The commentaries I referenced all seem to agree that Colossians 1:15-20 is a song, a hymn, or a piece of poetry. Yet many of the major English Bible translations don’t acknowledge this presence.
There’s something different about Colossians 1:15-20. Is it the vocabulary? Is it the metre, or rhythm of the text? Is it prose, or is it poetry?
Most scholars I can find agree that this paragraph is something different from Paul’s typical writing. There’s quite a discussion in academic circles concerning whether Paul wrote the hymn personally, or if he quoted it because it fit his message. A third path seeks to determine if Paul edited and existing work to make it fit his letter.
Mostly, these verse are referred to as a hymn, but not a Fanny Crosby style hymn. It’s not possible to know if this “hymn” was ever sung. Maybe it was chanted. Perhaps it simply existed as a poem one particular church. Maybe they recited it in unison to start their worship, or a gifted individual may have simply shared it with the apostle.
Interestingly, many of the major English Bible translations simply include this hymn in the standard paragraph format. This layout decision conceals the presence of the hymnic material. Even some of the translations that acknowledge the presence of a poetic section do a terrible job of displaying it. For example, the Holman Christian Standard Bible gives the entire piece a single straight left margin. I’m no poet, but I can tell this layout doesn’t add any illumination to the poem.
That’s my criticism. Now for my solution.
I have very little talent or appreciation for poetry. I’ve never really graduated beyond rhymes. But with a little help from my reference books and NT Wright in particular, I hope I can shine a light for you on the beauty of this hymn.
I know it’s a bit clunky, but for the sake of layout I’ve used powerpoint and will insert and discuss the slides below.
To begin I’ll share a format for the whole hymn that I believe works well. It has two stanzas with a bridge in between.
The first stanza celebrates Jesus’ role in creation and describes his total supremacy. “In him all things were created.” The second stanza explicitly declares Jesus’ supremacy. It also focuses upon Jesus humanity and ultimately his death. The bridge makes the transition from praising Jesus in the cosmic sphere to acknowledging his Lordship of the church. He holds the universe together and unifies and directs the church.
On a broad scale I like this symmetry. The verses maintain a common theme, albeit with a separate application and the bridge manages the transition well.
The hymn also uses lots of repetition to emphasise its points. The technical term for this is parallelism as different pairs of lines say the same thing using different words. Verse 16 provides a great example:
- For in him all things were created:
- things in heaven and on earth,
- visible and invisible,
- whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
- all things have been created through him and for him.
Lines 1 and 5 bookend this verse by painting an image of all things being created in, through and for Jesus. Just in case you forgot who you were praising. Lines 2 and 3 display a parallelism or repetition that provides additional details to the sweeping claims of lines 1 and 5. Then line 5 provides an even deeper level of clarification with four different terms that seem to all describe the same thing.
There are no exceptions to Jesus’ supremacy!
The last feature of this hymn I want to highlight is the correspondence between the stanzas.
Each stanza starts at the beginning and describes Jesus as firstborn. Jesus is both firstborn of the first creation, and firstborn of the new creation. Both origins testify to his supremacy.
This slide is a bit jumbled, but I’ll attempt to clarify it.
1. While the connection between creation and supremacy is obvious, the supremacy of the man Jesus is not as clear. So v19 explains that the human Jesus had the fullness of God living within him. It clarifies how the man Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” (In hindsight, perhaps v19 should have been on the previous slide.)
2. In the first stanza the supreme Jesus creates. In the second stanza the supreme Jesus reconciles.
3. Just as Jesus created all things on heaven and earth, he has also reconciled all things on heaven and earth. The fullness of God dwells in him so that all things are reconciled through and for Jesus.
I really admire the cleverness of this hymn. There are additional links and threads that I haven’t mentioned here. However, the literary skill demonstrated in this passage should not distract from the reason Paul included it in his letter to the church in Colossae. The message is simple:
(For a different perspective on the same passage, I previously blogged on this text HERE.)
FOOTNOTE: After reading this blog a friend referred me to a prayer / hymn apparently written by St. Patrick. Here’s a sample of that work that like Colossians 1 gives uninhibited praise to Christ our Lord.
I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need: the wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward; the Word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me,
Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me and restore me, Christ beneath me,
Christ above me, Christ in the hearts of all that love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.