This week, we’re looking at the Colossian hymn as a word against the competing worldviews of Paul’s audience. Yesterday, we looked at how it presented Christ as superior to all that Judaism was looking for – indeed, Jesus is its fulfilment – as well as superior to the local pagan mystery religions, with their desires to connect with the spiritual world. Today, we ask what it might have to say to the Graeco-Roman world as a whole: to citizens of the empire.
After all, everyone in Paul’s audience was belonged to the Roman empire. What would this hymn have said to Roman citizens, who were “strongly encouraged” to worship the Emperor as a god?
Because life in the empire meant being surrounded by images of the emperor, this “son of the gods.” His image was stamped on every coin; appeared on monuments in every city; in the market place, the gymnasium, the public baths, the temples. It was fashionable to have jewellery engraved with images of the empire: of Caesar Augustus’ star sign, or scenes depicting great victories of the emperor. Images of the empire – and of the emperor-god – were everywhere.
And against this Paul opens his hymn by declaring that Jesus is the image – the image of nothing less than the invisible God. Jesus is the firstborn son, not some self-aggrandising general in a toga who liked to wear garden clippings on his head.
Colossians 1:15-17 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 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. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Just as Jesus is the creator of all things in heaven – the invisible spirit powers – so, too, he is the creator of all visible powers on earth. All thrones, rulers, and authorities derive their authority from him, and they exist for him.
Although the emperor was hailed as “equal to the beginning of all things,” Paul says that Jesus is the beginning; for he is before all things.
Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
Although the emperor was often described as the “head” of his empire, which was the body, Paul says in v18 that Jesus is the head. And the body is not the much-praised Roman empire, but the humble church. The kingdom through which Jesus exercises his rule on earth. How’s that for a subversive statement? The church is greater than the mighty Roman empire!
Colossians 1:19-20a For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things
Although the emperor was frequently called “Lord and Savoir” for rescuing people from foreign powers, it is Jesus who is the rescuer – Jesus is the one who reconciles people to God.
And Jesus is the one who makes peace. The emperor was worshipped as a god largely because of the peace he was said to bring. The famous Pax Romana, or Roman peace – which put an end to war. But it did so at the point of a sword and upon the threat of violence. It brought a kind of temporary peace to the region, enforced by its military might. In contrast to this, Paul talks about the peace that Jesus brings:
Colossians 1:20c …by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
This is the opposite of peace at the point of a sword. It’s peace brought through weakness; through humility; through servanthood. It’s a peace first of all between God and humanity, achieved through Jesus’ sacrifice of himself to pay the penalty for our rebellion. And it’s a peace that willingly submitted to the violence of the Roman empire, in order to overthrow it.
The words of this hymn cry out to every Christian in the Roman empire: why would you even think of worshipping the image of a human emperor, when you have the image of the invisible God? Why would you give human powers a second thought, when you know the one through whom these powers came into being? Why would you look to a human empire to bring you a temporary peace, when the sacrifice of God’s firstborn son has already brought you eternal peace with God? Why would you worry about being a good citizen of some earthly empire, when you are a member of the body of Christ, God’s eternal church?
Again, why settle for an inferior product, when you have the real thing?
Tomorrow, we’ll start to ask the question: how might this hymn speak against the backdrop of our culture’s worldviews?