From the opening chapter of Paul's epistle to the Colossians we find this poem. Whether Paul is its original author or not we don't know. In any case, it is utterly packed with theology. Despite how brief it is, it says a lot about who Jesus is and what he does. The poem, as lineated above, follows a structure of ABCDDD (first stanza), EE (second stanza), ABCDDD (third stanza), so that each line has a parallel. This is greatly important to take note of, because not only can we draw a lot of meaning out of each individual line, but its parallel line can be used to draw further meaning out of it. So let's see what we can find.He is the image of the unseen God,
firstborn over all creation.
For in him all things were created,
in the heavens and on the earth, the seen and the unseen,
if thrones, or lordships, or rulers, or authorities,
all things, through him and for him, were created.
And he is the first of all things, and all things stand together.
And he is the head of the body, the Church.
He is the beginning,
firstborn from the dead, that in all things he should be first.
For in him all the fullness thought well to dwell,
and through him to fully reconcile all things to himself,
making peace through the blood of his cross,
by him, if that upon the earth, or that in the heavens.
A': He is the image of the unseen God
Paul and the author of Hebrews say similar things elsewhere. ('[Jesus] is the image of God' in 2 Corinthians 4.4; 'He is the radiance of the glory, and the character of his substance' in Hebrews 1.3). But what does it mean? Although humanity in general was made in the 'image of God', Paul and Hebrews use the concept in a unique way of Jesus. Jesus, in some way distinct from general humanity, is the 'image of the unseen God'. Jesus, somehow, is the complete representation of God.
This concept is what we see explored in the gospel of John (where to 'know' Jesus the Son of God is to 'see' God the Father). In fact, if we were to summarize the overall concept of John 1, what we would have is something rather close to Hebrews 1.1-4. To see Jesus is to see God as man. 'He is the image of the unseen God', then, is to place Jesus within the divine identity of Yahweh, the God of Israel. The parallel (A2: 'he is the beginning') drives this point home, in that it places Jesus (as God) at 'the beginning', as in Genesis One.
B': firstborn over all creation
Some take this to mean that Jesus was the first thing to have been created by God, and hence he was 'first born', but this is not what the title means. 'Firstborn' is a title of primacy, not necessarily of literal chronological order. Ishmael was born first, but it was Isaac who was Abraham's 'only son', his firstborn. Esau was born first, but it was Jacob who received the firstborn 'birthright'. To be the 'firstborn' meant to be the primary inheritor of your father's possessions. To say that Jesus is the 'firstborn over all creation' is to say that all of creation belongs to him, given to him by God the Father.
C': For in him all things were created,
D': in the heavens and on the earth, the seen and the unseen,
D': if thrones, or lordships, or rulers, or authorities,
D': all things, through him and for him, were created.
To say that Jesus was involved, in any way, with the creation of 'all things' can only seriously be interpreted one way: Jesus is Yahweh. For Jesus to be included in the creation process at all necessarily must be interpreted this way. The reason for this can be found by the diligent student of Isaiah.
The prophecies of Isaiah can be read with messianic undertones throughout, even if the prophet only occasionally speaks openly to the subject; we find Isaiah being quoted or alluded to often in the New Testament regarding Jesus (and his Church). But it is in chapters 40-55 that we find the strongest statements of monotheism in the Hebrew Scriptures. Over and over Isaiah shows Yahweh saying, 'I am this, I am that, I am the only God. I did this, I did that, there is no god besides me.'
Whenever Yahweh is stating his uniqueness, we should pay attention to the this's and that's, because he is using those to show us just why he is the only true God. So, for example, when Yahweh says he is 'the first and the last, besides me there is no god', then that phrase 'the first and the last' must be interpreted according to the statement-of-fact that Yahweh is the only true God. 'The first and the last' then becomes a Yahweh-only phrasing or title.
It is in this section of Isaiah 40-55 that we find Yahweh saying, 'Yahweh is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.' 'I am Yahweh, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself.' 'I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hand that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.' 'My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens. When I call to them, they stand forth together.'
These are all spoken in the context of Yahweh's absolute uniqueness: Yahweh alone created all things; there was no one with him in the act of creation. So to say that Jesus, in any way, created all things 'in the heavens and on the earth, the seen and the unseen, if thrones, or lordships, or rulers, or authorities, all things, through him and for him'... Jesus must be somehow included within the unique divine identity of Yahweh.
E': And he is the first of all things, and all things stand together.
Here we arrive at the second stanza, which summarizes the thought of the first stanza that we have just read, and then turns that around to summarize the third stanza that we are about to read. This line is the driving point of the first stanza, that Jesus is the absolute full expression of Yahweh, manifest as a man. Hence, because this means that Jesus is the Son of God, this means that Jesus is the 'first over all', having a place of complete primacy in all things. All of the things in the first stanza lead into this line. Jesus is the image of God, he is the firstborn, he is the creator. As such, he is supreme over all creation, and in him all of creation is sustained.
E": And he is the head of the body, the Church.
The first line of the second stanza looked back to the first stanza, summarizing the thought that Jesus is the creator and supreme over all creation. The second line now takes that thought and turns it around, looking not back to the creation of the universe, but forward to the creation of the Church. The poem does this by echoing the sentiment of the first line. As Jesus is supreme over all creation and holds it together, he is also supreme over the Church and holds it together.
Through this parallelism, the poem sets forth a significant point to take away: through Jesus and his Church, the new creation has already begun to take shape within the old creation. New creation is not just something we're sitting around waiting for, it's something that Jesus is bringing to us right now.
A": He is the beginning,
Having turned the focus from original creation to new creation in the second stanza, the poem now looks into how the new creation came about. It does this by paralleling each line from the first stanza. As Jesus is 'the image of the unseen God' and hence is the creator of the universe, Jesus is also 'the beginning' of his Church. He is creator, its foundation, and without him it would not exist.
B": firstborn from the dead, that in all things he should be first.
The poem now makes a play on 'firstborn', showing that as Jesus was the 'firstborn over all creation', he is also the 'firstborn from the dead'. Jesus is the first person to have been raised from death to eternal life, the first man to receive immortality. This was specifically to show that Jesus is himself 'first', that is, that he is supreme over all things (and thus how much more is he supreme over his Church).
C": For in him all the fullness thought well to dwell,
In parallel to the line 'for in him all things were created', the poem here declares how God was fully found within the person of Jesus. In Colossians 2.9, Paul looks back and echoes this line, saying, 'for in him dwells bodily all the fullness of the divine'. The statement is clearly putting Jesus in a unique position (as that is the whole point of the poem).
Whereas the original statement in the poem is a little ambiguous, Paul's echo gives clarity to it; God dwells within Jesus in a way that is completely unique, compared to the typical person simply being 'inspired' by God's spirit or something like that. In verse 2.10 Paul takes what he has just said and then claims that, in Jesus, his people are also filled with the divine. The overall concept here is that God dwells in Jesus in the same way he would dwell in a temple, and through Jesus, God dwells in his people in the same way.
D": and through him to fully reconcile all things to himself,
D": making peace through the blood of his cross,
D": by him, if that upon the earth, or that in the heavens.
It was Jesus who brought into being the universe and all that is in it. He created the heavens and the earth, in him and through him and for him. And here in the parallel, where we expect to find the creation of a new heaven and earth, we rather find Jesus dying on a cross. His blood brings peace and reconciliation between God and the damaged world. All things in heaven and on the earth that have been marred by sin are made new through Jesus. And this is the beginning of the new world, Jesus' death is the creation of a new heaven and earth. And we here remember that the whole purpose of the poem is to show the superiority of Jesus over all things. He is supreme because he is creator.
But here we find that, just as the world is being made new through his death, so also through his death is Jesus made supreme. We find this same thought in other Scriptures. In Philippians 2, Jesus died on the cross, and thus God exalted Jesus above all things (receiving the name above all names). In Hebrews 1, Jesus brought cleansing for sin, and so sat down at the right hand of God's throne (inheriting the name far superior to that of the angels). Thematically, this is where we would expect to find the line that is actually in the second stanza: Jesus is the head of the body, the Church. Because he dies on the cross Jesus is reconciling all things to God, bringing the new creation into the old one, and this through the Church.
Jesus created all things, and so he is supreme. And through his death, Jesus is making all things new, and so he has been made first over all.