Claiming that the person and revelation of Jesus, by His Spirit, were insufficient for the knowledge of God that empowers Christian living, false teachers in first-century Colossae advocated a “deeper” spirituality that depended on works like the proper observance of food laws, festival days, and asceticism, as well as the worship of angels (Col. 2:16–19). To defend the gospel against such perversions, Paul wrote a letter to teach and apply practically the true doctrine of Christ, especially His preeminence in all things. In Colossians 1:15–20, the apostle gives us one of the most marvelous expositions of the identity of Jesus in the entire New Testament.
Paul begins his description of Jesus in today’s passage as “the image of the invisible God” (v. 15). We think immediately of Genesis 1:26–28, which tells us humanity is made in God’s image, reflecting the Creator through our task as stewards of the earth. Yet though we reflect the glory of the Almighty within the created order, there is still a limit to what we, as mortals, reveal about God. After all, Scripture teaches that we are made in the image of God — not that we are the image of God, at least not in the same way as Jesus. Paul explains that the Savior is God’s image, and those to whom he first wrote would have understood him to mean that Jesus is a picture of the Creator and that He embodies in human form the same identity as the One He images. In other words, human beings need not look anywhere else to see the Almighty, for Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). John Calvin comments on Colossians 1:15: “In Christ he [God] shows us his righteousness, goodness, wisdom, power, in short, his entire self. We must, therefore, beware of seeking him elsewhere, for everything that would set itself off as a representation of God, apart from Christ, will be an idol.”
Jesus is also called “the firstborn of all creation,” and, contrary to what many cults teach, Paul is not saying that God’s Son is a created being. The Son of God — one of the three eternal persons of the triune God — acquired humanity (“became flesh,” John 1:14) through the Virgin Mary, but He has always existed as a divine person. “Firstborn of all creation” designates His status: just as the firstborn son in an ancient family held a privileged rank in his clan, so too does God’s Son over all creation.