Paul’s view of the Person of Christ
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Comment on Colossians 1 verses 15 to 20
We consider next Colossians 1.15-20, which begins, ‘Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible’. As TOM WRIGHT has well said, ‘We now move from one giant of a passage to another’. Any consideration of this passage needs to bear in mind that whatever the nature of the Colossian heresy may have been, Paul makes full use of the system of terminology used by his opponents in arguing his case.
Paul’s opponents at Colosse reasoned that the inhabited world had been created through some form of selflimitation on the part of God and that Christ was merely part of this process. In countering this argument, Paul provides us with a series of statements relating to Christ’s pre-existence and His role in creation in chapter 1 verses 15 to 20. The passage is similar to two other New Testament texts, viz, John 1 verses 1 to 4 and Hebrews 1 verses 2 to 4. The first statement contained in verse 15a is parallel with the statement made by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4 verse 4, where he also refers to Christ as being ‘the image of God’.
Most modern commentators take the view that Colossians 1 verses 15 to 20 exhibits a poetic structure (albeit there is little agreement on the structure) and that Paul was strongly influenced by Jewish wisdom literature, e.g., Prov. 8. 22. Earlier commentators such as LIGHTFOOT see the passage in terms of emerging Gnosticism although even that phenomenon was tinged with Jewish identity. It was of course Wisdom (personified) who had been with God at the beginning and who had been the authorizing voice of creation, compare John’s use of the term ‘word’ in the prologue to his gospel, John 1. 1-18. TOM WRIGHT, however, suggests that the influence is wider when he says, ‘The poem at its most basic structural level exhibits the standard pattern of Jewish monotheistic confessions, known not only from many psalms but also from the pattern and shape of the Torah itself’.
There is also in my view more than an oblique reference to Genesis chapter 1 verse 26, ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image’. I take the ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ in that context to be compatible, which is that there is no essential difference between the two words. Divine wisdom appears to have been accepted by Jews as reflected in the ‘image’ of God. Fundamental to Jewish belief was the teaching that God could never be seen by human kind, see for example Exod. 33. 20, Deuteronomy 4. 12; John 1. 18; 1 John 4. 12. It would seem therefore that Paul identifies Christ in this passage as the preexistent wisdom of God, see note 1. This is the One in whom God is revealed, seen, (the invisible becomes visible) and through whom the world was created and continues to be sustained. That being so, then this must mean that Christ existed before creation and was not only responsible for bringing creation into being but continues to sustain it.
Closely paralleled to Colossians 1 verses 15 to 20 is the almost creedal statement of 1 Corinthians chapter 8 verse 6, ‘But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him’. There is no doubt that this verse is directly related to the verse in Deuteronomy which forms part of the Shema (Hebrew = Hear), the three daily prayers offered by pious Jews, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord’, Deut. 6. 4.
Monotheism has been described as the foundation of Judaism. The oneness of God is not only a central Jewish confession it is also the central and first commandment, Exod. 20. 3. The Hebrew word for ‘one’ in Deuteronomy 6. 4 is the ordinary Hebrew numeral and what is therefore being emphasized in the Shema is that God is all on His own. He has no relations as far as His Godhead is concerned, He is alone and unique.
Comment on 1 Corinthians 8, verse 6
In 1 Corinthians 8 verse 6, Paul is mindful of the difficulties encountered by believers who were obliged to buy meat in the meat market, ‘the Shambles’, at Corinth. The meat had invariably been used previously in some form of worship ceremony for pagan deities. From the point of view of Christian liberty, Paul argues that if a believer had a conscience about the matter then it was better for that individual not to eat meat acquired in this way. On the other hand, a believer whose conscience was not affected could eat the meat provided his conduct did not directly affect a believer with a weaker conscience.
The whole of Paul’s argument is underpinned by the statement made in our verse 6 which refers directly to the uniqueness of God (not the unity of God), in contrast to, in verse 5, the ‘many lords and gods’ of the pagans. In principle, Paul accepts that there may be many so-called gods in the world but only One who is genuine, see note 2. It is clear when we compare Deuteronomy 6 verse 4 with 1 Corinthians 8 verse 6 that Paul has significantly broadened the scope of the original Shematic statement. GORDON FEE points out that Paul sets in apposition God (whom he personally designates as ‘Lord’) as being both uniquely God as well as being the Source and Creator of all things.
Christ is again seen here as present from the beginning of creation and the one through whom creation came about. In the words of TOM WRIGHT, ‘There can be no mistake: just as in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1, Paul has placed Jesus within an explicit statement, drawn from the Old Testament’s quarry of emphatically monotheistic texts, of the doctrine that Israel’s God is the one and only God, the Creator of the world. The Shema was already, at this stage in Judaism, in widespread use as a Jewish daily prayer. Paul has redefined it christologically, producing what we can only call a sort of christological monotheism’.
Comment on 2 Corinthians 8, verse 9
A different text I want briefly to consider in relationship to the pre-existence of Christ is 2 Corinthians 8 verse 9. How are we to understand the transposition of Jesus from riches to poverty? The primary application of the verse is to the incarnation but why does Paul introduce it in this passage? To understand Paul’s message we need to look at the context of his statement. Earlier in chapter 8 of 2 Corinthians, Paul has been commending the churches of Macedonia for their astonishing generosity in meeting the needs of poorer saints. They in fact gave liberally out of their poverty! Paul is keen for the Corinthians to follow their example but he does not want to pressurize them into giving. He therefore provides them in 2 Corinthians 8 verse 9 with the supreme example of self-sacrifice. For the Lord Jesus incarnation was an awesome act of self-condescension. It not only meant for Him a life of economic poverty, e.g., Mark 10. 28-30, but the giving up of those prerogatives essential to deity, see Phil. 2. 6-7. This was the ideal person for the Corinthians to imitate, 1 Cor. 11. 1.
Comment on 1 Corinthians 15, verses 45, 47
I referred earlier to Paul’s possible use of the Adam/Christ motif in Philippians chapter 2. Another feature of his view of Christ is his use of the first man/last Adam theme. He refers to Christ as the ‘second man’ in 1 Corinthians 15. 47 and the ‘last Adam’ in 1 Corinthians 15. 45, see note 3. How then is Christ the ‘last Adam’? There are two major passages in the New Testament where Paul explicitly refers to Adam, these are Romans 5 verses 12 to 20 and 1 Corinthians 15 verses 22 and 45 to 49. In the Old Testament there is a principle that where a person has been tasked to do something and fails, God raises up a second person to achieve His ends, e.g., Saul and David. The imagery of the first and last Adam seems to closely mirror this pattern.
Before we look, however, at these two main passages in any detail, it is important to consider the Old Testament background to this imagery. The main focus of our attention is Genesis chapters 1 to 3 which records the story of creation and the fall of Adam. The Hebrew word for ‘Adam’ is used in the Old Testament in different ways. It can simply refer to the man Adam or it can also refer to the whole of humanity. Later, this all-embracing term for mankind developed into Adam being understood in a ‘representative’ or ‘head of the race’ capacity. Rabbinical teaching suggested that there was a unity of mankind in Adam and Paul takes this on board in his writings. Paul in Romans chapter 5 highlights that the sin of the one man (Adam) is the sin of all (mankind) hence men are universally condemned. This principle of collective solidarity is developed by Paul to argue that men are constituted righteous before God on the same basis as they are constituted unrighteous, namely by the action of another man. For Paul, the ‘last Adam’, Christ, stands at the head of a new order of mankind, similar but not identical with the first Adam. All that the first Adam lost will be more than restored in Christ when He brings many children to glory, see Heb. 2. 10.
Paul’s view of Christ is perceptive and sublime. He illuminates the person of Christ for us through a number of remarkable pieces of economic narrative. Whenever we lose a sense of the impact of what God has done in our lives, Paul drives us back to consider his view of Christ – and the half has not been told us!
- In Rabbinical thought, God is described as the one who preceded time, C. F. D. MOULE.
- As GORDON FEE comments, ‘The God whom Christians worship as Father and Son stands in singular (my underlining) contrast to all others who might be thought to be gods but are not’.
- Paul never refers to Christ as the ‘second Adam’. Theologians have been unduly influenced in this context by that verse from JOHN HENRY NEWMAN’s famous hymn, ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’. But Newman hits the right note when he writes,
O wisest love!
That flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
Even more poignant is the following verse,
O generous love!
That He, who smote in Man
For man the foe,
The double agony in Man
For man should undergo.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.