Locate the Passage
1:15-20 is the first paragraph of the main body of the letter. 1:15-2:5 serve as grounds for the exhortation in 2:6ff.
- Identify the Genre
The macro level is epistolary. The micro level is expository.
- Determine the Structure of the Passage
Vs. 15 commences a hymn of praise to Christ. The antecedent of the relative pronoun “He” in vs. 15 is the “Son” in vs. 13. The hymn contains two salient declarations about the Son: He is firstborn over creation and head of the church. The first major declaration in vs. 15 is about Jesus’ rank over the created order, that He is the “firstborn” (prototokos). Three supporting propositions are given as reasons for Jesus’ supremacy in rank in vs. 16-17: first, everything was created through Him and for Him (vs. 16); second, He has preeminence in time and priority (vs. 17a); third, He is the sustainer of all things (vs. 17b).
Vs. 18 contains the second major declaration, that Jesus is the head (kephale) of the church. Vs. 18b-20 give the supporting propositions that explain the reasons for Jesus’ lordship over the church: first, His resurrection – “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead so that He might have first place in everything” (vs. 18b); second, His deity – “For God was pleased to have all His fullness (pleroma) dwell in Him” (vs. 19); third, His saving work – “and through Him to reconcile everything to Himself…by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross” (vs. 20).
- Exegete the Passage
Vs. 15 presents what may seem like a contradiction but in fact is not. The Son is described as both the “image of the invisible God” and as the “firstborn.” As the image (eikon) of God, Jesus is more than mere man. He is the visible expression of what the God who cannot be seen is like. This is a statement about His divine nature. The author intends not to undercut this statement but to undergird it with his next statement, that Jesus is the “firstborn.” Used 132 times in the Septuagint, “firstborn” (prototokos) often refers to a person of superior rank, as in the superior rank of a firstborn son who is the inheritor. It is used of the Messiah in Psalm 89:27. Jesus, who is the exact expression of God’s very person, is supreme in rank. The genitive “of” in vs. 15 is not to be mistaken as describing Jesus as a part of the creation. It is a genitive of subordination, rightly translated by NKJV and CSB as “over;” Jesus is firstborn over the created order.
Vs. 16 describes the first reason for Jesus’ rank above creation, the creative agency of the Son: all things were created “by” and “through” Him. He has supreme rank over creation because He is the agent of creation. Vs. 15 also describes the telos of the created order: all things were created “for” Him (the preposition eis has a sense of direction here, in the sense of “moving toward”). As Creator, He is the end for which everything exists, the goal toward which everything is moving.
Vs. 17a describes the second reason for Jesus’ superior rank, His preeminence in time and priority: He is before all things (pro panton). This could refer to the Son’s existence before all things temporally or His priority in rank. It is best here to view this as a case of semantic density, wherein the word contains both a reference to time and status: Jesus retains supreme rank because He existed before all things and comes before all things in priority.
Vs. 17b describes the third reason for Jesus’ superior rank, His sustaining work over creation: by Him all things hold together. Not only is the Son the agent of creation, He is the sustainer of creation. All things find coherence and consistency in Him.
Vs. 18a gives the second major heading of this paragraph. Jesus is the head of the body, the church. In addition to His rank as supreme over creation, Jesus also ranks as supreme over the church. Vs. 18b-20 give three supporting propositions that are reasons for Jesus’ headship over the church. First, vs. 18b states that He is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything.” Simply put, Jesus is qualified to be head of the church because He rose from the dead. “Beginning” and “firstborn” should be read here to mean that Jesus is the first of many to be raised from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is the dawn of new creation. The benefits of the Age to Come break into midst of this present evil age through the resurrection of Jesus.
The second reason for Jesus’ headship of the church is given in vs. 19, “for God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him.” Paul may be appropriating the term “fullness” (pleroma) and using it polemically against a proto-Gnostic heresy that claimed that 30 deities or aeons comprised the heavenly Pleroma, the “fullness of deity.” If this is the case, Paul is arguing that the fullness of deity dwells not in this Greek system of gods but in the person of Jesus. Either way, Paul states clearly that the fullness of God’s very being dwells in Jesus. This qualifies Him uniquely to be head of the church.
The third reason for Jesus’ headship of the church is in vs. 20, “and through Him to reconcile everything to Himself…by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross.” Jesus reconciles all things through His saving work on the cross. The hostility between God and humanity caused by humanity’s rebellion ceases because of the work of Jesus that makes peace between humanity and God. The cross puts the world to rights and serves as the line of demarcation between those who will be reconciled to God in judgment and those who will be reconciled to him in salvation. Jesus is qualified to be head of the church because the church is the community of the redeemed people Jesus has reconciled through the cross.
- Let the Structure of the Text Drive the Structure of the Sermon
- Jesus is Lord of Creation (vs. 15)
- Because He is the Creator (vs. 16)
- Because He is the Priority (vs. 17a)
- Because He is the Sustainer (vs. 17b)
- Jesus is Lord of the Church (vs. 18a)
- Because of His Resurrection (vs. 18b)
- Because of His Deity (vs. 19)
- Because of His Saving Work (vs. 20)