November 2: Colossians 1:15a

First Stanza (Col 1:15-16)

Colossians 1:15a

o%$ e)stin ei)kw\ tou= qeou= tou= a)ora/tou
“who is (the) image of God the unseeable (One)”

Both stanzas of the hymn begin the same way, with a relative pronoun (o%$) followed by a 3rd person present indicative of the verb of being (e)stin, “he is”). As mentioned in the previous note, this use of the relative pronoun is typical of ancient hymns, and is a marker of the ‘Christ hymns’ in the New Testament (Phil 2:6-11; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:3-4). It refers back to Jesus as the “beloved Son” of God (v. 13), and follows the initial relative pronoun in v. 14 (e)n w!|, “in whom…”). Thus, as previously noted, the hymn functions syntactically as a continuation of v. 14, and of vv. 9-14 as a whole (an incredibly long Greek sentence). The prepositional expression e)n w!| (“in whom”) in v. 14 involves the relation of believers to Jesus, and what God did for us, through the person of Jesus, on our behalf. Because of the sacrificial death (and resurrection) of Jesus, and through the trust (and union) we have in him, we now “hold” (e&xomen) in our possession two things:

    • that which looses us from bondage (a)polu/trwsi$), i.e. freeing us from the power of sin, and
    • the release (a&fesi$, i.e. forgiveness) of sins, freeing us from the effect they have on humankind, and making us right in God’s eyes

In the hymn, the focus shifts to who Jesus is, and thus may more properly be said to have a Christological orientation, emphasizing the person of Christ himself. This is the significance of the verb of being (e)stin, “he is”) used in combination with the relative pronoun—i.e., “who he is”, Jesus is the one “who is (thus)”. And verse 15a provides the first statement declaring who Jesus is; he is

“(the) image [ei)kw/n] of God the unseeable (One)”

This predicate is made up of two main components: (1) the noun ei)kw/n, used in the expression ei)kw\n [tou=] qeou=, and (2) the privative adjective a)o/rato$ used as a substantive Divine title. Let us examine each of these.

1. ei)kw/n (ei)kw\n tou= qeou=)

The word ei)kw/n is derived from the verb ei&kw, meaning “be like, resemble”; thus an ei)kw/n is a likeness, and the word is typically translated as “image”. It is often used for a visible pictorial representation, though it can refer to a more abstract representation as well. There are 23 occurrences of the noun in the New Testament, in many instances it refers to a concrete, physical likeness, as with a statue or the stamp of a coin (Mk 12:16 par; Rom 1:23; Rev 13:14-15, etc). However, Paul tends to use the word in a more abstract sense, influenced by the tradition in Gen 1:26-27 (cf. below). In any case, the word here must be understood within the specific expression ei)kw\n tou= qeou= (“likeness/image of God”).

In considering that expression, we may say with confidence that Paul is not making a declaration of the essential deity of Christ, along the lines of the developed orthodox Christology of subsequent generations. We should not read a post-Nicene Christology or Trinitarian theology into the hymn. Instead, we must work from the background of the expression from the standpoint of believers in the mid-1st century. In this regard, I would highlight three relevant strands of tradition:

    • Platonic thought, going back to Plato’s concept of the visible world as the perceptible image (ei)kw/n) of an intelligible Deity (Timaeus 92c, cf. Barth/Blanke, p. 248).
    • The philosophical tradition, best seen in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, of the Logos (lo/go$) as the image of God; the created universe, in turn, is the visible image of the Logos of God, like a personal stamp upon a coin (On the Creation 25; On Dreams 2.45). This idea draws upon both the Platonic concept as well as the Old Testament (and Jewish) tradition of Wisdom, personified, as the image of God (Wisd 7:26), through which God created the world (Prov 8:22-31).
    • The Genesis Creation account, with the specific idea of humankind (<d*a*) as the “image of God” (1:26-27; 9:6; Wisd 2:23).

Paul clearly is drawing on the Genesis tradition in 1 Cor 11:7; 15:49, and it likely informs his use of ei)kw/n elsewhere in his letters. It relates to the Pauline “new creation” theme, which also provides the context for the only other occurrence of the word in Colossians (3:10; cp. Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). The actual expression “image of God” is used only in 2 Cor 4:4, where the reference is primarily to the do/ca (“honor/glory/splendor”) of Christ, understood in traditional terms as a visible indication (involving light-imagery) of deity, which makes the exalted Jesus worthy of honor and worship. This pairing of ei)kw/n and do/ca is similar to the pairing of morfh/ and do/ca in the Philippians Christ-hymn; indeed, ei)kw/n is comparable in meaning to the nouns morfh/ and o(moi/wma in Phil 2:6-7.

Thus, the evidence suggests that two lines of tradition inform Paul’s use of the expression: (1) the first creation of humankind (Gen 1:26-27), and (2) the “new creation” as defined by the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. At the same time, the emphasis on Jesus’ role in Creation makes it likely that something akin to the Wisdom/Logos tradition (of Philo, etc) is also in view. This will be discussed further as we proceed through the hymn.

2. a)o/rato$

This word is a combination of the adjective o(rato/$, meaning “seeable, visible, able to be seen”, and the negative or privative prefix a)-. It thus means “without being seen”, and here, as applied to God, in the more forceful sense of “unable to be seen, unseeable”. The adjective occurs a second time in the hymn (v. 16), but otherwise only three times in the New Testament (Rom 1:20; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27). It is even less frequent in the Greek Old Testament (LXX), occurring just three times (Gen 1:2; Isa 45:3; 2 Macc 9:5).

The main idea, stemming from Old Testament and Jewish tradition, is that no human being can look upon God with their eyes, under normal circumstances (cf. Exod 3:6; Deut 18:16; John 1:18; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:12ff; cp. Gen 32:30; Exod 24:9-11; Judg 6:22; Isa 6:5, etc). The Johannine writings, in particular, draw upon this idea, as the references above indicate; it is an important part of the Johannine Christology—human beings “see” (= know) God the Father only through Jesus the Son. Paul’s use of ei)kw/n, in terms of a vision of God (esp. 2 Cor 3:18; 4:4), suggests that he generally shares this Johannine understanding. Through the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, through our trust in him (leading to union with him through the Spirit), we experience the glorious image and likeness (ei)kw/n) of God Himself—indeed, we ourselves are transformed into the same likeness (Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18).

Any further interpretation of v. 15a depends on the phrase that follows in v. 15b, which we will examine in the next daily note.

References marked “Barth/Blanke” above (and throughout these notes) are to Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Colossians, English transl. by Astrid B. Beck, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 34B (1994).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *