Trinitarians claim this verse shows Jesus is/was God because he is the image of the invisible God. Trinitarians also claim that Jesus must have pre-existed, and must therefore be God, insisting this verse says Jesus created all things.
Examination of the Claim
1. The Context refers to the Risen Jesus
The preceding context shows that Paul is referring to the risen Jesus:
[The Father] has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light who rescued us out of the authority of darkness, and transferred us to the Kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
The following context also shows that Paul is referring to the risen Jesus:
He is also head of the body, the church and he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might be preeminent in all things since in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross, through him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.
2. Image of the Invisible God
The Bible tells us Adam was made in the image of God. That would be the image of the invisible God. There are also numerous other references in Scripture.
God created man (Hebrew: "adam") in His own image, in the image of God He created him. (Genesis 1:27).
For in the image of God He made man. (Genesis 9:6; cf. James 3:9).
For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. (1 Corinthians 11:7).
The last Adam, life-giving Spirit.... Just as we have borne the image of the earthly, we will also bear the image of the heavenly. (1 Corinthians 15:45-49).
The Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. But with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we all are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.... the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness," is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6).
Put on the new man who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him. (Colossians 3:10; cf. Ephesians 4:24).
The Image is not the Original
To be in the image of God does not mean you are God. In fact it necessarily means you are not God. A picture of someone is not the person himself but an image of the person. An image of a man on a coin is not the man but the image of a man. In the same way, the fact that Jesus is the image of God means he is necessarily not God. One would not say the Father is the image of God. To be in the image of God necessarily means Jesus is not God.
What Paul means by "the image of God"
Paul is referring to Jesus in his state of resurrection glory. Also notice that he says Jesus IS (present tense) the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. At 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 he says something similar to what he has in mind here. The same idea is also found at Hebrews 1:2-3 in reference to the risen Jesus. The idea here is that Jesus was bodily raised "life-giving" Spirit (1 Cor 15:45) and since God is spirit (Jn 4:24) then it can be said the risen Jesus was made to be in the image of God when God raised him bodily out of the dead. If we look at 1 Corinthians 15:49, we see that in our resurrection we too will be made in Christ's image of the glory of God (see also Rom 6:4; Php 3:20-21). The idea here is not that Jesus is God because he is in the image of God. We too are being made into the image of God. At 1 Corinthians 15:45 where Paul describes Jesus resurrection body as "life-giving Spirit" and then says we will bear the image of the heavenly man Jesus in verse 49, that is, "life-giving Spirit." And at 2 Cor 3:17-18 Paul says, "the Lord is the Spirit" and then he says we are being transformed into the same image from glory unto glory. The image of God does not make one God but is a reflection of the glory of God.
The image of the invisible God is also what Paul calls "the fullness of deity" in Colossians 2:9. All the fullness of deity dwells in the resurrected Jesus bodily. This fullness is also mentioned here in verse 19, where Paul says "all the fullness was pleased to dwell in him," that is, the fullness of God which Paul also says dwells in believers, the Spirit in which Jesus was bodily clothed when he was raised from the dead.
3. The Firstborn of All Creation
We have seen that the context is clearly a reference to the risen Christ. In verse 18, we also see Paul referring to Jesus as the "firstborn out of the dead."
The firstborn is the chosen heir. Christians are "co-heirs" with Christ (Rom 8:17) who are the church of the firstborn (Heb 12:23). Notice also what Paul had just said in verse 12, "to share in the inheritance in the saints in the light." Similarly, the Hebrews writer says:
"in these last days He has spoken to us in a Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the ages, who is the radiance of His glory and the express image of His being.... having made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High having become as much better than the angels as he has inherited a better name than [the angels].... to which of the angels did [God] ever say, "Your are my son, Today I have begotten you." and again, "I will be a Father to him and he will be a Son to Me".... and when He brings His firstborn into the world [to come*]"
* the oikoumene to come. See Hebrews 2:5.
Analysis of the Evidence
1. The Structure of the Passage
He is the image of the invisible God
Firstborn of all creation
All the fullness pleased to dwell
all things created in, through, for Him (old creation)
Firstborn out of the dead
Before all and In Him all things subsist
Head, beginning of the body/church (new creation)
"Image of God" is simply another way of expressing the fact that all the fullness dwells in the risen Jesus. The same concept is found at Colossians 2:9.
Ephesians is the sister letter to Paul's letter to the Colossians. Notice the similarity of concepts between Colossians 1:12-27 and the following passages:
In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in him unto the economy of the fullness of the times, that is, the Heading up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have been made heirs having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.... I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe according to the working of the strength of His might which He worked in Christ having raised Him out of the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenlies far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. Ephesians 1.
to light what is the economy of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenlies according to the ETERNAL PURPOSE which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. Ephesians 3.
The risen Christ is the revelation of God's Eternal Purpose which He had willed when the Father created all things.
3. The "Creation" in View at Colossians 1:16
Trinitarians simply assume that Paul is referring to the Genesis ACT of creation when he uses the word "creation" in verse 15 and "created" in verse 16. However, the Genesis act of creation is not even on the radar. He is talking about the new creation in Christ.
At 2 Corinthians 5:14ff., Paul tells us that since Christ died for all then all died, and for that reason we regard no one according to the flesh. Although we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him in this way no longer. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come. Paul is here talking about the fact that Christians are new creations in Christ. In a similar manner, e says at Ephesians 2:10, "for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus." In a similar manner, Paul says "in him are all things created" at Colossians 1:16. Paul is referring to creation in the risen Christ just as he is at Ephesians 2:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:17.
In verse 15, Paul says Jesus is "the firstborn of all creation." In the next breath, he says that Jesus is "the firstborn out of the dead." In this way, he tells us what he means when he refers to Jesus as the firstborn of all creation. The risen Jesus is the firstborn of all creation and the new creation is created in him, the risen Christ.
Because Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, he is "before" all things and in him all things stand together. Paul is referring to the same idea at Ephesians 1:9-10 where he says all thigns are headed up in the risen Christ. In this way, the risen Christ is pre-eminent over all things. God has placed all things under his feet.
At verse 20, Paul refers to all things being reconciled to God through Christ. This is the same idea he presents at 2 Corinthians 5:16-19, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, and in this manner, we are new creations in him. This reconcilation of the world is how the new creation is created.
The preceding context of Colossians 1:15-16 refers to how we have been transferred from the authority of darkness to the Kingdom of God's beloved Son. When Jesus sat down at the right hand of God, angels, rulers, and authorities, were subjected to him. This is what Paul has in mind at Colossians 1:16-17. The Greek word ktisis was used to refer to the establishment of authority structures. We see a clear example of this at 1 Peter 2:13. When Jesus was given all authority in heaven and the earth, all authority was created in him, that is, Jesus became the Head of all angelic rule and authority.
4. Daniel's Vision
I kept looking in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
and he came up to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before Him. And to him was given dominion,
glory and a kingdom,
that all the peoples, nations and men of every language
might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
which will not pass away;
and his kingdom is one
which will not be destroyed.
A Proper Reading of the Passage
Colossians 1:16 is about the creation of a governing body, an authority structure, in the Kingdom of the risen Christ. In those ancient times, the Greek word for "create" and "creation" was used to refer to the establishment or founding of such governming bodies or authority structures. And example is found in Scripture at 1 Peter 2:13ff. Jesus Christ has received a Kingdom wherein God has reconciled the kosmos to Himself (2 Cor 5:17-19). Since Jesus has sat down at the right hand of God, receiving all authority in heaven and earth, all rule and authority is now subject to Jesus (see 1 Peter 3:22; Heb 1:4). God has established a new authority structure with Jesus Christ as the Head. He has Headed up all things in the risen Christ, both things in heaven, and things on earth (Eph 1:9-10). The risen Jesus is the firstborn heir of everything (Heb 1:2). The risen Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and upon the earth (Matt 28:18) until he puts all his enemies under his feet (cf. Eph 6:12ff.).
When we are reconciled to God, we are new creations (2 Cor 5:16-19). We are God's workmanship created in Christ Jesus. The new creation is the reconciliation of the old. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. The following passage is about God creating things anew in Christ through whom He reconciled the world to Himself.
"The Father has delivered us from the authority of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved (risen) Son, 14 in whom (in the risen Christ) we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins who is (the risen son is) the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (the firstborn out of the dead) that in him (in the firstborn out of the dead) all things are created (anew) all things in the heavens and upon the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created (anew) through him and to him (see Eph 1:20-22) and he (the firstborn out of the dead) is before all things (both first in time and first in rank), and in him (the risen Christ) all things stand together (see Eph 1:9-10) who is (the risen Christ is) the Head of the body, the church; and he (the risen Christ) is the beginning, the firstborn out of the dead, so that in all he might have the first place. 19 For it pleased all the fullness to dwell in him (to dwell in the risen Christ), 20 and through him (the risen Christ) to reconcile all things to Himself, making peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.
Last Updated: November 5, 2013