“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”
– Colossians 1:15 ESV
By this, Paul is not saying that Jesus is the first created being. Rather, in Old Testament terms, the first-born son is the principle heir of a father’s son—the legal doctrine of primogeniture.
When used of Jesus, the term first-born means that Jesus occupies a place of honor and of dignity in the divine economy. By virtue of his being the firstborn, we as those who are adopted into God’s family by faith, are younger brothers and sisters and co-heirs with Christ.
Not only is Jesus the firstborn in creation; he is also the glue—the power—that holds all things in being. Paul writes, “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (17). Paul makes explicit here what was implicit in verse 16, namely that Christ is eternal and existed before/prior to all things, and that he is the power by which the universe inheres.
What of these thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities? Christ is not simply the agent by which these things—be they spiritual or material—came into being. Christ is also the point of reference, the goal of their existence. They were created not just by him, but also for him (v. 16).
But what are they? We know that these thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities exist in two realms—the visible and the invisible (v. 16), which Paul corresponds to the realms of heaven and earth. In interpreting these verses older commentaries uniformly understand these terms to refer to a variety of names for angels.
Some of these angelic beings are at work in the world today as agents of Christ; some are at work in the world as fallen angels. And so while we may not be accustomed to talking about angels, we are accustomed to talking about the outcomes or the influences of good and evil in the world.
Biblical scholarship, over the last twenty years, has seen a rise in the approach of reading Scripture as something that speaks against Empire. This came into fashion as scholars wrestled with U.S. and British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that we are living in a post-Obama era, interest will likely pick up once more.
Writers like Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat in Colossians Remixed (IVP 2004)—and to some extent N. T. Wright—interpret this passage, as well as the rest of the letter, as a Pauline response to the totalizing claims of empire.
Others disagree, Allan R. Bevere in his essay, “Colossians and the Rhetoric of Empire” in the edited volume Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not (IVP 2013). Bevere argues that Walsh and Keesmat miss the clear allusions in Colossians to Jewish piety, such as the reference to “human tradition” in 2:8, the requirements listed “do not touch, do not handle”, etc. and the discussion of circumcision in 2:11 and 2:13.
In some ways this is an academic distinction because at the end of the day, the important thing is that regardless of whether Paul has the Roman Empire in mind or traditional Jewish piety, his point remains: Jesus is before these things and will bring these things into submission to him.
Anything that set itself up to compete against the supremacy and the sovereignty of Christ is an Empire–a reality that will eventually capitulate to God. As N. T. Wright puts it, “Anything to which human beings offer the allegiance proper only to God is capable of assuming, and exerting, a sinister borrowed power.” Whether these things are the unseen forces of pagan religion, astrology, or magic, or the oppressive systems that enslave or tyrannize human beings.
Yes, Rome was an empire. America is an empire. More than that: life lived east of Eden is life under the tyranny of the two-headed empire of sin and death. This is the ultimate empire than Jesus comes to defeat and as he is defeating it, he also defeats the lesser empires that correspond with things like: nation-states, ethnicity, illness, poverty, etc.
The challenge and the promise of Colossians 1:16ff. is that these powers are not independent of Christ: for all things were created by him and for him. Though these powers are broken and rebellious, Jesus is still their Lord and he will bring them under his rule once more.
 See William Hendriksen, Colossians and Philemon. New Testament Commentary. (Banner of Truth, 1974): 73. See also John Calvin, Commentary on Colossians.
 Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, eds. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2013): 188.
 N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1985, 2000): 72.
 Ibid., 73.