The ikon of the invisible God.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 December 2021

Colossians 1.15-20.

The apostles often dictated their letters, as you can tell from their big run-on sentences. This’d be one of them. I broke it up into sentences, as do most interpreters, but really it’s just one big eulogy Paul and Timothy wrote as they were greeting the Christians of Colossae, Phrygia Pacatiana (now ruins outside Honaz, Turkey).

In so doing they described how they thought of Christ, the Son of God. They identify they’re talking about the beloved Son in Colossians 1.13, then go into greater detail about who this Son really is: Ikon of God, firstborn of creation, through whom God created matter and power; firstborn from the dead, so he could be firstborn of everything; leader of the church, fully containing God within himself, reconciling all creation to God.

It’s a pretty cosmic description for a Nazarene handyman-turned-schoolteacher. But that’s our Jesus.

Colossians 1.15-20 KWL
15 The Son is the ikon of the invisible God,
firstborn of every creature,
16 so that by the Son everything in the heavens and on the earth is created,
the visible and the invisible (thrones, dominions, chiefdoms, or powers)
—everything was built through him and by him.
17 The Son is above everything,
and everything holds together because of him.
18 The Son is the head of the church’s body.
The Son is first.
Firstborn from the dead,
so that he might take first place in everything.
19 Because God is pleased in all fullness to dwell in the Son,
20 and by the Son reconcile everything to him,
making peace through him by the blood of his cross,
whether with things on the earth or things in the heavens.

Jesus is what God looks like.

Y’might recall one of the 10 Commandments is to not manufacture an idol to worship. Some Jews and Muslims get really anal about this command and think the prohibition is against making an image of anything whatsoever, but considering the LORD later has the Hebrews manufacture gold cherubs for his Ark, Ex 25.18 he clearly isn’t prohibiting all statues or paintings; just the worship of ’em.

Exodus 20.4-6.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

No idols. Certainly nothing you might worship. Plenty of Renaissance artists figured, “Well nobody worships that guy anymore, so it’s all good,” and made themselves statues of Jupiter and Apollo, and got away with it because nobody did worship ’em anymore. Though some present-day Pagans have, stupidly, started all that up again. (Yeah, just when you thought you were finally rid of something, back it comes. Like Nazis. Vigilance, folks. But I digress.) So it’s why the LORD issued this command, ’cause he knows how we humans can get. Don’t make gods!

And that includes statues of him. Because people have ignored this command, and tried. You remember that gold calf the Hebrews built while Moses was away? Ex 32 Scholars have debated forever about whether ancient peoples thought that’s actually how the LORD should be represented at his worship sites—as a calf, much like the Egyptians represented Ra with suns, Horus with falcons, Thoth with ibises, Bastet with cats. Hence the later gold calves at Jeroboam ben Nabat’s temples 1Ki 12.28

But God doesn’t wanna be represented by statues. Because he knows how we humans are. We wind up worshiping the image instead of him. We imagine the unlimited God as the limited form we created of him.

We already do this with images of Jesus. How many Americans, who grew up surrounded by paintings of White Jesus, quietly (or quite loudly) freak out whenever we see paintings of Black Jesus, or—tellingly enough—as a white-haired brown man, which he literally is? Rv 1.14-15 But what White Jesus paintings have done is what humans have always done: We created a version of God in our image, instead of trying to get to know him as he really is.

Hence God doesn’t want us to create an image of him, because he planned to create his own image of himself: Jesus of Nazareth.

That’s his ikon. Not the mosaics we put in churches; not the stained glass we hang in windows; not the paintings we hang on our walls; not the webposters we stick on Twitter. Those are bad copies of his ikon, which do the same thing for us as the gold calves did for the ancient Hebrews. They throw us off track.

We’re meant to look, not at paintings and sculptures and statues, but at Jesus’s character, as found in the scriptures. At Jesus’s teachings, as found in the scriptures. At Jesus’s commands, partly found in the bible, and partly told to us moment by moment as we listen to the Holy Spirit. And follow him. Not manufacture inadequate images of him, then stand as stock-still as they do.

I’m not saying all Christian art is idolatry, and we need to start smashing ikons and Jesus statues. (Though some of them are awful, so it wouldn’t hurt.) I’m saying we need to follow Jesus. The art should, at the very most, remind us to seek the real Jesus. No more.

Jesus is the image God made of himself; he’s what we’re meant to look at if we want to see the invisible God. Jesus is entirely, fully God; as God as God can be, yet in a human body for us to interact with. God incarnate.

God the Son, creator.

“God the Son” is what the scriptures and theologians tend to call Jesus before he became human. After all, he didn’t get the name Jesus till the angel told Joseph what to name his son. But before God the Son became human, he was kinda busy… being God.

The apostles called him the firstborn of creation. Arians have claimed this idea means Jesus was made, ’cause to them “born” means “made.” But the thing about incarnation is “born” and “begotten” doesn’t mean “made.” It only means “came into the world.” Before Jesus was born, he was with God and is God.

So before Jesus came into the world, he made it. That is, it was made through him, Jn 1.3 for God created the universe with a word, He 11.3 and Jesus is that word. Jn 1.14

Jesus created τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ τὰ ἀόρατα/ta oratá kai ta aórata, “visible and invisible things.” Cl 1.16 ’Cause some folks get the idea Jesus only created some things. Part of the universe, like the world, whereas “God” (as if he’s a separate being) created the rest. Gnostics have some odd ideas about who created what… but no, Jesus creates everything. Still creates stuff; he never stopped.

Greek philosophers (namely Plato of Athens) pointed out there were many things in the universe, but behind these things, greater than these things, are the ideas of the things. The idea of a king—the respect for the king, and his power—held far more sway over people than the physical might of the king himself. Many ancient gnostics claimed God created these ideas… but another god, a lesser god, a demiurge, created matter and physical things; things lesser, corrupt, perishable, and irrelevant. And such teachings run contrary to the scriptures: Jesus creates everything. Not just the stuff gnostics or Greeks considered pure and nice; everything. Power and the wielders of power.

The King James Version has verse 16 read, “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers.” Various Christian interpreters have weird ideas about what this means. Some treat ’em as powerful spirit beings—a “throne” is one kind of angel, and a “dominion” another. Others figure they’re different kinds of political offices; namely powers which humans wield. (And if that’s the case, the apostles utterly forgot about oligarchs. Which they shouldn’t have.) All these interpretations are allegories which miss the point, either because we’re too fascinated by power, or too fascinated by angels. They’re a list of things which have both visible and invisible components. You can see all these things. You can even see the power behind them, when put into action.

Jesus, fully God.

But back to Jesus’s greatness. Jesus is above all; Jesus holds everything together; Jesus made and runs his church. Jesus’s death and blood established a relationship between God and his rebellious creation, namely us. Jesus is first in everything; heck, he was the first to be resurrected from the dead, so he’s first in that too.

He’s first because ἐν αὐτῷ εὐδόκησεν πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα κατοικῆσαι/en aftó evdókisen pan to plíroma katikíse, “the fullness [of God] was pleased to inhabit him.” The scriptures don’t bluntly say “the fullness” refers to God, but we Christians near-universally figure that’s what the apostles meant. Everything God is, is in Jesus. Minus the power obviously. But power doesn’t define God; his character does.

Jesus is everything God is. God dwells in him completely. Anyone who defines God by his power, is using a deficient definition of God—largely based on how we humans covet power, and won’t respect people who lack it. Some preachers actually say they can’t respect a Lord who’s not almighty! (Well no wonder they won’t take God seriously till they begin to feel the consequences of their sins.) Nor can they respect politicians who don’t sound forceful; nor will they adequately respect a church board unless they threaten to expel them. Yep, these preachers have problems. As does any Christian who thinks like them.

’Cause Jesus made himself weak. Made himself frail. Made himself human. Made himself mortal. He doesn’t respect power; he respects the opposite of power: Grace. Grace surrenders power—gives up the right to demand reciprocity, justice, vengeance, payback—and lets go of what’s owed. People teach grace is a form of power because God swaps it for power. And again, they distort things because their lust for power blinds them to how grace works. “Well if God values grace so highly, it must be a form of power.” Nope; still isn’t.

Jesus set aside his power, died, and reconciled heaven and earth to God. He created ’em; now he has a relationship with them, and has every right to rule ’em. And he will—not by exercising power over them, but by forgiving them, and by them responding to his grace with grace in return. And that’s how he conquers the universe.