“He [the Father] has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He [the Son] is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness 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 (Colossians 1:13-20, RSV).
Here is another passage of the New Testament scriptures which ‘orthodox’ Christians like to produce to prove that apostolic Christianity teaches that Jesus is the One True God; and that therefore one must accept the absolute Deity of Christ in order to be a Christian and be saved. The main point they derive from these verses is that the Son of God is said to have created everything that is – and surely only God is the creator of all things.
First of all, though, it needs to be pointed out that Paul did not say that the Son created all things, but that all things were created in, through, and for him. That is, God created all things through his Son. This is the same thing which John stated in John 1:3 – “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (NRSV). When God “spoke” and “expressed himself” in his “Word”, everything was in that Word (self expression) and brought into being through that Word. Now when God does something through his Son, it is obvious that the Son is distinct from God.
Second, and very much related to the first point, is that just as in John 1 it is the Word (the “self expression” of God) which was with God and which partook of the nature of God, through which/whom God brought everything into being; so here it is the Son as the image of the invisible God, through whom God created everything. An image is a representation of something, but it is not the same thing as what it represents.
Third, the Son as the image of God is the firstborn of all creation. This again differentiates the Son from God, who is his Father. He comes forth from God, but is not the One from whom he comes forth. The idea here seems to be that Jesus, God’s Son, is the first one of all creation in whom the Word and Life of God became fully embodied and manifest. In John 1, the Word which was with God in the beginning, is said to have “become flesh” in Jesus. Here, Paul tells us that Jesus is the representative man, the very first (but not the only or last) of all God’s creation in which the Word has become fully manifest. Since the Word is fully manifested and embodied in Jesus, all that is true of the Word can be rightly said of Jesus. Since all things were brought into being in and through the Word, so it is said that all things were brought into being in and through Jesus as the Son of God. He is the image of God, because he has become the perfect self expression of God. And he is the firstborn among many brethren who shall also be full self expressions of God. What is true of Jesus will also be true of all of his brothers and sisters! When we come to fully manifest God’s image in ourselves, it will also be truly said of us that all things were brought into being through us and for us – because the Word will have become inseparably united with us, just as it has with Jesus Christ.
Perhaps one of the most striking Biblical passages which shows this complete identification between the Son and the sons (or saints) of God is in Daniel 7. In verses 13 and 14, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man”; and this (singular) son of man received a universal kingdom which would be everlasting. But when an angel explained to Daniel the meaning of the vision, he said this everlasting universal kingdom “shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High” (verse 27). The son of man is in fact not an individual, but all of the “saints’ of God Most High. So in Colossians, Paul speaks of Jesus, the (singular) Son of God, as being the firstborn of all creation – the very first in all of creation to attain that awesome position of “son” and “image” of God. True, “all the fulness of God” is said to dwell in him; but Ephesians 3:19 says that all God’s saints will also be “filled with all the fulness of God”! And this is the ‘glory’ of the New Testament message: it presents this wonderful man, Jesus, as the visible image of the invisible God to which we will be conformed as we obey his teachings and imitate his practice. He is God’s messenger (prophet) to us and our brother, fully subject to his God and Father just as we also must be. It is those who believe, obey, and follow Jesus who are recognizably his ‘brothers’, not those who have attained to a ‘correct’ speculative understanding of Jesus.
There are a couple of interesting verses in the Gospel of Thomas which relate to this subject. While the Gospel of Thomas was not voted into ‘canonicity’ by ancient ‘Church Councils’, it is recognized to be a first century writing – perhaps the oldest Christian writing currently available. It is generally thought to be at least as old as the Gospel of Mark (which is generally thought to be the oldest of the ‘canonical’ Gospels). It does not contain a narrative, or story line, as the canonical Gospels do, but is a collection of statements of Jesus (much like Proverbs for instance). There is only one ‘chapter’. Verse 12 says: “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘We know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.’” That James was looked to as the leader of the Jewish believers at Jerusalem is evident in the book of Acts. In Acts 15:13-21 James gave the final and deciding word at the council at Jerusalem concerning whether Gentile believers should be required to keep the ritual laws of Moses (circumcision, for instance). In chapter 21, when Paul had again returned to Jerusalem with Luke and some others, they went specifically to James, though “all the elders were present” (verse 17). In Galatians 2:9, Paul referred to James, Cephas (Peter) and John as those who were “reputed to be pillars” in the church, listing James first (interesting, don’t you think, that the supposed ‘first Pope’, Peter, wasn’t named first). Then in verse 12, Paul spoke of certain men coming to Antioch “from James”. According to other sources, it was common to refer to James as “James the righteous”, or to use such appellations as “the righteous one” or “the holy one” to refer to him. In other words, James apparently really stood out for his righteous and godly life. Now the interesting thing is that Jesus is reported to have said that “heaven and earth came into being” for James the righteous. That is, the Word and image of God was so obvious in James that he could be identified with that Word just as Jesus was!
In verse 108 of the Gospel of Thomas we find this statement: “Jesus said, ‘He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.’” Anyone who takes the words of this Prophet, Jesus, into himself so that they become a part of him and his way of life, will become so like Jesus that Jesus will ‘become’ him! All that is true of Jesus will be true of that man. It will be just as true of him as of James that for his sake heaven and earth came into being. Jesus is not “God the Son”; but he is indeed the Son of God. And he is not uniquely God’s son; rather he is the representative son, the example of what we shall all be – the firstborn among many brothers.
Now I have given my understanding of the teaching of this statement of Paul in Colossians 1. Do you imagine that I am going to insist that anyone who doesn’t accept this teaching (as I have presented it) isn’t a ‘Christian’, because he denies apostolic authority? Well of course I won’t! First of all, there is a difference between believing the apostle, and believing someone’s interpretation of the apostle. Even if one misunderstands what the apostle said, if he is sincerely seeking to understand and believe it would be accepted. Complete accuracy of understanding is not required. But more importantly, it is not necessary to be a “Paulian” to be a follower of Christ. Paul himself said that we should follow him only insofar as he follows Christ: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). If we should come to the conclusion that in some ways Paul’s life or teaching was not in keeping with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, then by his own statement we should not follow him. If we felt there was good reason to believe that Paul had misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus in this passage of Colossians, then we have every right to reject Paul’s statement! That is, if someone for instance believes that Paul really did teach the Deity of Jesus Christ here, but felt that was contrary to the teachings of Jesus himself, he should certainly reject Paul’s teaching. Again, as Paul himself exhorted in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 – “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” Paul is not our ‘Lord’; Jesus is, by the appointment of his Father, God. There are many people today who seek to be followers of Jesus Christ, but simply can’t accept the teaching of Paul. They feel like Paul badly distorted the pure teachings of Jesus. I disagree with them, and believe they misunderstand Paul; but I will not deny that they are nevertheless true Christians – because again Paul is not our Lord; Jesus IS.