In the first post in this series, we talked about what Jesus might have looked like. Paul in Colossians 1:15-20 says that Jesus is the image or icon of the invisible God. There are many ways that we English-speakers use the word “icon,” and one way is found in the Orthodox church paintings called icons. Is that what Paul meant? That Christians should paint images of Jesus, thus making the invisible God visible?
While it is not wrong to paint icons, that is not what Paul meant. God is Spirit, and thus not visible. We are correct to believe that God is present everywhere, but because of his invisibility, we cannot see him. Jesus, however, is the image or the icon of God, making him visible. But Jesus is not an inferior representation or icon of something much larger than him. Jesus is God. Paul is saying something very important here: when we see Jesus, we see God. When we read the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the four accounts of the life of Jesus, we see God in action, God in the flesh.
If we’re not careful, we can over-emphasize one or the other of Jesus’ natures. He was both a living, breathing human being with a body just like ours, and he was also divine, God. Paul is saying that if we want to know what God is like, we would do well to read the stories of Jesus, and we are very accustomed to that way of thinking.
But imagine being the people who first read this letter. I know, it is extremely difficult for us to know who and what the people in the town of Colosse were like. What did they believe about God? What did they know of Jesus? They were nothing like Americans in 2021, we who have lived in a nation with what is called Judeo-Christian heritage for hundreds of years. In Colosse, right around the year 60, in the first century, there was no Judeo-Christian heritage. There was likely a small enclave of Jews who would have known the Judeo/Jewish heritage of the Old Testament. But not the Christian part. There was no Christian heritage anywhere in the world, because the Christian church was only 25 years old at that point.
The larger worldview that had been around for hundreds of years was the Greco-Roman pantheon, which is a fancy word for all the many gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology. There were also demi-gods and demi-goddesses. Even if you don’t know the stories, you’ve likely heard many of the names: Zeus, Apollo, Venus, Mars, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Jupiter, Pluto, pretty much all the planets in the solar system! There were temples to various gods in most towns, where people attended rituals and worship services. There statues and idols to the gods. People made sacrifices to the gods, asking for blessing and fortune. Additionally there something called the Imperial Cult, which was a belief that the Roman Emperor was a kind of god or deity. He was worshiped as well, proclaimed to be god in the flesh, or a demi-god, the offspring of the union between a god and a mortal.
All that might sound fantastical to us, the stuff of Marvel movies about Thor, or Disney movies about Hercules. In fact, it might sound so bizarre that we could think, “How could anyone believe that nonsense?” The reality, though, is that the Greco-Roman worldview was deeply entrenched in their culture, to the point that the Christians were accused of being atheists. Imagine that! We would say, in our day, that we are the opposite of atheists, right? We are used to atheists accusing Christians and other theists of believing in fairy tales about God. But because the Christians in Paul’s day didn’t believe in the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods, those Christians were called atheists.
That might be hard to wrap our minds around. Christians called atheists? But they were, because they didn’t believe in the Greco-Roman gods. Instead they went around talking about Jesus as God. Or as Paul states it, Jesus is the representation of the invisible God.
As we have seen in the stories of Jesus’ interaction with religious leaders in Palestine, or with the earliest Christians in Jerusalem, this teaching about the identity of Jesus wasn’t just difficult for people steeped in a Greco-Roman worldview, it was also hard for Jewish people to believe this. Those Jewish people had a history of messianic expectation, calling out for God to send them the deliverer, the savior, that they read about in their prophets. Add to that, Jesus was a Jew, claiming to be that very savior. Still many Jews had a hard time believing that, because he was such a different savior from what they expected. They were thinking of a military and political savior, and they were convinced of this based on how they interpreted the prophecies. Jesus and his followers come along saying, “No, you’re wrong, the salvation of God is something altogether different. The Kingdom of God is altogether different, a victory over sin, death and the devil, leading to a transformation of heart and mind, a community and world patterned after what he would call the abundant life, where there is no more injustice.” Many Jews simply responded, “Huh? What are you talking about?” So despite the fact that they had the same Scriptures, the same culture, many still struggled to believe.
Now imagine how difficult it would have been for people outside Jewish culture to respond to this. They had a totally different history and culture and worldview. They would be saying, “What? You’re telling me that everything we’ve ever been taught about the gods and goddesses is false? You’re telling me that what basically everyone in our community and across the Empire believes is wrong? Sorry, buddy. That’s just crazy.”
Yet, that’s the task the earliest Christians faced. A lot has to be explained about Jesus if people entrenched in the Greco-Roman worldview are to become believers and followers of Jesus. I suspect a similar reality is the case in our day, even in the USA with our Judaeo-Christian heritage.
In our next post, we’ll see how Paul further paints his picture of Jesus, seeking to help the people in Colosse, and us as well, understand who Jesus really is.