The Meaning of Head in Colossians 2:9-10

This is part of a series on partriarchy, headship, and submission. See this index.

In “Headship: Authority or Preeminence?“, we reviewed the evidence and concluded that the Greek word for ‘head’ (kephalē) has the sense of preeminence or firstness. As shown in “Sanctified Marriage: Part 5“, the meaning of ‘head’ as ‘leader’ or ‘headship’ as ‘position of leader’ is an historical anachronism. This is summarized in this very important fact:

‘head’ did not mean ‘leader’ or ‘authority’ anywhere until the 4th century AD.

Over at the Sigma Frame blog, I engaged in a discussion on the meaning of ‘head’ with anonymous commenter ‘info’. After establishing the meaning of the word, in response to the Great Commission where Jesus said he possesses all authority, info stated this

“[The] authority of Jesus is inherently linked to his status as Kephale.”

…and cited Colossians 2:9-10 in support of this claim…

Colossians 2:9-10 (BSB)
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form. 10 And you have been made complete in Christ, who is the head over every ruler and authority.

…saying…

The verse cannot make sense without his status being inherently linked to Authority. How can a person be head over all ruler and Authority if it is not effectual?

In this post[1], we will examine this claim that Christ being the head over every ruler and authority intrinsically links being the head with being in authority, because it happens to involve rulers and authorities.

Knowing, as we do, that head cannot mean ‘leader’ or ‘authority’ frees us to conclude that Christ is preeminent over, greater than, every ruler and authority. Far from agreeing with info’s incredulity, an analogous example, from “The Head-Body Metaphor“, immediately springs to mind. Philo described Ptolemy Philadelphus as ‘head’ over all kings. We noted that he was never in authority or leader over all kings, yet the meaning is just as easy to understand as it is here in Colossians. So, as we examine the context of this passage, we will demonstrate that indeed ‘head’ has nothing to do with authority and everything to do with Christ’s status, even though it involves rulers and authorities!

A Matter of Translation

Before continuing, we must address two matters of translation. The first is that theotēs is an abstract noun for God meaning “what God is” or “the essence of God.” The word “diety” is fine, but capitalizing it hides the true meaning, as the target is an abstraction of God-likeness (i.e. divinity), not the Diety[2] (that is, God) himself. The second is that the word ‘fullness’ is used twice in the Greek, first as a noun and then as a verb, but this is hidden in the chosen translation. Consider this translation:

Colossians 2:9-10 (REV)
“…for in him dwells, in a bodily manner, all the fullness of what God is, and you have been given that fullness in union with him, who is the head over every ruler and authority.”

Now let’s replace some of the English translated words with their Greek equivalents:

“…for in him dwells, in a bodily manner, [noun plērōma] of what God is, and you [verb plēroō] in [union with] him, who is the [kephalē] over every ruler and authority.”

While plērōma is consistently translated “all the fullness” in many translations, plēroō is translated variously:

  • “have been made complete” [BSB and NASB]
  • “are complete” [KJV]
  • “have been brought to fullness” [NIV]
  • “have been filled” [ESV]
  • “have been given that fullness” [REV]

The two key pieces are “all fullness of what God is” and “we have been filled [in him].” What have we been filled with? It isn’t Christ, for it doesn’t say “we have been filled with Christ.”[3]  We have been filled with something in (or through) our association (or union) with Christ. We are filled with the same something that Christ is filled with. That something we are filled with is the fullness of what God is! We will discuss the significance of this later on.

Over Every Ruler and Authority

The passage in Colossians continues, saying we are buried with Christ in baptism (v12) and made alive together with him (v13). Then, we get an explanation for why Christ is ‘head over every ruler and authority’ in verse 15, which states:

Having stripped the rulers and the authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them as captives in a triumphal procession in connection with him.

This is what is known as a Roman Triumph, a formal parade honoring the victory of a Roman general and his army, a victory so decisive that the general and his army could return home. Such a parade only happened after a significant victory was won in a battle on foreign soil, allegedly involving at least 5,000 enemies killed and territory taken. As part of the parade was a procession of captives (destined for slavery or execution), bound in chains. The general rode a chariot.

First we must make sense of the pronouns. In v12, it says that God raised him (Jesus) from the dead. In v13, he (God) made you alive with him (Jesus). In v14, he (God) takes away our sin, having nailed it to the cross. It is clear so far that God is the actor here. So in v15, he (God) Triumphed over the rulers and authorities in him (Christ), that is through the cross (as many translations explicitly state).

It is plain that neither God nor Christ, who is head over every ruler and authority, literally conquered every ruler and authority, leading them as captives through the streets while riding in a chariot at the rear of the procession. It is also plain that the victory was achieved when our sins were nailed to the cross and death was conquered. That victory is complete and total, with (figuratively) territory claimed and captives enslaved, like a Roman Triumph.

As stated above, it was God who Triumphed, not Christ. Christ was nailed to the cross and God nailed our sins there. Through God’s victory, Christ became ‘head over every ruler and authority’ at his resurrection. His status changed relative to the rulers and authorities: he became the greater than those who were conquered, who became as captive slaves or those destined for execution. It is in this way that he is their head. But it was God who effected the change.

At no point does Christ exercise authority or leadership. It simply isn’t in view here. When God achieved victory, Jesus took his rightful place at the head of all those powers. We read about that a few verses later in Colossians 3:1:

Since, then, you were raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.

Christ was raised to a place of foremost preeminence: the right hand of God. And we were raised with him—or more specifically we will be[4] when we join him in heaven:

“[God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” — Ephesians 2:5-6

Fullness

In light of the our being raised up to sit with Jesus Christ, v9-10…

“…for in him dwells, in a bodily manner, all the fullness of what God is, and you have been given that fullness in union with him, who is the head over every ruler and authority.”

…takes on much greater significance. We are filled with what God is, in Christ who is head (that is, first). It is evident now that because of Christ being head (that is, first)—through God’s victory by way of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross—we are filled with what God is. Or put another way, Christ’s sacrifice opened the way for the divine essence to be made full within us, to be perfected when we join Christ in heaven, to be seated with him over every ruler and authority. After we die, we will take our place with the divine in God’s heavenly kingdom.

But I want to take us back a few verses to Colossians 1:15-20, where Jesus is described:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, because in connection with him all things were created 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, and he is before all things, and in him all things are held together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn out from among the dead, so that he would come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Here we see the same language as in Colossians 2, except here Jesus’ status as “firstborn of all creation”[5] and “firstborn out from among the dead” is made explicit. This why Christ is head: He is the first to be resurrected, the first to receive the fullness of the divine essence, and the first to take his seat in heaven. We, now having the fullness of the divine essence as well, will soon follow. We will join Christ, who was first.

Here we see the head-body metaphor being used, where ‘head’ explicitly means ‘beginning’, ‘firstborn’, and ‘first place’. Head means the same thing when used in the next chapter in v10.

Here we see that the fullness of God, which dwells in Christ, allows us to be reconciled to God by the blood of the cross.

But what is the identity of these thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities that keep being mentioned?

Rulers and Authorities

Who are the rulers and authorities that God Triumphed over and set Jesus as their head? We have that answer in Colossians 2:8,20…

“See to it that no one takes you captive through empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world [..] Since you died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to regulations as if you were still living in the world?”

…and in Ephesians 6:12…

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world-rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The rulers and authorities are Satan and his demons, who (still!) rule over the earth. When Jesus was crucified, sin was conquered and Jesus took first place over them. Far from Jesus exercising authority over them, those demons continue to rule over the earth, deceiving even some Christians who wrestle against them or submit to their regulations, which is why Paul had to warn Christians not to succumb to them. But Christ is greater than they are, and the defeat of sin and death means that the rulers and authorities of the earth ultimately have no power over us anymore. Nothing they can do can change Christ’s status, nor can they overcome God’s victory. We will join the first—Christ—soon.

Conclusion

We’ve demonstrated correlation without causation. ‘Head’ is not causally related to authority or leadership, rather it refers to Christ’s status. Even within the context of rulers and authorities, ‘head’ still only refers to his preeminence. It does not imply leadership, authority, or command. Christ is, after all, not shown exercising his authority to lead the demons by commanding them[6] to stop deceiving people.

The only authority being exercised is that of God, who made it all happen. Rather than Christ exercising authority, we find that the resurrection of the dead (1:15-20; 2:9-14) determines his priority, and ours as well. In his resurrection we find causation with being ‘head’.

At its most literal level, Christ is first over the rulers and authorities because he is at the right hand of God and they are not. He is raised to the highest, most prominent, position. At a spiritual level, Christ is head over them because they have been conquered by saving power of the blood of the cross. No longer are they our masters, for we now serve a greater master. Christ is head because he is the first one born of the resurrection. One day we will follow and take our place with him.

Footnotes

[1] Seven months ago, I had promised info that I would write this response. It took a long time, but here it is.

[2] Translators have long preferred “Diety” or “God”, even though this is grammatically incorrect, because it implies that Jesus is God and Trinitarian translators desire that their Bibles say explicitly that Jesus was God. However, doing so here makes exegetical sausage of the verses: if the fullness of God in Christ makes him God, then that fullness of God in Christians must make them God, which is very, very non-Trinitarian. It is much better to stick to the actual meaning (“what God is”, “divinity”, “divine essence”, etc.) rather than to try to insert one’s theology onto scripture.

[3] If Christ were filled with God in the way that we were filled with Christ (or God), then it would mean Christ wasn’t actually God, just as we are not actually Christ.

[4] This is an idiomatic use of tense. By saying we are raised, it doesn’t mean we already possess resurrected bodies. By using the present tense, it idiomatically means that it is completed. Even though we will one day be raised in actuality to new life in a resurrected body, that resurrection is already complete. It is a done deal. That’s the point of the idiom.

[5] The firstborn of all creation in the genitive case. In partitive genitive, it means that Jesus is the first part of the remaining whole of creation. In the genitive of relation, Jesus is the first to be raised from the dead into a new resurrection body. In the genitive of comparison, Jesus has the greatest rank among all others. In all three of these, the emphasis is on Jesus being first.

[6] While being at the right hand of God is a position of power—just like Ptolemy Philadelphus being a king was a position of power—this passage does not ascribe any authorities or use of authorities to Christ over the rulers and authorities. Surely in some way, undefined here, Christ has authority over demons, but such power is incidental at most to what Paul is discussing.

3 Comments

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