Colossians 1:15-20, the immediate context in which the phrase “image of God” is found, is one of the most exalted Christological passages in the New Testament. It is located toward the beginning of the Paul’s letter, preceded only by a brief introduction to the epistle (1:1-3), a note of thankfulness from the apostle for the Colossians’ growth in grace (1:3-8), a plea and a prayer for further growth (1:9-12), and a weighty theological description of what occurred upon their conversion (1:13-14).
Paul begins this section by describing the Son who is the image of the invisible God. He is the preeminent one over all creation (1:15b) because he is the Creator (1:16a) and sovereign (1:16b), having existed prior to the creation (1:17a) and holding the whole of the created order together (1:17b). He is also the firstborn from the dead and head over his people, the church, so that he might be supreme in everything (1:18).Verse 19 indicates that in the Son the fullness of God dwells and that through the Son, God has accomplished universal reconciliation through his death on the cross (1:20). While I do not have room for an exhaustive investigation of this passage, I will make a few important observations that help us appreciate the humanity and deity of Jesus Christ.
“Image of God” and the Theme of Dominion
First, the passage contains an emphasis on the theme of dominion. The phrase “image of God” with reference to Christ comes on the heels of a passage that uses dominion language. Paul describes the event of conversion as God delivering sinners from the “domain of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13). The dominion theme continues through the text of 1:15-20 as Paul describes the Son as the one who not only rules over his own kingdom, but over everything, “in heaven and on earth, visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (1:16). The rule of the Son is of primary importance in this passage.
“Image of God” and Sonship
Second, dominion language is used close proximity to the concept of image and sonship: The image of the invisible God is the Son who exercises total dominion over the whole cosmos. The concentration of these concepts in Colossians 1:13-20 cannot help but prompt the reader to consider related Old Testament texts (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:1-6), where the same ideas are intricately related. In Colossians 1:15-20, then, it appears that Paul is bringing all of these concepts—sonship, image, dominion (or kingship)—together in Jesus Christ. The combining of these concepts in the person of Christ is further highlighted by the use of “firstborn” (1:15b) to describe Christ’s status in relation to the created order.
Although some have suggested that “firstborn” indicates that Christ was the first created being, the word actually signifies the notion of supremacy—that Christ is the preeminent one over the creation, not part of the creation. This latter interpretation is bolstered by by the immediate context and the Old Testament anticipation of the rule of God’s firstborn—“the highest of the kings of the earth”— (Psalm 89:27) so that Paul is arguing, not for the notion that Christ is a created being, but that he is the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectation of a King of kings.
The Genesis creation account provides a picture of man that, although endowed with the capacity and responsibility to rule over the creation, abdicated that responsibility in its initial stages, thus succumbing to a deformed, frustrated rule (see Genesis 1:26-3:18). In Christ, however, God’s program of restoration of his image on earth starting with Noah and continuing through to Abram and to the nation of Israel and her kings is now fully realized.
“Image of God:” Similarities and Differences
Third, if Paul is deliberately tying all these concepts together in Jesus Christ, it appears that he is also laboring to show a qualitative difference between the “image of God” in human beings and the “image of God” in Christ. That is, while there are profound similarities between the text of Colossians 1:15-20 and the Genesis creation account, there are significant differences as well.
These differences, however, are not stark, but subtle: in one sense they signal a qualitative difference between the Son and lesser sons, the Image of God and lesser images of God. In another sense these distinctions, while preserving the uniqueness of Christ, also maintain the way in which Christ is true man and fulfills the original role of God’s image. Let me explain.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, while man was created in the image of God (Colossians 1:15a; cf. Genesis 1:26). The Son is preeminent over creation like Adam was preeminent over creation (Colossians 1:15b; cf. Genesis 1:27), yet Christ’s supremacy is grounded in the fact that he created all things (Colossians 1:16a). Man’s rule is over a specific region—all the earth; Christ’s reign covers the entire universe—all things visible and invisible (1:16b). Man’s preeminence over his natural environment is derivative; the Son’s is original (1:17). Man was made in the beginning (Genesis 1:1); Christ is the beginning (Colossians 1:18). Man possesses God’s breath of life (Genesis 2:7); Christ is indwelt by the fullness of God (1:19). So, while it seems clear that Paul is drawing specifically from the Genesis narrative in order to demonstrate that Christ fulfills the role of God’s image, it also appears that he is signifying that in Christ we have someone who is not merely a man—he is God.
“Image of God” and The New Creation
Fourth, if we consider the location of the last use of the phrase “image of God” in the Old Testament—Genesis 9:6—where God had, immediately prior, established a “recreation,” Paul’s use of the phrase here, along with a confluence of Genesis language in the passage, seems to signal not only a recreation, but a new creation. In other words, with the dawn of this anticipated Image-Son-King and his resurrection from the dead (1:18), God has instated another Genesis, now governed by a Man who cannot fail in his reign over his allotted environment.
This interpretation of new creation is further strengthened by Paul’s use of “image” in 3:9-10 where the apostle grounds his exhortation to pursue holiness in the reality that the Colossians have received a “new self that is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (v.10). The idea of new creation is also marked by Paul’s use of “image” in relation to Christ since, the original creation account depicted man as the pinnacle of God’s creative activity. Now, by referring back to the Genesis narrative with his use of the phrase, “image of God,” Paul denotes another apex in God’s work: We now have the image of God upon the earth, “and behold, it was [and is] very good” (see Genesis 1:31).