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 one can note it following 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” (Colossians 1:15). Not only is “all” found in use here, which, as it links both “firstborn” and “creation,” causes one 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,” one must notice the creation-oriented language. It should be impossible 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 (believing in Him as Lord and following His kingdom model and ways), 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, one must not overlook the fact that the title of “firstborn” is given to Israel (Exodus 4:22).
So with this, it is appropriate to 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 when Paul writes “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.