The Headship of Christ as Seen in Colossians
It is always instructive to consider why certain parts of the truth are brought out in certain books of the Bible and not in others. Often there is a relationship between the truth presented and the situation of the believers to which it is presented. So it is with the headship of Christ, which is particularly emphasised in Colossians:
- There are three references to Christ as Head in this brief letter (1:18; 2:10, 19).
- The emphasis is on the glory of the Head (in Ephesians it is more on the body).
This raises the question as to who the Colossians were, and why the glory of Christ as Head was presented to them in this special way.
The spiritual state of the Colossians
The reader of the Colossian epistle is left in no doubt that the believers in that city were in a healthy spiritual condition. A good number of very commendable features are mentioned. Paul addresses them as ‘holy and faithful brethren in Christ’ (1:2). He then mentions their ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ and their ‘love … towards all the saints’ (1:4). He goes on to point out that the gospel had been ‘bearing fruit’ among them (1:6). He also acknowledges their ‘love in the Spirit’ (1:8). Another distinguishing feature was that they were orderly. Paul could say: ‘I am with you in spirit, rejoicing and seeing your order’. And finally he mentions the ‘firmness’ of their ‘faith in Christ’ (2:5).
The dangers for the Colossians
And yet — despite their positive attributes — the Colossians were in danger. This becomes very clear in the course of the epistle. Paul has to sound several trumpet blasts of warning: ‘that no one may delude you by persuasive speech’ (2:4); ‘that there be no one who shall lead you away as a prey through philosophy and vain deceit, according to the teaching of men, according to the elements of the world, and not according to Christ’ (2:8); and ‘Let none therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in matter of feast, or new moon, or sabbaths’ (2:16); and ‘Let no one fraudulently deprive you of your prize …’ (2:18).
These references show that the Colossians were in danger of being influenced by certain individuals from outside the Colossian assembly (the use of the anonymous ‘no one’ (vs. 4, 8, 18) and ‘none’ (v. 16) suggests that these individuals came from outside) who appear to have suggested that Christ was good, but that more than Christ was needed: something to enhance Christianity, some ‘add-on’ to embellish the faith, something in addition to Christ.
It is extremely interesting to see how Paul went about addressing the issue. He had never met the Colossians in person (1:4; 2:1) but he really cared for them and genuinely loved them. In order to reach their hearts he proceeds — under the guidance of the Spirit — in the following steps:
- He sets out the many reasons why he gives thanks for the Colossians (1:3–8). Is anything more suited than this to prepare hearts for a word of warning or exhortation?
- He refers them back, a number of times, to that which they had heard from the beginning (implying that they did not need these novelties that were being offered now): ‘of which ye heard before in the word of the truth of the glad tidings’ (1:5), ‘from the day ye heard [the glad tidings]’ (v. 6), and ‘even as ye learned from Epaphras …’ (v. 7). The truth had not changed. It was and remained the solid foundation.
- He apprises the Colossians in detail of the specific things he prayed for in their regard (vs. 9–11). He does not mention any of the dangers explicitly yet. Very carefully and tactfully he inches forward, mentioning a number of needs such as that they might be ‘filled with the full knowledge of his will, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding’ (v. 9). In the case of the Ephesians, Paul could say that God had ‘made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in himself’. This was God’s will made known, and that in relation to His plans for the universe, to ‘head up all things in the Christ’ (Eph. 1:9–10). Here in Colossians it is God’s will in relation to everyday life, and it is a prayer as opposed to a stated blessing: ‘so as to walk worthily of the Lord’ (Col. 1:10). He also informs the Colossians of another prayer request in their regard, namely that they might be ‘growing by the true knowledge of God’ (1:10) — not knowledge of additional things outside God as revealed in Christ. As we said above, Paul does not mention the specific dangers yet but he carefully paves the way to address them a little later.
- There is another step before the problems are addressed: the presentation of the glory of Christ who is the Head. In verses 15 to 20 we find one of the most marvellous expositions in Scripture of the personal glory of Christ. It is set out in two series of seven glories, the first seven being glories in relation to the first creation, the second series being glories in relation to the new creation. The first glory in this second series is that he is ‘the head of the body’ (v. 18).
- Finally, the ground is prepared. Having shown the fulness of the one who is the Head he can proceed to warn the Colossians against the danger of trying to enhance the faith through things outside Christ.
How would we have gone about writing a letter to an assembly that was in danger of being deluded, led away as prey though ‘philosophy and vain deceit’? The apostle’s method set out above is as beautiful as it is instructive. He knew that only the glory of the Head would be able to wean the Colossians from the things that false teachers were dangling in front of them in order to lead them away.
The glories of the Head
The first of the three references in Colossians to the headship of Christ is as follows: ‘And he is the head of the body, the assembly’ (1:18).
In this verse the emphasis is on ‘he’ (Gr. ‘autos’, a demonstrative pronoun). The one who has just been described in His sevenfold glory in relation to the first creation (vs. 15–17), the one who is the ‘image of the invisible God’, the ‘firstborn of all creation’, the one who created all things (note the three prepositions: all things were created ‘by’ or ‘in’ Him at the beginning of verse 16 (Gr. ‘en’), i.e. in His power; He was the instrument (‘by’ or ‘through’ Him at the end of verse 16, Gr. ‘dia’); and He is the ultimate aim and object of the creation of the universe (‘for’ Him, Gr. ‘eis’)). He is the one who ‘is before all things’ — in time as well as in rank — and the one by whom ‘all things subsist’ (He upholds them all, keeps the planets in their place and maintains the laws of nature) — this is the one who is the Head of the body.
As the apostle comes to speak of Christ as the Head it becomes clear that death was needed in order for Him to become the Head. This was not the case with the first series of glories: He did not need to die in order to be the creator, but He could only be the Head of the body if there was a body, and this could only be formed when the Holy Spirit came to dwell on the earth which, in turn, could only happen after Christ had died. This is underlined as the text continues to say ‘who is the beginning, firstborn from among the dead’ (v. 18). As risen from among the dead He is the beginning — of the new creation — and takes the first place amongst all those who will be raised from among the dead, i.e. in the resurrection world. Continuing down the list we find the matter of reconciliation and the peace made through the blood of His cross. How great the glories of the Head! The one who, as creator, must necessarily have the first place in the first creation has also entered into death in order to acquire a whole range of new glories. And right at the top of this list there is the glory of being the Head of the body. What a blessing it must be to be linked with Him in this vital way, to receive nourishment from such a glorious person, and to be directed by Him!
Being complete in Him who is the Head
The second reference to the headship of Christ is in the second chapter: ‘and ye are complete in him, who is the head of all principality and authority’ (2:10).
It is well worth noticing the two key words ‘complete’ and ‘all’. Starting with the second of these, Paul has already used this little word several times in this chapter (and some 38 times in this epistle, sometimes translated as ‘every’):
- ‘unto all riches’ (v. 2);
- ‘in which are hid all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge’ (v. 3);
- ‘For in him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily’ (v. 9).
Having laid the groundwork by presenting the glories of Christ as Head, the apostle now draws the important conclusion that ‘all’ things are found in Him: ‘all riches’, ‘all the treasures of wisdom’, ‘all the treasures … of knowledge’. Only in Him ‘all the fulness of the Godhead’ dwells (cf. 1:19).
This was the best medicine for the Colossians, the divinely appointed remedy. Nothing was as suited as the presentation of Christ’s fulness to help them detect the hollowness of what others were offering them. What could possibly be added by human philosophy if they had the one in whom ‘all’ the treasures of wisdom (Gr. ‘sophia’) are hid? Philosophy applies the power of human reasoning while closing the eyes to divine revelation. Christ was that revelation, the image of the invisible God. Why follow the ‘teaching of men’ if ‘all’ the treasures of knowledge were in Christ? What could any of the ‘elements of the world’ add? They were ‘not according to Christ’ (v. 8) and, consequently, as all wisdom, knowledge and riches are in Christ, these elements of the world must be devoid of any wisdom, knowledge or worth. (Of course, we all have to learn maths, science, and many other human insights — but these things do not make us better Christians.)
In our verse, Christ is presented as the Head of ‘all’ principality and power. Again, He is supreme above all. Here it is not so much the thought of a vital connection with the Head but the thought of supremacy and direction. Bearing in mind that one of the notions being floated in Colosse was that of worshipping, or revering, angels, this presentation of Christ is very powerful: He is the Head of all such principalities, He deserves worship and reverence. As JN Darby said: ‘Notice: far from having anyone between us and Christ, we are in Him who is the Head of all principality and power. We lose our standing, if, for example, we allow an angel to come between Christ and us, although as a creature an angel is far superior to us. There is no mediator between us and Christ; there is between us and God, this very mediator being Christ Himself.’
We now come to the other key word, ‘complete’: ‘and ye are complete in him’. The word used here is ‘pleroo’, meaning brought to fulness, and it links wonderfully with the preceding verse telling us that ‘in him dwells all the fulness (Gr. ‘pleroma’) of the Godhead bodily’. The fulness of the Godhead dwells in Him only, but we are brought to fulness in Him: because we have Him, the one in whom all the fulness dwells, we are filled, we are complete, we lack nothing.
(Not) holding fast the Head
The third reference to Christ as Head follows a little later in the same chapter: ‘and not holding fast the head, from whom all the body, ministered to and united together by the joints and bands, increases with the increase of God’ (2:19).
What does it mean to ‘hold fast the head’, and who is described here as not doing so? This part of the chapter (vs. 16–19) sheds light on the specific bait used by those seeking to influence the Colossians. Verse 16 says: ‘Let none therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in matter of feast, or new moon, or sabbaths’. The danger seems to have come from two quarters: asceticism and Judaism. At first sight these things may not seem harmful. One might ask: what is the problem with not eating or not doing certain things, or with keeping certain feasts? However, the problem was not that they were detrimental in themselves, but that they distracted and detracted from Christ. Verse 18 mentions the ‘worship of angels’. This example shows the danger of what was being promoted: it effectively resulted in creatures being interposed between the believer and Christ. There also seems to have been a certain amount of mysticism (‘entering into things which he has not seen’). And what was the attitude of those who presented these new teachings? In short, pride: ‘vainly puffed up by the mind of his flesh’.
This is the group of persons referred to as ‘not holding the Head’ — which gives us an indication of what is involved in ‘holding the Head’. It means being cognisant of, and acting in harmony with, the truth that Christ is our Head, not allowing anything to come between Him and ourselves, and being directed by Him.
On a practical note, this shows that the idea of a denomination is in direct contradiction to the truth of the headship of Christ. Not only does it introduce a division within the body of Christ (1 Cor. 1:12–13) but it interferes with Christ’s headship: He is the Head of the entire body. In addition, man-made denominations tend to come with man-made leadership, in other words, with men (or women) taking the place of the head of the ‘church’.
But for those who seek to gather to the Lord’s name, outside of man-made denominations, there is a challenge too. Are we practically dependent on our Head as we should be? Do we watch that nothing — no rule, tradition, custom, etc. — is allowed to come in between Him and us? And are we walking together as assemblies in a way that is compatible with the truth that we all have the same Head?
The verse goes on to say ‘from whom all the body, ministered to and united together by the joints and bands, increases with the increase of God’. This is the effect of an undisturbed relationship with the Head: nourishment is provided, the body is being ministered to, and each joint and band plays their respective role, so that the body can grow and increase.
May this verse encourage us to practically hold fast the Head.
 ‘Notes on the Epistle to the Colossians’ (ch. 2:10), Collected Writings of JND vol. 27 p. 389 (p. 261 in the re-published volume).
 At first sight, there is a difficulty here. The verse speaks about people not holding fast the Head. Most likely these are unbelievers (hence they are not of the body and not linked with Christ as Head). This raises two questions: how can they be supposed to hold fast the Head, and how can the verse continue to talk about the Head nurturing the body? Perhaps these difficulties can be resolved as follows: these seducers, evidently, did not act in dependence upon Christ and, therefore, the Colossians were in danger of being drawn in the same direction, i.e. to allow other things to be interposed between them and Christ, their Head. The remainder of the verse speaks about the unhindered supply available to the body from Christ the Head. This shows the seriousness as well as the folly of allowing anything to draw us away from Him, hence giving further encouragement not to allow this to happen, but to hold fast the Head.