November 11: Colossians 1:18b

Second Stanza: Col 1:18b-20

Following the intervening couplets of vv. 17-18a, the second stanza of the hymn begins with v. 18b. Conceptually, and in terms of its thematic structure, the second stanza is parallel with the first; however, it differs significantly with regard to its formal poetic structure and the rhythm of the lines. If Paul adapted an early Christian hymn already in existence, it is possible that the ‘original’ composition may have been exhibited greater consistency, formally and poetically, between its stanzas.

As previously noted, vv. 17-18a are transitional, and the second couplet (v. 18a, discussed in the previous note) prepares the way for the second stanza, focusing on Jesus’ role in the new creation, as represented by believers in Christ (i.e., the e)kklhsi/a).

Colossians 1:18b

o%$ e)stin a)rxh/
prwto/toko$ e)k tw=n nekrw=n
“who is (the) beginning,
(the one) first brought forth out of the dead”

The second stanza begins just as the first stanza did, with a relative pronoun (o%$) followed by the verb of being (e)stin, 3rd person present active indicative). Each stanza thus consists of a complex relative clause, which relates back to “the Son” (“His beloved Son”) in v. 13—i.e., “(the) Son…who is…”. The principal declaration of the first stanza was that the Son “is (the) image of God the unseeable (One)” (v. 15a), further explained by the expressive phrase “(the one) first brought forth [prwto/toko$] of every (thing) founded (by God)”. The opening of the second stanza picks up on this phrase, using the same adjective prwto/toko$ (on the meaning of this term, cf. below, and the prior note on v. 15b).

Let us consider the parallelism of the two stanzas in their opening lines:

    • Stanza 1:
      • “who is (the) image of God…
        • (the one) first brought forth [prwto/toko$] of every (thing) founded (by God)”
    • Stanza 2:
      • “who is (the) beginning
        • (the one) first brought forth [prwto/toko$] out of the dead”

Thus the term a)rxh/ (“beginning”) is parallel with e)i)kw\n tou= qeou= (“the image of God”), and so should help us understand its precise meaning in context here. While the noun a)rxh/ is often used in a temporal sense, and, as such, would certainly be appropriate in reference to the beginning of Creation (cf. LXX Gen 1:1; John 1:1ff, etc), it can also be used in a positional-relational sense, such as for a person who holds a leading/ruling position (i.e., the chief person, the one at the top). The use of the “head” motif in v. 18a (cf. the previous note) suggests that the positional-relational, rather than the temporal, aspect is primarily in view here. This also accords with the idea of Jesus (the Son) as the “image of God” in the first stanza, that expression being qualified by the adjective “unseeable”, emphasizing the greatness and glory of Jesus, rather than his temporal priority. Further confirmation for this use of a)rxh/ is found from the occurrence of the plural a)rxai/ in v. 16, referring to those beings (human and heavenly) who exercise positions of rule in the cosmos (i.e., “chief [ruler]s”). The term usually translated as “first fruits” (cf. the discussion below), a)parxh/, literally signifies “(the) beginning [a)rxh/] of (the harvesting) from (the ground)”.

There can be no doubt that the beginnings of creation are also being referenced here, especially with the adjective prwto/toko$, meaning “(the) first (thing or person) brought forth” —in the case of living beings (human or animal), it essentially means “first-born” (cf. again the discussion on v. 15b). The use of this adjective in the hymn is complicated, and potentially controversial, in its implications. There are four aspects which need to be considered carefully:

    1. The fundamental meaning of the adjective
    2. The immediate context of the expression “first-born out of the dead”
    3. The parallel usage in the first stanza (v. 15)
    4. The related use of the verbal adjective prwteu/wn (“being first”) in v. 18c

Let us begin with the first two aspects (#1 and 2). I have already discussed the fundamental meaning of prwto/toko$, which can be defined simply as “the first [prw=to$] thing (or person) brought forth [to/ko$]”, often in the sense of produce coming forth out of the ground (‘first-fruits’) or a child coming out of the mother’s womb (‘first-born’). While the adjective does not always refer strictly to temporal priority, the temporal aspect is central to the theme of the “firstborn” in Old Testament tradition (Exodus 13:2, 12, etc). Moreover, even in terms of rank and position, the heir or chosen one was typically the eldest (i.e. firstborn) son. There is thus no reason or justification for obscuring or glossing over this basic meaning of prwto/toko$ (cf. Luke 2:7; Heb 11:28), as it is used here in the hymn.

If we wish to isolate the earliest Christological use of the adjective, applying it to the person of Jesus, we need look no further than the expression that occurs here in v. 18b: prwto/toko$ e)k tw=n nekrw=n, “(the one) first brought forth out of the dead”, i.e., “first-born of of the dead”. The same essential expression occurs in Revelation 1:5, and Paul uses prwto/toko$ in much the same context (the resurrection) in Romans 8:29. This strongly suggests that we are dealing with a relatively common early Christian idiom, identifying Jesus, quite literally, as the first person to be raised from the dead (cf. Acts 26:23). The future resurrection of believers will follow the same pattern as Jesus’ own resurrection, and can thus be described using similar terminology (cf. Rom 8:11, 29, and cp. 2 Thess 2:13; James 1:18; Heb 12:23; Rev 14:4). There are several reasons why the adjective prwto/toko$ would come to be used in this context of resurrection from the dead:

    • The natural image of resurrection as a “new birth”, with the obvious parallel between the ‘womb of the earth’ and the mother’s womb
    • Similarly, this draws upon the idea of the harvest, and thus the specific concept of the ‘first-fruits’ (cp. 1 Cor 15:20ff); the harvest was a common eschatological motif, with the end of the growing-cycle serving as a symbol for the end of the Age (cf. Matt 3:12 par; Mk 4:29; Matt 13:39ff, 49; Rev 14:14-20, etc)
    • In such an eschatological context, the resurrection was tied to the new creation that would mark the New Age, and ‘new creation’ is close conceptually to a ‘new birth.’

It would seem all but certain that any further Christological development or application of the term prwto/toko$ was based on this early usage—that is, in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. This will be discussed further, along with the other two aspects of the adjective, mentioned above (#3 and 4), in the next daily note.


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