Question: "What does it mean that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15)?"
Answer: Paul’s assertion that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” is made in Colossians 1:15. Paul begins the letter by addressing the church (Colossians 1:1–2), giving thanks for the Colossian believers’ faith and love (Colossians 1:3–8), and informs them of his regular time of praying for them (Colossians 1:9–12). Paul thanks the Lord within this prayer for the Colossians because of God’s transference of the believer from the “domain of darkness” to the “kingdom of His beloved Son [Jesus]” (verse 13, ESV).
In Colossians 1:15–20, Paul gives a magnificent explanation of various characteristics of Jesus Christ including Christ as the image of the invisible God. This “image” concept appears multiple times throughout Scripture. When God created humanity, He made them in His image (Genesis 1:27; cf. Genesis 9:6). The Hebrew word translated “image” in Genesis 1:27 and 9:6 can also be translated as “statue, inscribed column, or idol.” In the ancient cultures such as that of Greece, individual deities would have a temple and a statue representing that god. God created humanity as representative of Him, placing humanity as particularly unique among the rest of creation.
Another example of an image is in the gospel accounts (Matthew 22:15–22; Mark 12:13–17; Luke 20:20–26) where the religious leaders of the day are attempting to trap Jesus in His words. The religious leaders ask Jesus if the people of God should pay tribute to Caesar by paying the annual poll-tax. The poll-tax was a Roman imperial tax that went directly to Caesar, the leader of the Roman Empire. If Jesus answered in the affirmative, it may have seemed He was disloyal to God. If Jesus stated that they should not pay the tax, then He would be in direct opposition of the governing nation. Jesus wisely responded by asking for a Roman coin, the currency of the day. As the religious leaders give Him one, He asks, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (Matthew 22:20). The image on the coin was an impression of Caesar—a representation of Caesar himself. Jesus then concludes that the people of Israel should give to Caesar what is his (the tax) but give to God what is His (themselves). As the coin was stamped with an image of its owner, so is humanity stamped with the image of its owner—God.
Humanity was certainly created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), but at the fall of man in Genesis 3, sin marred that image. The image is certainly retained (Genesis 9:6) but tarnished through the addition of sin.
In Colossians 1:15, Paul states that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, showing how Jesus is representative of God Himself. In contrast to the rest of humanity, Jesus does not have a tarnished image of God; rather, He is “an exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). Those who have seen Jesus have seen the Father (John 14:9).
Jesus is not only the perfect image or representation of God, but He is God as well (Colossians 1:19; John 1:1–2; 14–18). Jesus is both the perfect image-bearer (representative) and God Himself (actual). The Son, being “the image of the invisible God,” makes visible the One who is by nature invisible. The Son’s power, wisdom, and goodness fully and accurately reveal to us the character and perfections of God.