Having looked at what this hymn said against the background of the competing philosophies of the first century – and against the rhetoric of empire – what might it say in our time and culture?
I think the key to reading it today lies in the overwhelming message given to everyone in Paul’s diverse first-century audience: don’t settle for an inferior, derivative copy when we have the real thing. We’ve got Jesus: accept no substitutes. Accept no pale imitations.
Because so often we do. Not consciously wanting to replace Jesus; but allowing our culture the power to influence us in subtle ways. So that we end up saying we worship Jesus, but in our thoughts and actions conform to the imitation religions that are set up all around us.
Colossians 1:15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
We’re a visual society with images everywhere. The average person is bombarded each day with more than 3000 images, explicitly or implicitly advertising something. Not images of the Roman emperor, but images of a different empire: the empire of marketing and materialism. Images that constantly tell us to worry about our image – about the impression we give other people. Other people who are also conditioned to judge us based on image by the logos, slogans, and unrealistic, idealistic pictures of how our life could be if only we’d buy more stuff.
In a poem based around this hymn in Colossians, Brian Walsh* writes:
In this world, driven by images with a vengeance, Christ is the image par excellence; the image above all other images, the image that is not a façade, the image that is not trying to sell you anything, the image that refuses to co-opt you; Christ is the image of the invisible God.’ of the invisible God.
We have Jesus: accept no substitutes. He is the image of the one true God.
Verse 16 goes on to say ‘for by him all things were created’. They didn’t just evolve as the result of a cosmic accident. They were purposefully created by a personal creator. You are not here by chance. And neither is the starving child an ocean away. All are image-bearers of the one God. Other people are not tools to exploit, but fellow creations to be loved.
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.
Jesus is the one who created the powers of the invisible world: the world of spirits, both angelic and demonic forces. Other religions worship an inferior, idolatrous copy of the true God, set up in our own image and perpetuated by the forces of darkness. Those who seek spirit guides; who consult the stars to know their future; who try to contact the dead – they are seeking answers in that which was created, rather than in the Creator himself. But we have Jesus: accept no substitutes.
Jesus is the one who created the powers of the visible world. The world of governments and corporations; of oppressive social structures and our own personal greed that demands more than our fair share. The rulers and authorities of this world are only there because Jesus put them there. They derive their authority from him, and they exist for him. Even in their rebellion, they exist to work God’s purposes in the world. For he is sovereign; he is in charge. Accept no substitutes.
Colossians 1:17a He is before all things,
In a world that judges us by how many things we have, we have Jesus, who is before them all. He was in existence before all things in time. He exists now before all things in priorities. Why on earth would we want to put things before Jesus? Accept no substitutes.
Colossians 1:17b and in him all things hold together.
The materialist says that the world is held together by market forces and multinationals – and so freaks out when the price of oil skyrockets or when interest rates increase their mortgage payments. The humanist says that the world is held together by our own effort, learning, and goodwill – and can provide no answer when war again ignites in the Middle East, or when abuse and violence is still prevalent in indigenous communities. Christians know that all things are held together by Jesus – and entrust the future of the world and their own personal security to him.
The atheist says that God doesn’t exist; that the world keeps on turning because of the abstract principles of quantum mechanics. The deist says that God is the impersonal, uncaring divine force that holds the world together. The Christian says that this divine force is personal, and came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who cares enough about us to die for us.
Again to quote Brian Walsh’s poem on Col 1:
In the face of a disconnected world, where home is a domain in cyberspace, where neighbourhood is a chat room, where public space is a shopping mall, where information technology promises a tuned-in, reconnected world, all things hold together in Christ; the creation is a deeply personal cosmos all cohering and interconnected in Jesus.
We have Jesus: accept no substitutes.
* Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed.