The Letter of Paul to the Colossians contains six verses which form a hymn or poem in praise of Christ. This Christ Hymn is a densely packed statement of Paul’s Christological monotheism. Christ is exalted as sovereign over creation, the church and new creation. The letter was written in response to the false philosophy that the church in Colossae was in danger of following.
Colossae and the background to the letter
The city of Colossae was located in the region of Phrygia and the Roman province of Asia. It lay in the fertile Lycus River valley near the larger city of Laodicea on a trade route that connected the provincial capitals of Antioch and Ephesus. The city was possibly destroyed by an earthquake in the early 60s and it has not been excavated. However, Josephus records that a large number of Jews lived in the region and Michael Gorman suggests it is likely that in this area “Judaism flourished alongside local religions and the standard pagan cults of the empire.”
The church in Colossae was probably founded by Epaphras (1:7-8) and was composed largely of Gentiles but almost certainly had Jewish believers among their number. The letter addresses the problem in Colossae of false philosophy (2:8ff) that had arisen, possibly as a result of religious syncretism. This blending of other beliefs and traditions into their faith is called the ‘Colossian heresy’ by some scholars. Gorman suggests the letter was written “to convince its recipients that Christ is sufficient for their spiritual liberation and life.”
Traditionally Paul is regarded to have written the letter whilst in prison (4:18) during the mid to late 50s. However the authorship of the letter is disputed by some scholars due to differences in style, vocabulary and theology between this letter and those where there is general agreement that Paul is the author. Others have suggested the author could be co-sender Timothy (1:1), Epaphras or the letter bearer Tychicus (4:7-9). Space does not allow a lengthy discussion on authorship; suffice to say that the differences in style and theology do not necessarily eliminate Paul as author. Gorman concludes that if Paul did not write the letter then the author must have been very close to him.
The Christ Hymn
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Colossians 1:15-20, ESV.
N. T. Wright states that these six verses “are generally, and rightly, reckoned among the most important Christological passages in the New Testament.” The hymn is in the introduction to the letter as part of a prayer and meditation by Paul (1:9-23). After the opening greeting (1:1-2), the introduction begins with thanksgiving (1:3-8), before moving into intercession (1:9-14). The hymn then leads into exhortation (1:21-23) followed by Paul’s reason for writing the letter (1:24-2:5). Wright describes the hymn as a poem of two stanzas and a chiastic structure in the form ABBA.
Scholars disagree on the authorship of the hymn. Douglas Moo provides the two options: “(1) Paul quotes a hymn that provides the theology he needs to combat the false teachers. (2) Paul composes a hymn that enunciates the theology he will use to combat the false teachers.” If Paul had quoted an earlier hymn then there is the possibility that he either added or removed elements. However there is no evidence to support this and Wright comments it would be impossible to reconstruct the hypothetical original form. Moo notes that it would be highly improbable to have found a hymn with the theology Paul wanted to employ against the false teaching. Wright argues for Pauline authorship because, “The poem exhibits all the traces of Paul’s own thought.” He suggests it deals with the combination of creation and covenant that is seen elsewhere in the Old Testament.
Monotheism and Christ
Monotheism is one of the cardinal tenets of Judaism. Israel’s God, YHWH, is the one true God who created the cosmos and is in covenant relationship with his chosen people Israel (election). The Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4), would be recited daily by devout Jews. YHWH would one day redeem Israel and through Israel the rest of the world. Wright explains, “By identifying YHWH as both the creator of the cosmos and the redeemer of Israel they safeguarded all their three basic doctrines: monotheism, election and eschatology.”
Against this framework the devout monotheist Paul wrote “a classic example of Jewish monotheistic poetry” that includes Jesus rather than YHWH as the central character. The ‘He’ of v. 15 refers to the ‘beloved Son’ of vv. 13-14. Paul does not replace YHWH with another god, but describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (1:15). Wright explains, “The central character is YHWH now recognized in the human face of Jesus.” Wright states that Paul was not, “a Hellenist who, in divinizing Jesus, broke completely away from Jewish monotheism and invented, in effect, a new form of paganism.” Moo concludes that the Christ hymn and Paul’s other Christological passages (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6) indicate that “Christians began quite early to ‘redefine’ Jewish monotheism by including Jesus Christ in their understanding of God.”
Christ and Creation
One way that Paul redefines monotheism is through the theme of creation. Paul describes how ‘all things were created’ in or by Jesus (1:16). Gorman explains that the background for the hymn is the Jewish tradition of Wisdom that is found in Proverbs, Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. According to this tradition, Wisdom is the means by which God created the heavens and the earth and is the reflection or image (εἰκών) of God (Wisd. Sol. 7:25-28).
Wright outlines C. F. Burney’s theory which seeks to explain the origin of the hymn. Burney believed that there is a link between Genesis 1:1 ‘In the beginning’ (בְּרֵאשִׁית) and Proverbs 8:22 where Wisdom is at the ‘beginning’ (רֵאשִׁית) of YHWH’s work. בְּ is expounded as ἐν αὐτῷ(by/in him), διʼ αὐτοῦ (through him) and εἰς αὐτὸν (for him) in vv. 16, 19-20 and רֵאשִׁיתas πρὸ πάντων(before all things), τὰ πάντα συνέστηκεν(all things hold together), κεφαλὴ(head) and πρωτότοκος (firstborn) in vv. 17-18. Wright explains, “Thus we have beginning, sum-total, head and first fruits, leadings to Paul’s conclusion … ‘Christ fulfils every meaning that can be extracted from רֵאשִׁית.’” This is stated by Paul in v. 18, “in everything [Christ] might be preeminent.” Gorman draws attention to the word firstborn which could be interpreted to mean that Christ is also a created being. Such was the interpretation that Arius suggested in the fourth-century and is also the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses today. However, Paul not only claims the attributes of Wisdom for Christ but he goes further by saying all things were created in, through and for Christ (1:16). Thus Christ was not created rather creation is for Christ. The word also evokes Exodus 4:22 where Israel is described as YHWH’s firstborn son.
Wright states it is necessary to view the wisdom-tradition in light of the whole Jewish worldview which he calls ‘creational and covenantal monotheism.’ This differs from the opposing worldviews of pantheism, which identifies the creator with creation, or dualism, which sees spirit as good and matter as evil. Wright also notes the connection between image (εἰκών) in v. 15 and the creation of man and woman in the image of God (Gen 1:26). He writes, “Wisdom is what is required if humans are to be truly human.” Wisdom was given to the people of Israel in the Torah, and therefore, Israel is “the particular place where Wisdom dwells, establishing her as the creator’s true humanity.” In addition to this, Wright brings to mind the messianic expectation within Israel; a future great king from the line of David who would be as wise as Solomon. He concludes, “Israel’s vocation to be the true humanity, indwelt by the divine Wisdom, is focussed on one man, her representative king, who in Psalm 89:27 is described as YHWH’s ‘firstborn’.” In the Christ hymn, Paul has combined the wisdom-tradition with Israel’s creational and covenantal monotheism and ascribed these elements to Jesus. In so doing, Paul redefines creational and covenantal monotheism to be in Jesus, through Jesus and for Jesus.
Christ and the Church
Paul then goes on to call Christ, “the head of the body, the church” (1:18). Andrew Lincoln makes the observation that Paul’s “praise of Christ’s supremacy over the church as his body matches the earlier praise of his supremacy over the realm of creation.” Lincoln notes that the word body (σῶμα) could have been understood to mean the cosmos, which is the common meaning in Philo and Hellenistic Judaism. For example, Zeus is referred to as the “head of the cosmos, pervading it with his rule as it lies in his mighty body.” However, Paul makes it clear that he is referring to Christ’s headship over the church (ἐκκλησία). Lincoln explains that the “term head (κεφαλὴ) denotes Christ’s rule or authority over the church as his body.” This is also the word used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew word שׁאר meaning ruler or leader, as in Deut. 28:13, Judg. 11:11 and 2 Sam. 22:44. It is used to convey the authority associated with origin or beginning. Christ is the head of the church as he is the Lord of his people. Not only does this mean head as in the source of the authority which governs the body, but also in the sense of the source of all life which sustains the body. Moo writes, “Paul holds up Christ as the one who is the true and only source of life for the body.”
Paul has transferred the imagery of body (σῶμα) from the cosmos to the church and indicates “that the church is Christ’s true body.” Lincoln comments, “Paul had already used body imagery for the local congregation in 1 Corinthians and in Romans, and so in this context it is deemed appropriate to extend its scope to the universal church.” Moo speculates that if there was an original hymn that Paul adapted then he has added “of the church” in order to change the meaning to fit in with his argument. Paul used the language and imagery of his day to reveal a new truth about Jesus: Christ is the head of the church, not only the local gatherings of believers, but the universal church. Moo notes that Paul’s use of this metaphor is distinctive to Colossians and Ephesians. This could be used as a further argument against Paul’s authorship of these letters. However Moo notices that it is not dissimilar to Old Testament usage where Israel is described as one assembly.
Paul first described Christ as being the image of God and the firstborn of creation, through whom and for whom all things were created. He now explains that Christ is also the head of the church, the source of authority to govern the church and the source of life to sustain all believers. Paul emphasizes that there is no need to look for any other head. Paul will return to this theme of head as authority and nourishment for the body in Colossians 2:10, 19. Moo concludes, “Just as Christ is preeminent in the universe, so he is preeminent within the new creation, the assembly of new covenant believers.”
Christ and New Creation
The third claim made by Paul in the hymn is that Christ is the Lord of new creation. Paul writes, “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (1:18). James Dunn believes there are clear parallels between the first and second stanzas of the hymn, which show a “balance between old creation and new.” Christ was the ‘image of God’ (1:15) in the first creation and now he is the ‘beginning’ (1:18) of the new. Christ was ‘the firstborn of all creation’ (1:15) and now he is ‘the firstborn from the dead’ (1:18). All things were created ‘in him’ (1:16) and now the fullness of God is pleased to dwell ‘in him’ (1:19). Finally, all things were created ‘through him and for him’ (1:16) and now God has reconciled to himself all things ‘through him’ (1:20). Dunn also sees a further parallel with 1 Corinthians 15:45 where there is a sequence from first Adam to last Adam. He explains that Adam Christology is “the means by which God brought into existence the eschatological form of humankind equivalent to the original humankind,” and Wisdom Christology is “the means by which God continued to exercise his sovereignty to bring about the reconciliation of the old in the creation of the new through cross and resurrection.”
Christ is the firstborn from the dead because of his death on the cross and his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). Paul writes, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). The act of reconciliation of the cross means new creation for those who follow Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Dunn comments, “Creation and reconciliation are the work of the one God through the same Christ, but each required its own birth and becoming.” Paul states that Christ is now preeminent in everything (1:18), the fullness of God is pleased to dwell in him (1:19) and all things have been reconciled through him (1:20). Lincoln explains that Christ is preeminent because of his, “unique relation to God and … unique role in God’s work of reconciliation.” He concludes, “There is nothing in heaven or earth that is outside the divine presence and power, so also there is nothing outside the scope of Christ’s presence and power, because Christ now sums up all that God is in interaction with the cosmos.”
Wright identifies the mention of deliverance and redemption in vv. 12-14 with the imagery of Exodus. He adds, “The Exodus was an act of new creation, bringing the chosen race to new birth out of the chaos of slavery.” Many first-century Jews considered that Israel was still in exile and in need of the redemption which would see the “greater ‘return from exile.’” Wright explains that in using this imagery, Paul is signalling that “this final redemption … had already taken place in Jesus Christ.” Israel’s God, the creator of the cosmos, has revealed that he has redeemed Israel through the death and resurrection of his Son, a new creation, demonstrating his faithfulness by saving his covenant people just as he delivered them from Egypt.
The Colossian church and the church today
The believers in Colossae were in danger of following false “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8). Indeed Gorman writes, “Most scholars believe the heresy or philosophy is already present at Colossae.” Paul lists the practices that had marked the philosophy in 2:16-23. They include the observation of Jewish diet and holidays (2:16), asceticism, the worship of angels and visionary experiences (2:18) and interest in the elemental spirits of the world (2:20), which Gorman explains are the forces that rule the cosmos and human life. These syncretistic practices were a mix of Jewish teaching and pagan traditions of the region. Gorman notes that there were elements of religious dualism. He explains, “The purpose of worship, they would have thought, was to escape the flesh and enter the ‘heavenly realms.’” Scholars have called this an early form of Gnosticism, from the Greek word for knowledge (γνῶσις), which was a heresy among early Christians in the second-century. Wright explains, “Gnosticism saw the created order as inherently wicked, and understood redemption as rescue from, not renewal of, creation.” Gorman notes that Pauline teaching did speak against ‘the flesh’ and in favour of charismatic experiences, and so the misinterpretation of Paul’s teaching, together with Jewish mystical practice, may have resulted in the Colossian church integrating pagan practices into their worship.
It is to address this situation that Paul sends the Colossians a letter containing the Christ hymn. Paul urges the Colossian believers to accept that they already have all that they need in Christ. He uses the hymn to exalt Christ and demonstrate that he is preeminent in all things. With regards to Judaism, Wright argues, “Paul, then, does not in this poem abandon the Jewish doctrines of monotheism and election. He redefines them.” His redefinition now includes Jesus as present in the act of creation, identified as the Wisdom of God. The hope which Judaism had placed in the one God, and in the Wisdom given in the Torah, is now to be found in Christ because it was for him rather than Israel that all things were created. Within this redefinition of monotheism, Paul has also redefined election to now mean that, “the people of God are now to be understood as the people of Jesus Christ.” The church is the renewed people of God, not just the local gathering, but the universal church which is the body of Christ. Wright concludes, “Having Christ, God’s true wisdom, the Colossian church possesses all that it needs.”
Paul asserts that followers of Christ are monotheists and not pagan polytheists. There is one creator God, who is also the redeemer God. Creation has been redeemed in the work of Christ on the cross and his resurrection. Creation is not to be replaced; rather it has been restored as the new creation. Paul thus counters the false philosophies of polytheism and dualism by demonstrating that they are “metaphysically incorrect” and “morally bankrupt.” Wright argues that the Christ hymn has “an implicit ecclesiological and perhaps even sociological function,” in that “a community that believed these things would be distinct from neighbours both Jewish and pagan.” The message that Paul proclaimed is in contrast to the competing false philosophies faced by the Colossian church and that are also faced by the church in the present day. The church in the west today faces a multitude of competing voices from without and within that seek to integrate practices and traditions of the kind faced by the Colossian church. The conclusion remains the same; there is no need to look for answers from any other source. The Jesus to whom the Colossian church belongs, and to whom the universal church today belongs, is the one in whom and through whom all meaning and purpose may be found. Paul expresses it in this way, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (2:6-7).
In the Colossian hymn, Paul demonstrates that Jesus Christ is Lord of creation, the church and new creation. Paul speaks against the polytheist concept of many gods, and against dualism, with the news that Jesus was present in the creation of the cosmos. He is the co-creator with God of all things, and is the image of God. Christ redeemed creation through the reconciliation of the cross. Christ is the firstborn from the dead by his resurrection and is now the head of the universal church; the source of authority and the source of life for the body. Jesus is now risen, exalted and preeminent over all of creation. Paul has redefined covenantal and creational monotheism and in so doing has also redefined election to signify the church is now the people of God. His message is that the church in Colossae already has this Christ active in their midst and there is therefore no need to look elsewhere.
Dunn, James D. G., The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998).
Gorman, Michael J., Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004).
Lincoln, Andrew J., ‘Colossians’ in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. XI; ed. L. Keck; Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000) pp. 551-669.
Moo, Douglas J., The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (PNTC; ed. D. A. Carson; Nottingham: Apollos, 2008).
Wright, N. T., The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (London: T. & T. Clark, 1991).
Wright, N. T., Colossians and Philemon (TNTC Vol. 12; Nottingham and Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986).
Wright, N. T., Paul: Fresh Perspectives (London: SPCK, 2005).
Wright, N. T., ‘Poetry and Theology in Colossians 1.15–20,’ NTS 36 (1990), pp. 444-468.
Wright, N. T., What St Paul Really Said (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 1997).
 Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 472.
 Gorman, p. 473.
 Ibid., pp. 471-472.
 Ibid., p. 478.
 Ibid., p. 477.
 N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (TNTC Vol. 12; Nottingham and Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), p. 67.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Gorman, p. 478.
 For a full explanation of the structure and form of the hymn see N. T. Wright, ‘Poetry and Theology in Colossians 1.15–20,’ NTS 36 (1990), pp. 444-468.
 Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (PNTC; ed. D. A. Carson; Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), p. 110.
 Wright, N. T., The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (London: T. & T. Clark, 1991), p. 100.
 N. T. Wright, Paul: Fresh Perspectives (London: SPCK, 2005), p. 27.
 N. T. Wright, What St Paul Really Said (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 1997), p. 70.
 Moo, p. 114.
 Gorman, p. 481.
 Ibid., p. 482.
 Wright, Climax, pp. 110-113.
 Ibid., p. 111.
 Wright, Climax, p. 111.
 Gorman, p. 482.
 Wright, Climax, p. 108.
 Ibid., p. 112.
 Ibid., p. 113.
 Wright, Climax, p. 113.
 Andrew J. Lincoln, ‘Colossians’ in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. XI; ed. L. Keck; Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000) p. 598.
 Ibid., p. 603.
 Ibid., p. 598.
 Ibid., p. 599.
 Lincoln, p. 599.
 Moo, p. 128.
 Lincoln, p. 599.
 Ibid., p. 603.
 Moo, p. 126.
 Ibid., p. 127.
 Moo, p. 127.
 Ibid., p. 128.
 James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 275.
 Dunn, p. 275.
 Ibid., p. 276.
 Lincoln, p. 599.
 Lincoln, p. 599.
 Wright, Poetry and Theology, p. 453.
 Ibid., p. 454.
 Gorman, p. 473.
 Gorman, p. 474.
 Ibid., p. 475
 Wright, Poetry and Theology, p. 452.
 Gorman, p. 475.
 Wright, Colossians and Philemon, p. 72.
 Wright, Poetry and Theology, p. 464.
 Ibid., p. 460.
 Ibid., p. 464.