o%ti e)n au)tw=| e)kti/sqe ta\ pa/nta
e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$ kai\ e)pi\ th=$ gh=$
ta\ o)rata\ kai\ ta\ a)o/rata
“(for it is) that in him were founded all the (thing)s,
in the heavens and upon the earth,
the (thing)s seeable and (thing)s unseeable…”
The complex clause of verse 16 is subordinate to v. 15, and epexegetical. It further explains what it means to say that Jesus is the “likeness/image of God”, and also the “first-born” of all that has been created; indeed, it gives us the reason why it is right to speak of Jesus this way. The conjunctive particle o%ti, is explicative, with causal force—i.e., “(for it is) that…”.
There is a clear and carefully constructed symmetry to this statement in v. 16, with a framework governed by prepositional expressions which relate back to the initial relative pronoun. These prepositional phrases enclose the remainder of the verse, so that we may outline the structure of vv. 15-16 as follows:
- “who is [o%$ e)stin]…”
- “in him [e)n au)tw=|]…”
- “through him [di’ au)tou=]
and unto him [ei)$ au)to/n]…”
- “in him [e)n au)tw=|]…”
- “who is [o%$ e)stin]…”
The three expressions, utilizing three different prepositions, are: “in [e)n] him…through [di/a] him and unto [ei)$] him”. This is similar to triadic formulae with a cosmological-existential orientation in contemporary Greek philosophy (cf. the Areopagus speech by Paul, Acts 17:28). The particular triad here is comparable to that used by certain Stoic philosophers and authors, one of the most notable being Marcus Aurelius, in his Contemplations (4.23). Closer in time and religious background to our hymn is the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher-commentator Philo of Alexandria (cf. On the Cherubim 125). The entire subject has been documented in E. Norden’s classic study Agnostos Theos (1913), esp. pp. 240-50, and cf. also M. Robinson, “A Formal Analysis of Colossians,” 1:15-20, Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 76 (1957), p. 276; R. M. Grant, “Causation and ‘the Ancient World View,'” JBL 83 (1964), p. 35 (Barth/Blanke, p, 197).
Here, the three expressions are not presented as a simple triad; rather, they are divided into two parts, involving two parallel statements:
“in him all (thing)s were founded…
all (thing)s have been founded through him and unto him“
Both of these statements involve the verb kti/zw, related to the noun kti/si$ in v. 15. The verb has the basic meaning “found, establish, build”, and here clearly refers to the founding (i.e. creation) of the cosmos by God. The passive form of the verb is an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), with God as the implied subject—i.e., “…were founded (by God)”. The initial occurrence here is an aorist form, the second a perfect form; the aorist typically is used for an event or action which occurred in the past, while the perfect often refers to a past action or condition which continues into the present.
As previously noted, Paul uses the noun kti/si$ (and the verb kti/zw) in two ways: (1) in reference to the original creation of the universe (and human beings) by God, and (2) for the new creation, realized (presently) by believers in Christ. The new creation is patterned after the original (first) creation. When looking at the structure of the hymn as a whole, it becomes clear that the two stanzas relate to these two aspects (or stages) of God’s work of creation; moreover, the same dual-aspect is present in the intervening pair of couplets of v. 17. That the first creation is in view here in vv. 15-16 is confirmed by two other factors: (a) the aorist passive e)kti/sqh, as something done by God in the past, and (b) the substantive adjective ta\ pa/nta (“all things”), as a short-hand for the (current) created order.
Paul frequently uses the substantive plural of pa=$ (“all”), in a general and comprehensive sense (“all things”), though less frequently in a cosmological context (cf. 1 Cor 15:28; 2 Cor 5:18). Here the reference is to ‘everything in the cosmos’, especially ‘every living, intelligent being’, as the central phrases of v. 16 make clear. The first two (of the four) central phrases are:
“in the heavens and upon the earth,
the seeable (thing)s and the unseeable (thing)s”
“Heaven and earth” is a conventional shorthand for referring to the cosmos (the world/universe) as a whole, and ultimately relates back to the basic bipartate (geocentric) cosmology of the ancient Near East. Even by the mid-1st century, in the Greco-Roman world, when a somewhat more sophisticated geocentric cosmology had developed, “heaven and earth” still served as a simple shorthand for the universe. The adjective a)o/rato$ was used in v. 15, in reference to God as “unseeable”, unable to be seen by human beings; other divine/heavenly beings (Angels, etc) are similarly understood as ‘invisible’, unable to be seen by humans in ordinary circumstances. The adjective o(rato/$, without the privative prefix a)-, naturally represents the opposite: what is visible and can be seen normally by human beings (with their eyes). Divine/heavenly beings tend to be located in “the heavens”, while human beings are on “the earth”; thus, the two phrases are generally synonymous, and in parallel, for a comprehensive description of the cosmos—esp. the inhabitants of the cosmos.
What does it mean to say that the cosmos and its inhabitants were created “in” Jesus (e)n au)tw=|, “in him”)? The contemporary Roman philosopher Seneca provides an explanation of the (Stoic) existential-cosmological triad (cf. above), and the various prepositions used (Epistle 65.8, cf. Barth/Blanke, p. 197-8). In this context, the preposition e)n (“in”) refers to the pattern or model used (by God) in creation. The closest New Testament parallel is in the Prologue of the Gospel of John (1:4): “in him was life” (e)n au)tw=| zwh\ h@n)—a parallel that would even be closer if the prior two words were included in the phrase, i.e. “that which has come to be in him was life”, but the precise reading (and punctuation) of vv. 3-4 remains in dispute. In any case, the expression “in him” in that passage is clearly related to the creation of the universe (“all things came to be”, “that which has come to be”), just as it is here in Colossians.
References above marked “Barth/Blanke” are to Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, Colossians, transl. by Astrid B. Beck, Anchor Bible [AB] 34B (1994).