He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
We have the idea of Jesus being the image of God; here the word for ‘image’ is eikon, a close synonym of morphe. When Jesus, talking about a Roman coin, says ‘whose image and superscriptions is this?’ (Matt 22:20), the word is eikon. Now, of course, the image of Caesar on a Roman coin can in no sense be said to be the very nature or substance of Caesar – it is a representation. Therefore translations like ‘Christ is exactly like God’ (CEV) are quite misleading. Paul is actually saying that Christ is like God in the same way that a picture is like the reality – a picture shows us what a thing is like but it is not the thing itself. This point is emphasized by the fact that Paul describes God as ‘invisible’; how could Jesus be ‘exactly like God’ and yet be visible?
The term ‘firstborn’ (prototokos) is also difficult to reconcile with the idea of the Trinity. Though some scholars argue that prototokos may not necessarily entail birth, this would not be an illegitimate interpretation. If we do translate prototokos as ‘first born’ then this would seem to make Jesus the first created thing. On the other hand, if we translate prototokos with the sense of pre-eminence (i.e. ‘the most important Son’) then actually the verse says nothing about pre-existence, either for or against it. When the NLT includes the phrase ‘he existed before anything was created’ it is simply editorialising – there is no justification for this from the Greek text.
The phrase ‘he is before [pro] all things’ might be interpreted as saying Jesus existed before all things since pro can be used with reference to time. However, it may also denote importance, i.e. Jesus is more important than all things, which fits better with the context of the passage (‘… that in all things he may have the pre-eminence’). Bearing in mind that Paul says ‘he is before all things’, rather than ‘he was before all things’, the idea that this phrase refers to the pre-existence of Christ is unjustified. Therefore translations such as ‘he existed before anything else’ [NLT], ‘was before all else’ [CEV] and ‘he was there before anything’ [NCV] are misleading.
Finally, when we come to verse nineteen and the phrase ‘in him all the fullness should dwell’ we come against another difficult translation. The word ‘fullness’ (pleroma) is used rarely but is well translated ‘fullness’. It is used of that which makes complete but it is used here without an adjoining word – we should ask: the fullness of what? It is very possible that, used in this way, pleroma implies completion or perfection, in fact at least one version translates it in this way: ‘God wanted all perfection to be found in him’ [JB]. Paul does not say ‘his fullness’ (NIV) and so is almost certainly not talking about God himself ‘living’ in Christ (NCV, CEV).
The Trinitarian interpretation of this passage is based upon the assumption that Paul is talking about the same creation as referred to in Genesis and thereby it is assumed that Jesus must be the Creator (i.e. God). Even if Paul were talking about the Genesis Creation then Jesus would not be the Creator since Paul says things were created ‘by [en] him’ and ‘through [dia] him’. Such terms would make Christ the instrument (or the purpose) of creation, not the initiator. Yet we find within the writings of Paul talk of another creation: the New Creation.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:15)
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace
and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:24)
and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, (Colossians 3:10)
Though it may seem a little strange to the modern reader, it is clear that Paul uses creation language to talk about the spiritual re-birth of the believer. In fact, this passage is more easily understood as referring to the New Creation. For instance ‘thrones or dominions or principalities or powers’ are not the sort of things that Genesis 1 talks about God creating, but these very terms are used in the New Testament to talk about the New Creation, that is, the community of believers (cf. Eph 3:10, 6:12; Col 2:10). The phrase ‘all things’ (ta panta) is also used by Paul in the context of spiritual regeneration (2 Cor 5:17-18; Eph 1:22-23; Col 1:20), as is the phrase ‘in heaven and on earth’ (Eph 1:7-15; Col 1:20).
Verse twenty is the key to interpreting this passage as the ‘all things … whether in heaven or on earth’ that Christ has reconciled to God must be the ‘all things … in heaven and on the earth’ that he ‘creates’ (v16). Since we know that it is believers (that is, the New Creation) that has been reconciled to God, this must also be what Christ ‘creates’.