Jesus Christ in Relation to the Church
He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. (1:18)
Paul presents four great truths in this verse about Christ’s relation to the church.
christ is the head of the church
There are many metaphors used in Scripture to describe the church. It is called a family, a kingdom, a vineyard, a flock, a building, and a bride. But the most profound metaphor, one having no Old Testament equivalent, is that of a Body. The church is a Body, and Christ is the head of the Body. This concept is not used in the sense of the head of a company, but rather looks at the church as a living organism, inseparably tied together by the living Christ. He controls every part of it and gives it life and direction. His life lived out through all the members provides the unity of the Body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12–20). He energizes and coordinates the diversity within the Body, a diversity of spiritual gifts and ministries (1 Cor. 12:4–13). He also directs the Body’s mutuality, as the individual members serve and support each other (1 Cor. 12:15–27).
Christ is not an angel who serves the church (cf. Heb. 1:14). He is the head of His church.
christ is the source of the church
Archē (beginning) is used here in the twofold sense of source and primacy. The church has its origins in Jesus. God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). It is He who gives life to His church. His sacrificial death and resurrection on our behalf provided our new life. As head of the Body, Jesus holds the chief position, or highest rank in the church. As the beginning, He is its originator.
christ is the firstborn from the dead
First-born again translates prōtotokos. Of all those who have been raised from the dead, or ever will be, Christ is the highest in rank.
christ is the pre-eminent one
As a result of His death and resurrection, Jesus has come to have first place in everything. Paul summarizes for emphasis in verse 18. He wants to drive home the point as forcefully as he can that Jesus is not merely another emanation from God. Because
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross … God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:8–11)
Jesus reigns supreme over the visible world, the unseen world, and the church. Paul sums up his argument in verse 19: For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him. Plērōma (fulness) was a term used by the later Gnostics to refer to the divine powers and attributes, which they believed were divided among the various emanations. That is likely the sense in which the Colossian errorists used the term. Paul counters that false teaching by stating that all the fulness of deity is not spread out in small doses to a group of spirits, but fully dwells in Christ alone (cf. 2:9). The commentator J. B. Lightfoot wrote about Paul’s use of plērōma,
On the one hand, in relation to Deity, He is the visible image of the invisible God. He is not only the chief manifestation of the Divine nature: He exhausts the Godhead manifested. In Him resides the totality of the Divine powers and attributes. For this totality Gnostic teachers had a technical term, the pleroma or plenitude.… In contrast to their doctrine, [Paul] asserts and repeats the assertion, that the pleroma abides absolutely and wholly in Christ as the Word of God. The entire light is concentrated in Him. (St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [1879; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959], p. 102)
Paul tells the Colossians they do not need angels to help them get saved. Rather in Christ, and Him alone, they are complete (2:10). Christians share in His fulness: “For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace” (John 1:16). All the fulness of Christ becomes available to believers.
What should the response be to the glorious truths about Christ in this passage? The Puritan John Owen astutely wrote,
The revelation made of Christ in the blessed gospel is far more excellent, more glorious, more filled with rays of divine wisdom and goodness than the whole creation, and the just comprehension of it, if attainable, can contain or afford. Without this knowledge, the mind of man, however priding itself in other inventions and discoveries, is wrapped up in darkness and confusion.
This therefore deserves the severest of our thoughts, the best of our meditations, and our utmost diligence in them. For if our future blessedness shall consist in living where He is, and beholding of His glory, what better preparation can there be for it than a constant previous contemplation of that glory as revealed in the gospel, that by a view of it we may be gradually transformed into the same glory? (John Owen, The Glory of Christ [reprint, Chicago: Moody, 1949], pp. 25–26)
18a This Son (1:13), in whom we have redemption/forgiveness (1:14), who is the Eikōn and Prōtotokos (1:15), in whom all things are created (1:16) and in whom all things are sustained (1:17)—this Son is also the head of the body, namely, the church (1:18a).
What does it mean in this context to call Jesus the “head” (kephalē)? Paul uses this term eighteen times, some of which are no more than a physical head (e.g., 1 Cor 11:4), while others are metaphoric. The debate, fired up by evangelical complementarians, is whether it means “authority over” or “source of,” but that debate is mostly shaped by a theology of marriage and a fear of feminism rather than by what it means when Christ is the head. There is an order at work in 1 Cor 11 when Christ is seen as the head (11:3), but at work in that text is not just priority but also source, for in v. 8 Paul says “man did not come from women,” and this verse explains the glory of v. 7. Furthermore, for one important recent reading of this text, Paul’s orientation is not so much authority-submission as it is headship-hair-covering for all women and therefore an equalitarian move for women, including those who because of low status (prostitutes, slaves) were not entitled to head coverings. So we ought to draw a frown over the false dichotomy at work in the source-vs.-authority conversation, and even a question mark over our confidence of reading 1 Cor 11:1–16. When it comes to the Prison Letters, the term “head” trades off between the superiority/priority of Christ over all things (Col 1:18; 2:10; Eph 1:22) and the unity that Christ brings through his life-drawing redemption (Eph 4:15; 5:23; Col 2:19). A parallel Jewish text is found at the Testament of Zebulon:
Pay heed to the streams: When they flow in the same channel they carry along stones, wood, and sand, but they are divided into many channels, the earth swallows them and they become unproductive. And you shall be thus if you are divided. Do not be divided into two heads, because everything the Lord has made has a single head. He provides two shoulders, two hands, two feet, but members obey one head (9:1–4).
In other words, the “head” in this context is the one who grants and sustains life, while also creating a new kind of unity among the members.
The Son is therefore the redemptive, unifying Lord of the body, one of Paul’s favorite terms in his ecclesiology.342 While the word sōma/body was used metaphorically in the Roman Empire by a variety of thinkers and authors, most notably Livy and Epictetus, the term in Paul refers to the organic, unifying, and mutually supporting roles of believers with one another as they exercise the fruit and gifts of the Spirit so they can grow into one body in Christ. Unity emerges in our hymn at 1:20 and at 2:19 as well. One sees a similar emphasis on unity in 1 Cor 12–14; Rom 12, and Eph 4:1–16. Because the language of church-as-body is so typically Pauline, many have concluded that Paul transformed a prior pagan cosmic “body” into the church, and such scholarship points to the routine use of this term (Plato, Timaeus), as well as to its presence in part in Philo. In that case, Col 1:18a continues the theme of creation (body meaning cosmos) rather than expanding to redeemption. That proposal, however, founders on speculation about the tradition history of the hymn; as we have it, the hymn defines the body as the church, and that connection leads the reader (or listener) to the theme of redemption. In addition, others find here support for the transformation of the more democratic sense of “body” in the earlier Pauline letters (1 Cor 12; Rom 12) into a hierarchical arrangement (Christ, church as body, world), as well as into a different soteriology in the post-Pauline letters. One should not dispute differences between the 1 Corinthians-Romans correspondence and the Prison Letters, but to the degree that one can “Paulinize” on the basis of Paul in light of the ideas of one’s environment, one can posit that Paul himself (or Paul and Timothy, or Paul and his various co-workers) might work up over a decade an expansion of the idea of “body.” If our dating of Colossians is correct, namely in the Ephesian imprisonment in the early to mid-50s, then there is no discussion here: both the local and universal sense of “body” found their way into Paul’s letters at about the same time. It is as wise to divide in order to conquer as it is to unify to the same end.
The term “body” is defined by an epexegetical genitive: “the body, that is, the church.” Paul’s mission was not simply to increase the church’s numbers through evangelism but to get saved Gentiles at the table with saved Jews to form a new family fellowship called the church (ekklēsia). Perhaps most notable here is that “church” in the Prison Letters shifts in focus from local assemblies to the church universal (so also Eph 1:22–23). Such an expansion, however, is not innovative to the Prison Letters—the same sense is found at 1 Cor 12:27–28. Nor should one think Paul has dropped the local expression as the body: it is a particularization of the universal church gathered.348 In this context one must also think the term ekklēsia will have evoked a political assembly of citizens; as such, the co-opting of the term by Paul for a Christian kind of politics under King Jesus has overtones of a political alternative.
The Beginning and Firstborn (1:18b)
18b Already described and labeled as Eikōn and Prōtotokos over all creation (1:15–16), the exalted Son is now depicted in redemptive categories. In 1:15–17 there is a primordial or essential primacy, while in 1:18–20 the primacy is the achievement of the resurrection. In the second stanza, then, the Son is not only head over the universal church (1:18a), but three more successive descriptions are succinctly given:
He is (#1) the beginning [archē],
inasmuch as he is (#2) the firstborn [prōtotokos] in the resurrection,
so that (#3) he might have supremacy [prōteuōn]. (NIV)
The relationship of these three descriptions is not precisely clear from the grammar, but a reasonable proposal is that archē is defined by prōtotokos, thus making “beginning” a reference to the resurrection, with prōteuōn/supremacy describing his exalted status as a result of the resurrection. In other words, we are staring at an alternative way of stating what is found already in Phil 2:6–11: the Son’s humiliation unto death but subsequent resurrection and exaltation to the highest name.
The relationship of #1 to #2 shapes how one sees “beginning.” Is it temporal (he is before all things; Matt 19:4, 8; John 15:27; Heb 1:10; 2 Pet 3:4; 1 John 2:24), or is it priority over other archai (he is above all powers; Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 15:24; Eph 1:21; 6:12), or is he the source/founder as the creative initiative behind everything? The temporal sense fits best inasmuch as the next descriptor (#2) clearly focuses on temporal priority, and it also focuses on the life-giving power (thus, founder) of the Son’s redemptive work at work in the second stanza: the Son is the beginning of new-creation life as the first one raised from the dead, resulting in a preeminent status over all the redeemed. Yet, the close parallel to our passage at Ephesians 1:20–23, where archē refers to the powers of this age, leads one to hear also an echo of the “powers” (archai) at work in Col 1:18b: his resurrection and exaltation is thus simultaneously a victory over death and the powers.
Evoking a term in the opening sentence of the Greek translation of the Old Testament in the word “beginning” and therefore now opening up new creation, the Son is the beginning of new creation because he is the “firstborn [prōtotokos] from among the dead” (1:18b). At v. 15 the same word was used for the Son in his creative role, but here the term evokes the Son’s temporally prior and redemption-by-defeat-of-death role. We have here, then, new-creation theology that emerges from the Jewish belief in the general resurrection at the eschaton (1 Cor 15:23; Rom 8:29; Acts 26:23; Rev 1:5). Furthermore, following the crucifixion and prior to Easter, this text implies that Christ resided for a moment “among the dead,” evoking what is now called Holy Saturday, which focuses on the descent into Hades and its harrowing (also Eph 4:8–10; 1 Pet 3:19–20; 4:6). Jesus really died and was not asleep; his death led to his invasion of the realm of the dead in order to liberate his people from their temporary captivity. His liberation of the dead comes to expression in the appearing of the saints after his crucifixion, death, and entry into Hades (Matt 27:51–53). His resurrection is the vanguard of the general resurrection. Resurrection cannot be given too much attention either in the apostolic gospel or in Paul’s theology.
His death-defeating resurrection makes it possible for the Son’s exaltation. As this hymn puts it, “so that [in order that] in everything356 he might have the supremacy” (1:18b). His supremacy (prōteuōn) is both temporal and hierarchical, as is the case in the parallel hymn at Phil 2:6–11, where we read the best commentary on our term prōteuōn: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” It is possible that prōteuōn is a title, The Preeminent One. Here we come face to face with the gospel itself, which is more than a message of salvation: the gospel is the declaration that Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, who died, and who is risen to the right hand of the Father, is the world’s true Lord and King.359 The gospel announces that Jesus is Prōteuōn!
The glory of Christ’s position (vv. 18–19)
Christ is head over the church, ‘the head of the body’, and he exercises authority and rule over it by his Word and his Spirit. He is the only head of the church but appoints officers to exercise authority in his name (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; Eph. 4:11–12ff.; 1 Tim. 3:1–13). There is nothing that can be added to Jesus Christ to make him a ‘better’ or a ‘greater’ Saviour: ‘in him all the fullness should dwell’. The Greek word translated here ‘fullness’ (pleroma) is one of the words which the ‘spoilers’ in Colosse used. Paul used it to remind the Colossians that there is nothing lacking in Christ because the fullness of deity, power and grace are his (2:9). He is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God by him, and it is out of his fullness that believers receive constant grace (Heb. 4:16; John 1:16).
1:18 / From cosmic sovereignty, Paul turns to discuss Christ’s preeminence in the church by using the head-body imagery. He has convincingly established Christ’s lordship over the world; now he establishes Christ’s lordship in the church.
If the church can be regarded as a Pauline interpolation, then an earlier version of the hymn must have proclaimed Christ as head of the body only. There is much speculation as to the source of the head-body metaphor in Paul’s writings. Some scholars are attracted to the idea of “corporate personality” in which all of humanity is considered to be “in Adam.” The counterpart in the nt is that, since all Christians are “in Christ”—that is, the church—they can be regarded as the body of Christ. Most scholars, however, believe that the idea comes from Hellenistic conceptions of the cosmic body.
In several Greek sources, including the writings of Plato, the Stoics, and the Alexandrian Jew Philo, there are numerous mythological conceptions of the universe as a body that is governed by a “head.” Here, the cosmos is filled by the deity and consequently viewed as the body of the deity over which there is “Wisdom” or “Logos” as its head. The common belief was that, just as a person’s physical body needs direction and guidance from the head, so the body of the cosmos needs a head such as Logos or Wisdom as a unifying principle.
What the Greeks attributed to Wisdom or Logos for headship, the early church attributed to Christ. He, in other words, is the divine Logos (cf. John’s prologue in 1:1–3) who governs the body (sōma) of the cosmos. It is quite possible that a Christian version of this hymn initially celebrated Christ’s headship over the cosmos. The new development in Colossians is that Paul interprets body not as cosmos but as church. In other words, although Christ is head of the whole world, only the church is his body.
The identification of the church as the body of Christ over which Christ is the head in Colossians (1:18, 24) and Ephesians (1:22, 23; 4:15, 16) is not the same as the description of the “body” in Romans and 1 Corinthians. In those two epistles (Rom. 12:1–8; 1 Cor. 12:4–31), Paul uses the concept of the church as the body of Christ and emphasizes the mutual relationships and obligations that exist among its members by virtue of their spiritual gifts. There the “head” is simply mentioned along with the other members of the body (1 Cor. 12:14–26). Only in Colossians and Ephesians is Christ designated as head over the church. The reason for this surely lies in Paul’s intention to proclaim the lordship of Christ over all things. He wants the Colossians to know that the church is the place where Christ exercises his sovereignty over the cosmos.
This Lord is the beginning of the body’s life, vitalizing and energizing it by virtue of his resurrection. Paul utilizes the phrase firstborn for the second time (cf. 1:15) in order to re-emphasize the priority of Christ. The final result of this is Christ’s absolute preeminence (so that in everything he might have the supremacy).
18. The section showing the Son’s pre-eminence in the sphere of Creation has ended. Here, at verse 18, begins the paragraph describing his equal sovereignty in the realm of Redemption. We read: And he is the head of the body, the church. In the writings of Paul this expression is something new, whether we view it as original with him or as here taken over by him from a familiar hymn or saying. It is nowhere found in the earlier epistles such as Galatians, I and II Thessalonians, I and II Corinthians, or Romans. Yet, it would be unwise on this account to say that Paul cannot have been either the author or confirmer of the idea that Christ is, indeed, the head of the body, namely, the church. To be sure, in the earlier letters the apostle wrote not about Christ as the head of the church but about the church as the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12–31, especially verse 27). His purpose was to show that in that one body there were many members (“foot,” “hand,” “ear,” “eye”); in other words, that in the one organism of the church there were many functions and talents distributed among a large number of believers, and that each “member” should use his gifts to benefit the entire body. He did not then specifically state that the head of this body was Christ. That was not the point at issue in these earlier letters. At Colosse, however, this headship or pre-eminence of Christ was distinctly the truth in need of emphasis, as has already been shown. It is for this reason that this particular aspect of the doctrine is set forth here in Colossians rather than in the earlier epistles.
Nevertheless, it cannot be truthfully maintained that the proposition “Christ is the head of the church” was absolutely foreign to Paul’s thinking previous to the time when he wrote his Prison Epistles. Is not a body supposed to have a head? Besides, had not the apostle written, “The head of every man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3)? Now if Christ is the head of every man in the church, is he not also the head of the church?
As head Christ causes his church to live and to grow (Col. 2:19; cf. Eph. 4:15, 16). He is its Organic Head. As head he also exercises authority over the church; in fact, over all things in the interest of the church (Eph. 1:20–23). He is its Ruling Head. It is doubtful whether either of these two ideas is ever completely absent when Christ is called head of the church, though sometimes one connotation and then again the other receives the greater emphasis, as the context indicates. And in such a passage as Eph. 5:23, 24 both ideas (growth and guidance) are brought to the fore.
Now if the Son of God is the Organic and Ruling Head of the church, then the church is in no sense whatever dependent on any creature, angel or otherwise. This is the clear implication over against the teachers of error. Does not the church receive both its growth and guidance from its living Lord? Is it not energized by his power and governed by his Word and Spirit? Hence, is it not true that in Christ it has all it needs, and also that without him it can accomplish nothing? Cf. John 15:5, 7.
“Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in thee I find.”
(Charles Wesley, in “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”)
And what could be a better illustration of the relation of Christ to his church than the underlying idea of the relation of the human head to the body? Advance in scientific knowledge has confirmed the adequacy of the figure used by the early church and by Paul. In a human individual it is to the head that the body, in large measure, owes its vigorous life and growth (the organic relationship). From the pituitary gland, housed in a small cavity located in the base of the skull, comes the growth hormone (and several other hormones). This hormone is known to be closely related to the health and growth of connective tissue, cartilege, and bone.
Consider also the other functions of the head, those related in large measure to guidance. It is in the head that the organs of special sense are mainly located. The brain receives impulses from the outside world (indirectly) and from inside the body. It organizes and interprets these impulses. It thinks. It reacts, and this both voluntarily and involuntarily. Thus it guides and directs the actions of the individual. In the cerebrum are located, among other things, the areas that control the various parts of the body. The cerebellum has been called “the co-ordinator and harmonizer of muscular action.” The medulla controls such actions as winking, sneezing, coughing, chewing, sucking, swallowing, etc. Here also the cardiac center regulates the rate of heart-beat, while the respiratory center is in charge of the activity of the respiratory organs.
Thus, indeed, when the triune God created the human body with its organic and ruling head, he so constructed that head that it could serve as an excellent symbol of the Organic and Ruling Head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ.
With reference to the latter the “hymn” now continues, Who is the beginning, the firstborn from die dead. By his triumphant resurrection, nevermore to die, Christ laid the foundation for that sanctified life, that hope and assurance in which his own rejoice (Col. 3:1–17; 1 Peter 1:3 ff.). This resurrection is also the beginning, principle, or cause of their glorious physical resurrection. Hence, from every aspect the statement is true, “Because I live you too will live” (John 14:19). He is the path-breaker, who holds the key of Death and Hades. He has authority over life and death (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:20; Heb. 2:14, 15; Rev. 1:5). It is he who “on the one hand, utterly defeated death, and on the other hand, brought to light life and incorruptibility through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). All this is true in order that in all things he might have the pre-eminence. It stands to reason that One who is Firstborn, Point of Reference, Agent, Goal, Forerunner, and Sustainer—Governor (verses 15–17) in the sphere of Creation; and Head of the Body, Beginning, and Firstborn from the dead in the realm of Redemption (verse 18), has the right to the title, “the One who has the pre-eminence—the divine sovereignty—in all things, that is, among all creatures.”
1:18. Jesus is sovereign over creation. He is also sovereign over the church, the new creation. Jesus is sovereign over the church because he is the head. While scholars debate whether head should be understood as “origin” or “authority,” both are certainly true of Jesus in relationship to the church. Jesus began his church, and HE is its source of life and vitality. Jesus is also sovereign over his church. The church takes its direction from Jesus and is under his authority. While both concepts are true, the context of supremacy certainly lends itself to the idea of authority.
The church is the body of believers who owe their allegiance to Jesus. The position of supremacy in everything (and particularly the church) belongs to Jesus because of his resurrection and work of reconciliation. He is the firstborn from among the dead. Again, firstborn here has nothing to do with time. Others preceded Jesus in rising from the dead. Lazarus is one example (John 11:38–44). Jesus is first in rank. Others were raised only to die again. Jesus was the first person to rise, never to die again. He is the first person to conquer death, and all other resurrections are based on his.
The glorious truth for us is this: because of his resurrection, we are assured of our own resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20–23).
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