The context in Colossians is not unlike that of Johns Gospel, in that Gnostic errors were to be opposed. The person of the Lord Jesus is being exalted and two wonderful statements are made concerning Him. First that He is image of the invisible God and second that He is firstborn of every creature, or, literally, all creation. "Image" has to do with representation (compare "likeness" which has to do with resemblance). The Lord Jesus in incarnation became the visible representation of the invisible God.
God in essence, being a Spirit (Jn 4.24), is invisible and it is thus impossible for human eyes to see Him. It is the consistent witness of the Scriptures that "No man hath seen God at any time" (Jn 1.18; 1 Jn 4.12; Ex 33.20; 1 Tim 6.16-17). However, with respect to the invisible God "the only begotten Son he hath declared him" (Jn 1.18). Gods one and only Son has declared Him, and here the word "he" is emphatic, so it is He and He alone who has done so. Marvin Vincent connects the word "declared" with the idea of relating something in full, translating, interpreting or explaining. This fits so well with the Lord Jesus being the Word. Philip was assured by the Lord Jesus that "he that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (Jn 14.9). Jesus is "the very stamp of God the Father"1 since the phrase "express image" used in Hebrews 1.3 means the stamp or die used in making coins which produce a representation of kings, etc. Hence, the Lord Jesus alone is the visible representation of invisible deity.
Then we also learn that with respect to all creation, the Lord Jesus is the firstborn. We must immediately disabuse ourselves of the idea that the word "firstborn" used here means born first. More accurately it has the thought of the dignity and privilege that derives from being born first. The Lord Jesus is the firstborn, not as to time, chronology or order of birth, but as to status and station. In Psalm 89.27 God, speaking of David His anointed king, said, "I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth". So clearly firstborn is a title signifying distinction of rank, not of historic birth, since David was the youngest of the eight sons of Jesse. Christ is the chief and first in rank. Also, at Revelation 3.14, we find the Lord Jesus describing Himself as "the beginning of the creation of God" He is at the same time the originator and head of creation. (Strong explains that the word "beginning" may be viewed in the abstract as "commencement", or viewed in the concrete as "chief" - see also Rev 1.8; 21.6; 22.13.)
Paul then goes on to state why such an exalted position as "firstborn of all creation" (Col 1.15, JND) could be ascribed to the Lord Jesus. He says "because by him were created all things" (Col 1.16, JND). This is reason enough for such a declaration! The literal meaning of the original Greek expression used here is "in Him were all things created", that is to say "within the sphere of His personality, resides the creative will and the creative energy, and in that sphere the creative act takes place".2
Hence the unique position occupied by the Lord Jesus relative to deity: "image" is matched by His unique position; "firstborn" is relative to all creation. Once again, just as in Johns Gospel, we see the insistence that all creation is involved, without exception. This is clear from the expansion of "all things", and here the idea is creation in total, not all created things in particular, so that no facet of creation is missed out. Explicitly, all things "that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him" (v.16). So now spirit-beings (angels) are clearly stated to have been created by Him, whatever their present position or prominence, i.e. "thrones, dominions, principalities or powers". In the context of Gnostic error being confronted here, this is very important, since these errorists claimed to have a secret understanding of the disposition of spiritual beings in a supposed heavenly hierarchy. In that hierarchy they suggested some lowly place for the Lord Jesus. However, Paul skilfully demolished such pretensions by saying that the Lord Jesus was far superior to all created spirit-beings since He is their Creator!
Paul then repeated his claim by going on to say that "all things were created by him", but adds the wonderful statement that all created things were also "for him", as their consummation! Hence, not only is the Lord Jesus again seen as the Originator of creation, He is yet again seen as its objective. This will become particularly true in the Millennium, His thousand-year reign, because not only is the Lord Jesus the beginning of all things, He is also their end (Rev 1.8; 21.6; 22.13).
Gods purposes in creation being "for him" are expanded in other parts of the New Testament. In particular we read that "[God] purposed for the administration of the fulness of times; to head up all things in the Christ, the things in the heavens and the things upon the earth; in him" (Eph 1.9-10, JND), where the fullness of times is the millennial Kingdom; see Zechariah 14.9.
The idea of heading all things up in Christ needs some explanation. The original word used has the thought of "head up, sum up, unite, gather up, bring into one the whole, to gather round the main point". However, another concept seems to be involved since the original Greek word begins with a preposition which means "again", hence Vincent pictures the Millennium as a world arrangement "characterised by the regathering of all things round one point, Christ God contemplates a regathering, a restoration to that former condition when all things were in perfect unity, and normally combined to serve Gods ends. This unity was broken by the introduction of sin. Mans fall involved the unintelligent creation (Rom 8.20). The mystery of Gods will includes the restoration of this unity in and through Christ".3
If all things on earth in the Millennium are visualised metaphorically as gathered together as a pyramid, Christ is at the apex, as the Head, where all lines of communication and command converge (Eph 1.10). The One who is now Head of the Church will then be head over all things in "the world to come" (Heb 2.5). As J N Darby says about that day in his Synopsis on Ephesians, it will be "a grand spectacle to see all things united in perfect peace and union under the authority of the Last Adam, the Son of God". As we also read, Gods intention is reconciliation, and He intends in the Millennium "by him to reconcile all things unto himself, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven" (Col 1.20).
At the end of the Millennium, "when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all" (1 Cor 15 28, see also 2 Pet 3.10).
The final declarations about the Lord Jesus take us before and after the creative act. First "he is before all things", and second "by him all things consist" (Col 1.17). The first statement assures us that He preceded creation and is thus divine, while the second statement guarantees us that He still superintends His creation, since the word "consist" has the idea of holding together or cohering, so that He personally maintains and preserves the creation that He made and it only subsists through Him. Not only did He create the world, but He also conserves it, not as someone who is remote, but one who takes a particular interest and has a personal involvement. While men correctly try to conserve this world and its environment, ultimately He will see to its continuance. (Once again, the literal meaning is "in him", that is to say the superintendence of creation is carried out within His person and power.)
The Gnostic teachers taught that "all the fulness" - that is the sum total of all divine powers and attributes - was distributed among many spirit-beings. However, Paul insists that it was the divine will and pleasure that "all fullness" should reside uniquely in the Lord Jesus. This is given as the reason for His having the pre-eminence (Col 1.18-19), and this will be seen openly in the Millennium.
To be continued.
1 A T Robertson. Word Pictures of the New Testament.
2 M R Vincent. Word Studies in the New Testament.
3 M R Vincent. Word Studies in the New Testament.