Saturday, November 7, 2009

Colossians 1:16: A Misleading Text in Standard Versions

Colossians 1:16 in the King James (Authorized) version of the Bible is likely to be misleading. It reads: “By Him [Jesus] were all things created that are on the earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created by Him and for Him.” Although the creation in question is that of the hierarchy of the universe, not the animals and the birds and bees, the average reader is likely to receive the impression that Jesus was the creator in Genesis 1:1. “All things were made by him.”

That is what he has been taught in church.

To say that Paul thinks of Jesus as the creator active in Genesis 1:1 contradicts a large number of other biblical passages. Firstly in Hebrews 4:4, where God and Jesus are quite distinct personalities, the writer says that “God [not Jesus] rested on the seventh day from all His works.” This text makes the Father the active agent in creation. The same book says in its opening verses that God spoke by a Son only in “the end of these of [earlier] days.” God did not speak through a Son until the ministry of Jesus in Israel. It could not possibly have been Jesus who said “let their be light.”

God created the heavens and the earth totally unaccompanied (Isa 44:24). This is a primary point to be grasped before turning to Paul, who did not contradict it!

The Son is associated not with Old Testament times but with the historical ministry of Jesus. Jesus himself referred to someone other than himself “who made them male and female.” He stated in Mark 10:6 that “from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.” This view is exactly in line with the Old Testament assertion that the One God of Israel, Yahweh, the Father, created everything and was alone in the act of creation of Gen. 1:1:
“Yahweh who makes all things, who stretches forth the heavens all alone who spreads forth the earth by Myself. Who was with Me?” (Isa. 44;24, RSV).
The implied answer is that no one assisted the Father at the creation of the universe. In Isaiah the promised Messiah is a personality distinct from the God who claims to have been unaided and unaccompanied at creation. The Messiah is the Son who is to be born to Israel (Isa. 9:6). II Samuel 7:14, in a classic statement, announces the fact that the Son of God is yet to be born — as we now know some 1000 years after David. “I will be his Father and he will be My Son.”

There was no Son of God prior to the fulfillment of this marvelous promise in II Sam 7:14, the heart of the whole Bible story.

In Malachi 2:10 the one God of the Hebrew Bible is defined as the Father, and it was He who created all things alone (Isa. 44:24). Paul knew these texts and would not have contradicted them by asserting that the Son had actually created the universe. Paul was a staunch believer in Israel’s creed: “There is no God but One.... There is One God, the Father” (I Cor 8:4-6). Jesus is the human Lord Messiah (Ps. 110:1, Adoni), according to Peter in Acts 2:34-36 and the angel in Luke 2:11. Paul also knew well that the Son of God could not antedate his own beginning, the time when God begat him, as promised in II Sam. 7:14; Heb. 1:5; Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35; I John 5:18, not KJV).

Literally translated, Colossians 1:16 does not say that all things were created by Jesus. The Expositors Commentary on the Greek text of Colossians says flatly of Col. 1:16: “This does not mean ‘by him.’” The margins of many Bibles will show that the text actually reads: “In [en] Him all things were created.... All things have been created through (dia + gen.] Him and with a view to [eis] Him.”

Paul’s chief purpose in this passage is to speak of Christ’s work in redemption and his position in the hierarchy of authority, i.e. the Kingdom in which Christians have been promised a share and which they await as an inheritance (Col. 1:13; 3:24). Jesus has a supreme position overall created beings and rival powers. Paul describes the position of Jesus as “firstborn” [prototokos] and first principle or chief [arche] of the creation. Jesus is to head up the Kingdom, the “Kingdom of God’s dear Son” (v. 13). The issue here is authority and rule. “Firstborn” is a Messianic title drawn from Ps. 89, in which the Father speaks of the coming Messiah:
“He will cry to me, ‘Thou art my Father, my God and the rock of my salvation.’ I will make Him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. I will establish His seed for ever and His throne as the days of heaven” (Ps. 89:26, 27, 29).
Because Jesus is God’s eldest Son, he is the reason for the creation. All things were created “in” Him. The exact force of these prepositions is difficult to specify, but one distinguished authority suggests that it should be taken here in a causal sense:
“For because of Him the universe was created” (Moulton, Milligan, Grammar of the New Testament, III. p. 253.
We should observe that all Christians were chosen “in Christ” before the foundation of the world. This does not imply of course that we were alive before the Genesis creation.

In Col.1:13 Paul sets the all-important context of his following description of Jesus the Son. Paul is talking not about the Genesis creation but the new creation and the Kingdom into which Christians have been transferred at baptism, when they gave up their political allegiance to the present nation-states and committed themselves to the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is announced now as Gospel (Mark 1:14, 15;Acts 28:23, 31, etc.) and will come into force worldwide when Jesus returns to rule the world.

Paul is concerned with the hierarchy of God’s Kingdom. All the angelic authorities were created with Jesus in mind and at his ascension Jesus attained his supreme position under God, at God’s right hand. Jesus is the beginning nor of the Genesis creation but of the new creation. “He is the head of the body, the church, and he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he himself will come to have first place in everything.”

It would be nonsensical to say that Jesus attained the primary status next to God by being set at God’s right hand, IF indeed Jesus from eternity already enjoyed status as Deity! You cannot be promoted to attain a status you already had in the past. The truth is that all things visible and invisible, defined as “thrones, rulers and authorities” (v. 16) were created by God IN (not ‘by’) Jesus, with him and his supreme position in mind.

Col. 1:17 states that Jesus is now before all things, which means that he is set above them all, since his ascension. “Before” is ambiguous in the Greek and can mean equally “before in time” or superior as to rank. Even if we take it in the former sense, Jesus is indeed the first of the new creation of human beings — the first to be immortalized. He is also in a superior position over all other creatures. All things since Jesus ascension are “through him and for him” (v. 16). Paul describes the activity of Jesus when he says that God is reconciling “all things to Himself through Jesus, having made peace through the blood of his cross,” Paul again tells us that he is discussing not the Genesis creation which happened millennia before the Son even existed, but the new creation in Christ, the new covenant by which we can be given a new status before God. Col. 1 is all about reconciliation to God through Christ and about the supreme mediatorial position of Jesus.

It is to make nonsense of the rest of the Bible to say that the Son created the original heavens and earth. Rather Paul is discussing our Christian inheritance (Col. 1:12), our present position as heirs of the Kingdom (1:13) and our redemption and forgiveness (v. 14). Paul then introduces his great description of the Son of God “who is the image of the invisible God,” God’s firsborn king. Note that the subject of the whole discourse is the Son and “image of God.” Jesus is the visible and thus the historical personage born in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. Adam was the image of God also and man is made in the image of God. Jesus is the perfect human image of God. At no point does Paul speak of a pre-human Son of God who was invisible! His whole concentration is on the status of Jesus. He is the ruler over all authorities and he gained that status only at his ascension. The whole flow of Paul’s description is meaningless if the Son was literally supreme from all eternity.

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