for the next.

The letter to the Colossians has been selected for this study because it contains perhaps the highest view of Christ Jesus of all of the New Testament letters, apparently because Christ’s supremacy was challenged (2:4) by the “deception” (2:8) in ancient Colossae.

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

God

The title “God” appears 21 times in the letter, but never refers to Jesus.  To the contrary, the letter presents Christ Jesus as strictly distinct from God.  For instance:

Image of the invisible God1:15He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God.

Christ, in this verse, is explained by less literal translations as “exactly like God, who cannot be seen” (Contemporary English Version), or as “the visible likeness of the invisible God” (Good News Translation).

2:12  “God” raised Jesus from the dead.
3:1     “Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
1:1      “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.

The letter therefore maintains a consistent and clear distinction between God and Christ Jesus.

Father and Son

The letter five times refers to the “Father”:

Our Father who is in heavenThe first reference is to “God our Father” (1:2).  “Our” refers to believers.  They are sons of God (e.g. Rom. 8:14).  Christ Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 6:9).  He is our Father because He loves us and cares for us.

Next we find two references to God as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3; cf. 1:12-13).  The word “son” in Colossians is only found in 1:13, where Jesus is described as “His beloved Son.”  This is not mentioned in Colossians, but Jesus is the Son of God in a different way; He is “the only begotten from the Father” (John 1:14).  This mystery is discussed in the article, Only Begotten Son of God.

Next we find “Father” in 1:19: “it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him.”  This confirms that Colossians maintains a clear distinction between God and Christ Jesus.  “Father” is another name for God.  What 1:19 therefore says is that it was God’s will for “all the fullness” to dwells in Jesus.  This amazing statement is further discussed in God is the Head of Christ.

Lastly we find a reference to “God the Father” in 3:17.  He is the Father of both His begotten Son and His created sons.

Christ Jesus

The title “Christ is found 26 times.  The name Jesus is used 6 times, but never alone, always as Jesus Christ or as Christ Jesus.  Jesus was a common name at the time.  The addition of “Christ” was necessary to Identify Him.  Paul, in this letter, actually mentions somebody else by the name Jesus (4:11).

The title “the Lord” appears 11 times; most often simply as “the Lord”, but also as “Christ Jesus the Lord” (1:6), “the Lord Jesus” (1:17) and “the Lord Christ” (4:24).  This title is therefore not used for God; only for Jesus.

The Father is the Active Force in Salvation.

We often hear people say that we are saved by Jesus, but Colossians presents God the Father as the Active Force in salvation:

Grace is from “God (1:6).

God selects His messengers.  Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God (1:1).  He was made a minister of the church according to the stewardship from God bestowed on him (1:25).

God saves us:  The Father rescued us from the domain of darkness (1:13) and qualified us to share in the inheritance (1:12).  God canceled out the Certificate of Debtcertificate of debt, having nailed it to the cross (2:14; cf. 2:12-13).  God raised the believers from death when He raised Jesus from death (2:12-13; 3:1).  We must thank “God the Father” through Christ (3:16-17; cf. 1:3, 12).

God gives growth to the church (2:19).  He chose the believers (3:12) and will open up a door for the word (4:2).  It was God’s will to make known to His saints what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles (1:27-28).

Through the Cross God brought peace to the universe.  Not only did God reconcile humans to Himself through Christ’s death, He also reconciled the things in heaven to Himself by the same means (1:19-20).  He made peace with all things through the blood of His cross, whether things on earth or things in heaven (1:20, 22).  God, through the cross, “disarmed the rulers and authorities … having triumphed over them through Him” (2:15).   Hebrews 2:14 similarly states: “that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” “The rulers and authorities” therefore refer to “the devil” and his supernatural supporters.  See Rulers and Authorities or Disarmed the rulers and authorities.  As Revelation 12 explains, His death made an end to the war in heaven.  See the discussion of Colossians 1:20-22 or the article War in Heaven.

God is the Active Force in Creation.

By Him (Jesus) 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 (Jesus)” (1:16).

The NASB reads, “by Him all things were created,” but later adds that “all things have been created through Him.”  This means that God is the Creator, but God created through His Son.  This is made clear by other translations:

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him” (NIV).

Through him God created everything in heaven and on earth” (Good News Translation).

For a further discussion, see God created all things through His Son.

Christ is ascribed a passive role. 

Gethsemane

The letter refers to “Christ’s afflictions” (1:24), which reminds of Gethsemane, where “His sweat became like drops of blood” (Luke 22:44), indicating His severe internal suffering.  All evil forces gathered their focus on Him in an effort to make Him commit even a single sin.  But apart from these “afflictions,” this letter does not mention anything which Jesus do or did.  The Father did everything.  This principle, namely that God is the active Force, as opposed to Jesus, is consistent with what Jesus said, as recorded in John:

My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

The Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing” (John 5:19).

I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge … I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 5:30).

The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works” (John 14:10).

Redemption through unity with His Son

Colossians presents God as the Active Force, but He does everything through His Son.  We already saw that He created all things through His Son (1:16).  Now we will also see that He saves through His Son, and that we therefore thank God through His Son (3:17).

Reconciled through Christ

It was the Father’s good pleasure … through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (1:19-20).

God allowed Jesus to be killed to reconcile us back to Him (God).  The Cross did not reconcile God to us: We had to change; not God.

Redeemed through unity with Christ Jesus

Since humans are redeemed through Christ Jesus, they are described as in unity with Him.  Colossians explains this unity in a number of ways:

Part of His Body

 “His beloved Son … is also head of the body, the church” (1:13, 18, cf. v24).

“The head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God” (2:17-19; cf. 3:15).

He is the head.  The believers are the other body parts.  All are “held together by the joints and ligaments”.

Part of His Kingdom

The Father … transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (1:12-13).

When we are “rescued” (1:12), we become the subjects of a spiritual kingdom of which His Beloved Son is King.

In Him

The redemption of believers through unity with Jesus is also presented with phrases such as “in Him” or “with Him”:

In Whom (His beloved Son) … we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13, 14).
In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands” (2:11).
In Him you have been made complete” (2:10; cf. 1:28, 2; 2:6-7).

Died and made alive with Him

The letter describes believers as united with Christ in His death and resurrection:

You have died with Christ” (2:20).
He made you alive together with Him” (2:13).
You have been raised up with Christ” (3:1).

Having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (2:12).

Believers did not literally die with Christ; nor have they been literally made alive with Christ.  But they are rescued through His death and through His resurrection.  It is not Christ’s death that was important; it was His life.  His entire life was a test, and the last days and hours of His life was the highest possible test.  He lived a sinless life, even to death, and His resurrection was confirmation there-of.  His “afflictions” (1:24) were also physical, but mostly spiritual.  Jesus said “do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt. 26:53)  But He “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (2:15) by combating them alone.  Even God withdrew His presence from Jesus, leaving the disoriented Jesus to cry, “my God, my God, why have You forsaken me” (Mt. 27:46).  But even at that time of utter darkness, He did not sin or use His power for His own benefit.

Conclusion

God reconciled all things—things on earth and things in heaven—to Himself through the death of His Son.  Therefore, Paul presents believers as united with Christ.  They are united with Him in His death, they are united with Him in His resurrection, and “in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28 – from Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill).  This seems to be more than a symbol: it is a mysterious reality.

Overview of this article

Jews questioning Jesus
Jews questioning Jesus

Colossians never refers to Jesus Christ as God.  It refers to Jesus as “the Lord” and maintains a clear distinction between God and Christ.  For instance:

Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.”

Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”

“God” raised Jesus from the dead.

Colossians describes God as the Active Force in salvation and in creation, contrary to the view often expressed that we are saved by Jesus.  For instance:

The Father rescued us from the domain of darkness and qualified us to share in the inheritance.

God canceled out the certificate of debt, having nailed it to the cross.

The Father reconciled all things to Himself through the blood of His cross.

God do all things through Jesus The letter attributes to Christ a passive role.  This letter does not mention anything which Jesus do or did.  God is the Active Force in creation and salvation, but He does everything through His Son.  God created all things, but He created all things through Jesus.  God reconciled all things to Himself, but He did it through the Cross.

Saved through unity with Christ: Since people are redeemed through Christ Jesus, they are described as in unity with Him.  For example, they are part of His body.  Or, when we are rescued, we become the subjects of a spiritual kingdom of which His Beloved Son is King.  This unity is also reflected in the frequently used phrase “In Him.”  In Him we have been circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, do we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins and “in Him” have we been made complete.

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  Current Article
3b
   Is Jesus God? – A study of the letter to the Colossians  Next Article
4.    Did Jesus empty Himself of equality with God?
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?

Colossian 2:16; Annual Sabbaths or Weekly?

The “Sabbath” in Colossians 2:16 does not refer to the annual Sabbaths, but to the weekly Sabbath, because the phrase “festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths”:

► Implies an annual, monthly and weekly sequence;
► Includes all of Israel’s holy days, also the weekly Sabbath.
► Already includes the annual Sabbaths in the “festivals”.

Different Laws

The weekly and annual Sabbaths are required by different Laws:

Weekly Sabbath

The weekly Sabbath is required by the Ten Commandments, which God wrote with own His finger on both sides of two stone tablets (Ex. 31:18; Deut. 9:10; Ex. 32:15-16; Deut. 4:13).  These stone tablets were put inside the Ark of the Covenant (Deut. 10:5), signifying that the Ten Commandments were at the center of the covenant.

Annual Sabbaths

The instructions for annual Sabbaths were contained in a book which was written up by Moses (Ex. 17:14; 24:4; Deut. 31:24, 26).  This book became known as the “Law of Moses” (Joshua 8:31; 23:6; 2 Kings 14:6; 2Chron. 34:14; etc.) or the “book of Moses” (2Chron. 35:12; Ezra 6:18; etc.).  It was kept “beside the Ark of the Covenant” (Deut. 31:26).  To quote typical verses:

just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the sons of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses” (Jos. 8:31).

Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there as a witness against you” (Deut. 31:26).

The annual Sabbaths were part of the seven annual feasts, and fell, like our annual holidays, on any day of the week.

Origin

Another important distinction between the weekly and annual Sabbaths is their origin:

The Seventh Day was blessed and sanctified at creation (Gen. 2:1-3).  Christ therefore could say that the Sabbath was made for man (all people) (Mark 2:27).  Many people are unable to believe the creation account, but at least must agree that Moses and Christ believed that the seventh day was sanctified at creation.

The annual Sabbaths were given to the Jews specifically, thousands of years later.

Which Sabbath is intended in Colossians 2:16?

It is sometimes said that the “Sabbath” in Colossians 2:16 does not refer to the weekly seventh day Sabbath, but to the annual Sabbaths.

Hebrews 10

This view is argued as follows:

The Sabbath in Col. 2:16 is “a shadow of things to come” (2:17).  A shadow, in this sense, is an image of a major future event.

Hebrews 10:1-10 also mentions a “shadow” and “things to come”.  In Hebrews 10 the “shadow” is the Jewish sacrificial system and the “things to come” are “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (Hebr. 10:10).

The CrossIt is then assumed that the “things to come” in Colossians 2:17 also refer to is “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ”.

Since “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” is God’s solution to the sin problem, any shadow of His death must have been instituted after the entrance of sin into this world.  Since the Sabbaths in 2:16 are then a shadow of His death, they cannot refer to the weekly Sabbath because the weekly Sabbath was sanctified before sin (Exodus 20:8, 11).  It can only be the annual Sabbaths (Lev. 23).

The flaw in this argument is the assumption that the “things to come” refer to “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ”.  Colossians 2:16-17, which was written nearly 30 years after Christ’s death, says that the special days and Sabbaths “are (now, today) a shadow of things to come (in the future)”.  This means that the special days in 2:16-17, including the Sabbaths, do not point to Christ’s death, but to His second coming and the renewal of all things.  It is argued below that the festivals and annual Sabbaths do also point to the renewal of all things, but the same applies to the weekly Sabbath.  Hebrews 4 describes the weekly Sabbath as a shadow of the eternal rest in the new heavens and new earth.  The Sabbaths in Colossians 2:16 may therefore include the weekly Sabbath.

Sabbaths (Plural)

A second argument sometimes used, to show that the “Sabbath” in Colossians 2:16 refers to the annual Sabbaths, is that the Greek term for Sabbath in Colossians 2:16 is plural in form (sabbaton) and that it is better to apply it to the annual Sabbaths, of which there were many in a year.  But this argument does not hold because sabbaton is quite frequently translated “Sabbath” (singular) because the context indicates that it must be singular, for instance:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath (Sabbaton)” (Mat 12:1; see also verses 2, 5, 8, 10, 11 and 12).

But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath (Sabbaton)” (Mat 24:20).

Matthew 28:1, “Now after the Sabbath (Sabbaton)

They went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and began to teach” (Mar 1:21).

Luke 4:16, “He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath

Acts 16:13, “And on the Sabbath day

It is the Weekly Sabbath.

Further proof that the Sabbath in 2:16-17 refers to the weekly Sabbath includes the following:

Firstly, the sequencefestivals, new moons, or Sabbaths” is found several times in the Old Testament (2 Chron. 2:4; 31:3; Neh. 10:33; Eze. 45:17; Hosea 2:11) and also several times in literature outside the Bible (Jub. 1:14; Jos. Ber. 3:11; Justin, Dialogue 8:4.).  At times the order is reversed, but “new moon” is always in the middle.  Since the festivals were annual and the new moons were monthly, the sequence implies that the Sabbaths were weekly.

Secondly, the phrase “festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths” was used as a composite technical term to refer to all of Israel’s holy days, which means that this phrase must include the Sabbath.   See the separate discussion of “Feasts … New Moons … Sabbaths” for more detail.

This is confirmed by Numbers 23, which lists Israel’s holy days, including the weekly Sabbath.  The implication is that the weekly Sabbath was regarded as part of the system of holy days.

Thirdly, all the verses that refer to the sequence “festivals … new moons … Sabbaths” actually are a summary of the daily, weekly, monthly and annual sacrifices prescribed in Numbers 28.  Many of these verses that refer to the sequence “festivals … new moons … Sabbaths” refer explicitly to sacrifices, for instance:

to offer all burnt offerings to the LORD, on the sabbaths, the new moons and the fixed festivals” (1Chr. 23:31).

The Sabbath in Colossians 2:16 at least includes the weekly Sabbaths because Colossians 2:16 is based on Numbers 28, and Numbers 28 include sacrifices for the weekly Sabbath:

  • Daily:a continual burnt offering every day” (v3-8)
  • Weekly:on the sabbath day … every sabbath” (28:9-10)
  • Monthly:at the beginning of each of your month” (new moons) (28:11-15), and
  • Annual: the feast days (28:16-40); “the LORD’S Passover” (v16), “feast, unleavened bread” (v17) and “the day of the first fruits” (v26).

Fourthly, the annual Sabbaths are already included in the “festivals” in the sequence “festivals … new moon … Sabbath day” (2:16).  If “a Sabbath day” meant the annual Sabbaths there would be a needless repetition.

The evidence is therefore that the Sabbath in 2:16-17 refers to the weekly Sabbath.

TO: Colossians Table of Contents

TO: General Table of Contents