Colossians 1:15-20 appear to have been an early Christian hymn.  There is evidence this was poetry, perhaps pre-dating Paul and well known to the congregation.  Paul uses material like this in other contexts (Phil 2:5-9, for example).  It is likely Paul is drawing on a well-known “statement of faith” passed along to the church as part of their education in who Jesus was and is, then drawing some implications from this hymn which are specific to the problem at hand – a group within the church which has some misunderstandings about who Jesus is.

ColossiansWhy use a hymn to relate theology?  One possibility is that it is a call back to the foundational understanding of Jesus they received through Epaphras (and hence through Paul).  A second possibility is this hymn may have been used and adapted by the false teachers in the Colossian community.  We know that in the first century Jews were beginning to speculate seriously about wisdom and were developing the idea of an incarnate Wisdom through whom all things were created. It is possible the false teachers were poking around in the nature of wisdom. Paul says by means of this hymn that if they want real wisdom, they ought to look to Jesus not their own philosophy.

Paul begins by identifying Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (1:15).  The word εἰκών is usually translated “image” as in the image an emperor’s head on a coin (BAGD).  It is an exact duplicate that is integrally a part of the original. By saying that Christ is in the image of God, he affirms that he is an accurate picture of what God is, and in fact, he is God.  L&N 58.35, “that which has the same form as something else.” This is the word chosen by the LXX to translate the Hebrew µl,x{{, in Genesis 1:26-27; 5:3, and 9:6. In Genesis, it is humans who are the image of the invisible God, in the sense that we are God’s representatives in this world; the Law makes it clear no other image of God is to be made.

The word ἀόρατος, “invisible,” is used only five times in the New Testament. In every case it refers to some quality of God, although here in Col 1:16 it refers to the (unseen) spirit world.   The use of this word for the spirit world is somewhat common. “Rulers both visible and invisible” appears in Ignatius’s To the Smyrnaeans 6.1, for example.

God as “invisible” is both a Jewish and a Greek idea.  In the Hebrew Bible God is never to be represented as an idol or an image, and although there is a great deal of representation of the gods in Greco-Roman paganism, Plato and other philosophers (Stoics, for example), believed in a real god who was invisible, immovable, and totally transcendent.

“To call Christ the image of God is to say that in Him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested—that in Him the invisible has become visible.” (F. F. Bruce “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The ‘Christ Hymn’ of Colossians 1:15–20” BSac 141 (1984): 101). Romans 1:20 refers to God’s “invisible qualities.” This is said not to separate Christ and God into two separate categories, but to show that they are part and parcel of the same being, which we refer to as the Godhead, one invisible, the other visible.

Paul seems to be claiming a great deal about Jesus in this verse. What is the theological at stake in this line? Or perhaps to think in about it in another way, what is the Colossian church questioning about Jesus that prompts Paul to respond with this rather audacious claim about Jesus?