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Colossians 1:15-16: A New Regime

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

Introduction:


Colossians is a provocative tract for provocative habitation, and it maintains that such an alternative imagination and alternative way of life is created and upheld in the context of culture. Paul introduces himself to a believing congregation that was not known to him personally (2:I) and which was founded through one of his colleagues-Epaphras-rather than by himself (1:4; 7-9). [1] Regarding Colossians 1:15, we see allusions to the OT where it is stated that man was made in God's image (Gen 1:26, 27) and for his glory (lsa 43:7).[2]


To set an overview of the aim of this article, let me first suggest to you this fundamental hermeneutical principle: Always read the New Testament with Old Testament eyes—or to shift the metaphor, always hear the New Testament with Old Testament ears. For example, If a first-century Jew like Paul uses a word like peace (even if he is writing in Greek) then one cannot miss the overtones of the Hebrew notion of shalom (שָׁלוֹם). Thus, when the apostle states," the image and glory of God"(l Cor 11:7), we must consider the allusions to the ancient times when rulers of vast empires erected images of themselves in areas where they were not physically present (e.g., Dan. 3:1). These images represented their power and rulership over far-reaching regions of their kingdoms. Accordingly, men and women, you and I as God’s image-bearers, are representatives of God who is not physically present, and we are to act as his regents by exercising dominion on earth.. Christ, with all of his uniqueness as God's first-born, demonstrated this during his ministry. This leads us to the term "firstborn", which was frequently used in the LXX (130 times), mostly in genealogies and historical narratives, sometimes indicate temporal priority and sovereignty of rank. Nonetheless, the πρωτότοκος (firstborn) is never ontologically positioned outside of an established group. This is just not how it is used in any area of the biblical literature. Paul to the Colossae community gives us no warning that he would abandon his Hebraic connotations in his letters to them.


Notice the context underscores the establishment of a new regime (the kingdom of God's son) and the examples are "whether they be thrones, dominions, etc., not "the sky and the land". Context insists that it is speaking of "founding" a government, not making the biodome. I take εν αυτω as instrumental as in "with Jesus being his conduit". God, through his Anointed (designated to rule) has organized a government consisting of "seats" (offices), "dominions" (governments), "princes" (rulers) and "authorities" (people with executive powers). In other words, God established the "kingdom” by the means of Christ. He made Jesus the "firstborn" both by his priority in time (prophetically) and in rank.



New creation as a plausible solution


I’m currently sympathetic to idea that the texts is a reference to the new creation, it has a strong probability. Unitarians like Dr. Dale, Sir Anthony Buzzard, and Sean Finnegan beholds this view. For me, I think the Trinitarians have a difficult time reconciling the usages of "thrones, dominions, principalities, as and powers that don’t necessarily denote a creation narrative for the simple fact that those were not around during the creation. These were things Christ was appointed over during his exaltation. In my view, it is more likely that the passage falls into two basic strophes: Christ and the means of Creation (vv. 15–17) and Christ and means of the Church (vv. 18–20). Another way of outlining the passage might be Christ and the Beginning (vv. 15–17) and Christ and the New Beginning (vv. 18–20).


As for Col 1, here is something from an old Unitarian Bible. I agree with some of their commentaries, and this is one I'm in complete agreement with.


The “Improved” version gives this note: “That the apostle does not here intend the creation of natural substances is evident; for, 1st, He does not say that by him were created heaven and earth, but things in heaven, and things on earth: 2dly, He does not, in descending into detail, specify things themselves, viz. celestial and terrestrial substances, but merely states of things, viz. thrones, dominions, etc. which are only ranks and orders of beings in the rational and moral world: 3dly, It is plain from comparing ver. 15 and ver. 18, that Christ is called the first-born of the whole creation, because he is the first who was raised from the dead to an immortal life: 4thly, The creation of natural objects, the heaven, the earth and sea, and all things therein, when they are plainly and unequivocally mentioned, is uniformly and invariably ascribed to the Father, both in the Old Testament and the New.


Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmatt insightfully notes in ‘Colossians Remixed: Subverting The Impire’…"Indeed, the parallelism of the text would seem to indicate that these powers are both earthly and heavenly, visible and invisible. Through- out the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), the word throne (thronos) “is used 123 times of kings and dynasties, emphasizing the continuity and legitimacy of royal office.” Thrones are centralized structures of political, economic and military authority. Dominions (kyriote4tes) refers to actual realms over which a ruler exercises sovereignty. The empire was a dominion. While rulers (archai) could refer to spiritual entities, this was an extension of the normal political, military and other uses of power in daily sociocultural life. And the main use of powers (exousia) is not in reference to spiritual beings but to what Walter Wink calls the “legitimations, sanctions, and permissions that undergird the everyday exercise of power.”

So it isn’t a stretch to say that in the Roman empire, “thrones, dominions, rulers and powers” referred to Rome—to its ruler, Caesar, on the throne established by the gods, to his dominion over all of the known world, established and maintained by the power and might of the empire. Paul is addressing these dynamics of daily life in his use of this language. It would be impossible for his listeners to hear this list—thrones, dominions, rulers, powers and not have thought of imperial thrones, imperial rule, the emperor and his court, and imperial sanctions and legitimations. [pg. 91-92] ..


A Contextual Case for the new creation


Exposition and exegesis: Verse 16 of this passage, says that “all things were created in him”, but what does “creation” here refer to? Does this refer to literally bringing something into existence, or something else? Paul frequently speaks of a “creation” which has taken place “in Christ”, and Paul himself understood this to be a new creation. Let us observe some examples:


2Co 5:17-18 YLT so that if anyone is in Christ— he is a new creature; the old things did pass away, lo, become new have the all things. (18) And the all things are of God, who reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and did give to us the ministration of the reconciliation”


Notice also that the text refers to “the all things” (τα παντα) just as in Colossians 1, we will explore this further in a moment, but for now let us continue with more examples: Gal 6:15 for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation; See also Eph 2:10 & Eph 4:24


First it is imperative to know that “All things (παντα”) is almost always relative. For example, Mat 11:27 says “All things (παντα) are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son see also, Mat 13:41, John 6:37 which uses (πᾶν- ὃ – neuter relative pronoun), and Gal 3:22. “The all things” (τὰ παντα) in these instances are evidently relative and means the same thing as in other instances when our Lord says that the Father had given “all things” into his hands; namely, “all flesh”, or men of every nation of people, Jew and Gentile alike. “All” is always relative and contextual. We wouldn't say lustful deeds were given to Jesus in this instance. See also 1Cor. 9:22 where Paul says he became πάντα (all things) to all people.


Hence it follows, that the creation, which the apostle here ascribes to Christ, expresses that great change which was introduced into the moral world, and particularly into the relative situation of Jews and gentiles, by the dispensation of the gospel. This is often called creation, or the new creation, and is usually ascribed to Jesus Christ; who was the great prophet and messenger of the new covenant. See Eph. i. 10; ii. 10-15; iii. 9; iv. 24; Col. ii. 10; 2 Cor. v. 17. [Belsham’s Unitarian New Testament (1808)]


Some see the words "created" and "creation" at Colossians 1:15-16 and assume that the Genesis act of creation is in view. However, this assumption is not a given. The Greek words to (to create), and ktisis (creation) were used by the ancient Greeks to refer to the founding of governing bodies or authority structures in the establishment of city-states of kingdoms. This was demonstrated earlier. Likewise, Peter clearly used the word ktisis in this manner in 1 Peter 2:13-14.


Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature comments on the founding of governing bodies or authority structures in the establishment of city-states of kingdoms. It's also interesting that some ancient Greeks used κτίζω (ktizō) in such a manner, i.e Scymnus Chius, Diodorus Siculus & Aristotle. ③ system of established authority that is the result of some founding action, governance system, authority system. Corresponding to 1, κτίσις is also the act by which an authoritative or governmental body is created (ins in CB I/2, 468 no. 305 [I A.D.]: 3rd ed., p. 573

The claimed instrumental dative aka "dative of means" of ἐν in vs 16 still works against the trinitarian view, thus demonstrates to us that God is the actor and Jesus is acting at the bidding and for the pleasure of God.


Peter used similar terminology in 1 Peter 2:13-14 where he says ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human creation, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors…’ That the created establishments of God the Father will be rearranged and subjected to his promised Messiah and reconciled to the body (the current Church).


But note the context in Col. 1:16-18: “thrones”, dominions, principalities, head, preeminence." Not a lot there about stars, birds, fish, etc. The use for governing and authority structures is well established in other verses in the NT. Louw-Nida says: "42.39 κτίσιςd, εως f: (derivative of κτίζω ‘to create,’ 42.35) a human institution or social structure as something which has been created—‘institution, structure.’ :be subject to every human institution on account of the Lord’ 1 Pe 2:13. It is possible that κτίσις in 1 Pe 2:13 may have the implication of ‘authorized institution.’ It might even be possible to render κτίσις in such a context as ‘authority’ (compare κτίσιςe in 37.43)."


Vs 13 provides us with much commentary before we get to the highlights (vs15,16 & 17)…The believers in Colossae were informed that they have been delivered out of darkness and translated to the kingdom of the Son. This kingdom is inevitably in the new creation or the new covenant body of the Church which Christ is now the head of. His sacrifice gives them redemption which is discussed in vs 14, thus in the new regime, there will be forgiveness for sins. Now we are at the relevant passages that highlight the preeminent (πρωτότοκος) Son and his God creating through him as the means by which the things in heaven and earth were created. Also, the string of conjunctions (καὶ) from vs 17-21 suggests that the author has a particular synthesis in mind. Consequently, vs 20 is very important. The reconciliation of “all things” could be relative and the only apparent antecedents are the things mentioned in vs 16, as birds, trees and the seas cannot be reconciled logically and would not make sense with the context. Vs 18 points out the things in “the body, the church”. Thus, the original creation may not have been in view here, only the language.




Firstborn of Creation


I can somewhat see the first strophe (vv. 15-18a) as having reference to the "old" creation and the second strophe (vv18b-20) as having reference to the "new" creation.


James D.G. Dunn makes an interesting point regarding the first strophe on p.190, Christology in the Making, 2nd edition.


"The attempt has been made to argue that the thought is of 'the eschatalogical new creation' rather than of the old creation spoken of in Genesis etc. But though indeed the thought of the first strophe most obviously follows as a corollary of the second (rather than the reverse),


πρωτότοκον/prōtotokos


In every case, the one named "firstborn" was a member of the group, whether explicitly mentioned or implied, in the varied contexts. Given the weighty evidence of its normal usage the πρωτότοκον really has to be part of creation in Col. 1:15. Yes, πρωτότοκον in Col 1 should be understood in the parameters of preeminence. But I understand this also means, continuing to stick with the context of the OT that a preeminent person was nonetheless born with and a part of that in that group, hence Jesus was still a part of creation and can be proven with the notion of πασης κτισεως + genitive case, that is of all creation, as mentioned earlier, the term for “creation” here being in the genitive means he belongs to a class. Nevertheless, the preeminence factor and the membership of a class are all in the semantic domain of πρωτότοκος.


The text I believe is best translated in English as "in” or "through" him all things are created. This is supported by the διά + the genitive which is agentival and can only mean an a agent of an action and not the sole master worker..

Preposition chart


Additional Thoughts: I contend pertaining to Colossians 1:16 that the list of "thrones, dominions, rules, and authorities" is an appositive for "all things" and provides the complete definition of what Paul has in mind when he mentions "all things." at the start of the verse. Thus this verse is not teaching that Jesus is the creator of the cosmos; it is only teaching that Jesus established the angelic powers listed as the appointed one by God. Are there grammatical arguments that make this conclusion impossible in the Greek? Not to my knowledge.


The point of such passages as Col 1 and John 1 is not that Jesus is the creator but that he later embodies the Logos through which God created. And that Logos is behind all things following Genesis 1. Colossians 1:16 is also known as a figure of speech called "encircling."(See the REV Bible commentary on Colossians 1:16) The Greeks called this figure of speech "epanadiplosis," while the Romans labeled it "inclusio." It is called "encircling," because of the use of the phrase "all things were created" used before and after the list of created things.


Creator or created?


For those who can read Greek, you will notice from the above text of Colossians 1:15 that our Lord is also called the firstborn πασης κτισεως + genitive case– that is – of all creation, the term for “creation” here being in the genitive. The genitive case (when it's not in a relationship or descriptive semantic) often denotes dominion and belonging to a certain class or group. This is sometimes called the subordinate genitive. [See Mark 15:32 ὁ βασιλεὺς Ἰσραήλ/the king over Israel]…One citation of the genitive of subordination (2 Cor 4:4) still implies possession (the God of this age still belongs to this age). And Acts 13:17 uses the head noun theos, which is often used in that manner, firstborn is never used that way. The “god of” a people, functions possessively also, i.e. these people claim this god as theirs as is the case in Acts 13:17, firstborn is a domestic metaphor which implies possession to the family, so the firstborn of, belongs to that of, even if it’s not literal, but implying rank.


The function of the genitive is possessive, I.e. the firstborn belongs to creation ....πρωτότοκος is a partitive word by nature, and even when used metaphorically that sense typically inheres in the term.


Take Psalm 89:27 LXX for example:καγώ [And I] πρωτότοκον [firstborn] θήσομαι [will make] αυτόν [him] υψηλόν [high] παρά [above] τοις [the] βασιλεύσι [kings] της [of the] γης [earth]


"I shall make him my firstborn; the highest of the kings of the earth." Notice that David is not literally God's firstborn; rather, God placed him in this status, and here there is a comparison of David with the other kings of the earth. But, as king, David is also part of the class of kings. He's not the first king chronologically in this case, but he's superior to his fellow kings. He's superior to but still part of the group "kings".


We now have a roadblock now considering the passive verb ἐκτίσθη. This tells me that there was a master creator that created "through” or "in" someone. Ideally, “en auto” in Col. 1:16 is a dative of sphere (locative) rather than a dative of agency (instrumental) in all probability. As always context is determinative so observe especially verses following the speech of the pre-eminence of Christ in God’s redemptive purposes ... all has been with this in mind. Here "all" is being used in a limited sense. 2 Samuel 17:14 says that "all the men of Israel" agreed on advice. "All" the men of Israel were not there, so the context of the verse demonstrates "all" means "all" who were there...not every single Israelite on earth. Likewise the Greek Jeremiah 26:8 says that "all the people" seized Jeremiah to put him to death. The context makes it clear that "all the people" were not even present, and people who came to the scene later wanted to release Jeremiah.




Conclusion


Tom Wacaster rightly analyzes in his book [Studies In Colossians and Philemon pg.66] “The Greek word εἰκὼν (‘eikon’) properly denotes that which is a copy or delineation of a thing; that which accurately and fully represents it, in contradistinction from a rough sketch, or outline. The Greek word was used by the Greeks for “portrait.” It is, in fact, the nearest equivalent to our word photograph.” So far so good, however, he immediately goes left to present his presuppositions of Trinitarianism by stating “When Paul speaks of Christ as the “eikon” of the invisible God, he was simply saying that Jesus is divine;”[Iibid pg 66]. This is a huge leap from a photographic image to an ontological image. For when one sees a photograph of something that is not to say that image or copy requires the transference of nature. For an essence cannot be copied, if there are loopholes as Wacaster suggests, then that copy suggests temporality. For no copy is the same age as the object being copied.


Contemporaries to the NT authors such as Plutarch used it to portray a description or delineation [Plu.2.54b]. Not one ancient Greek source of literature suggests that an εἰκὼν (“image”) is a representation of nature.

Passive verbs: Interestingly, ἐκτίσθη is used with an expressed passive force. This ultimately entails that the act of creation is not performed by the subject (αὐτῷ/Christ), but rather in this sense he was again the conduit used by an ultimate agent. That is to say by the graceful work of God the Father, Jesus was the means for which all the things in heaven and upon earth were aligned. But the ultimate person of the action is indeed The Father God Almighty. The thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers are now appointed to the Son and rearranged for him (vs16), not by the cause of him. This is also confirmed as mentioned earlier by the ἐν+ dative (by him) at the beginning of vs 16, thus semantically a impersonal means. (see the string of conjunctions καὶ).


As pointed out earlier, the application of the word in a primary cultural context is significant. But also equally as important is the range or scope of meaning in context of the statement. Paul coincidently reiterated in chapter 3 verse 10 that the new regime is to be applied to believers.


“10 and having put on the new, the one being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the one having created him

This is a clear allusion to chapter 1 where Christ was " who is the image of the invisible God”, having been the πρωτότοκος (firstborn) of all creation in the most ancient Jewish context, we arrive at a more plausible exegetical conclusion. That Jesus, who was preeminent over God’s creation by God’s decree, was appointed over the heavenly and earthly governments in the new regime.

Consider some of the more emphatic new age talking points in the chapter highlighted below:


  • the firstborn over all creation

  • the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light

  • rescued from the domain of darkness

  • brought into the kingdom of the son God loves

  • thrones, powers, rulers, authorities created through him and for him

  • head of the body, the church

  • beginning and firstborn from among the dead


Finally we see every instance “firstborn/πρωτότοκος“ is the head noun of a genitive phrase in Greek, where the word is a citation to a person or animal, the very same syntax as Col 1:15, the firstborn is a part of the group in context. This is in grammar is called the partitive genitive. Thus Christ, the last clause πρωτότοκος “of all creation” also suggest that the Messiah was uniquely created. For no man was granted the prerogative of being given the title of preeminent authority over all created things. Now, compare and contrast Pauls reaction to the society around the Colossians that the governor regime of Caesar was simply assumed to be the divine plan for the peace and order of the cosmos. Of course, this is the way the world works. Under such conditions it becomes hard to imagine any life alternative to the empire. In this context that Paul takes a sheet out of the book of the ancient prophets and counters the imperial intuition with radical and evocative poetry, that Christ is the new rearranging power authoritative figure over the visible and invisible power structures in a believer's life. These are the “all things” created for him.



 

References:


[1] See WORD BIBLICAL COMMENTARY VOLUME 44 COLOSSIANS, PHILEMON by PETER T. O’BRIEN for an exhaustive historical study.


[2] Gen 1:26 “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” 27 “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”


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