Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell, (vv. 15-19)
We have had our Lord Jesus before us as the Son of God’s love in whom we have redemption. Our attention is now directed to Him as the One who has made God known to us. Coming into the world as man He is the image of the invisible God—that God who to the Gnostic could never be known or understood. We are told in John 1:18, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Five times in the New Testament He is called the Only Begotten, and this endearing term always refers to what He is from eternity, with no thought of generation connected with it. It implies unity in life and nature. Isaac is called in Hebrews 11:17 Abrahams only begotten son—yet Ishmael was also his son. But the link between Abraham and Isaac was of a unique character. And so, as the Only Begotten, our Lord is the unique Son, eternally that, for if He be not the eternal Son, then we lose the eternal Father too.
God existed from all eternity as three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but never became visible to created eyes whether of angels or men until the Holy Babe was born in Bethlehem. The Son was as truly the invisible God as the Father or the Spirit until the incarnation. Then He was seen of angels, and later on by men. As thus begotten of God of a virgin mother without any human father, He is Son of God in a new sense. And it is as such He is owned of the Father as the firstborn of every creature, or perhaps the expression would be better rendered, the firstborn of all creation. It is not that He is Himself created, but He is the Head of all that has been created.
It will be seen from what has been said above that the title Firstborn is not to be taken solely as a divine title, though He is divine who bears this name. But it is as Man He is owned of God the Father as the Firstborn. And how right it is that such a title should be conferred upon Him, for “by him were all things created.” Coming into the world as Man, He takes that place in virtue of the dignity of His person. His is the glory of the Firstborn because He is the Creator. The firstborn is the heir and preeminent one. It is important to remember that in Scripture the firstborn is not necessarily the one born first. Many instances might be cited where the one born first was set to one side and the right of the firstborn given to another. One only needs to mention the cases of Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, to which many more might be added. The first man is set aside and the second man is acknowledged as the firstborn. And so Adam and all his race are set to one side as unfit to retain authority over the world in order that Christ, the Second Man, the Lord from heaven, may be acknowledged as the Firstborn.
It will be seen how tremendously all this would weigh against the Gnostic conception of a created Jesus to whom the Christ, a divine emanation, came upon His enlightenment following His baptism, and who left Him again at the cross. It was the eternal Son who stooped in grace to become the Son of God as born of a virgin. It should never be lost sight of that His Sonship is spoken of in these two distinct ways in Scripture. As the Eternal Son, pre-incarnate, He is called “the Son,” “the Son of the Father,” and also the “Son of God,” but the latter term generally refers to what He became when He took humanity into relation with deity and became God and Man in one Person with two natures, in accordance with the word of the angel, addressed to His virgin mother, “That Holy One, who shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God.” It is necessary to be very accurate in our thinking when considering this great mystery, and not to let our thoughts run beyond Holy Scripture. It was of the virgin-born Savior that Micah prophesied, saying, “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting,” or, as the margin puts it, “from the days of eternity” (Mic. 5:2).
The five passages in which He is called the Only Begotten, if carefully weighed, will make this clear.
The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, literal rendering)
No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, subsisting in the bosom of the Father, he hath told him out. (John 1:18, literal rendering)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18)
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9)
The five other passages referred to in which He is called the Firstborn, or First Begotten, are as follows:
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Rom. 8:29)
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature [or, of all creation]. (Col. 1:15)
And he is the head of the body, the church; who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. (Col. 1:18)
And when he bringeth the firstborn into the habitable earth, again he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. (Heb. 1:6, literal rendering)
Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of [or, from among] the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. (Rev. 1:5)
It was He who brought all things into being. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” All the inhabitants of heaven and of earth owe their lives to Him. Beings visible or invisible are all the creatures of His hand. Angels, no matter how great their dignity, whether thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers, all were created by Him and for His glory. The Gnostics placed these varied ranks of exalted beings between Him and God, but He is shown to be superior to them all, for He brought them into being. He is Himself the uncreated Son who became Man to accomplish the work of redemption. Higher than all angels, He was made a little lower than they for the suffering of death.
In verse 17 His priority is insisted on in another way. “He is before all things.” By the term “all things” we understand all that has been created, whether personal or impersonal. He Himself existed as the eternal Word before them all. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Full Deity is ascribed to Him, yet distinct personality. Moreover, it is He who sustains the universe, for “by Him all things consist,” or, “hold together.” It is His hand that holds the stars in their courses, directs the planets in their orbits, and controls the laws of the universe. How great is His dignity, and yet how low did He stoop for our salvation!
But He is firstborn in another sense in verse 18. Man rejected Him saying, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.” So they slew Him, hanging Him on a tree. But it was then that God made His soul an offering for sin, and He accomplished the great work of redemption for which He came. “ [He died], the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” But having been delivered on account of our offenses, He was raised again on account of our justification. As brought again from the dead He became the Firstborn in a new sense, the Head of the new creation. As Man on earth in incarnation there was no union with Him. Union is in resurrection. He was alone as the Incarnate Son here in the world. As He Himself says: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it shall bring forth much fruit.” It is in resurrection that He is hailed as the Firstborn from among the dead. As such He becomes the Head of the body, the church; the Beginning of the creation of God; Firstborn among many brethren; the Resurrection King-Priest; the One who is yet to rule the world in manifested glory; the Melchizedek of the age to come, as Hebrews shows us.
Verse 19 is admittedly difficult to translate euphoniously, and in our English version the words “the Father” have been supplied in order to complete what seems like an incomplete sentence. But it should be carefully noted that there is nothing in the original to answer to the term “the Father.” It is rather “the fulness” that was pleased to dwell in Jesus. And if this verse is connected with verse 9 of chapter 2 we shall understand at once what is in view. “In him all the fulness [of the Godhead] was pleased to dwell.” Deity has been fully manifested in Jesus our adorable Lord. This is the mystery of godliness of 1 Timothy 3:16. The Gnostics used this term, “the fulness,” or pleroma, for the divine essence, dwelling in unapproachable light; and in a lesser sense for the illumination that comes when one reaches the higher plane of knowledge. But all the divine pleroma dwelt in Jesus. All that God is, He is, so that we may now say, “We know God in knowing him.” He has fully manifested Him.
As we ponder the wondrous truths brought before us in these verses the spiritual mind will feel more and more that we have here mysteries of a character beyond the ability of the human mind to grasp. Here is truth for pious meditation, to stir the soul to worship and thanksgiving, not at all for the exercise of the intellect in theological speculations. As we read we would bow our hearts in lowly adoration and thus gaze upon the face of Him who has come forth from the glory that He had with the Father in all the past eternity in order to bring us into the knowledge of God.
In the next section we are told of a twofold reconciliation.
And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight, (vv. 20-22)
In the portion we have just considered, Christ has been presented as the Firstborn in two distinct ways. We have had His twofold Headship: first over all creation and then as Head of the body, the church. In the verses now before us we have reconciliation presented in a double aspect. First, we have the future reconciliation of all things and then present individual reconciliation. He in whom all the fullness dwells has made peace through the blood of His cross. Man is never called upon in Scripture to make his own peace with God. He is viewed as alienated and an enemy, manifestly so, through wicked works.
Sin has come in between God and man, requiring expiation before the guilty rebel could be received by God in peace. Not only on earth, but in heaven has sin lifted up its serpenthead. In fact, it was in heaven that sin began, when Lucifer apostatized, leading with him a vast number of the angelic hosts. Therefore the heavens themselves were unclean in the sight of God and had to be purified by a better sacrifice than those offered under the law. On the cross Christ tasted death, and so far-reaching are the results of His work that eventually all things in earth and in heaven will be reconciled to God upon the basis of what He there accomplished. Whether for the universe or for the individual sinner, He made peace through the blood of His cross. Yet rebels remain in spite of the fact that peace has been made.
We may understand it if we remember that two nations which have been at war with one another may through their plenipotentiaries have agreed on terms of peace, and yet guerilla bands may insist on fighting, ignoring the peace that has been made. So men and demons still persist in refusing to own the divine authority, notwithstanding the fact that,
Jesus’ blood, through earth and skies,
Mercy, free boundless mercy, cries.
For angels the terms of peace offer no pardon, but to the sinful sons of Adam clemency is extended, and he who will may trust in Christ and thus be reconciled to God. “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
The reconciliation of all things includes two spheres, and two only. The time will come when all in earth and all in heaven will be happily reconciled to God. When it is a question of subjugation, as in Philippians 2:10, there are three spheres. Heavenly, earthly, and infernal beings are at last to own the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ. But there is no hope held out in Scripture that the sad inhabitants of the infernal regions will ever be reconciled to God.
The reconciliation of verse 20 carries us on to the new heaven and the new earth where righteousness will dwell and the tabernacle of God shall be with men, and all the redeemed with the elect angels abide with Him in holy harmony. Sin has ruptured the state of peace and harmony that once existed between God and His creatures. Christ in death has wrought reconciliation, and so made it possible for that lost concord to be reestablished, but in new creation.
This reconciliation is already accomplished for individual sinners who “were sometime alienated and enemies in their mind by wicked works,” but who through infinite grace have been reconciled to God by the death of His Son. It is the soul’s apprehension by faith of the infinite love of the offended Deity manifested in the death of the cross that destroys the enmity and draws out the affections of the renewed man to God revealed in Christ. Well may the apostle exclaim elsewhere,
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:18-20)
It is not the holy, wondrous life of Christ that has thus reconciled us. It is His sacrificial death. And as a result of that death we shall eventually be presented before God the Father unblameable in holiness and unreproveable in His sight. The sentence is not concluded in verse 22, but the passage that follows introduces a new subject and therefore must be considered in a different connection.
In leaving the verses which we have been considering, let us bear in mind the great outstanding truths that they would teach us. He who is the image of the invisible God has made peace for us by the blood of His cross. Now in resurrection He is our exalted Head, and we are the members of His body. As Head, He is concerned about every redeemed one here on earth, who has thus, through grace, been united to Him. To own Him as Head is our first responsibility. We are to let nothing put Him at a distance or hinder our loyal subjection to Him through whom we have been reconciled to God.