The Image of the Invisible God (Colossians 1:15-20)

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?



11 thoughts on “The Image of the Invisible God (Colossians 1:15-20)

  1. It seems, in my mind anyway, that Paul is addressing the Lordship of Jesus. Was/is Jesus actually God? Paul clearly makes the claim that Jesus is on the same level as God. In the beginning God created, but Paul states that Jesus was there too. By Christ all things were created, he was before and is in all things. Christ wasn’t just at creation, creation was done through him and is held together by him. The controversy now is whether 1:15 is stating Jesus was given the authority of a first-born or if he was actually the first created of all creation. This again could skew the view of Jesus. Either way it seems Paul is saying that Jesus isn’t just a man he is God. TTP says because Christ is all these things that, “through Him and his bloody cross, God effects the reconciliation of All things, including Gentiles such as the Colossians (1:20, 22)” (TTP 225). Paul again makes a case for the salvation of Gentiles.

  2. Maybe the Colossians were beginning to question the need for Jesus to be at the head of their new religion. With all the time TTP spends on explaining their philosophy that wasn’t true or right and was against the clear message of the gospel, it seems understandable that they weren’t taught enough about the gospel to know how extremely important Jesus really is. They may have mixed their theology of Jesus with the philosophy of their time, whether Jewish Gnosticism, mysticism, or Hellenistic philosophies (TTP 223). Since TTP also declares that Paul’s purpose in writing this letter is that “Christ is all, and is in all” (TTP 224), we can see that Paul may have heard of their sway in theological stance. Colossians 2:5 shows that Paul is commending them for the discipline they have proven to have and then verse 6 says: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him.” TTP says that this indicates Paul was worried about them continuing in their faith the right way. They need to firm it up (TTP 226). So he must have written those words to show them Christ really is supposed to be at the center.

  3. I think that the Colossian church is questioning the supremacy of Christ. They are questioning the image of God and all that he has power over.

  4. To me, it seemed that Paul felt compelled to address the confusion over Jesus being God. Those in Colossae needed to understand that Christ was the Son of God and the savior of the world, while at the same time Jesus and God are the same being. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit all make up who the Lord fully is, and although they are separate they are also one. Paul used the phrase “image of the invisible God,” in Colossians 1:15 to explain that Christ was the perfect representation of Himself unto the world (which is what Long was hinting at in his post above). I really found it fascinating to learn about the different ways and times that an “invisible God” is stressed, yet only mentioned that way five times by Paul throughout the New Testament.

  5. In this section of Colossians (2:6-23), Paul is reminding the church that they do not need to continue their old habits or rituals. He gives examples of circumcision, eating laws, & celebrations. For some people, getting out of your old ways can be difficult & it seems to be for this church. In verse 16 he reminds them to not let others judge them because they do not follow the “old” ways. Just before verse 16 he explains to them again, that by Jesus dying on the cross, He “…canceled the written code…”

  6. It seems that Paul might be needing to clarify something. Perhaps that Jesus is nothing like the carved gods of the pagans. That Jesus is the exact image of God is a hefty but true statement. Other people such as Plato believed in an invisible and transcendent God, but Paul is stating that Jesus IS GOD. Maybe that jogged the church’s memory. Then His invisible qualities are mentioned, further explaining that God is invisible, untouchable, yet has attributes that are evident in the world. The original intent of the ‘hymn’ could have been for many reasons, namely comfort to the believer. However, if false teachers tainted it, that would also give Paul good reason to clarify a thing or two about Jesus.

  7. Scholarship has asked for a long time what Paul was addressing, and seems to be one of three answers: Jewish mysticism, Gnosticism, or some form of ascetic mysticism. I am unsure if we should narrow it down. I think this is a classic example of how often Jesus has been received by people as being a great addition to their current theological system. But if Christ is God, and is above all other spiritual beings and forces, how can he be simply added to them? Paul is calling people to a radical Christocentric theological practice and outgrowth. If Christ is God, who is fully supreme, then He deserves full worship, adoration, and obedience.

  8. This sort of “clarification” that Paul offers about Christ might be stemming from the cultural norms of the day that might be confusing the church. By this I mean that culturally, their god’s, which were carved and created by humans, were tangible and there was never any confusion on what each god did or stood for. God, as we understand him, has many “invisible” qualities and on top of that, he is not just one being but rather, 3. This was a big reminder of the basic teachings that they were originally taught when the church started which were being skewed by some of the false teachings that had crept in. Paul feels the need to help the church to better distinguish the differences between the god’s they have always known to the one true God who they are coming to know more about.

  9. Rachel Smith

    “What is the Colossian church questioning about Jesus that prompts Paul to respond with this rather audacious claim about Jesus?” (Long, blog – The Image of the Invisible God (Colossians 1:15-20)) Paul has just stated that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Not only that, but Paul goes on to describe who Jesus is as Creator and Head of the Church. Paul also talks about the supremacy of Jesus. Based off of what Paul is writing about Jesus, it makes me think that the Colossians had been wondering about the divinity of Jesus. When Paul says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, he means and implies that Jesus is God Himself (cf. Long, blog). Paul continues to expound on this as he talks about all things being created by Him [Jesus] and for Him (cf. Col.1:16). The Colossians may have also doubted that Jesus was God because He had died the most shameful death imaginable. Having been a part of the Roman pagan culture, it could have been very hard for converts to process and think through the fact that God Himself died a culturally shameful death, for their salvation. Paul also addresses Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in v. 19 – 20.

  10. I guess to me if the Colossian church was questioning the claim about Jesus being the invisible God would be that Jesus was in the flesh. He was there and that God is not truly invisible at all but rather alive and active. Jesus was created by God and is not actually invisible but rather very visible and alive today. I think Paul teaching on the trinity in a way and making these bold claims about Jesus is to show them that Jesus is more than just some man who just died on a cross and went away, but rather he is the true savior of the masses of the people and they should be aware that he really is God as well. I think these bold claims to the Colossian church are to affirm that truth to them as well as to the people of today.

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