Last week, we looked at the background to Colossians: how Paul was writing to guard against the temptation for his audience to incorporate the philosophies of this world into their way of following Jesus – and so water it down into just another human scheme. One of Paul’s key arguments throughout the letter is for the superiority of Jesus over everything else this world has to offer. We’re going to see this throughout the coming week as we look at just six verses – but six very famous verses, often called the “Colossian hymn.”* (Read it now, if you have a minute, although we’ll be dissecting it over the next few days.)
Why a whole week? It’s ’cause we’re going to take a few different walks through this hymn, reflecting the different aspects to the background against which Colossians was written. Remember how the competing philosophy (or philosophies) seemed to have Jewish elements, some mystical pagan influences, and even some Greek philosophical aspects? We’re going to see how this hymn took a stand against some of these alternative worldviews, proclaiming in their place the supremacy of Christ – before looking at what it might say to the alternative worldviews of our day.
Today, we’ll look at how it addressed some of the elements of the competing philosophy: those found in Judaism, as well as some of the mystical pagan overtones. What would this hymn say to this kind of alternative:
Colossians 1:15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation
For someone who was immersed in the Old Testament since birth, you’d expect Genesis 1 to spring to mind: humanity created “in the image of God” and appointed to rule over it. And not only Genesis 1, but the ideals of Israelite kingship: Israel’s king was called God’s “son” – his special representative, to whom was given the privileges of being God’s firstborn. [In view here is the function of a firstborn as the heir and representative of the father, not a suggestion that Jesus was at any point born into existence.]
And yet for someone with a Jewish background living in the first century surrounded by Greek culture, there were some even stronger connections that aren’t immediately obvious to us. In the books of Job and Proverbs we find poems about “wisdom.” In fact, wisdom is personified – given human characteristics – and presented as God’s “firstborn.” Have a listen to wisdom “speak” in Prov 8:
Proverbs 8:22-30 “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; 23 I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be… 27 I was there when he set the heavens in place… 30 Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence…
As Paul says of Jesus in our Colossian hymn: “for by him all things were created… he is before all things… he is the beginning.”
Although Proverbs started the trend, this personification of wisdom as God’s agent of creation continued in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus – particularly among Jews scattered throughout the Greek empire. For example, Philo, an Egyptian Jew, described wisdom as God’s “firstborn son.”
Another well-known writing was called the Wisdom of Solomon. Have a listen to what this has to say about wisdom:
Wis 7:26 Wisdom is ‘a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.’
Wis 1:14 Wisdom ‘created all things that they might exist’.
Wis 1:7 Wisdom is ‘that which holds all things together’.
So in Paul’s hymn, he’s effectively saying: you know this idea of wisdom you speak so highly of – the firstborn of God, the beginning of all things, the principle by which all things hold together. Guess what? All of that points to Jesus. All of that is found in Jesus. You want to see wisdom personified – look no further than Jesus Christ.
But Paul wasn’t content just to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled this idea of wisdom. He then goes on to show that this idea of divine wisdom is but a shadow of the real thing. Jesus is more than just the abstract idea of wisdom. Have a listen to v19:
Colossians 1:19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him
This is no vague, abstract concept. This is wisdom having taken on flesh-and-blood. This is God and all his wisdom dwelling in a human being. The God-man, Jesus. No longer do we have to speculate about an idea: wisdom has come among us, and dwelt as one of us.
Against a backdrop of Judaism, this hymn declares the superiority of the incarnate Son over a mere idea. Jesus is the fulfilment – the greater reality – of all that Jews were looking for. Why, then, would you want to go back to something inferior?
Now in this reading, we’ve skipped some parts of the hymn in the middle. Parts which may have had a greater impact on a slightly different audience. Possibly pagan audiences. Or even Jews who had mixed in local pagan practices and beliefs about spirits and mediating angels. Look at verse 16:
Colossians 1:16 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.
For those who had been worshipping angels (or worshipping God through angels), who had been seeking special knowledge from mediating spirits, or who had dabbled in astrology, and even worshipping pagan gods – Paul’s hymn again says why waste your time with the inferior, when we have something far better! Jesus created the spirit-world, the angelic messengers, the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars. He created them, and they exist for him. God’s fullness dwells in Jesus, and not in these inferior beings.
Tomorrow, we move beyond the Jewish and pagan elements of the competing philosophies, and look at what this hymn might have to say to everyone in the Roman empire.
* Did Paul use a pre-existing hymn, or did he write it himself? Scholars argue about that, but let’s leave them to it, because it doesn’t greatly matter. Either way, Paul is using it to convince his audience of the absolute supremacy of Christ over everything else that might appear to be his rival.