Colossians is our next stop in investigating the "head" (kephale) metaphor in the New Testament. False teaching appears to the impetus for writing Colossians. While the specific false teaching is not explicitly identified, it appears to have been some form of Gnostic heresy. Some of the elements refuted are ceremonialism, asceticism, angel worship, deprecation of Christ, secret knowledge, and reliance on human wisdom and tradition. The insufficiency of Christ for salvation, and thus the alleged need for supplemental means, seems to be a central concern.
After an introduction, the letter begins with a hymn about Christ’s supremacy and preeminence in all things. It is in the middle of this hymn that we find an instance of the “head” metaphor. We need to take a close look at the metaphor in context but first remember the three ways the head metaphor might apply:
Function – According to the Greeks, the anatomical function of the head was to provide life-giving sustenance and nurture to the rest of the body. It is the origination point from which the rest of the body springs out.
Representation – The head is the most visible and physically distinguishing part of the body. The face and head are the primary means by which we identify a whole person. The head represents the whole body to the world.
Elevation – The head is at the top, the highest point, of the body. In Greek, high elevation signifies prominence, preeminence, and importance.
What are qualities ascribed to Christ in this hymn?
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers -- all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (NRSV)
The passage implies that Christ is the "head" (origin and sustainer) of creation and explicitly states he is "head" of the church.
“…firstborn of all creation;” – Christ is head of all creation in that he has the exalted and prominent status of firstborn son. He has the position of honor.
“…all things have been created through him…” – Christ is head of creation in that he was the source/origin of all that came to be. This clearly includes the implication that Christ is higher in authority than all thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers, but “head” is not a synonym for these words. He is “head” in that he was the ultimate source. He is “head” in that he is of more elevated status. But he is not head because he “exercises authority over” or “rules over” even though he does this as well.
“…is before all things….” – Christ is head in that he existed before all else, he is the point of origin.
“…in him all things hold together…” – Christ is head in that he is the life-giving source that nurtures and sustains all that exists, just like a Greek head does for a body.
“…is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead…” – Christ is head of the church in that, like his relationship to creation, he is the beginning and the origin of the church. He has the exalted status (head above), relative to everyone and everything else, of the firstborn son. That makes him worthy of honor (which is different from authority).
“…first place in everything…” – Christ is head in that he has the most elevated status in all qualities and arenas.
The expression “fullness of God” is intended to refute the heresy that Christ was not fully God and thus A) supplemental means were needed for a relationship with God, or B) other means could be just as effective in bringing us into relationship with God. The link between these to parts of the prayer is that Christ is the firstborn of creation and the firstborn of the new creation. He is before (origin) and above (prominence) all things.
Having established this, the letter turns to exhortations about holy living as new people in Christ and avoiding false teaching. We see the head metaphor again in a discussion about life in Christ, presented in chapter 2. I present fifteen verses here because the context is critical. I have italicized some key phrases that I believe have bearing on how we understand the meaning of “head.”
6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. (NRSV)
There is considerable richness in this passage but let us begin with “…continue to live your lives in him, rooted … in him …” (vs. 6-7) Here we have organic imagery of a plant that sinks its roots into the soil as its life-giving source. The Colossians are listening to false teaching and beginning to sink their roots into bad soil. They need to put down roots into, or connect with, Jesus as their head and life-giving source.
Verse 8 refers to “elemental spirits of the universe,” which is a reference to widely held Greco-Roman beliefs in celestial bodies that rule life. (See the Harper Collins Study Bible notes on this passage.) Countering this philosophy, verses 9 and 10 tell us that Christ was the fullness or completeness of God, and that we have the fullness of God in us. There is no need for supplements. Christ is superior to any other powers and he is in us. But we can’t stop here.
Clearly, the implication is that Christ is in authority over the powers but that is an insufficient characterization. If authority is all that is at issue, then it could simply have been written “…who is the ruler (archon) of every ruler (arches) and authority (exousias).” But the metaphor “head” is used. Why? Refer back to verses 1:15-17:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers -- all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Christ is not just ruler over these celestial rulers and authorities. He is the one who originated them, who gave them existence, and without him, they cease to hold together. He is therefore their head; originating life-giving source.
In verse 2:15, we see the imagery of a conqueror who leads a procession with his vanquished enemies in tow through the city so the crowds may mock the vanquished. Jesus has rendered impotent this myth of celestial rulers and powers. He has humiliated these alleged rulers and powers, removing them from a place of honor so that all honor may be given to Jesus, the firstborn of all creation and the very image of God, to whom honor is rightly due as the head of all creation. The emphasis is on the supremacy of Christ who is above and before all else, and from whom all things flow, just as the Greek head is above the body and life originates from it.
Verse 18 once again shows false teaching must be rejected and then comes full circle to the metaphor that began this passage: being rooted in Christ. The roots of the human body are the head because that is where sustenance comes from. We read in verse 19 that becoming disconnected from the head is perilous. Why? Because it is “…the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.” Christ is that head.
Here again we see intertwined the ideas of head as "life-giving source" and as "preeminence," not as “one who rules or has authority over.” Christ has preeminence over all creation and over the church. But the critical issue is that Christ who is preeminent, yet lays down his life for us, is the life-giving source for all creation and for the church. Christ is Lord of the church but even more, he is head of the church as his body. Not only are we no longer subject to these elemental powers, but united to the preeminent Christ as organic members of Christ's body, we reign over these powers as well.