The Colossian “Hymn”

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,

whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities

—all things were created through him and for him. 

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

And he is the head of the body, the church.

He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,

making peace by the blood of his cross.

This passage, Colossians 1:15-20, is one of the most Christ-glorifying passages of all the New Testament.  It’s crystal clear about Christ.  Each phrase is pregnant with meaning. The text as you read it is both stunning and stirring.  As Todd Still says, “This poetic passage scales christological heights that only a few other NT texts reach.”   But this expression also points to a dilemma I encountered in studying it recently.

When you read commentators on this text, you start to feel like the beginning of a Superman comic.  Remember when they see Superman in the sky, the people are not sure what they are seeing. “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!.  No, it’s Superman.”  That is similar to what they do with this passage.  Some look at its fairly rhythmic structure and think Paul is writing or quoting from a poem.  One of the other most widely accepted theories, often touted as fact, is that these verses were part of an early Christian song that Paul incorporated into his letter.   So you hear, “It’s a poem! It’s a hymn!”  To which I want to say, “No, it’s a confession!”

No clear evidence exists either in the letter itself or externally in church history that Paul is writing or making use of a poem or song.  When Paul quoted something beyond common expressions from other sources, like the honest, non-plagiarizing man he was he let that be known (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12).  Later on in the epistle, he encourages the Colossians to sing (Colossians 3:16), so it would seem some indication would exist if this passage was one of the hymns he had in mind.  Just because innumerable commentators have footnoted others’ theory that this is a hymn, repetition alone does not make it so.

Rather, is not what we have here an early confessional statement being made by the apostle?   In the midst of doctrinal confusion (chapter 2 shows there was some weird teaching about Christ and the gospel showing up in their church), Paul speaks here in Colossians 1:15-20 with emotionally charged language about the Lord and Savior of the church.  Because God had placed all the fullness of our salvation in Christ – everything that we need to be made complete in Christ (1:28-29) – Paul wanted to focus like a laser all the church’s mental and emotional energies on Jesus.  So he did what the church always does when there is doctrinal confusion.  He stated a beautiful confession.  He laid out line-by-line who Jesus is for this young church.

The church has been doing likewise throughout its history.  From the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in…Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

To the Nicene Creed:

I believe in…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

To the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.

The church has been making known who Jesus is.  Now if hearing these wonderful truths about Jesus Christ is so inspirational that it makes you want to start singing, then so be it!  Just don’t confuse these texts for what they are.  Tersely stated, accurately written, awe-inspiring confessions of our faith.

9 Comments

  1. timbloedow September 25, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Pastor York, I read your post soon after reading this older piece today: http://americanvision.org/3524/the-forgotten-clauses-of-the-magna-carta/. It takes the reflection in a different direction but I find that it is also a very fitting application of this Colossians passage.

    • Barry York September 26, 2012 at 10:46 am #

      Yes, a confession by the state of His Lordship!

  2. Dave Reese September 25, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Good words Barry. I have found this quote from O’Brien helpful:

    “In describing the passage in this way it should be noted that the term “hymn” is not employed in the modern sense of what we understand by congregational hymns with metrical verses. Nor are we to think in terms of Greek poetic form. The category is used broadly, similar to that of “creed,” and includes dogmatic, confessional, liturgical, polemical or doxological material…The criteria are twofold: (a) stylistic—“a certain rhythmical lilt ascertainable when the passage is read aloud, a correspondence between words and phrases which are placed in the sentences in an obviously carefully selected position … the use of parallelismus membrorum (i.e. an arrangement into couplets); and traces of a rudimentary metre and the employment of rhetorical devices such as…alliteration, antithesis and chiasmus”, and (b) linguistic—an unusual vocabulary, particularly the presence of theological terms, which is different from the language of the surrounding context.” (O’Brien, Word)

    • Barry York September 26, 2012 at 10:44 am #

      Thanks for this excellent reference, Dave. That’s a definition of hymn I can live with (though admittedly I need to check the dictionary for a few of those words)!

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