“Jesus Christ Pantocrator” through the Lens of Colossians 1.15-20

Jesus Christ Pantocrator, Instanbul, c.1261

The hymn found in Colossians 1:15-20 opens with: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, 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.”(Col. 1.15-16, NRSVUE, 2022). The claim, according to the hymn, is that the Jesus Christ attested to in the gospels is the embodiment of the Creator whom we have not seen with our own eyes (Jn. 6.46). Through Christ, the Creator is revealed–meaning, the only way to understand God is to first and foremost, look to Christ.

The hymn also asserts what is found in the Gospel of John

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. (14.8-10).

John 14:8-10, NRSVUE

The words and the work of Jesus reveal to us the Creator–referred to in the text and by tradition as the “Father.” The hymn reveals the work of the Creator is made manifest through the Son by whom “all things in heaven and on earth. . .visible and invisible. . .have been created. . .” (Col. 1.15-16). For me, it is important to start here in my examination of the claims being made by the late Byzantine mosaic located in Istanbul, Jesus Christ Pantocrator (c. 1261).

As Dr. Amy Whisenand shared throughout her June 14, 2022 lecture, “Pantocrator” translates into “Almighty” or “All Powerful.” This title, by its nature, is therefore making the claim that Jesus Christ is the same as God the Creator. The first text in the Pentateuch–the first five books in the Bible and Torah–identifies God the Creator by the title, “Almighty.” Genesis 17.1 reads: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. . .'” Later instances of the usage of Almighty as a title for the Creator can be found in Genesis 28.3, 35.11, 48.3, 49.25, and at least 91 other times throughout the Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocryphal texts. The mosaic’s use of Almighty as a title for Jesus therefore asserts a claim in line with Trinitarian belief that Jesus is not only a member of the Godhead but shares a co-equality with the Creator.

The Trinity Iconography Institute confirms the Chironomia–the meaning of “. . .hand gestures in supporting oratory, or conveyance of unspoken meaning understood by the audience” (Trinity Iconographers)–as a blessing. The positioning of the hand creates the “IXIC,” or the initials of Christ, which appears to assert that the highest form of blessing comes from the person of Christ. After all, what greater blessing can one receive if not from the One through whom “. . .all things in heaven and on earth have been created” (Col. 1.15)? Additionally, the hand gesture not only conveys blessing, but it is also related to classical oration from ancient history indicating “the speaker is going to say something important, which can also be applicable to all icons of Jesus Christ and His saints” (Trinity Iconographers).

In my own journey, as I walked away from the cult in which I was raised and the modern American Evangelical lens of biblical interpretation, I flirted with Eastern Orthodoxy. I studied its traditions, attended their liturgies, and experienced their rich practices of faith and theological interpretations. I discovered icons–works of religious art depicting biblical and divine subjects–were viewed as windows into the divine realm. It is part of the reason religious Byzantine art might seem strange and disproportionate to our Western eyes. The icons are meant to draw us into the story they tell. From that perspective, I cannot help but notice the very ordinary humanness of Jesus in this image.

We have a declaration of Christ as equal with “God Almighty,” the Father and Creator, yet he is very human in his appearance. It brings to life the claim that “. . .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” (Col. 1.18). The Almighty took on human form, walked not just among us, but with us. His emptying of himself and obedience “. . .even [unto] death on a cross” (Phil. 2.6-11) and his resurrection has made Christ the “mediator between God and humankind” (1 Tim. 2.5) and our high priest (Heb. 8.1-2). It seems that the humanity of Christ is crucial in the salvific act of God in order to reconcile God and humanity.

Christ’s humanity establishes him as the “firstborn” not just of the dead, but of all creation (Col. 1.15). Therefore, being both God (Jn. 1.1-2) and human (Jn. 1.14-18), and being that he is also the begotten Son of the Creator in whom the Creator was pleased (Matt. 3.17; 17.5; Mk. 9.7; Lk. 9.35), it stands to reason that the value–or worth–of Jesus, from whom the greatest blessings are given, supersedes that of all creation. Therefore, the obedience of Christ to the Creator by way of his life and death, confirmed through the resurrection, is what allows all of creation, “whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1.20) to be reconciled to God. In this way, when viewed through the hymn found in Colossians (Col. 1.15-20), Jesus Christ Pantocrator proclaims the salvific work of Jesus Christ for all creation and reveals to us the character of God.

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