The Primacy of Christ: An exegesis of Pauline Christology

Luiz Ruscillo FAITH Magazine January-February 2006  

Colossians 1:12-20

Background to the Letter

Situated in modern day Turkey, Colossae was in the region known at the time as South Phrygia in the upper valley of the Lycus River. The city was about 110 miles east of Ephesus. Laodicia was the main city of the region.

Colossae had a sizeable Jewish community, descendents of the Jews transported there by Antiochus III (223-187 BC). The Christians were mainly Gentiles but included some Jewish-Christians. The local church was founded, not by Paul, but probably by Epaphras who had been converted by Paul in Ephesus. Onesimus, the slave, and possibly his master, Philemon, were also members of the church.

The letter was written while Paul was in prison (Col 4:3), one of the four captivity letters (together with those to the Philippians, Ephesians and to Philemon). The traditional view is that it was written during Paul’s first captivity in Rome (c. 60AD). More recent authors have also proposed the time of Paul’s imprisonment in Ephesus or Caesarea.

A Question of Authorship

Based upon the fact that it contains a number of themes not usually found in Paul’s letters, the authorship of the letter to the Colossians has been questioned by scholars since the 19th century.

In the Christology commonly found in recognised Pauline writings we would expect to find the themes of Christ as Son, Christ as Redeemer, Christians buried with Christ in Baptism and Christ who sits at God’s right hand, all of which are found in Colossians. Not so common in other Pauline writings, however, are the themes of Christ as the image of God, creation in, through and for Christ, Christ as the beginning of all and Christ as the first-born from the dead.

The eschatology of Colossians is not so imminent as in other Pauline works. In other writings we find a theology of baptism in which the Christian is said not only to die with Christ but also rise with Him. As a result, baptism carries with it salvation now. There is not the emphasis on the future as we find in Colossians.

The ecclesiology Colossians presents a more universal outlook. The Church is described as the Body of Christ, who is its Head. Other Pauline writings focus much more on the local church and the charisms of its members.

The language and style of the letter are also distinctive with words and phraseology not found elsewhere in Paul’s letters. The cumulative effect of these observations leads some scholars to propose that the author is a pseudo-Paul , of the Pauline school.

As we shall see, it is not necessary to accept these conclusions unquestioningly. Nonetheless, we can infer from them that Colossians has something quite remarkable to offer.

“The Philosophy and Deceit of Human Tradition”

The purpose of the letter is to counter serious errors undermining the faith of the small church in Colossae. These errors, having both Jewish and Hellenistic origins, seem to have grown from within. The letter expresses anxieties with regard to the imposition of rigorous food regulations and other ascetic practices, the observance of the new-moon and other feasts, circumcision and the Sabbath. There is also a deeper concern expressed with regard to faith. The worship and appeasement of ‘elemental spirits’ seems to have infiltrated the people resulting in a dangerous syncretism with many characteristics of mystery religions. These mystery-religions cannot strictly be called Gnosticism since the earliest evidence of Gnostic writing dates from only the 2nd century AD. The errors might be said to come from a kind of proto-gnosticism. More likely, however, they come from the Jewish and pagan theology of ‘angels’ or ‘heavenly powers’. In later Jewish thought angels were understood to be God’s messengers and mediators. In some pagan thought the ‘heavenly powers’ shared in the divinity, their sum making up the ‘fullness’ of the godhead. Followers of these ideas sought to acquire knowledge of the heavenly beings that they might learn how to appease and worship them.

“Established in the Faith, just as you were taught”

The intention of the letter is to recall the believers to the true faith. Its purpose is to provide a Christological dogma to counter the heresy and to outline some of its practical implications for daily life. With this in mind it is easy to understand why the language and style of the writing would be quite particular. Such language would not be found in other Pauline writings which do not address these specific problems. Furthermore, it would be necessary for the author to develop Christological, eschatological and ecclesiological themes with specific reference to the weak faith and erroneous thought of the readers. The writer would have to use a vocabulary and ideas familiar to those he is intending to persuade. As a result of these considerations many modern scholars maintain that Paul himself did compose the letter. It is a very specific letter to address a very specific problem.

The most striking and theologically rich passage is Col 1:12-20. It is the backbone of the doctrinal section, Col 1:13 – 2:3. The style of vv. 15-20 is commonly accepted as poetical with its clever use of participles and pronouns. In fact there is no full stop from v. 12 until the end of v. 20. vv. 15-20 are usually described as an ancient Christological hymn.

Exegesis of Col 1:12-20

The following translation is very cumbersome but exact. It is a necessary exercise to understand how the passage reads. Words parenthesised by { } indicate the subject or object of the verb where the pronoun is understood but not expressed in the Greek or is ambiguous in translation. Words parenthesised by [ ] are intended to give a fuller understanding of the word translated.

Joyfully (12) giving thanks to the Father
the one making us fit [to receive] the part of the inheritance of the saints in light
(13) who {God} delivered us from the power of darkness
and {He} transferred {us} into the kingdom of His beloved Son
(14) in whom we have the liberation, the forgiveness of sins,
(15) who is the image of the unseen God
the first-born of [over] all creation,
(16) because through Him {Son} all things were created
those in the heavens and those on the earth
those seen and those unseen
whether thrones or dominations whether principalities or powers
all things were created through Him {Son} and for Him {Son},
(17) and He {Son} is before all things
and all things have been established [cohere] in Him {Son}
(18) and He {Son} is the head of the body, the Church
who {Son} is the source
the first-born from the dead
that He {Son} might be in all things the pre-eminent one
(19) because in Him {Son}
all the fullness is pleased to dwell
(20) and through Him {Son}
to reconcile all things into Himself {the fullness}
making peace through the blood of His {Son’s} cross through Him {Son}
whether things of the earth or things of heaven.

To draw out the deeper significance of the passage it is useful to analyse it verse by verse.

The passage begins by giving thanks for being made worthy to be able to receive that for which we are destined (v. 12). In the Old Testament Israel is understood to be the lot or inheritance of God. What is more, all the tribes of Jacob are allotted a part of the Promised Land as their inheritance, except the Tribe of Levi, the priests. Their inheritance is God Himself. The notion of inheritance indicates a predetermined destiny. The idea had already been developed in some Jewish schools as evidenced in the Literature of Qumran.

The reference to the saints in light, or ‘holy ones’, in the same verse is the beginning of the counter argument to the place given to ‘heavenly powers’ in the Colossae heresy. This is further strengthened in the next verse.

The words delivered from the power of darkness...transferred into the kingdom (v. 13) coupled with the liberation and forgiveness of v. 14, indicate that there is no place for the appeasement of ‘powers’. Followers of Christ are given freedom through forgiveness.

Fulfilment in the Incarnate One

The semitic construction His beloved Son is very significant. Most probably the phrase refers to the Baptism of Christ (Mt 3:17; Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22). Its use here indicates not only an understanding of the present efficacy of the sacrament for Christians, but also that these verses are applied to the Incarnate Son and not solely to the Son as pre-existent.

vv. 12-13 serve as a transition and introduction into the hymn. Scholars disagree as to whether the hymn is more ancient than the letter and incorporated into it, or composed at the same time. It is most probably of the style of Jewish Wisdom hymns; it is similar to Qumran Hôda-yôt which are blessing hymns. (Found in cave 1, these were most probably composed by important, founding individuals to be sung on major feasts. The copies found date from 1-50 AD, but the date of composition of the extant texts is closer to 100BC.)

Christ as the image of God (v. 15) is also found in 2 Cor 4:4. The same title is used for Wisdom itself in the hymn in praise of Wisdom (Wis7:22 – 8:1) at 7:26. The term also has echoes of Gen 1:27-28 : Adam made in the image of God and given dominion over all the earth. Given the use of first-born in the very next phrase, the whole verse speaks of authority over creation.

The Universe converging on Christ

With respect to the Colossae heresy, v. 16 puts all the ‘angelic powers’ in their proper place: all things…heaven…earth…seen and unseen, thrones…etc are created and subject to the Son. Yet it is only in examining the use of the prepositions and verb tenses in this verse that its full force can be understood.

The three prepositions in v. 16 under consideration are en , dia and eis .

In classical Greek literature eis means ‘in’ indicating motion towards; en means ‘in’ indicating rest . In Hellenistic Greek this distinction began to be blurred so that eis was confused with en and eventually replaced it. eis came to be used to mean ‘into’ or ‘in’ without distinction. This blurring is also found in much of the New Testament, but not in the Epistles which maintain the classical distinction. The Vulgate (old) translation failed to take this into account and rendered the last part of v. 16 in ipso (‘in’ as at rest) instead of in ipsum (‘in’ as movement towards). The reading is given as: all things were created through Him and in Him . Significantly, the New Vulgate corrects this error and renders the preposition in question accurately. Thus, the last part of v. 16 should read: all things were created through Him and for [unto/towards] Him . It is perhaps only a grammatical expert who can see the import of a preposition :

“Here [Col 1,16] the difference between eis and en alters the entire outlook on the universe, for Christ is said to have been not only the efficient cause of creation, but also its final cause. All things converge upon Him, are directed to Him; He is not only the First but also the Last, not only the beginning of all things but also their end (Rev 22,13). The investigation of the depths of this mystery is the affair of theologians: I call it a mystery, for if Christ as the beginning is “the Word”, He is certainly here said to be the end as the incarnate Word.”

The preposition dia with the genitive generally indicates instrumental causality; ‘through’. Yet this preposition with the genitive can also designate the principal cause. v. 16 not only affirms Christ as the intermediary of creation but also as the efficient cause of all things created.

Furthermore, the contrast between the use of the aorist tense and the perfect tense in the verbs in v. 16 and in v. 17 confirms this interpretation as the only possible understanding of the text.

The sense of the aorist in Greek is a simply posited act. The perfect tense is a present tense indicating not the past action as such but the present state of affairs resulting from the past action.

At the beginning of v. 16 we read all things were created . The verb is passive in the aorist tense, indicating a posited act, a historical fact. The last phrase of the same verse reads all things through ( dia used to show efficient causality) Him and for ( eis used to show final causality) Him were created . The verb is passive in the perfect tense, indicating the present state of affairs and speaking of the present and future reality. v. 17 confirms this beyond doubt with the phrase and He is before all things and all things have been established [cohere] in Him . The verb is passive and, once more, in the perfect tense. Expressed here is the understanding that the universe is established in Him and continues in this state having its subsistence, its internal cohesion and its intimate inter-relatedness in Him. This vision develops the figure of the spirit of the Lord in Wis 1:7 now applied directly to the Son, the Incarnate Son.

v. 18 begins the second phase of the hymn which is characterized by being baptismal and ecclesial. He is the head of the body, the Church . The head is the principle of vitality and authority. He is the arche- , which means ‘beginning’, ‘principal’, ‘sovereign’ or, better in this context, ‘source [of vitality]’.

Just as the Son is described as the first-born of [over] all creation in v. 15, in v. 18. He is first-born from the dead . A clear parallel is drawn between creation and redemption here. His pre-eminence covers all things.

With the phrase all the fullness is pleased to dwell (v. 19) the Colossae heresy, in which the angels and heavenly powers are understood to share a part of the fullness of the Divinity, is clearly condemned. The fullness is in the Son, not apportioned out to others. The fullness of v. 19 echoes the song of the seraphs in Is 6:3 and again the spirit of the Lord in Wis 1:7.

v. 20 completes the all embracing role of the Son.

God’s Seamless Plan for Creation
The incarnation is clearly seen as the continuation and fulfilment of the role of the Son as the cause of creation, in every sense, and the one sustaining it in being. The redemption and reconciliation of all things in Him are understood to be parallel to the creative role. He is the Lord of creation and the Lord of the new creation. As the Son is the final cause of creation, the one unto whom all things are made, so He is the one in whom all things are reconciled. It is astounding that barely 35 years after the death of Jesus from Nazareth such a hymn is being sung in His honour.

Ephesians 1:3-14

Closely related to the letter to the Colossians is that to the Ephesians. The relationship between the two is intriguing. Over a third of Ephesians is paralleled in Colossians. Indeed, the verses which mention Tychicus (Eph 6:21-22 and Col 4:7-8) are almost identical. Furthermore, another 50\% of the letter to the Ephesians can be found in the uncontested Pauline corpus bringing the total of verses employed in other epistles to 85\%. In this respect the letter to the Ephesians is unique.

Background and Authorship

Ephesus was a large port on the western coast of Asia Minor, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, in present day Turkey. Paul stayed there more than once, the second time for about three years. It is strange, then, that this letter claiming to be from Paul to the Christians in Ephesus has very few personal references. Although its Pauline authorship was uncontested until the 18th century the majority of scholars today would hold that it is pseudo-Pauline. It was known as a letter of Paul by Clement of Rome (probably), Ignatius of Antioch (certainly) and Polycarp. The earliest known collection of Pauline epistles contained it. Even the heretic Marcion numbered it among Paul’s letters although he gave it the title, “to the Laodiceans”. Its originality is contested today because it seems to draw from the other epistles. Yet in places it also has differences of language and style from the uncontested Pauline letters. Finally, the doctrinal content is unusual for Paul.

Differences in vocabulary are found mainly in those passages dealing specifically with the Church as the bride of Christ (5:25-33) and the descriptions of Christian armour (6:13-17). The style is heavy and not found elsewhere in Pauline writings.

The doctrinal differences are the ones which convince most scholars that Ephesians cannot be Paul’s composition. As with Colossians there is little emphasis on Christ’s second coming, more on the risen and exalted Christ. The image of the Church as the spouse of Christ is universal, not local.

As with Colossians above, these objections taken singly are not sufficient to doubt Pauline authorship. It is their cumulative effect which many find convincing.

It is not inconceivable that Ephesians has a similar relationship to Colossians as Romans has to Galatians. Galatians is a letter to a specific Church dealing with the crisis of the Law, while Romans is a more reflective treatise on the same subject but in greater theological depth. Likewise, Ephesians could be the more reflective expression countering the difficulties of the Colossae heresy already addressed specifically in the letter to the Colossians. Ephesians is not personal in its tone and has the feel of an encyclical. This could account for the textual uncertainty in 1:1 where the words in Ephesus are omitted in many well attested versions.

Exegesis of Eph 1:3-14

For the purpose of this study the most striking passage is the Blessing at the beginning of the first major section of the letter (Eph 1:3-14). This deals with the revealed and accomplished plan of God. Again, the translation is cumbersome but accurate. As above, parentheses are used to indicate the subject and object of the verbs when not clear and to give a fuller understanding of key words.

(3) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the one blessing us with every spiritual blessing in [coming from/leading to] the heavens [heavenly places/heavenly beings] in Christ,
(4) for [because] He {God} chose us in Him {Christ} before the foundation of the cosmos
that we might be holy and spotless in His {God’s} sight,
in love (5) {God} predetermining us towards adoption {as sons} through Jesus Christ into Him {God},
according to the satisfaction of His {God’s} will
(6) for [the purpose of] the praise of the glory of His {God’s} grace
by which He {God} favoured us in the Beloved.
(7) In whom {beloved} we have the liberation through His blood,
the forgiveness of transgressions according to the wealth of His {God’s}grace
(8) which {grace} He {God} caused to overflow into us;
in all wisdom and insight (9) {God} making known to us the mystery of His {God’s} will according to His {God’s} pleasure which He {God} pre-purposed in [to be realised in] Him {Christ} (10) for the plan-of-salvation of the fullness of time,
summing-up-under-one-head [recapitulate] all things in Christ, those in the heavens and those on the earth in Him {Christ}.
(11)   In whom {Christ} also we were chosen [appointed/made His {God’s} heritage]
being predetermined {us} according to the purpose of the one {God} effecting all things according to the intention of His {God’s} will (12) that we might be for [the purpose of] the praise of His {God’s} glory hoping before in Christ.
(13) In whom {Christ} you also hearing the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, in whom {Christ} also believing, you have been sealed in the promised Holy Spirit (14) who {Holy Spirit} is the pledge of our inheritance until the liberation of the acquisition for [the purpose of] the praise of His {God’s} glory.

Unlike the passage from Colossians, the style is not poetic. Eph 1:3-14 cannot be described as one of the Christological hymns of the New Testament although the first part, vv. 3-7, also has similarities to the Qumran Hôda-yôt. As with Col 1, this passage has its roots in Old Testament Wisdom literature.

Jewish and ancient Christian prayers commonly began with blessed be (as here in v. 3). Also in this verse, the phrase, with every spiritual blessing , has been found in a number of texts in Qumran. The passage begins by affirming the union of the heavenly and earthly realms in Christ. The construction, in Christ, is a significant construction in Ephesians and is found 30 times in the whole letter, either in this form or as in Him, in whom , etc. The use of en (“in” Christ) here is instrumental which gives the meaning ‘with’.

v. 4 begins the list of reasons for blessing God, based on His choice of us in (again it is instrumental en ) Christ. It is developing into a Christian theology the understanding of Israel being the chosen people. The choice is one which has been made before the creation itself: before the foundation of the cosmos . The term pro is simply translated as ‘before’. It is used five other times as a prefix to key verbs in the following verses. It is not a simple case of predestination as will become clear as the passage unfolds. Although the term spotless (v. 4) has a resonance with the sacrifices offered to God in the Old Testament, here it refers more specifically to baptism as attested in 5:26-27 where the same term is used for the spotless Bride.

In v. 5 we find the preposition pro prefixed to orizo- which means ‘to define’, ‘to set up’. Thus, the Greek term pro-orisas can be translated: in love predetermining us . This is predestination with a very specific purpose. It is a pre-defined plan already in place from the beginning and motivated by love. It has a specific end clearly described in v. 5. eis is used twice ( towards adoption and into Him [God]) meaning movement towards in both instances. The final end of the pre-determined plan is adoption into God. This happens through Jesus Christ . The use of dia can again denote efficient causality. The primary motivation for this plan of adoption is His [God’s] will.

The purpose of our adoption into God as sons is simply for His praise: for the praise of the glory of His grace (v. 6). Perhaps there is a reference to Jewish theology of the Sabbath which was understood to be the fulfilment of creation on the seventh day and set aside only for the praise of God. The six days of creation find their purpose and meaning in the Sabbath.

The phrase, in the beloved , is a reference to Christ’s baptism (see above Col 1:13) and clearly indicates that it is in the Incarnate One that God’s plan is fulfilled. This is affirmed and expanded in v. 7.

Revelation of God’s Purpose in Christ

The Colossae heresy is forcefully rebutted in vv. 8-9. Knowledge of heavenly things and powers is given by God in Christ. This is definitive, planned from the beginning and the result of God’s will for us. There is a parallel with v. 5: in love He predetermines us (v. 5); in His wisdom He makes known to us (vv. 8-9). The ‘mystery’ which is made known is God’s purpose and is only known through revelation. Again, it is a purpose which is before creation itself. The Greek term pro-etheto is formed by prefixing the preposition pro to tithe-mi which means ‘to place’, ‘to set up’. The sense is that God has ‘set before as a proposal’, ‘pre-appointed’. As if it cannot be said often enough, in Him ( en ) is used again emphasising the recurring theme that the plan is ‘to be realised in’ Christ.

In v. 10 we find the key theological term anakephalaio-sasthai , often translated ‘recapitulate’. Its secular origin is to be found in ancient accounting. When numbers were being summed up the total was written at the head of the page. The action of taking the sum-total and writing it at the top of the page was described by the verb: anakephalaio-sasthai . It is found in only one other verse in the New Testament, also in a theological, not a mathematical sense, Rom 13:9. Paul uses it to describe how all the commandments are summed up and perfected in the single command, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Here, along with the recurring theme, in Christ (found twice in v. 10), it is best understood as summing-up-under-one-head : ‘to sum up and comprehend all things in Christ as head’. The Colossae heresy is rebutted once more as it is emphasised that all things are summed in Him, those in the heaven and those on the earth .

The emphasis on pre-determination in Christ could not be greater in vv. 11-12 where all the previous themes are repeated and deepened. Thus we read: in whom we were chosen . The sense is to be chosen by lot. This does not mean by chance. The reference to ‘lot’ is an indication of inheritance. The Promised Land was apportioned by lot and was understood as being in this way allotted by God, not acquired through the chance throw of the dice. The lot indicated the will of God. Here we are described as allotted to God, destined for His possession. This was common in later Jewish thought and is attested in Qumran literature where we even read, “You have cast an eternal lot for man…in order that he might praise your name together in joy.” (1QH).
Another use of pro-orizo- , (as in v. 5) occurs here. This time the verb is in the passive and makes ‘us’ the subject. Therefore, we can be described as being predetermined according to the purpose (a derivative of pro-tithe-mi as in v. 9) of the One who effects all things.

The Greek construction in v. 12, that we might be (accusative + infinitive + eis ) is intended to express motive. The reason that God has chosen us and the purpose of our existence is described as the praise of His glory (as in v. 6).

At the end of v. 12 we find a strangely constructed verb which I have translated: hoping before in Christ . The preposition pro is prefixed to the verb elpizo- meaning ‘to hope’. This makes the translation difficult. It is not found elsewhere in the New Testament. Some translators and commentators render the term as ‘we who were hoping before you’. In other words, they read it as a temporal interpretation relative to the readers. This makes it much easier to translate but such an interpretation has no continuity with what has gone before. Having already seen four uses of pro as a prefix indicating that God’s plan is laid down before, it may be more consistent to attempt a translation which points to a ‘hoping before’ fulfilment, thus: already hoping in Christ .

v. 13 is most probably a reference to baptism and expresses how we share in God’s pre-determined plan. Firstly, the Gospel is heard in Christ ( en ); then, it is believed in Christ ( en ). Next we are sealed in the Holy Spirit. This is the direct reference to Baptism which was known as he- sphragis , ‘the seal’.

In v. 14 we have a further reference to inheritance. The Holy Spirit is the pledge of our inheritance . That inheritance is understood as held in trust for us until the day of full possession. This is described as the liberation of the acquisition .The ‘acquisition’ is how those acquired by God as His inheritance are described. The very purpose of our existence and the fulfilment of God’s plan in us is summed up (as in v. 6 and v. 12) as for the praise of His glory .

What we have here is the description of the fulfilment of a plan. It is a plan appointed in eternity. Both the eternal plan and the work of redemption are interwoven. The plan from the beginning is brought to completion but it is through blood, a redeeming pledge, which in its turn presumes a former possession, and the right of possession. The purpose of the pre-ordained plan and of the work of redemption and baptism is one and the same: the praise of His glory. Both are inseparable from Christ in whom and through whom all things are accomplished.

Hebrews 1:1-4

A Summary of the Primacy of Christ
A third text can serve to sum up the previous two. The Primacy of the Son in all things is expressed in the most elegant and eloquent way in Heb 1:1-4. It is clear that this primacy belongs to the Pre-existent and Incarnate Son.

The Pauline authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews has long been discounted by most scholars with arguments similar to those outlined above with respect to Colossians and Ephesians. With respect to the background to Hebrews, it is perhaps sufficient to know that the recipients were well versed in Jewish thought, liturgical practices and traditions.

An Exegesis of Heb 1:1-4

Heb 1:1-4 is one of the most beautiful and flowing passages in the whole of the New Testament. It is one complete sentence and serves to announce many of the themes which are treated in more detail in the body of the letter. Heb 1:2b-4 is commonly regarded as a Christological hymn.

 (1) Of many parts and in many ways of old God speaking to the fathers in the prophets (2) in these last days spoke to us in [one who is] Son
whom He {God} appointed heir of all things
through whom also He {God} made the ages
(3) who being the radiance of glory
and impression of His {God’s} substance
{Son} bearing all things in His {Son’s} all powerful word
{Son} having made purification of the sins
has taken (His) seat at the right of the Majesty on high
(4) having become as much greater than the angels
as more excellent than them is the name He has inherited.

The primary agent of revelation is God who is the grammatical subject of the first part of this passage (v. 1).

The last days were the time of the Messiah. With the designation ‘ these ’ in v. 2 it is clear that author considers the days of the Messiah to be upon us.

The most powerful element in the single sentence is the omission of the definite article before ‘Son’ in v. 2. This does not imply that there are many ‘sons’ to choose from! This construction is arresting and emphatic. It puts in relief the sonship of the agent. In English it is best translated as ‘one who is Son’.

The Fullness of Divinity in the Son

Inheritance is central to Jewish thought and closely tied to sonship. The promise of the land, which accompanied the covenant with Abraham, was understood as the inheritance that Israel was to come into. As seen above, this theological idea developed in such a way that God Himself was seen as the inheritance of the tribe of Levi (the priests) and Israel was understood to be the very inheritance of God. An inheritance is something promised but not yet possessed until the heir appears. In later Jewish thought the whole earth was to become the inheritance of Israel. As all theology became focused on the Messiah it was this figure who would inherit. (cf. Ps 2:7-8). Thus, the Son is identified as one whom He appointed heir of all things . This same Son who is heir is the one through whom also He made the ages . This is a development in the line of the Wisdom tradition. The Son is being identified as the agent of creation and the one for whom creation is made as His inheritance.

v. 3 continues using two further phrases drawn from the Wisdom tradition and theology: who being the radiance of glory locates the origin of the Son in the Father; impression of His substance           affirms the Son as the stamp of the Divine reality. The Greek term translated by ‘substance’ is hupostasis . It originated in scientific usage as the sediment that collects at the bottom of a solution and is understood as that which ‘stands under’. It came to refer to whatever underlies a particular phenomenon, its basic, fundamental reality. In using this term of God the author evokes all the attributes of God and applies them to the Son (as is seen in Wis 7:22-26).

Creation is not a single, once and for all act. It should be understood as the ongoing, sustaining activity of the agent of creation. The Son, then, is the One bearing all things in His all powerful word . In the very next phrase there is a reference to the work of the Incarnate Son: having made purification…has taken (His) seat . This describes a double action of redemption and exaltation.

v. 4 with the words, much greater than the angels , seems another rebuttal of what I have described as the Colossae heresy.

Although unspecified, the name , is clearly the designation so emphatically announced in v. 2, ‘Son’.

What follows in the rest of this chapter of Hebrews is a catena of quotations comparing the Son with the angels and continually emphasising how much greater is the Son’s name, position and mission.

In the verses above we read, side by side, the protological and eschatological aspects of the Son’s activity. The balance between these two missions is maintained perfectly both in a theological and literary way. This is the progression of Wisdom speculation to its Christian conclusion. It begins in Hebrew thought (Prov 8), develops in later Judaism (Sirach24) and finds even greater expression in Alexandrian Judaism (Wis7). In one sentence the author brings together a Christology of pre-existence, creation, redemption, exaltation and inheritance. Ontological and functional Christology are of the same order and united in the same figure, the Son.


The three texts studied show a number of common characteristics. They emphatically affirm the pre-existence of the Son and His eternal origin in God (Col – ‘the fullness’; Eph – ‘heavenly places in Christ’; Heb – ‘radiance of glory and impression of substance’). Just as clearly they affirm that creation is not only from and through Him but also ‘unto’ Him. He is the final cause of all things. Furthermore, His redemptive work is seen to be a continuation of this order and mission.

The one of whom they all speak is the Incarnate One who enters into creation as its heir, to take possession of what is already His. It has its origins in Him and it finds its end in Him. As the heir He reconciles and redeems His possession through His blood. Protology, soteriology and exchatology are all united in the pre-determined plan of God that the Son is creator, heir and, therefore, also redeemer.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2006