Question: "What does it mean that "He is before all things" in Colossians 1:17?"
Answer: Colossians 1:15–23 contains the apostle Paul’s counterargument against false teachings about the nature and divinity of Jesus Christ. This important section of Scripture is given titles such as “The Preeminence of Christ” (ESV) or “The Supremacy of the Son of God” (NIV). False teachers were claiming that Jesus may have been prominent but not the foremost, highest-ranking being in all creation. As part of his case, Paul stated, “He [Jesus] is before all things” (Colossians 1:17, ESV), meaning Jesus Christ existed before anything else was created. Since only God can exist before all of creation, Paul affirmed that Jesus Christ is God.
Paul began, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation” (Colossians 1:15, NLT). Jesus is “before all things” because He is Creator of all things: “For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16, CSB).
Jesus Christ had to exist “before all things” (before the creation of the world) to be present and active with God at the creation of the world: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1–2). The “Word” or Logos is an undeniable reference to Jesus Christ in this passage. The apostle John established Christ’s eternal existence, an attribute that can only be ascribed to God.
John also confirmed that there is absolutely nothing that Jesus did not create: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). Everything in the universe came about by and through Jesus, the source of life (Hebrews 1:3; John 1:10). And thus Paul concluded that Jesus outranks everything in creation because He is the eternal God and Creator of all things. As Creator, Jesus has absolute superiority over all creation, including any false gods, idols, or spirit beings that these false teachers in the early church were promoting.
He is before all things means Jesus Christ is sovereign and supreme: “The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3, NLT). Jesus alone is the perfect image of God, expressing His character and glory. Paul reinforces the point that Jesus is God: “For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ” (Colossians 1:19, NLT).
He is before all things means Jesus is first in everything: “Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything” (Colossians 1:18, NLT). Every other being in creation is subject to His authority (Matthew 8:23–27; 28:18; John 3:35). “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11; see also Hebrews 1:4). Jesus Christ reigns supreme over and above everything in the universe (Ephesians 1:22–23; John 3:31).
The problem with denying Christ’s preeminence or supremacy is that it negates His sufficiency as Lord and Savior. So, with this as his culminating point, Paul drove home his argument: “Through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. This includes you who were once far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault” (Colossians 1:20–22, NLT). Paul challenged the Colossians to stand firm in the rock-solid good news by which they had received salvation and not let false teachings cause them to drift away from the truth (Colossians 1:23).
He is before all things means Jesus Christ has always existed—He is “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17). He was alive and active before the creation of the world. Indeed, He is the Creator, our source of life, and first in everything. Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior—the only One sufficient to reconcile us sinners to God. “And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen” (Romans 9:5, NLT).