Christ the King (or The Reign of Christ) | Colossians 1:11-20
"He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15, NET).
Think for a moment about the images that surround us every day. How much red, white, and blue did you see on campaign signs in the last few months? How many images of happy and energetic-looking family men and women pictured, ready to go to work for you in Washington? Consumer images may be even more a part of daily life than political images. How many times a day do we see the Target bull’s-eye, the Nike swoosh, or that unmistakable Apple apple? Images are all around us. Each of these pictures plays a role in shaping our imaginations and our actions. We think, feel, and act differently on account of them.
Colossians says Christ “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). While an image of God would sound strange to Jewish ears, Romans would take that part of the Christian witness, at least, in stride. Images of the gods abounded both in Roman religion as a whole and in the cult of the emperor. In the Roman empire, Caesar’s image was bigger even than the script Coca Cola is for us. In Colossians Remixed, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat write that “The image of Caesar and other symbols of Roman power were literally everywhere—in the market, on coins, in the gymnasium, at the gladitorial games, on jewelry, goblets, lamps and paintings."1 In hundreds of ways every day, images of Caesar reminded people within the Roman empire of where power resided and who was responsible for peace. Harry Maier comments that in Nero’s time, the emperor was at least “the vice-regent of the gods, if not incarnate deity.” To look on the image of Caesar, then, was to have a window to the divine. And what does this divine or near-divine one do for the people? Maier says that he “holds all things together in the body of his Empire of which he is the head, and which he maintains in health and security” (328).2
That is Caesar’s job—except, according to Paul in Colossians, that job has long since been filled. Caesar need not apply. As far back as the beginning of creation, God’s Son has been prior to and more powerful than Caesar and all things, whether visible or invisible, thrones, dominions, principalities or powers.
This has to sound like a grandiose claim for a little upstart off-shoot of the tiny, provincial religion of the Jews to make in the Roman empire. It stands in direct contrast to Roman claims that the political wisdom, military might, and physical presence of the emperor constituted the image of the divine. Paul says here that all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell not in Caesar, but in Jesus of Nazareth.
What should we make of this? Is it a branding campaign for the new religion? Is it simply part of a contest for bragging rights? When the former professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, became governor of Minnesota, cars with Minnesota license plates began showing up with the bumper sticker, “My governor can beat up your governor.” Sometimes the Christ Hymn of Colossians (1:15-20) can sound something like that, like boasting intended to offer the rhetorical equivalent of a kick in the shins to Caesar.
Images of Jesus
Yet when we put the claim that the Son is the image of the invisible God next to actual images of Jesus’ life, we see that Paul is doing something far different from just claiming superior fire power. The hymn claims that the true nature of power and peace is fundamentally different from what we usually see.
Look, for instance, at the images in the gospel reading assigned alongside this text from Colossians. What does the image of the invisible God look like there? In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus is being crucified under the charge, “King of the Jews.” The firstborn over all creation is not just “above all things” in general. When we catch up to him in the gospel reading, he is specifically above the soldiers who have fixed him to a cross with nails and rope. From that perspective, he says, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). The one who is before all things is also here between two thieves. When one of them asks to be remembered, Jesus finds the breath to say, “I tell you the truth; today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Luke shows us a picture in which Jesus brings peace by interceding for his torturers. Jesus brings peace by promising a blessed future to one who is dying beside him. Jesus brings peace not by exercising superior fire power but by absorbing the violence and making peace in the midst of violence.
Christ the King
One of the criticisms of a Christian festival named, “Christ the King” Sunday, is that it is too triumphalistic. The concern is that naming Christ as “king” buys into hierarchical ways of imagining good order that can finally only be maintained by force. To guard against that, the Scriptures almost never call Jesus “king,” or speak of his “kingdom” (cf. Col. 1:13), except in the context of his trial and crucifixion.3
Colossians is no exception to this rule. The empire sustained the Roman pax (peace), such as it was, with rhetoric about the emperor’s benevolence and wisdom combined with brute force to punish enemies of the state and squelch unrest. By contrast, Colossians says that the peace that Jesus brings is “peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). Pax Romana required the killing of tens of thousands, including Jesus, for various infractions of Roman order. Jesus, as he is being murdered, does the work of true reconciliation.
The Christ Hymn does not offer a kick in the shins to Caesar, and it does not try to beat Caesar at his own game of winning through intimidation. It declares that Caesar’s claims are false, and it gives us an alternative image of God’s own benevolence, wisdom, power, and peace.
1Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed : Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 83. BACK TO POST
2Harry O. Maier, "A Sly Civility: Colossians and Empire," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27, no. 3 (2005) : 323-49. BACK TO POST
3Exceptions to this rule are Nathaniel’s confession upon meeting Jesus, “You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (John 1:49), and references in 1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 17:14, and Revelation 19:16 to Jesus as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” BACK TO POST
On Colossians 1:1-14, see also “Rescue, Transfer, Daily Life.”