November 1: Colossians 1:15-20 (overview)

Colossians 1:15-20

This series of daily notes will examine the ‘Christ hymn’ of Col 1:15-20, following the prior series on the hymn of Phil 2:6-11. These are the two main poetic-hymnic compositions in the New Testament typically designated as “Christ hymns”. They are creedal or confessional statements of early Christian belief regarding the person of Jesus Christ, presented as poetry, or in rhythmic prose, characteristic of ancient hymns.

It is often assumed that these hymnic creedal statements were in existence, being used by believers, prior to the writing of the particular letter where they are located (Philippians, Colossians, etc). This would mean that the New Testament author has adapted and included an earlier hymn in his work. This critical theory was discussed in the case of Philippians 2:6-11, where three possibilities were outlined:

    • A pre-existing hymn that Paul adapted, but which was not composed by him
    • Paul composed the hymn itself, but drew heavily upon traditional language and concepts to give it shape
    • It an original Pauline composition throughout

The situation with the hymn in Col 1:15-20 is further complicated by questions surrounding the Pauline authorship of Colossians; for many commentators, the letter is pseudonymous, a view usually shared with regard to Ephesians as well (the two letters being tied together). For my part, I find the arguments for pseudonymity to be much stronger in the case of Ephesians than they are for Colossians. On objective grounds, I would tend to accept the Pauline authorship of Colossians, with little or no reservation; I find the language, style, themes, and points of emphasis to be much in accord with that of the genuine (and undisputed) letters such as Galatians and 1-2 Corinthians. This is not the place for an extensive discussion of the matter, and, for the purpose of these notes, I will simply treat Colossians as the work of Paul, while occasionally making mention of the opposing critical view.

The section immediately preceding the Christ-hymn (1:3-14) is the exordium (introduction) of the letter, containing a thanksgiving that is very much in the Pauline style. The close of this expression of thanks to God (vv. 12-14) has a Christological emphasis, providing a climax which leads directly into the hymn. It is worth considering the statement in these verses:

“…giving (thanks) to (the) Father (for His) good favor, to the (One hav)ing enabled us to (be ones) receiving a portion of the lot of (the) holy (one)s in the light, the (One) who rescued us out of (the) authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness and made us stand [i.e. moved us] over into the kingdom of His (be)loved Son, in whom we hold the loosing from (bondage), the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins”

Verses 9-14 essentially form a single long sentence in Greek, and the hymn of vv. 15-20 can be seen as a continuation of the sentence. The two stanzas of the hymn each begin with a relative pronoun (o%$), following the syntax of vv. 12-14, which is also anchored by a pair of relative pronouns. The first of these (the initial word of v. 13) refers back to God the Father (“the Father”) in v. 12, the second (at the start of v. 14) refers to Jesus the Son. Note how this functions when we include vv. 15-20 within the syntactical framework:

    • “the Father…” (v. 12)
      • “who [o%$]…made us stand over into the kingdom of His beloved Son” (v. 13)
        • “in whom [e)n w!|]… (v. 14)
        • “who [o%$] is…” (v. 15)
        • “who [o%$] is…” (v. 18b)

Thus, if we are dealing with a pre-existing hymn in vv. 15-20, the author (Paul) has included it as the climax of a long sentence of thanksgiving and praise, with the hymn flowing out of verse 14 as an extension and continuation of a single line of thought. It is important to keep this context in mind as we examine the hymn.

After the hymn, in vv. 21-23, we have what may be regarded as the main proposition (propositio) of the letter, which Paul expounds in the following sections (1:24-2:23ff). The proposition may be summarized as follows: since the Colossian believers have been made right in God’s eyes, through trust in Jesus, and have been saved from the power of sin, they must continue in faith, never departing from the core message of the Gospel (as communicated to them by Paul). The exposition (probatio) of this proposition echoes that of Galatians, drawing upon some of the same themes and arguments, along with a similar sort of ethical exhortation (3:1-17, cp. Gal 5:1-26ff).

When we turn to the hymn itself, one immediately notes a very different structure from the hymn in Phil 2:6-11. The Philippians hymn was framed as a chiasm, with the second half mirroring the first, based on the thematic framework of descent-ascent. The act of God making Jesus high (i.e. exalting him) in vv. 9-11 is an inverse image of the kenosis (Jesus making himself low) in vv. 6-8. In the Colossians hymn, we are instead dealing with two parallel stanzas (Col 1:15-16 and 18b-20), each with a similar syntactical organization (cf. Barth/Blanke, pp. 193-4). In between the two stanzas (vv. 17-18a) there is a central pair of couplets which serve as a bridge, declaring the ruling position of Jesus. The second stanza repeats, and builds upon, the ideas expressed in the first.

Each stanza of the hymn begins with a relative pronoun (o%$) followed by the verb of being (e)stin, “he is”), clearly marking its confessional character, declaring Jesus as “the one who is…”. The Christ hymn of Philippians likewise begins with a relative pronoun (cf. the earlier note on v. 6), as also do the hymnic statements in 1 Tim 3:16 and Heb 1:3-4 (to be discussed). It is a marker that allows commentators to identify these passages (with some confidence) as hymns (or hymnic fragments) that stem from a common line of tradition and shared Christological beliefs.

In the next daily note, we will embark on our detailed exegetical study of the hymn, line by line, phrase by phrase, beginning with verse 15.


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