Monday, January 09, 2006

Image of the Invisible God

The first chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Colossians contains a marvelous Christological hymn, one of the most beautiful in all of Paul’s writings. It has a sort of Johannine feel to it, and it is important for our understanding of the pre-existent Word of God who became man in Jesus Christ.

The first thing Paul says of Him is that He is “the image of the invisible God” (v 15). “Image” translates the Greek eikon, whence we get our English “icon.” So Christ is the icon of God. Whoever sees Him sees the Father, as He Himself said. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews uses a similar expression and expands upon it a bit: the Son “bears the very stamp of [Gods’] nature” (1:3). Keep in mind that Christ was not always understood by all to be God, the Second Person of the All-holy Trinity. Even the Apostles didn’t really “get it” until after Pentecost, and still it took centuries for a clear doctrinal formulation to be worked out by the Fathers of the early Ecumenical Councils. So these biblical texts that speak of his pre-existence and sharing of the divine nature are priceless for our understanding of God.

Immediately, then, as if to keep us guessing, Paul calls Him “the first-born of all creation.” It seems at first sight that he is throwing a bone to the heretics, especially those who denied the divinity of Christ and called Him only the greatest of creatures. But in the context of the following verse, “first-born” here can only mean “eternally-begotten” of the Father, God’s only (and co-equal, co-eternal) Son. The Son of God couldn’t have been created if “in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (vv 16-17). I emphasized the “all” because Paul repeats it so often, and it closes the argument. If all things were created in and through Him, and He is before all things, and all things hold together in Him, it is quite clear that He is the divine, pre-existent, co-creator of all things! It is true that his human nature is created, but Paul is talking about the Person of the Son of God, eternally existing but manifested in time as the incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ. Paul makes it clear that there is only one universal Savior, Lord, and Mediator.

Paul speaks of the “first-born” once again, and here it is not in eternity but in time. Christ is the “first-born from the dead” (v 18). This obviously refers to his resurrection, for as man He died once and rose from the dead, “that in everything He might be pre-eminent.” His resurrection is something only God could accomplish, for it is wholly beyond the power of man. By rising from the dead, Christ offered a kind of life unimaginable for its sheer incredible wonder—living forever in the glorious, dynamic, inexhaustible love of the All-holy Trinity—with astonishing delights increasing eternally.

This unmerited gift of the God-Man came at a price too high for any of us to pay. It could only be One in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (there’s that “all” again!), through whom the Father could “reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (vv 19-20). This eternal First-born of the Father, the Image of the invisible God, has humbled Himself unto death on the Cross (see another indispensable Christological hymn in Phil. 2:5-11), so that He could be the First-born from the dead, pre-eminent in all things, communicating the glory of his divine nature to his human nature, and through his human nature to us—the beneficiaries of his Blood shed on the Cross, and thus heirs in hope of eternal life.

We sing a psalm verse on certain feasts that runs: “What god is great as our God? You are the God who alone works wonders!” Amen!