God has Reconciled Us – Colossians 1:22

Colossians 1:22 begins with “but now” (νυνὶ δὲ). These are two very important words in the Greek, indicating an important contrast. The contrast is between time when we were enemies of God and the present time when we have experienced reconciliation with God. Reconciliation means the relationship is fixed, walls that existed between the two parties are torn down, and that they can now go about the business of building that relationship.

God has reconciled us through the death of Jesus. The basic idea behind reconciliation (καταλλαγή, καταλλάσσω) is the restoration of friendship between two estranged parties. This assumes an offense has separated two parties (political, social, familial, or moral, TLNT 2:263). In non-biblical Greek the word is virtually never used in religious sense primarily because the relationship between the gods and men is not personal. For most of the Greco-Roman world, worship appeased the gods, so a form of ἱλαστήριον (propitiation) would be used.

Josephus reflects the same usage of reconciliation. He uses the related term διαλλάσσομαι for a political agreement between Archelaus and Alexander (the son of Aristobulus) and Herod the Great. After a political arrangement is made, including due honors and gifts, the estranged parties entered into a formal friendship and they “spent their time feasting and agreeable entertainments” (War 1.513, 514). In this example, Herod is in a far superior political position, but he honors Archelaus with great gifts in order to preserve the dignity of all parties.

Unlike secular Greek, Josephus uses καταλλάσσω in a religious sense. In the context of the story of the twelve spies, Moses sought to reconcile God and the people (Ant. 3:315, using the noun.) Similarly, when Saul offended God by sparing the Amalekites (Ant. 6:143), Samuel prays that God “be reconciled” to Saul (using a passive infinitive).

Returning to the earlier analogy of estrangement, the opposite of an estranged relationship is an reconciliation. Rather than a divorce, the married couple overcomes their differences and has decided to remain married, they have reconciled their differences. God saw that we would not turn to him, so he had to provide the method of reconciliation himself. Because the cause of the estrangement was our sin, and the fact that we could not pay for it ourselves.

God therefore provided a way for the debt of sin to be paid. He sent his own son to be killed as an atoning sacrifice so the problem of sin could be permanently solved, once for all.

Paul therefore describes a new state of being for the one who is in Christ. If this is the case and those who were once enemies have now been reconciled through the Cross, what are some implications for how we live out this in Christ life? Paul answers this in the second half of Colossians.

Colossians 1:15-20 – The Supremacy of Christ

The church at Colossae was not founded by Paul. It is likely sometime during Paul’s time in Ephesus (Acts 19) a man named Epaphras brought the Gospel to the small town of Colossae (for details, see Who was Epaphras?). Perhaps Epaphras reached out to Paul for advice on dealing with a growing problem in his small church and Paul responded with a short letter addressing what is often called (rather dramatically) the Colossian Heresy. Whatever the heresy was, it is quite different than other issues Paul dealt with in earlier letters.

The churches in Galatia struggled with Gentiles who wanted to keep the Law. The churches in Corinth struggled with Gentiles who did not sufficient “depaganize” and allow Christ to transform their moral behavior. In Colossae, it appears the problem was a Jewish mystic, possibly exorcist who advocated “secret knowledge” which only the spiritual, insiders could obtain. This teaching was possibly esoteric, secret knowledge about the true nature of Jesus Christ. It is also possible some in the church wanted to use Jesus’ name as a powerful tool for dealing with other spiritual beings. For more on the Colossian Heresy, see What Was the Problem in Colossae?

The false teaching Paul addresses in Colossians is a very pragmatic Christianity which attempts to hide knowledge of the real facts until the believer is sufficiently prepared to receive it.  While I am not sure the Colossian heresy was a mystery cult in the technical sense of the word, there seem to have been an initiation for the believer before they were shown the true state of things.

For Paul, Christianity is not at all an exclusive religion which hides doctrine from the outsiders.  In fact, everyone is welcome and the whole gospel is preached from the very beginning.  There are some deeper, more difficult doctrines, but there is nothing which is a secret.  This is one of the real differences between Christianity and many of the other “mystery cults”popular in the first century (and today!)  It really is easy to understand the basics of Christian claims and beliefs, whether you like them or not.

Paul therefore goes to the root of the problem and lays out in the introduction to the letter exactly who Jesus is.  All the “secrets” are laid out before the reader and there is no question who Jesus is by the end of 1:20.

  • Christ as the image of the invisible God.  By saying that Christ is in the image of God, he affirms that he is an accurate picture of what God is, and in fact, he is God. F. F. Bruce once said “To call Christ the image of God is to say that in Him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested—that in Him the invisible has become visible.”
  • Christ as the firstborn of creation.  This title for has been a very troublesome exegetical point since it appears that Jesus is a created thing, the first thing that God created.  But if this phrase is read against the background of the Hebrew Bible, the word “first born” is actually an expression of position – the son chosen to the the heir as opposed to the naturally born first son.  A bit later Paul calls Jesus the“firstborn from among the dead,” an obvious non-literal use of the word “firstborn.”

The point Paul is getting at is that Christ has made things, so it is pointless to give honor and worship to those things.  All honor and worship is due Christ, not anything created.  The command is therefore to worship Christ as God, something that would be idolatrous if Christ is a created thing himself. The centrality of Jesus is therefore the starting point for theology in Colossians, but also for ethical and moral teaching and proper worship.

Bibliography: F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The “Christ Hymn” of Colossians 1:15–20″ BibSac 141 (1984): 99-111

Book Review: Scot McKnight, Colossians (NICNT)

McKnight, Scot. Colossians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. lx+442 pp.; Hb.; $55.00. Link to Eerdmans   

McKnight begins this major commentary on Colossians with the observation that the letter is Paul’s “apostolic vision that sought to redesign the Roman Empire” (1). That “redesign” is based on Paul’s gospel of Jesus Christ and Paul’s gospel, McKnight says, can be reduced to the term “mystery,” Paul’s “term in this letter for God’s plan to reconcile Gentiles with Jews, slaves with free, and all manner of social identities into one large family called the church” (4). According to the letter to the Colossians, this new family challenges the dark powers of the present age, whether they are Greco-Roman gods and emperors or the nationalism and imperialism of the modern age.

Scot McKnight, Colossians, CommentaryWith respect to the authorship and date of Colossians, McKnight begins with a critique of the method usually used in Pauline authorship discussions. He questions the validity of comparing Colossians to the other letters which are known to be authentically from Paul. The problem, says McKnight, is we really do not have proof Galatians (for example) was written by Paul. In fact, all ancient letters were mediated through a secretary, or perhaps even a series of scribes. Paul’s letters were often written along with others who worked with him, Timothy for example.

Although there are differences in vocabulary and style, McKnight lists several clear similarities between Colossians and the other so-called authentic letters: the authority of Paul, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. In each case there are some unique elements and distinctive nuances, but each theological area does not contrast with the “pure Paul” of Romans and Galatians (16). The doctrine of justification and an emphasis on the Holy Spirit are missing from Colossians, but this is not part of the themes of the letter. He concludes his discussion of authorship with the curmudgeonly conclusion Paul did not write any of his letters, but Paul is behind all his letters (18).

McKnight favors the view Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote Colossians (and Philemon) in the mid-50s, perhaps as late as 57. The traditional view Paul wrote from Rome sometime in the early 60s is problematic because of the travel notes in Colossians and Philemon. Of course the main weakness of an Ephesian origin for the letter is there is no explicit reference to an Ephesian imprisonment. Yet an origin in Ephesus allows the interpreter to hear echoes of the culture of Ephesus in the letter, especially the presence of exorcists and magicians from Acts 19:13-20 and (I would add), the “powers” from the letter to the Ephesians (39).

The other introductory issue unique to Colossians is the nature of the opponents against whom Paul writes. McKnight calls them “the Halakic Mystics of Colossae.” The matter is complicated by the fact we know very little about Colossae compared to other Greco-Roman cities such as Ephesus. McKnight interacts at length with Jerry Sumney’s Identifying Paul’s Opponents (Bloomsbury, 2015) and agrees with Sumney’s call for caution in the case of the opponents at Colossae, but he would allow for more evidence to be drawn from the ethical section of the book. McKnight agrees with Ian Smith’s Heavenly Perspective: A Study of the Apostle Paul’s Response to a Jewish Mystical Movement at Colossae (T&T Clark, 2006) and “riffs” on Smith’s major points (29). The opponents were operating with a Jewish set of ideas allied with the kind of dualism found both in Judaism and Hellenism. This dualism led to a “world-denying asceticism.” Although they tended to “entangle themselves” with the elemental powers of this world, it is doubtful they actually worshiped angels.

The final section of the introduction to the commentary is a sketch of Paul’s theology in the letter. In reviewing recent scholarly discussion of Paul’s theology, McKnight concludes it is necessary to construct a Pauline theology which “transcends the soteriological schemes of Western theology” (51). He has three recent theological contributions in mind when he makes this statement. First, he acknowledges the contributions of James Dunn’s Pauline Theology (Eerdmans, 1998) and N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013), but also sees recent contributions by Louis Martyn and Douglas Campbell and the “apocalyptic Paul” to be on the right track and renders the old perspective versus the new perspective passé (46).

The second recent contribution to Pauline studies which bears on Pauline theology in Colossians in John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015). Barclay’s rich description of Paul’s understanding of grace in the literature of the Second Temple Judaism ought to be required reading before any scholar attempts to sketch out Paul’s theology (or write a commentary on a Pauline letter). Third, McKnight considers recent series of monographs by of Michael Gorman “some of the finest articulations of a Pauline theology” (49). Gorman is sometimes cited as an example of participationist theology and balances all the emphases of modern Pauline studies (50). He does suggest a modification to Gorman’s term cruciformity, with a suggestion of missional-Christoformity (a phrase appearing often in the commentary itself.

In his own fourteen page sketch of Pauline theology, McKnight attempts to “slightly reorient Dunn and Wright and Gorman” building on where “Wright ends his Paul and the Faithfulness of God and where Gorman lands: reconciliation and mission” (51). Perhaps it is time for McKnight to turn his attention to a fully developed Pauline theology textbook.

The body of the commentary proceeds through the outline of Colossians in smaller units. Each section begins a short orientation and translation of the text with numerous notes comparing the NIV and CEB. The commentary itself moves from phrase to phrase with technical details and Greek grammatical comments relegated to copious footnotes. When Greek words appear in the main body of the commentary they are transliterated so readers without Greek training will be able to follow the argument. Most interaction with scholarship appears primarily in the footnotes, making for a remarkably readable commentary. On occasion he must deal with technical details or theological problems (such as the meaning of baptism in 2:11). In these cases he provides material in the footnotes to point interested readers to more detailed articles and monographs.

Conclusion. McKnight’s prose is engaging and there are occasionally rhetorical flourishes intended to amuse the reader. Rarely does a technical commentary entertain as well as educate. But McKnight also demonstrates his pastoral heart, never straying from Paul’s pastoral purposes in the letter. This commentary will be useful for scholars, pastors, teachers, and interested laypersons who want to dig deep into the text of Colossians.

Usually commentaries on Colossians also include a section on Philemon. Scot McKnight’s commentary on Philemon in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series was originally intended to be included with this forthcoming Colossians commentary, However, Eerdmans decided to publish Philemon separately (see my review of his Philemon commentary here). McKnight also contributed a commentary on James in this series (Eerdmans, 2011).

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Are We Alienated from God? – Colossians 1:21

In Colossians 1:21 Paul declares humans are all alienated (ἀπαλλοτριόω) from God. This verb could be translated as estranged. In English, estranged can mean a simple separation, as in the phrase “a man and his estranged wife…” This doesn’t mean the one of the marriage partners are in the wrong. It means the couple has marital problems and they are no longer living together. Similarly, the relationship humans have with God before we are saved. We are “separated,” we have left God are living a life which is anti-God in every way we can. This is the same thing Paul wrote in Romans 1:18-20 in far more detail (see All Ungodliness and Unrighteousness and The Foolishness of Idolatry). In fact, we are not only alienated from God, we are his enemies!

EnslavedPaul uses this phrase in Ephesians 2:12 and 4:18 to describe the the human condition before faith in Jesus. The Gentiles were not just ignorant of God, they were darkened and hardened in their minds against God (Romans 1:18-32). Paul chose his words carefully here  in order to highlight the rebelliousness of humans: “still more forcibly the persistence of the state of things” (BDF 352, a perfect passive participle). At one time, we were persistently and wholeheartedly “As such they did not serve God; rather, they were enmeshed in idolatry and slavery to sin.” (O’Brian, Colossians, 66).

Before coming to faith in Jesus Christ as savior, all humans are “enemies of God.” This is a state of hostile towards an enemy. Think of the (many) countries who consider America an enemy: They are committed to harassing us at every turn, and they want to harm us as best they can. That is the way that we were before we were saved, we hated God, and didn’t want to have anything to do with Him. We were estranged, and we hated the one we were alienated from. We had walked out of the relationship ourselves, and we were the ones who turned our backs on God.

Before before coming to faith in Jesus Christ as savior, all humans are in a state of hatred. But God did not hate us, in fact, he still loved us with an intense self-sacrificing love that was very patient. it was God who did something to reconcile that relationship, and God alone.

Both of these conditions is a result of our “evil behavior.” Obviously this could refer to paganism, the lifestyle out of which the Colossians were saved.  “These phrases denote the actions of the unbelieving world, which belong to the ways of darkness rather than the ways of light, and which ultimately lead to death.” (O’Brien, Colossians, 67).

Is this true of all unsaved people? Were we really “enemies of God” before Christ? We are enemies of God because we are a part of the human race, although not all of us are playing the role of “enemy insurgent.” Just as when Iraq was at war with America, all Iraqis are technically the enemy; not all Iraqis are actively attacking American interests. Some are more active enemies than others, but all are enemies by definition.

Does this accurately describe the human condition? What about humans who go objectively good things in the world?

The Image of the Invisible God (Colossians 1:15-20)

Colossians 1:15-20 appear to have been an early Christian hymn.  There is evidence this was poetry, perhaps pre-dating Paul and well known to the congregation.  Paul uses material like this in other contexts (Phil 2:5-9, for example).  It is likely Paul is drawing on a well-known “statement of faith” passed along to the church as part of their education in who Jesus was and is, then drawing some implications from this hymn which are specific to the problem at hand – a group within the church which has some misunderstandings about who Jesus is.

ColossiansWhy use a hymn to relate theology?  One possibility is that it is a call back to the foundational understanding of Jesus they received through Epaphras (and hence through Paul).  A second possibility is this hymn may have been used and adapted by the false teachers in the Colossian community.  We know that in the first century Jews were beginning to speculate seriously about wisdom and were developing the idea of an incarnate Wisdom through whom all things were created. It is possible the false teachers were poking around in the nature of wisdom. Paul says by means of this hymn that if they want real wisdom, they ought to look to Jesus not their own philosophy.

Paul begins by identifying Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (1:15).  The word εἰκών is usually translated “image” as in the image an emperor’s head on a coin (BAGD).  It is an exact duplicate that is integrally a part of the original. By saying that Christ is in the image of God, he affirms that he is an accurate picture of what God is, and in fact, he is God.  L&N 58.35, “that which has the same form as something else.” This is the word chosen by the LXX to translate the Hebrew µl,x{{, in Genesis 1:26-27; 5:3, and 9:6. In Genesis, it is humans who are the image of the invisible God, in the sense that we are God’s representatives in this world; the Law makes it clear no other image of God is to be made.

The word ἀόρατος, “invisible,” is used only five times in the New Testament. In every case it refers to some quality of God, although here in Col 1:16 it refers to the (unseen) spirit world.   The use of this word for the spirit world is somewhat common. “Rulers both visible and invisible” appears in Ignatius’s To the Smyrnaeans 6.1, for example.

God as “invisible” is both a Jewish and a Greek idea.  In the Hebrew Bible God is never to be represented as an idol or an image, and although there is a great deal of representation of the gods in Greco-Roman paganism, Plato and other philosophers (Stoics, for example), believed in a real god who was invisible, immovable, and totally transcendent.

“To call Christ the image of God is to say that in Him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested—that in Him the invisible has become visible.” (F. F. Bruce “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The ‘Christ Hymn’ of Colossians 1:15–20” BSac 141 (1984): 101). Romans 1:20 refers to God’s “invisible qualities.” This is said not to separate Christ and God into two separate categories, but to show that they are part and parcel of the same being, which we refer to as the Godhead, one invisible, the other visible.

Paul seems to be claiming a great deal about Jesus in this verse. What is the theological at stake in this line? Or perhaps to think in about it in another way, what is the Colossian church questioning about Jesus that prompts Paul to respond with this rather audacious claim about Jesus?