In verse fifteen, Paul commences with a barrage of inclusive language, as he includes in his letter what appears to be a likely “creed” or formulaic statement about Jesus that was well known in the early church. It is not only significant that Paul uses this creed, but its placement is interesting as well. It is with more than a passing interest that we can note it follows talk of the qualification of all peoples to participate in the inheritance of Israel, and talk of the associated exodus experience language of redemption and forgiveness of sins that was crucial to Israel’s identity.
The creed, or hymn, begins with “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (1:15). Not only do we find “all” in use here, which, as it links both “firstborn” and “creation,” causes us to consider both humanity (firstborn) and the physical creation itself. “Firstborn,” as it is used in conjunction with the Gospel’s claim that Jesus is Lord, can most certainly imply rule, denoting that Jesus’ rule extends over all of humanity and the whole of the creation. This is far more than a spiritual rule. It is absolute and all-encompassing. Additionally, even putting aside the actual use of “creation,” we notice the creation-oriented language. It should be impossible for us to hear or read “image of the invisible God,” “firstborn,” and “creation,” without linking this to the Genesis account. There, humanity is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26a).
That creation in the image of God was immediately followed by “so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth” (1:26b). The implication is clear. Jesus is the firstborn of, and represents, a new humanity. Those that are in union with Him, to borrow one of Paul’s terms, are to consider themselves as part of that new humanity, acting upon this realization. At the same time, we do not overlook the fact that the title of “firstborn” is given to Israel (Exodus 4:22). So with this, we can entertain thoughts of Jesus as Israel, and those identified with Him as a renewed Israel, whose new covenant marker is their confession of Jesus as Lord. These confessors share in the responsibilities, privileges, and demands of being the covenant people of the Creator God---charged with reflecting His glory into the world and drawing all peoples to Him.
The next step in the hymn operates according to the messianic expectation that Israel’s covenant God would robe Himself in flesh so as to accomplish His purposes. Thus, Jesus is identified as that manifestation and we hear “for all things in heaven and on earth were created by Him---all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers---all things were created through Him and for Him” (1:16). Though the “all” of this verse is clearly concerned with the creation end of the spectrum, rather than that of humanity, it is difficult to escape the fact that “all” is now replete with human sensibilities. One also cannot help but consider the possibility that at least a portion of this language is borrowed from the Caesar cult, with a far more appropriate re-shaping, re-direction, and re-application of these words towards Jesus. This would not be an isolated instance of such an occurrence, as the term “gospel” itself, in its most widespread and familiar usage, was linked to the Caesar.
The “all” barrage continues on into the next verse, which read “He Himself is before all things and all things are held together in Him” (1:17), which flows right into “He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn among the dead, so that He Himself may become first in all things” (1:18). So here we have “all things” and “all things,” with the “all-inclusiveness” of humanity being carried in its basket of meaning and implication, moving directly into mention of the body of believers, that being the church, which is composed of all nations, apart from the covenant markers that delineated national Israel. This becomes inextricably linked with the assembly of Israel when “firstborn,” as part of “firstborn among the dead,” is attached to it. This is an interesting phrase, with an interesting addendum. While “firstborn” is a position of honor, and while “the dead” can certainly be honored, talk of “the dead” in connection with Jesus generates thoughts of the cross. If the cross is indeed brought to mind, this creates an interesting juxtaposition of honor and shame, as honor is identified with life, and shame is identified with death. Jesus then, receives His honor at the place of shameful death, as part of the cosmic reversal in which the last become first and the first become last, and in which that which is the source and place of greatest shame (the cross) is converted into the place of highest honor.
In His willful trek to the cross, Jesus, by going to the lowest place, ascends to the highest place, becoming “first in all things.” As “firstborn” implies the first of many, while also carrying its congregational cognitive in connection with the whole of Israel, the attachment of “among the dead” provides a double-meaning of tremendous importance to those that follow Jesus, with its demand that those who do indeed follow Him also be willing to go to the places of shame, carrying the message of the kingdom of God and being the place where heaven and earth overlap---representing and bringing that kingdom’s reign to those places where death attempts to assert its complete, total, despairing, humanity and creation defacing reign in defiance of Jesus.